The fuddy-duddies still thrive

Kate Clancy comments on a ‘satire’ published in a serious journal.

Genome Biology published a satirical piece by Neil Hall today, and since I’m American and he’s British I don’t find it funny. No wait, it’s that I’m female and he’s male. Or maybe that I’m junior and he’s senior. I’ve got it, it’s because he has a ton of publications (many times the number I have), and I have a ton of Twitter followers (many times the number he has). Meaning, my K-index knocks his out of the park.

Let me back up. You see, Hall created a joke metric he calls the Kardashian Index, which is one’s Twitter followers divided by one’s scientific citations. He writes:

“Hence a high K-index is a warning to the community that researcher X may have built their public profile on shaky foundations, while a very low K-index suggests that a scientist is being undervalued.”

Ha ha. Hilarious. You know how you could optimize your k-index? Never talk to the public at all. What this guy has done is published a joke that reflects the attitude of many senior people in the scientific community, that not only is communicating science to the world valueless, it reduces the value of the science. If he really wants to piss on his colleagues, he should have added something about how teaching is a debit on your academic credit, too.

I remember when Sagan was denied tenure at Harvard (which isn’t too surprising, Harvard is extraordinarily full of itself) and also refused admission to the National Academy of Sciences — the perception was that he was just too danged good as a popularizer, so he couldn’t possibly be a serious scientist. At the time, I was reassured that all the tightly puckered sphincters who were offended by popularizing science were old, and would be dying off, and it would be getting better. And now I’m getting old and gray myself, and they’re still hanging in there, immortal, apparently. I think they must live forever by sucking the joy of science out of children’s brains.

Maybe we need a different index, one that penalizes scientists who clutter up the scientific literature with fluffy stupid opinion pieces padded with pseudoscientific and contrived formulas marked as humor. It was the kind of thing that, instead of being elevated by Genome Biology, might have been better presented as a tweet. Except that distilling it down to 140 characters would have made its inanity even more obvious, and it would have hurt his k-index.

What will you do with a biology Ph.D.?

This chart of the distribution of the biology workforce is a bit complicated, but somehow dismaying and reassuring at the same time.

As it points out, over half of all biology grad students hope for that tenure-track research position, but only a small fraction will get it. That’s the depressing part. But at the same time, it shows all the alternative career paths: getting a biology Ph.D. does not doom you to becoming a drunken hobo, and not getting a tenure-track position is not a mark of failure.

It’s also a little misleading. “Current non-tenure track academic positions” ought to be relabeled “Serfdom”.

Are you visiting colleges? Here are some questions you should ask

One more story of academic inside baseball — I’ve been following John Wilkins, a brilliant philosopher of science who just can’t get a job, and I’ve been sensing waves of resentment at the rotten state of academia. I will be the first to tell you that I’ve been exceptionally lucky and privileged to get a job at a university that does a lot of things right, and one reason I can criticize freely is that UMM actually handles academic positions well.

Elsewhere…not so great.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get any kind of academic job at all, other than the miserable, harrowing, exploitive position sometimes called “adjunct”, or sometimes “lecturer” — temporary positions in which the instructor is hired on a per course basis. Bad jobs are driving out the good as university administrations cut corners, and somehow, it’s always the faculty who suffer the first painful snips.

This is the time of year when high school students come around to visit various universities and make decisions about where they want to go next year. Are you one of them? Or perhaps you’re a parent of a prospective student? You’ve got some power. Universities may be courting you, because they want your tuition dollars, or they see you have some skills that would bring honor to the school. Use your clout. Ask questions.

Here are some questions I wish more prospective students were knowledgeable enough to ask.

  • Ask, “Who teaches your introductory or service classes?” You may be thinking ahead to those lovely upper-level courses with the big names teaching them and the shiny lab equipment, but before you get there you’ll be expected to take courses outside your major — service courses in disciplines like math and English — that have big enrollments. At some universities, those will be taught by an ever-rotating set of temporary faculty called adjuncts. They are often treated like dirt, poorly paid, and given overloads. Often they’re so poorly paid they have to take adjunct positions at multiple colleges to make ends meet.

    Those course are important. You’ll take a lot of them. You want them to be well-taught. And that’s precisely where many schools cut corners on the quality of the education.

  • Ask, “How many of the faculty in your department are temporary faculty?” There are a great many colleges, some of them quite prestigious, where the swarm of adjuncts outnumbers the tenure-track faculty. Tenured faculty are in a privileged position where they get more money and lighter teaching loads, while the adjuncts are being victimized. Do not go to those colleges. Tell them why.

    Now adjuncts are often very good teachers — they have to be deeply committed to the profession to put up with the crap they have to take — but they are often spread thin and given frustratingly difficult workloads. My wife was an adjunct for a while, and she was commuting all over eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey to cover her scattered positions, on top of all the coursework. I think she was a marvelous professor, but the burdens compromised her ability to deliver to the students to the best of her ability.

