This is a sign that I’ve been getting it wrong. When people start talking to me by saying, “I know you’re busy, but…” then I feel like I have already failed a little bit.
In my department, we have a complicated relationship with REU (Research Experience for Undergraduate) programs. We have several well-funded active labs on my campus that provide quality mentored research opportunities to biology undergrads, so students in our department do who want to have impactful research experience have access to them. However, it’s still valuable for these students to go to an REU program at another university in the summer. REU programs*, especially those in places with a bunch of PhD students around, may have a strong positive impact on the professional trajectory of students who are doing their undergrad at primarily undergraduate institutions. Even though academics are known for unnecessarily qualifying general statements with “may,” “might,” or “possibly,” the may that I italicized in the previous sentence was there by design. It might have a positive impact. Or it might actually have a negative impact. It depends.
An article in Slate about how folks in the humanities aren’t doing the off-campus volunteer academic service like they used to.
Profiles of faculty who made major career pivots because of the imperative to do more about the climate crisis. This really hit home for me. Two of their four subjects left faculty positions for other roles. So this article is 50% “quit-lit.”
This one is 100% quit-lit: I Left Academia to Work in a Pub Because I’m Working-Class.
They say that tenure is designed to protect academic freedom. That is mostly true, but it is also used for for other purposes by faculty and other parties. Let’s do a rundown of how tenure gets used.
If you’re doing basic scientific research in the US, here’s a new must read. This preprint by Chen et al. dropped on Friday, entitled “Decades of systemic racial disparities in funding rates at the National Science Foundation.”
Using over 20 years of data on funding rates, they demonstrate that white PIs have been getting funded at higher rates than non-white PIs. It feels like the scope of this preprint is similar to what Ginther et al. documented for NIH in 2011. Since that time, the Ginther Gap has been central to discussions involving disparities at NIH.
I think the figures speak for themselves, so I’m going to just share some of them:
Figure 1 shows that white folks have consistently been getting more funding across the years.
I see this very often in social media, and also in conversation with other academic editors: it’s getting harder and harder to get find people who agree to review manuscripts.
I have no idea whether this reflects the general experience, or if it’s borne out by data. I of course believe the lived experience of my peers, and their accounts make sense given the steady (and absurd) increase in publication rates, with so many people working the manuscript ladder chasing prestige, all compounded by the difficulties of the pandemic. I imagine that some journals have tracked the invitation acceptance rate and how it’s changed over time and perhaps shared this — or maybe it’s in the bibliometric literature — though over the span of a couple minutes my searching powers came up short.
That said, I have to admit that getting reviewers to say yes hasn’t been a problem for me in the course of editorial duties. Even in the depths of this pandemic, I usually haven’t had to ask more than three to five people in order to land two reviewers. Each year, I’ve been handling dozens of manuscripts, so I can’t credibly pin this on the luck of the draw. I don’t know why I don’t have much trouble finding peer reviewers. It presumably is a complex function of the function of manuscripts themselves, the society affiliation of the journal, how and who I choose to invite, the financial model of the journal, maybe if people are more likely to say yes to me as a human being (?), and who knows what else. If you ask people why they say no, I’m sure everybody just thinks it’s because they’re too busy. But if you ask people why they say yes, then that where it might get interesting.
The title of this post is off because I clearly don’t know why I don’t have trouble finding reviewers, but it might be informative because I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing, and that might help y’all come to your own conclusions about the Why. I’ve just stepped down from all of my editorial roles, so I thought now is a good time to step back and reflect on how have I identified potential reviewers, and make an attempt at some generalized take-lessons from this experience.
Over the last few months, I’ve had some quality time with a bunch of other mid-career academics who are (also) experiencing an inflection point in their careers. We’ve advanced to a certain level, and now we’re wondering, “Where do we go next?” This state of mind has been amplified by the disequilibrium that the pandemic introduced into our jobs and our own lives. (Stay tuned to this space for more on that inflection point, perhaps.) Anyhow, another thing that floated to the surface was how the Hidden Curriculum™ is a problem for us too.
