Friday, April 30, 2010

Constructive Criticism II

This post is the second in a series about criticism—how we evolve in our reactions to it and how we deal with it. Note that the suggested categories (and examples) are very general and not necessarily rigid. A post-doc might react to criticism as would someone more mature; conversely, a late-career scientist may still react to criticism as a student would.

I quizzed my spouse (who was always ahead of his peers in terms of maturity) about how he reacted to criticism as a student, and here is his response. He said that he automatically assumed that his advisor, other professors, even technical staff had many more years of experience than he did. He also believed that their criticism was always given to help him improve. Note that up to this point in his life, he had never encountered a truly nasty person and assumed the best in others (he still does, which actually works for him…maybe a topic for another post). Consequently, he invariably followed the suggestions of critics. He says he can’t recall any time that he strongly disagreed with any of them. I should point out that he was a very confident student…not at all a doormat. He simply was mature enough to accept criticism and smart enough to know that someone with 30+ years of experience might know a thing or two. I was in the same department, so I know his professors—all caring and honest people who tried hard to help students. Such is not likely the case everywhere, I realize.

My previous post focused on the less mature of us (me included) who progressed more or less in an average and predictable way. I also wanted to emphasize the negative outcomes of being either too sensitive to criticism or too resistant. Those who’ve matured early (like my husband) don’t need much help, in contrast to those who are resistant to criticism. Hence, my emphasis on cautionary tales.

So, kudos to those students and post-docs who have developed (early) a mature view of criticism. You are already at the next stage:

Mid-Career (asst. prof., new PI)

In this stage of maturation, the scientist has mostly moved beyond knee-jerk reactions to criticism, although there are occasional regressions, e.g., when a critic says something particularly bone-headed. During this phase, one listens carefully to the comments of others and distinguishes between the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Depending perhaps partly on personality and partly on early-career experiences, the mid-career scientist may begrudgingly accept criticism, but not like it very much. Others, particularly women, may still suffer self-doubts upon receiving criticism, whereas men may shrug off negative comments rather more quickly. A few begin to truly appreciate a thorough review that asks difficult questions and makes the author tighten up the logic or supply a better justification for a particular statement.

In terms of responses to criticism, the maturing author is diligent in responding to each and every critical comment—either making the suggested correction or calmly explaining why they disagree with the critic. This reaction is particularly important in responding to reviewer comments on a manuscript submitted to a journal. A good way to annoy a reviewer (who will be asked to do a second review of your paper) and the editor, is to fail to provide a thoughtful response to all previous comments and suggestions. A point-by-point reconciliation, explaining what you did in your revision and why, is greatly appreciated by reviewers and editors who must otherwise struggle to figure out whether you dealt effectively with their criticisms.

I know it’s sometimes difficult to remain detached when dealing with really idiotic comments that clearly indicate the reviewer either didn’t read your paper carefully or is simply out-to-lunch. But learning to become detached, taking the criticism less personally, and responding without undue emotion is what distinguishes the maturing scientist. At least on paper. It’s perfectly OK (in my opinion) to rail to your best friend, trusted colleague, or spouse about the awful review you just received and how unfair some of the comments were. You can even write out your immediate reactions to get it out of your system. But then you must step back, take some time away from it, and let yourself get some perspective on the critique. Perhaps first deal with the minor comments or those that you find useful. Let the ones that really get under your skin percolate a bit in your head (even if you are not thinking about them consciously, your subconscious is working on them). When you can contemplate the really negative comments without your blood pressure going up, then you are ready to address them.

Of course, it’s during this phase that you become a critic yourself, being tapped to carry out peer reviews and to serve on editorial boards. This experience accelerates the maturing process, as you might expect. You begin to see what kind of effort it takes to do a thorough review and to appreciate the time your colleagues have spent reviewing your work. You also see that associate editors have a difficult job (also unpaid) in persuading scientists to do reviews and to deal with author’s fragile egos.

What type of critic you become is likely influenced by how you have been treated as an author. You may decide to dish out the same negative stuff that you’ve received in the past, or conversely, commit to treating others with the respect and fairness you’ve failed to receive. Most scientists, fortunately, focus on providing constructive criticism and avoid personal attacks, either voluntarily or in response to journal admonishments to do so. A few become harsh reviewers, never finding anything of value in any manuscript that falls on their desks. Others are too easy, never finding any fault with any manuscript. You begin to realize that both these extremes are not helpful to you as an author.