  • Ask, “Can I talk to some of the other instructors?” I know the runaround. You’ll go to the university, they’ll have a lovely canned presentation of all the benefits, and you might get to sit in on a course or meet for half an hour with Professor So-and-So, who will show off their lab and talk about the great things about being in their profession. Ask to talk to any of the people who teach that first year course in your major; if you’re lucky, Professor So-and-So will say, “That’s me!” and you’re off to a good start. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll be led to a cramped office divided into cubicles with a group of temporary faculty crammed into it.

    They’ll probably still say nice things about being at the university. Partly because they do love their job, but also partly because they’re in terror of losing it.

It would be very nice if more students and their parents paid attention to the growing inequity within academic ranks, and if the tuition-paying people would regard that as important, and that the voting citizens would recognize that their state legislators are all conspiring to strangle higher education. It would be especially nice if students refused to support universities that were happily screwing over their teachers.

But I’m a realist. I know what university PR departments do and emphasize and tell prospective students is important: will your education get you a job after graduation, and how is the football team doing? Those are great smokescreens to hide the decay behind the scenes.

I’ve had a few prospective students ask the really important questions: will I learn many great and interesting things in my years at this institution, will it make me a better and wiser person, is this school investing in improving the educational experience? Those are the students I really want to keep.

By the way, I can tell you to ask those questions because I know UMM will pass them with ease: almost all of our introductory and service courses are taught by tenure-track faculty, we have almost no temporary faculty (occasionally some, to cover faculty on sabbatical leave, for instance), and I can walk you right down the hall and introduce you to each of the professors who teach every one of our courses, and they’ll be right there in those same offices when you come back in the Fall.

(This has been an advertisement for the University of Minnesota Morris. An advertisement I enthusiastically endorse.)

Negotiation is not a sin

I’ve been in quite a few job searches, on both sides of the table. I think I know what makes for a good job candidate, and I respect one who makes reasonable requests for accommodation. So I was rather shocked by this story in Inside Higher Ed about a candidate who lost a job for negotiating.

She was offered a position, and she wrote back requesting a few things that would help make her decision.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years. 

2) An official semester of maternity leave. 

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock. 

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years. 

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

The college’s reply? They withdrew the job offer!

It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.

That’s absurd. The article has several other sources criticizing the negotiator (also calling Nazareth College “totally uncouth”), but I thought every one of those requests was reasonable, and I could easily imagine how we, at my “teaching and student centered” institution would respond. At the top of our priorities would be doing what we can to turn the candidate into a happy colleague.

  1. Salary decisions are largely out of our department’s hands — that’s determined higher up. We go to bat for our candidates trying to get the best salary we can, so we’d probably go back to the administration and get them to concede as much as possible. We almost certainly wouldn’t get $65K for an assistant professor of philosophy, which is very high for a small liberal arts school, but we’d come back with a counter offer.

  2. Maternity leave is a really good thing. Balancing work and life is important, and yes, we’d yell at the administration to get that for them. Also, if the candidate were a man, I’d think it also a good sign.

  3. A pre-tenure leave is also an excellent idea. We already have policies in place to encourage new faculty to take a semester leave before coming up for tenure. We may be a teaching university, but hell no, we’re not going to tell faculty to abandon all scholarship.

  4. The most draining, exhausting thing in starting a new position is developing new courses. Every time I’ve done it, it’s a killer: every night is a late night spent reading and taking notes and putting lectures and labs together — and everyone in my department is well aware of the challenges.

    But small faculty at a small university means you have to wear a lot of hats, and new faculty are often hired with a laundry list of courses we need taught. We have tricks we do to lighten the load, though: pairing new faculty with experienced ones in particular courses, balancing introductory courses with advanced ones, juggling other faculty’s schedule so they take on a course that was initially assigned to the new person’s list, so they can get a breather by repeating a course. We always have a set of courses on our roster that need to be covered; I’d fire back with a two year plan with specific courses and ask if that was reasonable.

  5. Ouch. This is probably the most problematic one. When we send out a job announcement, it has a specific start date clearly stated — we mean that. If we say “Fall 2014″, it’s because we need a person teaching a course that is essential for our students at that time — you can’t tell students that they don’t get to graduate this year because a scheduled course required for their major isn’t offered this year.

But really, I read that list and saw absolutely nothing that implied this person wasn’t being serious about being committed to a teaching university. There were requests that I’d imagine we’d have a hard time meeting, but nothing that wasn’t a reasonable concern for a person that was serious about their academic career.

The rejection by Nazareth College tells me one thing: that their philosophy department isn’t as committed to their faculty’s fulfillment as they should be, and that she is better off not going to work there.