We usually talk about Hidden Curriculum™ as a mechanism of inequity for junior scientists. For example, undergrads aren’t aware of the procedures and cultural norms that of the grad school application process. Grad students are often unfamiliar with the schmoozing etiquette of the prevailing (upper-middle class white) culture in their discipline.
Some bad news is that the gatekeeping never stops.
What are some expectations, norms, resources, and pathways that aren’t transparently shared with mid-career faculty, but can be really important? Here are some examples that have come up:
This is just a quick post to let you know that EEB Mentor Match is now launched, and is ready for you to sign up! Please get the word out to your colleagues, students, and professional societies.
This program was designed to help students applying to graduate school find the support they need. If you feel like you could use some support in untangling the mysteries and challenges of applying to grad school and for fellowships like the NSF GRFP, then we are here for you. Please sign up to be assigned a mentor!
This program is a grassroots effort that relies on members of our community to provide mentorship. If you’ve volunteered in previous years, you may or may not have been assigned a mentee! Regardless, please do sign up this year so that we can assign students to mentors whose expertise best fits their needs.
There was a comment on a recent post that I’ve been chewing over for the past week, that gets at the heart of what’s (I think is) ailing effective STEM teaching.
This person was explaining why they had been tenured for a decade and now are choosing to leave the professoriate. Among other reasons, they were explaining how their university is expecting them “to deliver standardized experiences to a lot of students.”
I feel like this short statement is replete with experiences, assumptions, problems, and truth that deserve some exploration. (A younger me might have said that this statement needs to be “unpacked” and thank goodness I’m not that person now.)
I just made a few new friends, perhaps.
After more than two years of pandemic-induced isolation, I had the privilege of a week of quality in-person time with fellow Earth Leadership Fellows last week, and so many were just wonderful human beings. The experience was highly valuable and I learned from everybody. Having gone through this experience, it makes sense to me how so many of the former fellows (not to mention the current ones) are among most impactful and visible scientists working on critical environmental issues. We’re gaining skills and perspectives that will help us do work that will actually change things. You’ll probably hear more from me about that stuff later, but now I want to talk about the friend thing.
I think one of hardest parts of being an academic is the expectation that you move, often huge distances, several times throughout your professional development. You get close to people, and then you move. What do we do with those roots that we grow? Do we box them up with a root ball and hopefully they’ll survive a transplant? How many of us are just potted plants moving around, never putting roots into the ground?
A lot of folks, with tenured positions, are choosing to get out of the university game to do other kinds of work. A recent issue of Nature has a particularly strong piece of journalism that dives into “the great resignation.” This article has resonated with a lot of people. Perhaps we’ve only seen the the above water portion of this iceberg.
In my university, I can think of some recently-tenured faculty members who have stepped out for jobs in consulting, industry, and funding agencies. These were people who were good teachers, productive researchers, and appreciated by their colleagues. Who enjoyed their students. From where I sit, this leaving-professoring-for-another-kind-of-job is a very real thing.
Fieldwork can be the best part of being a scientist. But when unprepared or abusive leaders take trainees into the field, they can cultivate an unsafe and harmful environment. So It’s nice to see that National Science Foundation is taking steps to improve the safety and inclusivity of field research. NSF is now proposing that projects with fieldwork component have a plan for field safety, which includes creating an environment promoting dignity and respect, and prevents conduct that is “unwelcome, offensive, indecent, obscene, or disorderly.”
Since it’s been quite a while since the last post, I’ve accumulated a particularly good crop of reads.
A math professor from Columbia applied his own skills to demonstrate the extraordinary and counterproductive measures that his own institution has gone to in order to game a ranking system run by a magazine. Absolutely bananas. This is absolutely damning. Here’s the executive summary and here’s the long-form version. (And here’s the NYT article, but I haven’t read it, but I’m linking to it because it’s the local paper.)
