Feelers

I have been a professor for nearly 10 years. I am good at what I do and respected within my community, as small as it is. I am well-funded, although that’s always a temporarily accurate statement. As I do theory and computation, I don’t bring in oodles of money, but I have always been able to support a viable research group of between 6 and 10 people. I publish in well-respected society journals, interspersed with some high-profile papers. My students are good and have been able to get good jobs after graduation. We look at interesting problems and publish papers that I would like to think are original, insightful, and well-written. I am successful, but I don’t think I am wildly successful. I would not classify myself as a hot commodity. Perhaps only a hot-as-a-hot-shower commodity, say 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Yet, over the past few years I have been getting “feelers” from other institutions with increasing frequency. Usually it goes along the lines of me going to give a talk and then several people asking me if I am happy where I am and what my husband does and if I would consider moving/leaving my university. I used to think people were just making conservation; I was very naive. Nobody ask you about your happiness and well-being unless they are your mother, a close personal friend, or they have a very good and far-from-selfless reason to ask.

So far the feelers have been from places that would present a lateral or even a slightly downward professional move, but with potentially a lot of money. A few came from places that are in a growth mode. In contrast, my current place is good, but uncomfortably stagnant. Declining state support has everyone tightening their belts, wondering what comes next. The college has lost a number of successful mid-career faculty.

For me, the biggest reason for not considering moving at this time is my family.  If it were up to me alone, I would move. I hate the freakin’ weather where I am now, the endless winters, and I would honestly move for the sunshine alone (several recent feeler places are in very warm locales, such as the one I am visiting at present). Another reason is that, as much as I have been willing myself to love the city I live in, I just don’t. We don’t really have good friends here like we do, for instance, where my PhD alma mater is (yes, I got a feeler from them, too). Have I mentioned the endless cold weather where I am now? I know, it sounds very shallow even considering moving for the climate, but I will ask you how you feel about it after you have been snowed in for 6 fuckin’ months. We had a new snow fall snow earlier this week. (Note: DH greatly prefers cold to hot; DH may be crazy.) As for friends, we have several couples whom we see on occasion, but I doubt any of them would be shattered if we left. We are situational friends — friends only because life threw us together, not because we are particularly compatible or drawn to one another — and, after 10 years here, it’s likely that situational friends are all we will have. They are basically someone to kill a bit of time with, but nothing deep by any stretch. We are too foreign, too accented, and too godless for the locals, so we are not even bothering any more with anyone whom we don’t know from work.

But with crappy cold weather come good public schools for my children. And my children have their friends and their memories tied to this place; they have real childhood friends here. I have a colleague who’s from a fairly traditional culture who says that his kids get no say in what he does professionally; if he gets a good offer and decides to move, they move, end of story; he says he doesn’t care what the kids think or feel about the ordeal. With my eldest starting high-school, I could not bear to destroy the comfortable life he has now by moving; he is such a happy, well-adjusted  kid, and I think moving him cross-country would hurt him.

I would love for the place where I am now to become a place I am content with both professionally and personally. It’s a very good place professionally, but it could be better. For instance, after I had visited my alma mater, I was reminded how nice it was to have several faculty in the same area, who could collaborate and go for bigger grants and even take care of each other’s students. I remember loving the fact that I was part of a large, probably 30-student group of all these different professors together when I was in graduate school. In contrast, my students are somewhat isolated, in that there is no one else at my current place of employment who does work similar to mine. While I can have my pick of experimental collaborators, being the only one is quite limiting – I don’t have the bandwidth to do all the things I could potentially do. It’s also quite taxing on me that I am the only source of technical knowledge in my subarea. Where I went to school, there were several professors and a much wider variety of courses was offered between the 3-4 of them; here, it’s just me. And being that I am a well-liked teacher, I end up teaching undergrads a lot. Which does actually shaft my grad students, as the graduate courses they need just don’t get offered if I don’t teach them, and these days I rarely do.

On the other hand, there are many good experimentalists where I work now, and they bring in money, and the money raises the profile of the place, which in turn brings in good students. Indeed, the students here are pretty good, both undergrads and grads. Or, I should perhaps rephrase — one can hand-pick very good students here, those who have a good background in math and physics, and are motivated — and these students come for the school’s name.