Well, it does tell me one other thing: the job market for academics is so desperate that some universities assume they can be total assholes to their candidate pool.

I could have used this last semester

I’m on a search committee for a tenure track position in statistics and computer science — we’re looking for someone to teach a data science course, maybe a little bioinformatics on the side, and work with both our statistics and computer science disciplines. I’m the outside member of the committee — you know, the weirdo who isn’t steeped deeply in the culture of the disciplines and maybe is better able to provide the big picture perspective on how candidates will fit with the rest of the university — so I know next to nothing about this stuff. My eyes were crossing and my brain was breaking as I reviewed candidate applications. What I really needed was this bingo card. I think I saw all of those terms fly by as I was flipping through CVs and research and teaching statements.

Don’t worry, I deferred to the expertise of my colleagues on all matters dealing with the details of their work.

It’s always interesting, though, to peek into the domains outside my own, and feel a little humbled at all the stuff I don’t know.

Wondering how to get an academic job?

Show interest in the local area, no matter how barren

Here’s a four-page comic book guide to the process. It’s very useful and very accurate, although it does leave out the essential tip I discovered when I was going through a long chain of interviews: write down a reminder in your hotel room that says where you are and what university you are at. It’s really awful when you forget exactly where you are and confuse your interview site with their bitter academic rivals.

Step four, though, also made me wonder if this guide was written for all the candidates we’ll be interviewing in Morris.

(Speaking of which, I’m on the search committee for a new position in statistics/computer science, in which we hope to also snare someone with an interest in bioinformatics. Watch for it if you think you fit that description. Remember to say nice things about your long, long drive through the snow-covered cornfields to reach the interview, and make flattering compliments about our delightful grain elevators.)

Missing an opportunity

Given that computer science is one of the majors with the best job prospects, that it’s still a growth industry, how do you account for these proportions?

Computer science is an incredibly promising major, especially for a young woman. That and engineering are among the college degrees that can offer the highest incomes and the most flexibility — attributes widely cited for drawing many women into formerly male-dominated fields like medicine. Writing code and designing networks are also a lot more portable than nursing, teaching and other traditional pink-collar occupations. Yet just 0.4 percent of all female college freshmen say they intend to major in computer science. In fact, the share of women in computer science has actually fallen over the years. In 1990-91, about 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer and information sciences went to women; 20 years later, it has plunged to 18 percent. Today, just a quarter of all Americans in computer-related occupations are women.

Something is dissuading women from pursuing careers in computer science. I wonder what it is? Maybe it has something to do with bro culture.

You mean this stuff helps?

Sue Black recounts her experiences as a woman in computer science.

Carrying out research for a PhD in computer science and going to academic conferences I was very much in a minority as a woman. The ratio was around 2:8 female to male, or lower, and sometimes this made things a bit uncomfortable. I remember going to one conference where, after being told by my supervisor that I needed to network at conferences, I approached a couple of guys during a break to discuss the previous session. I plucked up courage and said something friendly about the last speaker to start a conversation with them. They looked me up and down, and then started talking to each other as if I hadn’t said anything. I stood there feeling really silly, realized after about thirty seconds that they were going to continue to ignore me, and then walked away feeling absolutely mortified.

I had a few other encounters similar to this, and of course some good ones too, but I never felt completely at ease in that type of situation. That was until I went to a conference in Brussels for women in science. This time there were about one hundred women and two men. As I walked into the conference room and stood looking around wondering where to go and sit, a woman came over and started talking to me. We had a great chat and joined a conversation with some other women, probably about why we were at the conference and what we hoped to get out of it. What an amazing difference. I met some truly amazing, inspiring and supportive women. That conference changed my life.

I had thought that it was me, and my lack of social skills, that was preventing me from enjoying academic life to the full. Now I realized that wasn’t the case.

Read the whole thing. You know that stuff about women doing it in high heels and backwards? Try getting a Ph.D. as a single parent with 3, later 4, kids.

Are you an English major looking for work?

I know, you all are. But here’s a job opportunity for a godless, well organized editor.

Atheist Alliance International (AAI, atheistalliance.org) will be launching a new magazine in 2013 and we are looking for an Editor to plan and implement a fresh layout and format! AAI has gone through many changes in the last year or so – including its re-launch as a genuinely global organisation in 2011 and the adoption of new branding earlier this year. Now we are contemplating another major change and we want to find the right person to work with us to restructure and re-launch AAI’s flagship magazine.

This is a contract, self-managed position that involves securing content for each issue, cover design and management of advertising and production.

Secular World magazine is currently published quarterly and available to AAI Members only, but AAI would like to consider broadening publication options to a range of electronic media. Based on quarterly publication the Editor will be paid US$1,250 per issue plus a share of any advertising revenue secured by the Editor and a share of external sales revenue. AAI is willing to discuss the elements of the payment package with applicants.