It took a while for the rise of the internet to destabilize the academic publishing industry, but still the major for-profit publishers have been adept at consolidating their racket. Academic institutions, and individual academics such as myself, continue to be fleeced and are donating money to corporations in a sector with an absurdly high profit margin. If you’re reading this site, you presumably are aware of all the disruptions in academic publishing that have been facilitated by the internet: preprint servers, scihub and libgen, open-access fees, journals that are entirely open access, and so called “predatory” journals.
Let’s talk more about “predatory” journals.
These journals seem more parasitic than predatory. These publishing venues are merely taking advantage of the perverse incentives that we have developed in higher education.
After E.O. Wilson died in the final days of 2021, we have have been treated to detailed remembrances of his accomplishments, his kind and gentle nature, and his immeasurable impact on several fields of science. Among fellow myrmecologists, Wilson indubitably is one of the greats, and for many, he was the greatest. When I once had the fortune of presenting in a conference session that Wilson had attended, that was an honor. I didn’t know him personally, but I have many colleagues, and some friends, who were mentored by him, and benefited from his generosity and good will. Everybody I know who had interacted with him in any substantial way had wonderful things to say about him.
Standard university rankings may or may not be bollocks, but they are a destructive force.
This is because of Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
What a world we live in, that the country’s largest and most wealthy universities have collectively decided to cede institutional power to the editors at the US News and World Report.
A new national ranking came out, and they found that my campus is #2 in the country! So maybe I’ll start caring about rankings? wink. But I do think it’s worthwhile to see what we might learn from The Economic Mobility Index. It ranks “schools [that] enroll the highest proportion of students from low- and moderate-backgrounds AND provide them with a strong return on their educational investment.” Here’s a thread from one of the authors with a bit of an explainer.
Welcome to the “what he said” edition of rec reads.
I could excerpt bits but really, the whole thing is a must-read, so just go on and read it.
Not only does Dr. Yoder have valuable things to say about how our scientific community has allowed a destructive person to remain in their community as a peer, this also is a gorgeous piece of prose. I didn’t write about this whole affair because I wasn’t sure if I could hit the mark just right, and I’ve seen others miss the mark. Here goes Jeremy getting it right with tone, context, kindness, clarity, and strength. It takes time to write so well and I think he’s done a public service to give us a lodestar as we move forward.
Hi, it’s been a while. I hope you had a nice holiday break? I think there are some real gems in here.
The Professor: “Maybe the most powerful person is the one who dares to refuse the gift.”
Note the date on this article and you’ll find it was quite prescient: The Pandemic Movie of Our Time Isn’t Contagion. It’s Jaws.
Higher ed can be monolithic, but we have a lot of idiosyncrasies. One institution-specific practice that can really affect our daily lives is the teaching credit that faculty get for teaching lab sections. A lot of us are wondering how it works at other places.
This was the worst semester ever. We all are worn too thin. I’ve had one conversation over and over this semester, with colleagues who are now in their fourth iteration of pandemic teaching:
“Is this the worst semester ever for teaching?”
“Yes, yes it is.”
While each phase of this pandemic was rough, the consensus seems to be that this semester might have been the roughest. A lot of us have already tapped out our reservoirs of resilience. We’re also seeing an amplification of a mental health crisis.
Last Thursday, many months of investigative reporting culminated in a comprehensive and detailed article about the prevailing atmosphere of sexual misconduct in the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The article describes the tolerance of multiple serial offenders, and how STRI has not shown any sign of yet attempting a substantial process to repair this culture. Many survivors came forward for interviews, and yet this is only a tiny fraction of those who could have come forward. And there are even more who have stayed away because they were forewarned.
If you haven’t read this article yet, please do so. Here’s the link again.
This story hit close to home for me in a few ways: as a tropical biologist, as a person who personally knows a few of the survivors in the article and more who were not in the article, as a PI who has regularly sent students to work in tropical field stations, and as a director of a field station who is responsible for developing a healthy and safe institutional culture.
There’s one thing I want everybody to know about this situation: We know what should have been done. It is easy to know what needs to be done. There is a clear literature for this situation. The National Academies released a major report in 2018 that specifies clear steps that leaders must take to address the epidemic of gendered misconduct in STEM. Just weeks ago, the Workshop To Promote Safety In Field Sciences produced a report that provided “52 recommendations targeted at improving field science culture change, as well as misconduct accountability, policy, and reporting.”