If I didn’t have a family, I would move someplace warmer, where there are other people doing what I do and where they would pay me a lot. Actually, if it were just me, I would probably move every 4-5 years, as I tend to get very restless. But I have a husband who is very happy with his job, kids who are very happy with their schools and friends and one of whom would be devastated to move. I could potentially move in 3-4 years, as the eldest starts college and the middle one (who is currently very much on board with moving to someplace with hot weather) starts middle school. But even so, I feel heartbroken — even if just in theory — for my eldest to not be able to see his childhood friends when he comes back home during college.

This whole feeler business and the possibilities of going someplace are making me restless; they are enticing, and possibly even more enticing since I can’t really act on any of them. I don’t want to make the people interview me formally and give me offers when I know I am tied down (although plenty of people do precisely this, make the other institution interview and make a formal offer just to get leverage with their home institution; I think it’s douchey to do unless you are seriously considering moving). I am not unhappy or unproductive where I am; the feelers don’t come from the places that would be a blatantly obvious step up (do you hear it, MIT and Stanford? I am still waiting), i.e. they are not something nobody in their right mind would miss. There is no pressing reason to move, except my restlessness, dislike of cold, and a lack of good friends. There are reasons to not move, such as uprooting my family from a good situation, which includes good public schools and a solved two-body problem, for essentially no reason.

Yet, I wonder…

What say you, blogosphere? Is it hopelessly shallow to want to move for the weather and because you just don’t feel love for your place of employment? Should I just target to move in 3-4 years and let people know that’s when I will be available for wooing, and in the meantime just work my butt off? Should I just take a chill pill and bury my head deep into work and not concern myself with foolishness, waiting for the global warming to bring tropical heat to my cold cold place?

Ah, possibilities. And at the same time, impossibilities.

Guest Post: Interviewing for a Job at an Undergrad-Oriented School

By psykadamnit

I want to follow up on xykademiqz’s posts on job search strangeness. I’m in a STEM discipline at an undergrad-oriented school. My department has no graduate program, and those departments that do have graduate programs usually only have small MS programs. The focus is on undergrads.

For some reason, most of our candidates in our current search showed the same missteps in their interview presentations. Being an undergrad-oriented institution, one certainly does have to aim a research seminar in our department a bit differently than a seminar at an R1.The audience won’t include many direct competitors who can pick apart your research proposal, and it will include many undergraduates who know nothing about your topic (or, worse, have a bunch of misconceptions about your research area). So you certainly need to spend more time than usual on background. This is the standard advice, and all of our candidates followed it. The problem is that most of them followed that advice a bit too well. They spent so much time on background that it was really hard for faculty to figure out what they actually do and what they actually want to do. Some of them showed at least a few results, others showed literally nothing of what they do. Only a couple actually got very specific about what they themselves do and why their approaches and results are so exciting.

“Wait, isn’t the point of the seminar just to give undergrads an idea of what you do and why you do it?” Yes, that is a big part of it, but it isn’t all of it. We are not looking to hire somebody who will publish in Glamour on a regular basis, but we are looking for somebody who has exciting research projects that are intellectually significant, sustainable, and amenable to undergraduate involvement. In order for us to figure out if you meet that criterion, you have to use your seminar talk to tell us what it is that you actually do. You can’t spend 43 minutes on background and then spend 2 minutes saying “So, I work on stuff related to what I just showed you. Any questions?” Um, yeah, I have a question. What the **** do you actually do?

“But I wrote a research plan! Didn’t you read that?” First, I’m not on the committee. Second, there’s nothing more adorable than a n00b. Tenured professors reading? Really? Most of us are too busy napping! But, seriously, we did read about your research, but we aren’t in your field, so we’d like you to summarize your key approaches and findings thus far, and then follow it with something like “So here’s what I want to do next…” Then we can have a Q&A.

“But won’t that go over the heads of undergrads?” Well, yes, they are kind of stupid. That’s why we really only expect you to spend about 50% of the talk at their level before taking it up a notch. Second, are you saying that you are unable to take what you do and bring some of the essentials to undergrads? Are you sure you should be working here?