In this mid-career stage, I think most scientists tend to accept all requests for reviews and then spend a lot of time on them, providing pages of comments. I have no statistics to back this up—just my impression from talking with others. My limited poll also suggests that women are more likely to fall into this behavioral category than men. I won’t speculate on why…. it’s probably for a lot of different reasons.

Personally, I never turned down a review request during this stage and felt obligated to put a great effort into doing a thorough and fair review. Doing a lot of reviews in the early to mid-career stages is profitable because you learn a great deal about writing, about good (and bad) science, about what journals want, and how to improve your own weaknesses. I provided some detailed reasons for being a reviewer at another blog (FemaleScienceProfessor), reproduced here:

1. You learn a lot about writing (e.g., in terms of technical proficiency and personal “style” or “voice”) and what it takes to get published. You learn as much from reviewing poor papers (what not to do) as from excellent papers (what distinguishes them from the pack).

2. You learn what the standards are (in general and for specific journals) and what specific criteria are used by reviewers and editors.

3. The more journals you review for, the better you understand what subject matter is being sought (and you are less likely to commit the error of submitting inappropriate material to a journal).

4. You become known to editors, especially if you are a consistently good reviewer. Editors then tend to go out of their way to handle future submissions of your own work personally and ensure that they are evaluated fairly and quickly.

5. As you become known as a fair and thorough reviewer to editors, you are in a better position to challenge a negative review of your own work

This has already become a longer post than I originally intended, so I’ll stop here and reserve further musings for the next post.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Constructive Criticism I

Criticism of one's work is very hard to take.  Your dissertation or manuscript represents your best efforts--blood, sweat, and tears.  To see it shredded by another is embarrassing and depressing.  However, as scientists and authors we must learn to accept and deal with criticism, constructive or not.  Everyone goes through a maturation process in this regard.  So I thought it would be interesting to describe the various stages through which a scientist evolves (or may evolve--some get stuck at an early stage for their entire careers).

The next series of essays is based mostly on my own and colleagues' experiences--our reactions to criticism as well as reactions of others to our criticism (i.e., essentially anecdotal and not necessarily representative of all scientists).

Today's post focuses on the first of three stages in dealing with criticism:

Early Career (e.g., student and post-doc)

This stage is typically characterized by extreme sensitivity to criticism. Novices may be dismayed and become extremely discouraged when faced with the news that their work is not acceptable.  People at this stage of development sometimes view critical remarks as personal attacks--they assume that the people who are criticizing their work and their writing are trying to "put down" or "hold back" the budding scientist and author.  Another belief is that the critic is jealous and is being over-zealous as a consequence.  Novices sometimes believe that their writing is just fine, if not brilliant, and look upon suggestions for improvement with a sense of disbelief or disgust.  They may balk at making suggested changes and strive to ignore editorial suggestions.

The novice author is reluctant to amputate any verbiage, extraneous or not, because every sentence reflects great effort--not unlike passing kidney stones. The writing also may be sprinkled with numerous citations, but many of them do not actually support the point being made--the novice having failed to check the original citations and is simply repeating what has been said by others. A table may add little to the paper and will take up valuable journal space, but the novice writer is loathe to remove it because it represents numerous, tedious measurements and shows how hard they worked.  Figures fail to effectively depict the data in a way that conveys the essence of the main research findings (e.g., there is no distinction made between the most important results and the merely ancillary data).  However, the novice balks at removing incidental figures for the same reason stated previously for tables.  Finally, the novice author has worked very hard to write dense, convoluted sentences that can only be comprehended with repeated readings--in the belief that this writing style conveys sophisticated mastery of the topic.

Unfortunately, the inexperienced writer is often resistant at this stage to recommendations and wishes to avoid the idea that their best efforts are not good enough.  By ignoring critical remarks, they can more easily protect their fragile egos and especially circumvent the additional work involved in revision.  Such actions are sometimes grounded in the belief that the criticisms by the adviser are frivolous and random and therefore can be justifiably ignored.  In other cases, the novice believes that the advice is based solely on a difference of opinion, and both opinions (novice and adviser) are equally valid--in which case, the novice prefers his/her own.