How learning feels now (after so many months of COVID)
preprint: Gender Imbalance in the Editorial Activities of a Researcher-led Journal [which happens to be eLife]
And yes, it’s been a month since the last one of these posts, but honestly that’s all I’ve got for the moment! I haven’t been reading much journalism of late. But in other reading, I’ve been enjoying the trilogy of the Third Body Problem by Cixin Liu and the Broken Earth trilogy by NK Jemisin. And I’ll be starting on Klara and The Sun soon.
A few years ago, I was spending time with some geologists and they were telling me about Field Camp. That it’s a standard requirement of most Geoscience programs, but also that it’s highly problematic.
I just googled a bit, here’s what I learned. According to UW Milwaukee, “Field camp is a tradition in the education of a geologist. It is an intensive course that applies classroom and laboratory training to solving geological problems in the field.”
Gotcha. My colleagues are saying how problematic field camp is, but I don’t quite see it yet. Could you tell me more?
This is just a drive-by post to let you know that NSF-Biology just launched a new opportunity to provide start-up funds for new faculty working in Primarily Undergraduate Institutions and Minority-Serving Institutions.
For this program, “new” faculty means within your first three years of a tenure-track position. If you’re at an MSI that is not a PUI, then it needs to be not a very high research intensive institution (Non-PUI MSIs with Carnegie Classifications R2, D/PU, and M1-3 are just fine. For example, UC Irvine is an MSI, but it’s also an R1, so new PIs there don’t qualify. But that’s okay, because I can imagine the startup available to new PIs at UCI get for startup.)
“You do not have to be a revolutionary to see that some kind of [climate] upheaval has already started and that it can only really be delayed or mitigated than stopped entirely. If the goal of the Biden era is to slow history down, he needs to admit that this new, dangerous era has already begun, and that the old solutions no longer work.”
It’s really easy to get caught in short-term minutia and lose focus on the big picture stuff that really matters.
I’ve been trying out some project management software, because I think I’m juggling enough short-term, medium-term, and long-term projects and goals that this might be the a better for me to stay on track. I’m hoping that this can help me align my time and effort in a manner that represents my priorities.
Up to now, I’ve just been using a Moleskine (and some notes on my computer/phone), and it’s done the job really well. No real complaints. My attempt at a switch isn’t being triggered by a particular time or project management crisis that I’m trying to avoid, it’s more about staying on track with my evolving priorities.
The one that I’ve heard the most about is Trello, which I know some bigger labs use to manage all kinds of operations, though this seems to be a rather weighty and designed for teams, and organizations with many teams. I’m more interested in just keeping track of stuff for myself, and maybe looping a few people in if they’re interested.
So, what to use? I asked this question on twitter, and the response thread has a lot of useful responses. Below is the upshot that I’m taking out of this.
Apparently, I am “mid-career.” When I registered as a reviewer for the NSF GRFP, that’s the box I checked because according to their registration form, “mid-career” is 10-25 years of experience. (If you’re counting from my first full-time faculty position or from receiving my PhD, I’m 22 years in. If you’re counting time in grad school, I’m 27 years in.)
Though I’m arguably mid-career now, soon going to be a “senior scientist.” Hmm.
My job has evolved over the last several years, from actively avoiding admin work, to taking on faculty leadership roles part time, and now I’m doing this stuff even more*. I’m doing the kinds of
service leadership work that is taking up a good part of my time. A lot of my job is no longer about promoting the success of my lab and the students working with me, but instead about helping build the success of other people in my academic community.
This is the kind of transition that is typical for senior scientists. However, the way this transition plays out for those of us in PUIs is very different than how it plays out in R1s and other doctoral-granting universities.
What’s the difference? Productivity is limited by the personnel at hand, and this effect become more and more pronounced for PIs at PUIs as they advance in their career. My N=1 of personal experience tells me this, but also, I do see this reflected in the complicated career arcs of peers and what we expect of others.