Anyway, having been harsh on candidates, I’ll say this much for them: I think they’ve been hit over the head a bit too much with good advice. They were told again and again and again (and then some) that they need to take it down a notch for students. And when we look for people who have a lot of teaching and mentoring experience and want to go to an undergrad-focused school, we probably select for overly-conscientious types. It also doesn’t help that we are doing a search in one of the more abstract corners of our discipline, and people in that sub-field are especially likely to be told “Remember, most undergrads do not appreciate the abstraction the way you do. Take it to their level. You need to take this weird stuff and make it accessible.” Still, at the end of the day, you need to tell us what you do, and tell us why it is exciting and show us how smart you are. Yeah, yeah, the earnest progressive types will say that you shouldn’t be a sage on the stage, but we want to hire a smart scientist who does stuff. Show us what you do, you smart scientist! I mean, otherwise, why would we hire you?

Hello Hirsch

Humbug, Hirsch’s h-index! The humbling yet heartwarming hooligan, happily hopping homeward.

Many people have issues with the widespread use of the h-index in determining one’s scientific worth. But the h-index is not inherently bad; it simply needs to be considered in the context of one’s field and seniority. Even in a given field, the h-index is higher for the hot, fast-moving topics than for the slower ones. Also, it tends to be high in larger fields and, more generally,  in fields in which the number of papers published per unit time is high. For instance, brilliant mathematicians will have much, much smaller h-indices than brilliant biomedical engineers or chemists. While some people like to compare the h-indices too broadly, between fields with vastly different dynamics, as it makes them feel superior or something, that’s just silly; I think (hope?) that most reasonable people understand this fallacy in the use of the h-index.

However, I want to discuss the use of the h-index for very junior folks. The h-index can certainly emphasize that an individual is unusually creative or high-impact, but let’s face it: unless we are dealing with math or theoretical physics or another endeavor where the intellectual labor of a single individual  spawns a paper, it’s the teams, and sometimes very large ones, that are behind each paper in the physical and biological sciences. If you are in a productive, successful group, where people are not particularly stingy about co-authorship, you can achieve a pretty high h-index largely by association.

A couple of years ago, we were selecting from among several candidates for the department best-dissertation awards. The award went, against my protests, to a young person who had the highest h-index. Mind you, the h-index was high because this person did research in a great group as an undergrad, and had a number of papers where they were author number 7 or 8 among about 15; then they were a member of a team in grad school, where again there were many papers with the person author number 4 or 5. Now compare this with the work of someone who had 5 or 6 first-author publication in the last two years of their PhD. These papers were fewer in number and likely not highly cited at the point of graduation, owing to the short time (most just got out when we considered the award nominees). In contrast, the well-plugged-in first person had a fairly high h-index, as they were part of strong and prolific groups for a long time, making a minor contribution to each paper, but the papers were more numerous and out for longer and had the time to get cited (in case you are wondering, that person only had one first-author paper).

Anyway, h-index is not evil, it’s a just number.  It’s the people who can be misinformed, lazy, or simply self-serving and manipulative in how they utilize it.  Then again, people would abuse any other available metric as well; at least this one is transparent and easy to calculate.

(Btw, everyone should make a Google Scholar profile. It’s very pretty. And people google your citation count anyway, you might as well have some control over what they see.)

Notes from the Search

We have been interviewing and it’s been quite exhausting. But, the process reveals more about the colleagues with whom I interact in regards to the search than it does about the candidates.

My school is a large and reputable public school and the department ranks about 15th in the discipline. We are no MIT or Stanford, but we are nothing to sneeze at, so I think it makes sense to look for a candidate who actually wants to come here, as opposed to someone who is settling for us. No one knows what tomorrow brings, but I want a candidate who, at the time of signing the contract with us, is genuinely excited about joining the department and enthusiastic about all the years of hard work and collaborations ahead.

I don’t want a candidate who is taking this offer because we were the safety school and they didn’t get any offers from any of the several schools where they also interviewed, all located in a specific, widely desirable part of the country far from here. This candidate will likely be out of here before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” because they never actually wanted to be here anyway.

One straw-man counter-argument that was raised is why would you want someone who can’t leave? You want someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want.

I don’t want someone who can’t leave. I want someone who can but doesn’t want to leave, at least not before the ink dries on the contract. Yes, I want us to hire someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want, and who has multiple offers, but who actually chooses to be here. I don’t want us to hire someone whom no one else wants; however, I also don’t want someone (no matter how good they seem) who feels that we are beneath their level and who will be looking for the first chance to upgrade.