Little wonder that the early-career writer is reluctant to listen to suggestions for revision.

Young scientists who are in this frame of mind sometimes will return their "revised" thesis or manuscript with few or none of the suggested changes, thinking that their adviser will not notice or will forget their original criticisms. This rarely works because the adviser will identify the same or additional flaws during the second read. Novice writers invariably make the same types of mistakes, of which they are often unaware, but which jump out at an experienced reviewer or editor like slimy toads popping off the page. 

Sometimes, the budding scientist will further ignore their adviser's assessment regarding the raw, unrefined nature of their masterpiece and without permission, go ahead and submit the manuscript to a journal.  This action is typically followed by swift rejection accompanied by excoriating comments of reviewers (if it is even sent out for review).  If by some miracle the paper is accepted with major revision (the reviewers having taken pity on what is clearly a student's first paper), the novice ignores the reviewer comments and returns the manuscript to the journal with only a few minor changes, upon which the editor quickly rejects it.

In a few cases, the novice author, having graduated or found employment elsewhere, removes the adviser's name from the paper prior to journal submission in the mistaken belief that this will absolve the need to address requested changes. The manuscript is subsequently sent to the adviser for review, since she is the acknowledged expert in the field.  This unfortunate turn of events is followed by a reality check administered by both the journal editor and the adviser.

Some of the descriptions I've painted here are extreme scenarios, but are based on real events.  A few of these early career reactions have been repeated enough times to suggest a pattern among novice authors.  I think most advisers, reviewers, and editors, however, understand the mindset of novices.  We are not unsympathetic, because we've been there ourselves. However we also know that it is extremely challenging to be successful in the competitive world of scientific research.  Therefore, we know that improvement only comes with criticism--and deliberate effort on the part of the novice to address their weaknesses.

Some people pass through this stage quickly; some more slowly; and a few find themselves stuck here indefinitely.  It's up to the individual to transition to the next stage in dealing with criticism: Mid-Career (see next post).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Essential Skills

A number of studies have revealed how early experiences can lead to gender differences in certain skills necessary in science. Boys tend to play with Lego sets and to build things with wood, nails, and hammers. Basically, they learn to use a variety of tools and to gain confidence in their ability to fabricate things. Boys are also more often taken hunting and fishing by their fathers, learning basics about orienteering, dealing with adverse weather or other factors, and how to observe nature. Women who only played with dolls as girls may find that they are at a disadvantage in the laboratory or the field. Without prior exposure to “masculine” skills, women tend to be quite intimidated when faced with basic tasks such as creating a lab setup for an experiment or launching a boat. Some comments from a survey by Grant (1995):

“I was always very shy in the lab, afraid to touch things, lest I twiddle a dial that might set the entire building aflame.”

“I did have to be taught at an embarrassingly late age that there was a convention to the way screws turned.”

Women who come from an upbringing in which gender roles were strictly followed and who failed to gain those “masculine” skills, are less likely to select science as a career. At the other extreme is the tomboy, who has already turned her back on the traditional female role. She is less likely to be deterred by the masculine aspects of science. This was certainly true for me. I was a tomboy, lived on a farm, went hunting and fishing with my father, played with slingshots and BB guns rather than dolls, and built forts and tree-houses. I did learn to cook, but from my father, who specialized in game cooking (the first meal I cooked for my husband-to-be was squirrel).

I’ve been thinking about how my upbringing affected not only my choice of profession, but also how I was able to overcome discouragement by professors, advisors, and male students during school and later in the workplace. I’d always attributed my success in science to an early exposure to nature. But now I wonder if it was as much to do with gaining confidence in various “masculine” skills. I'm sure that my early exposure to skills that boys are typically taught helped boost my confidence in the technical aspects of science.  I was never intimidated at setting up experiments involving construction or other mechanical skills. I had no problem envisioning what I wanted to do or how to go about it. I often repaired broken lab equipment and fabricated simple lab or field sampling devices.

As I mentioned in a previous post, so-called “masculine” skills can be taught—and this teaching can eliminate or reduce the gender gap between male and female students, influencing their later performance in science and engineering fields. The example I gave was a course for engineering students that improved spatial skills. But this idea can be extended to a number of other skills specific to one's area of interest.