Signing that tenure-track contract is like getting married — you better be enthusiastic about it on your wedding day, otherwise what’s the point? Sure, people “get divorced” from their institutions and move on, but if you don’t actually want to be doing it from the get-go, better not do it at all.  Start-ups cost money, searches require energy and time. I know that the loss of each faculty member due to moving or retirement disrupts the department. I don’t like the attitude that we should be grateful to get the “best possible person” if even for a few years. That argument is based on a fallacy that there is such a thing as “The One Best Possible Person”; there are plenty of very good and excellent people who would do great if given the chance.  I don’t want someone who will be entirely focused on getting out of here from day 1, I cannot imagine such a person would be a very good colleague or collaborator or contributor to the department.

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Another interesting issue came up. We have a candidate who is fairly polished, but the past work is not particularly original. However, the candidate does give off the same vibe as one of our best-funded people, so I am confident the candidate will be  be successful in the game of schmoozing with program managers. Another candidate is less polished but much more creative and intellectually unique. Some people have raised concerns that the latter candidate might not be successful in talking to grant managers.

Look, I am not deluded, I fully understand that you cannot do science without money. But I really don’t understand when the ability to sell, and sell hard, became the most important criterion in recruitment. I would like to think that a person who has interesting and varied ideas and is not a douche could be trained to write grants, alone and with collaborators. I don’t know that you can actually train someone to become original or creative. Are we supposed to do the best science, and raise the money to support it, or are we supposed to raise the money, regardless of what it’s for?

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Bias rears its ugly head. People are really, really drawn to the candidates to whom they are very similar.

  • For several searches in a row, a colleague always favors a candidate from the same country of origin, even when others in-area unanimously favor someone else. (That same colleague also collaborates only with compatriots and only brings in students from the same country. This cannot be a good thing.)
  • Some colleagues will penalize a candidate for having a presentation style and general demeanor different from their own; we have a subarea that is starting to look like it’s populated by clones or, at the very least, siblings.
  • Chubby candidates seem to fare worse than thin ones; I wish it weren’t true, but it is. No matter how well they present, they are never perceived to be quite as polished as the very thin ones, especially by the very thin and polished members of the faculty. This makes me want to eat a cookie.

Proposal

Comic12_Proposal

Shockingly, I am in DC. Again.

[For my non-professorial readers, NSF (National Science Foundation) provides funding for basic science research across all disciplines. NSF panels meet to evaluate grant proposals. A lot of work is involved in reviewing other people's proposals and serving on panels. A lot.]

This post was brought to you by the crappy overpriced hotel wireless. The cartoon was drawn on a clear back page of someone’s proposal printout.

Interview Season Fatigue

I am fortunate to have a faculty job at a great public R1 university. Owing to the high research activity, there is always someone here to give a talk. There are three seminar series, associated with three departments, that I usually attend (generally biweekly), and another 1 or 2 where occasionally an interesting seminar comes up. (Which begs the question: what’s the ideal seminar attendance frequency? Too many, and you infringe upon your work time, too few and you start getting out of touch, missing potentially important info about trends somewhat removed from your immediate expertise, which is where juicy inspiration for new projects comes from!)

On top of that, we are interviewing for multiple parallel searches, so we have been having 2-3 guests every single week over the past few weeks. Considering that I am involved in the search, I am supposed to not only attend each talk, but also formally meet with every candidate as part of the committee.  And let’s not forget that candidates have to be taken out to eat, several times per visit. I know I am supposed to enjoy department-sponsored meals at nice restaurants and the chance to talk to smart new people, but I am mostly just resentful. My family doesn’t care for me repeatedly staying out and disrupting their evening routine either.

The face-time fatigue during interview season is brutal for job seekers, but if it makes you feel any better, it sucks pretty fiercely for the people on the other side who are  involved with the search. As exciting as the prospect of bringing in bright new colleagues is, all the meetings and chit-chat and the extra seminars are simply… exhausting.

Good luck to all who are interviewing! If an interviewer dozes off or their eyes start to glaze over, don’t take it personally.

The 7-Year-PhD Itch

Over the course of the past few weeks, the topic of average PhD duration at different institutions came up. I am in the physical sciences; it is normal to expect variations among fields, but in a single field you’d think the PhD takes more or less the same amount of time across different R1 institutions. In reality, it turns out not to be true.

One colleague tells me that, at his (elite) institution, a PhD in the same field as mine lasts 6-7 years. At my institution, it’s about 4-5 years. The 2-year difference is essentially equivalent to keeping the student on student pay but working as a postdoc. These students, when they graduate, have massively long publication records and are very competitive for prestigious postdoctoral appointments and academic positions. At the end of their 7-year PhD, these students are better trained than those after 5 years and have longer, better-looking CVs, which definitely helps with getting academic jobs.

Yet, the prevalent sentiment on the internet is that simply having a student do a PhD in your group is somehow exploitative and that the student should be allowed to graduate as soon as possible and go into the mythical real world. The sentiment is that the PhD training is this unfair, torturous ordeal, which the student has to endure in order to get the PhD;, that the learning, doing science, writing papers, and giving talks are all dues that the student pays grudgingly in return for the piece of paper that is the PhD diploma; advisors are for some reason evil to insist on these dues being paid, as if it were somehow possible for a student to receive a PhD without doing  the work.

Federal tax dollars pay for research. They literally pay for the student to go to school and get training and in return it is expected that research will be done. So it pisses me off when people say that someone is being a tyrannical advisor for not letting the student graduate whenever and without papers. Graduate school costs money, and it’s federal money, and scientific papers are the product that is expected in return.

So, how much work is expected to be done for a PhD? I had a double digit of journal papers from my PhD, nearly all as first author. I was motivated, I loved doing science, I had an advisor who was willing and able to give me free reign rein (thx to Spellmeister PhysioProffe), I liked writing papers and I wrote them fast. I really, really don’t expect my students (a majority of them) to do that or to even want to do that.

Students want to be all treated fairly and equally, but I am not sure they realize these are not synonymous, as students all want different things from their PhDs. One wants to just get out of here and get a job in industry, so I say three papers and you can go. Then another one says he wants to get out with three papers too; I say, sure, but you also want to be a professor, and with three papers you are not particularly competitive for postdocs. Why don’t you stay another year and really cash in on all the nice work you have done so far, really crank some papers out now that everything is working? But he wants to get out because the other guy did, and then when he’s not competitive and gets buried in a dead-end postdoc it’s somehow my fault. (The thing with grad students is that they are young and often don’t have the right perspective; ironically, the most talented ones are often the most stubborn ones and think they know better than the advisor, so they often end up undermining themselves.)

I understand why people keep a student 7 years and not 5. You invest so much time in a student and by the time they finally reach some level of competence, they want to leave, and you are back to working with untrained folks all over again. I can totally understand wanting to keep the good person around and actually get some useful work out of them. I understand that it seems selfish from the standpoint of the average student, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it’s good for the enterprise of science to be done by fully trained people and not people in training; some academically inclined students don’t actually seem to mind staying a little longer and getting the few extra papers out. One asks why not just pay them postdoc wages? Maybe the advisor is being cheap, but maybe it’s the fact that it actually does not look very good to stay at the same place for a postdoc, it looks better on the CV to be a grad student a little longer, then go elsewhere for a real postdoc.

If you are in a field like mine, essentially all your students are paid as RA’s the entire time. That means each student is probably a very poor investment of federal funds in the first 2 years, but they have to pay the rent and eat the entire time. So it seems to me it’s not inconceivable that the student should do a lot of work in years 3-5 to actually make the whole investment worthwhile from the standpoint of the funding agencies. I really don’t understand the people who say it’s swell to have your school and stipend paid for for years and then also have the gall to insist to graduate without papers.

So I don’t know. I know this will get me no love online, but doing academic science , while being to a great degree about training (how much exactly depends on the funding agency), is really not primarily about training; it’s about doing science professionally, with a mixture of trainees and career scientists. Funding is there to do the science, it’s not a gift or  a handout or a guarantee for anyone. In many fields,  such as humanities, people would be extremely grateful to be paid to do the research on their dissertation. I really don’t think publishing research papers in return is such as horrible thing to require.

Anyway, I will keep saying “You can graduate with 3 papers from your dissertation, but if you want to go to academia, that is simply not enough, you have to have more.” If they listen, good; they will stay longer and have more papers, If not, they graduate with 3 papers and we unleash them upon the world.

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* For the young’uns, here’s where the title came from