Another aspect of this topic is the role of mentors. One often hears about how important it is for girls and young women to see (and be mentored by) successful women in science. But when I consider my experience, this statement does not hold. I had no female mentors, and the lack of one did not seem to be detrimental. Having a mentor who could teach me critical skills, especially at an early age, however, was important for me. In learning “masculine” skills that later contributed to my scientific confidence, my mentor was my father. My mother, on the other hand, was constantly pressuring me (until her death) to fulfill the feminine role she believed in. With my father’s support (of my tomboy nature), I found it easier to ignore her criticisms and feel more confident in my interest in nature and science. 

I can also point to other male mentors who influenced me, including teachers and even my husband.  Perhaps the message here is that what's important is not the gender of your mentor, but what they can teach you that will prove to be critical to your development as a scientist.

Grant, A. 1995. Women in science: an exploration of barriers.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Touring the Universe

I'm continually amazed at the ability of (some) non-scientists to convey science information in a way that is more interesting and compelling than (most) scientists.

I just finished reading "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson, a travel writer. This is a book about "life, the universe and everything, from the Big Bang to the ascendancy of Homo sapiens". Bryson is best known for "In a Sunburned Country" a hilarious book about his travels in Australia.

But who better to take us on a journey of the universe than a travel writer?

Bryson clearly put great effort into researching the information for this book and in confirming his facts (he interviews many scientists--tops in their field as well as those on the fringe, for example, amateur astronomers). However, what sets this book apart is Bryson's (1) fascination with the topic, and (2) ability to explain complex (and sometimes dull) science in a way that is fascinating and understandable by anyone. Moreover, he not only gives the "official" version of discoveries, but ferrets out the "back story" of the scientists who actually made the discoveries or who provided key insights, but who never received credit. If you are familiar with Bryson's work, you also know that he is a master at "tongue-in-cheek" asides that make you chuckle and sometimes even laugh out loud.  How many times do you do that while reading a book about science?

What Bryson does in "A Short History..." is make science come alive. He not only gives the facts and figures, but explains how scientists go about getting that information.  He makes it personal, which is appealing to non-science readers (and to me as well).  Here is an example--a description of an unassuming Australian minister, an amateur astronomer who searches for supernovae in his spare time. Reverend Evans is apparently a genius at finding these rare and "fleeting" events:

"To understand what a feat this is, imagine a standard dining room table covered in a black tablecloth and someone throwing a handful of salt across it. The scattered grains can be thought of as a galaxy. Now imagine fifteen hundred more tables like the first one--enough to fill a Wal-Mart parking lot, say, or to make a single line two miles long--each with a random array of salt across it. Now add one grain of salt to any table and let Bob Evans walk among them. At a glance he will spot it. That grain of salt is the supernova."

Bryson then proceeds through descriptions of the elements, atoms, the Big Bang, and Einstein to Chapter 16-Lonely Planet:

"It isn't easy being an organism.  In the whole universe, as far as we yet know, there is only one place, an inconspicuous outpost of the Milky Way called Earth, that will sustain you, and even it can be pretty grudging."

Chapter 25 is devoted to Darwin, with Bryson's summation of "On the Origin of Species...":

"The first edition of 1,250 copies sold out on the first day. It has never been out of print, and scarcely out of controversy, in all the time since--not bad going for a man whose principal other interest was earthworms and who, but for a single impetuous decision to sail around the world, would very probably have passed his life as an anonymous country parson known for, well, for an interest in earthworms."

The book goes on for another few chapters, ending with one on extinctions, called "Good-bye".

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable and informative read. I kept shaking my head all the way through and thinking to myself, "What if science textbooks were this fun and awe-inspiring?" Bryson managed not only to convey the grandeur and mystery of science (and without any visual aids), but how interesting and rewarding it is to be a scientist.  Exactly what is needed to attract more students to science.  If I were a middle-school science teacher, I would do well to take some lessons from Bryson's approach.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Staunch Support

As someone who has recently spearheaded efforts to encourage women in science, I still find resistance both from male and female colleagues regarding such activities--especially against the formation of formal groups (or blogs devoted to female experiences in science). 

From (younger) women, I get the reaction that there is no longer any need for such support....all the problems women in science faced in the past are no longer relevant. Some worry that such efforts send the wrong message that women are less capable and need special help.

Men mostly object in a joking manner.  For example, this blog is associated with a group within a science society that provides mentoring for women in the field and hosts symposia that focus on science skills (for both males and females). The reaction we got initially from some male society members was that perhaps men should form a group called "Men in Marshes"--as a counterpoint to "Women in Wetlands". However, I later heard about some more hostile remarks made by other males--after they had had a few beers.

All of the above reactions confirm that there is still a need for formal and informal efforts to encourage women in science and to educate others. Those who think there is no longer any need seem to be unaware of the facts--of how many women leave science or who stay but end up in low-level positions, of the subtle biases and barriers that still exist, and that there is still active discouragement of women from pursuing science careers.

Some of the negative reactions seem to focus on the assumed exclusivity of such groups.  That reaction is, of course, based on a false assumption. Our group does not exclude anyone, regardless of gender.  In fact, we encourage male membership. Since many female students and post-docs are advised by male scientists, we think it's important for male advisers to be aware of the challenges and barriers that women face.  Some of these issues apply to any underrepresented group in science, not just women.

Any group of people with common interests and concerns should be able to meet as a group to exchange information or promote interactions without fear of criticism. 

I also suspect that some people think that all such groups do is sit around and bash the male science establishment. I have had a few male colleagues make some joking comments along these lines--which tells me that this is perhaps an underlying concern among those who question the rationale for such groups.

The charge that interest groups send the message that women are less capable is more serious. I think this fear is behind the decision of some women who adamantly refuse being characterized as a female scientist, female engineer, female mathematician, etc.  They want to be known as just a scientist, engineer, mathematician.  I think we all want this.  Unfortunately, regardless of how we want to be viewed, there are people who refuse to see us as just scientists. The effects of this bias, both direct and indirect, are difficult to avoid.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Do Not Pass Go....

In my government agency, travel to scientific conferences must be justified and permission obtained from the powers-that-be. Domestic conferences require "only" that the individual traveler show justification, e.g., symposium invitation, plans to give a paper, etc. and then get approval from one’s immediate supervisor. For international conferences, you must get your name on an “International Conference list” well in advance for each quarter of the year. In addition, you must initiate your travel authorization 45 days in advance of travel to a foreign location. You must fill out paperwork documenting all sources of funds for the travel, estimates of costs, etc. Then, there are all the various restrictions covering air and other travel to navigate (Federal employees may only use American carriers unless they do not fly to your destination).  Travel by Federal employees to a foreign location also requires “country clearance”, which must be obtained from the U.S. Embassy in each country. Failure to take these steps precisely can lead to disapproval of your travel.

When more than five people from an agency plan to attend an international conference, special permission must be obtained from the Dept. of State. The people who make those decisions are constantly questioning the need for scientists to be attending scientific conferences. Often, deep suspicion is expressed as to the real motives behind several scientists from a single agency needing to attend a major international conference.  There are often more than five scientists from my branch who might attend the same conference, not to mention those across the entire agency.  The real reason for such scrutiny is concern about how the expense would be justified to the public if there were ever any questions about use of government funds. The more people from an agency attending a conference, the greater the total expenditure. I suppose the magic number of five relates to some threshold travel cost per conference that is likely to trigger public outrage.

Conference travel has been particularly targeted because, I suppose, of the possibility for abuse and also because conference venues tend to be in places like Las Vegas or New Orleans as opposed to Cleveland or Duluth (no offense to those cities). Agencies are warned to “exercise strict fiscal responsibility when choosing a site to conduct a conference, especially if the site might be considered extravagant in the public eye.” Note the term “conduct”--as if the traveler has any say in the selection of the conference venue. I suppose we could restrict our conference travel to those locations that no one would ever want to go—but conference organizers aren’t going to select such places and instead pick sites with appropriate conference facilities, are located in a large city with an international airport, and that will attract the most attendees. Large science societies accept proposals from various countries and cities wanting to host the next international conference—and then select the best one.

Permission to travel (to a foreign location) is often not given until just a few days prior to travel. Therefore, one must purchase a refundable ticket, pay registration and abstract fees (often not refundable), make hotel reservations (sometimes not refundable) in anticipation of being allowed to travel, but without any idea of when or whether that permission will come. So there you are, just hours before departure wondering if you are going or not. I’ve heard of colleagues who were sitting at the airport when their travel approval came through. If permission is denied for the group or for you individually, then you must cancel all plans and stay home. This, of course, wreaks havoc with conference schedules to have speakers drop out at the last minute. Fortunately, this has not happened to me, although there have been some close calls.

Obviously, scientists must participate in scientific conferences. It’s part of what we do as scientists—mingle with other scientists to present our work, to find out what our competitors are up to, and to make contacts that will prove useful in the future. Many of us have grant funds that include anticipated costs for conference travel as well as for fieldwork and other job-related travel—yet we must still justify such expenses.

Scientists in academia have not yet been subjected to this level of accountability, but I won’t be surprised if this changes in the future.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lounging on the Beach

Do you find it annoying when other people assume that when you are away from your office or lab that you are not working? You may be working at home, trying to finish that proposal by the deadline and can’t afford the interruptions at the office. You may be a telecommuter and spend part or all of your time at a home office. Your job may require extensive travel—to do fieldwork or meet with colleagues/clients, for example. Most scientists travel to attend conferences a couple of times (or more) per year. Even when your off-site activities are clearly required to meet your job responsibilities and for career development, does there still seem to be a suspicion that you are getting away with something?

Somehow, official travel has become an activity that is viewed by outsiders as a “perk”. Maybe it has something to do with reimbursement for expenses (and the suspicion that you are getting a free vacation). Maybe it’s just the fact that you are allowed to escape the office drudgery periodically while others are not. You’ve probably read those newspaper articles that list travel expenditures of government officials who have gone on “junkets” somewhere--usually a resort setting; such revelations are often followed by expressions of outrage by the public as to how their taxes are being wasted. Maybe some of these trips are boondoggles, but most are probably not. The average person likely does not understand that conferences and workshops are often held in resorts or resort settings, and that the traveler typically does not have anything to do with the choice of venue.  Newspaper reports can sound quite damning: "'Government Official X' made 8 trips in 2009 at a total cost to the taxpayer of $15,000."  That's less than $2,000 per trip--very reasonable.  However, the article often questions the need for these trips (as if the employee had a choice) and implies that the cost is not warranted.

Travel by scientists (e.g., to conferences) is sometimes questioned by administrators, but at least we (and our expense reports) are not held up to public scrutiny (yet).  More about this in the next post...

Travel becomes even more suspect (in others' minds) when it involves a destination known for recreational opportunities such as swimming, diving, fishing, skiing, etc. As an example, I do a lot of fieldwork in coastal areas that contain a variety of habitats extending from the ocean to uplands: beach, dune, swale, and wetland (the latter being my research focus).  Some of these locations one might want to visit on vacation. Unfortunately, I’m not on vacation, nor do I have time to relax and also get my work done.  And even if I did have time to relax, lying on the beach is not my idea of fun.

My research sites are characterized by lots of mud (into which you might sink up to your thighs), vegetation so thick that it takes fifteen minutes to traverse a few feet, extreme heat and humidity in summer and cold and rain in winter, sometimes dangerous animals (crocodiles), and of course, a myriad of biting insects that would drive a normal person quite crazy. The accommodations in some field locations are quite rustic--no running water; intermittent electricity (if any) and definitely no air conditioning, TV, or internet; an outhouse on the end of a pier (unless it’s been washed away by the latest hurricane and you are reduced to using a bucket)....definitely not Shangri-La. I happen to love the rugged simplicity, but most people would be very unhappy campers when faced with such a setting for weeks on end.

But people only hear that you are off to ‘Fabulous Location’ and immediately jump to the wrong conclusion. Even co-workers who know better.

Just prior to departure for some distant shore, I invariably will have some person say to me, "I hear you are off to 'Fabulous Location'. I wish I could go places like that." Others will make more snide comments such as, "Well, aren't you lucky...getting to go to 'Fabulous Location'."  Yes, I feel lucky, but only at the opportunity to do research in an interesting ecosystem, which is my job.

One of the first, disturbing interactions I’ve ever had in this regard was when I was a graduate student and had to meet with the chair of the graduate school. Although the subject of the meeting had to do with my resident status, he asked me about my dissertation research. I naively explained that it entailed field study in a foreign tropical country. He immediately began grilling me about why I had to do my research in that particular setting and ultimately insinuated that I was not really doing research but was instead cavorting in a bikini (!!) on a beach somewhere. I was flabbergasted. The harder I tried to convey the actual conditions surrounding such field research, the more suspicious he became and the more outrageous his comments. I got out of there as fast as I could (my request regarding residency was ultimately denied).

My relatives are usually the most resistant to the idea that I might be working while away from the office. Despite numerous explanations about the nature of my work, their automatic assumption, upon hearing I'm headed for another field trip to 'Fabulous Location', is that I will be lying on a beach somewhere with a cocktail in my hand. When I protest, they grin and say, "Yeah, right. You must think I'm stupid or something."

I've finally given up trying to explain and respond to such remarks with, "Well, it's hard work, but someone has to do it."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Proceed with Caution

Should you have professional liability insurance? Consider the following examples (most based on real situations, a few hypothetical):

Example 1: An employee, who was given a poor performance rating by you, initiates an EEO suit against your agency, claiming discrimination. The agency loses and initiates an adverse action against you.

Example 2: You learn that your graduate advisor has plagiarized a paper you wrote, but never published. Your complaints to the university are brushed off.

Example 3: Following budget cuts, you are assigned to a position for which you are not qualified. When you complain, your employing agency threatens adverse action.

Example 4: One of your subordinates falsifies a financial document, which you sign off on (without knowing that the information was false). Years later, an anonymous “tip” and subsequent audit uncover the inaccuracies, and you are held responsible.

Example 5: You (a technician) report a professor for violating radiation safety regulations and are fired a few days later.

Example 6: You provide campus police with information about a colleague in your department who has been engaging in “erratic, stalking behavior”. This person is eventually dismissed from his position. You are later named as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by this person against the university and individual department members.

Example 7: You (an instructor) charge a student in one of your classes of plagiarism. The student complains to your department, which has to go through a great deal of effort to resolve the situation. Your contract is not renewed the next semester. Your spouse, who works in the same department, is also let go.

Example 8: Someone uses your office computer to download pornography, which is discovered after an anonymous “tip” to campus police. You are dismissed from your position.

Example 9: You (a student) write an anonymous criticism of your university administration in a popular blog. The university uncovers your identity and not only threatens you with university disciplinary action, but sues you.

Example 10: You are a minor co-author on a student’s paper that is later found to contain plagiarized material and must be retracted. The student admits to the plagiarism, and the student’s advisor (a tenured professor and a senior author on the paper) also accepts responsibility. They are in a different department from you.  You go up for tenure shortly after this debacle and are denied, despite having a strong tenure package.  You suspect that the plagiarized paper played a role in this decision.

In some of the above cases, it cost between $10,000 and $70,000 in legal assistance to resolve the situation. Note that it doesn't matter if you are "innocent" of wrongdoing; you still will need legal advice and/or representation. Other situations can lead to greater costs, especially if criminal charges are involved. 

I never thought about needing liability insurance until I saw some colleagues go through some experiences like the ones above. I was especially disturbed to learn that not only might your employing institution or agency not provide legal assistance to you, but that they might even initiate adverse actions against you in some cases.

I know of only a few colleagues who have liability insurance.  Most of those at academic institutions I've spoken with think they don't need it (or don't want to think about it).  More colleagues in the Federal government, however, seem to have liability insurance.  Supervisors are particularly vulnerable to being accused of wrongdoing by subordinates--at some point in their careers. The government may provide a lawyer for you in such cases, but only if it's in the agency's (not your) best interests.  Thus, Federal employee associations recommend professional liability insurance, because members have ended up paying $30,000 or more to defend themselves against accusations.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Time Saving Strategies (Part 3)

This is the third part of a series on time saving strategies: 1. Electronic communications (phone, email), 2. face-to-face communications (meetings, office drop-ins), and.... 

3. Other activities that require substantial time, but do not contribute to my scientific productivity.

  a. Scientific reviews.  Discussions with colleagues suggest that more and more of them are simply refusing to do any reviews for journals because they feel so overwhelmed, and the effort is not usually appreciated by superiors at performance review time. This is an extreme, and in my view inappropriate, reaction for professionals. We can't expect colleagues to review our papers if we do not reciprocate. A colleague told me the other day that when he inquired about a manuscript submitted many months earlier, he was told that they had asked and been turned down by 12 potential reviewers and were still looking for someone to accept the invitation to review.

I think if we dealt with reviews a bit more efficiently, however, we might be more inclined to do our share.

I found I was spending a lot of time doing reviews for journals.  I not only accepted too many assignments, but I spent too much time on unimportant aspects of the paper (editing) or tried to make suggestions for improvement when the work was fatally flawed. Some solutions I've implemented over the years:

     i. I decide how many reviews I will do per year and stick to this number. If I've published a paper in Journal X, then I will accept two review assignments from that journal during that year.  Requests from other journals are considered based on how much effort will be required, up to my quota for the year.  This number can be raised or lowered depending on other factors. Currently, I'm serving as assoc. editor for an international journal, which is taking a lot of time, so I'm turning down most requests from other journals.

     ii. I don't review a paper just because I'm interested in finding out what they did (i.e., it's very close to my area and I'm curious). If it's good, it'll get published and I'll see the information eventually. If it's not, then I didn't need to see it.

     iii. When I get a request for a review in my inbox, I don't respond immediately. Some editors send out requests to several people, and when two respond, the remainder are dis-invited.

     iv. When doing a review, I force myself to read the entire paper without stopping to make any comments or correcting any language problems.  I focus entirely on the science.  If there is a fatal flaw, then I focus in on that and don't expend any more time making suggestions for revision (because it's likely that the paper will be rejected and my time will be wasted).  If the work is solid, but the writing or some other aspect is weak, then I will make general comments and suggestions.  I do not spend time correcting typos or grammatical errors, which copy editors will handle later.  If the paper is excellent, then I will point out any minor edits that will improve understanding or presentation of the data.

  b. Administrative tasks. Filling out forms, doing performance reviews, etc.

     i. Automate as much as possible (save templates, set up automatic replies to frequent questions, prepare SOPs to guide routines of staff so that you don't have to repeat instructions)

    ii. Delegate (have others fill out forms or find information that takes time to locate, do purchasing and associated paperwork)

    iii. Make decisions quickly for tasks that are either not critical or can be reversed easily (in other words, don't spend hours agonizing over something that can be corrected later)

     iv. If you have a large staff, performance reviews may become time consuming or fall at a time when you have other important deadlines.  One way to decrease the time you spend evaluating subordinates is to have them write up a detailed summary of their accomplishments and progress on projects as well as plans and expectations for the next evaluation interval.  This approach lets the employee or student ensure that no accomplishment is overlooked and frees you from having to locate and collate all this information yourself.

For your own performance reviews, keep a running log of accomplishments by category or routinely add these to your CV.  Don't wait until right before your review (or when you start looking for a job) and then try to remember all of them.

      v. Write out directions for complicated procedures--ones that you spent a lot of time figuring out--so that you don't have to "reinvent the wheel" every time.  I have in mind here those annoying (non-science) tasks that happen so infrequently that they don't go into long-term memory (at least not mine).  All together, these procedures can add up to a lot of time wasted if you have to work them out from scratch each time.  I keep an electronic folder containing directions for various admin. or computer-based tasks and any shortcuts I've discovered.  You would be surprised at how many people fail to do this...even protest that they don't have time....

Well, that's all I can think of at the moment.  I'm sure some of you have pet peeves that consume your time and energy and that don't directly contribute to your science productivity.  Feel free to add to my list.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Time Saving Strategies (Part 2)

This is the second part of this series about time- saving strategies, divided into three categories (1. electronic communications, 2. face-to-face communications, 3. other activities that take time but don't contribute directly to science productivity).

2. Face-to-face communications (work interactions, office drop-ins, group meetings).  Interacting with co-workers, subordinates, or bosses takes up a lot of our time and is often stressful.  People dropping by the office can be major interruptions, because once in your office they tend to stay on talking about multiple subjects. And we all know that most group meetings are unnecessary, right?

What can be done:

  a. Work Interactions. The problem here is with people who want you to make decisions for them or to affirm their decisions. They bother you with a myriad of questions related to their own work--usually things that they can and should work out for themselves. These people may be staff, students, or even bosses. 

     i.  One of the best ways to minimize interruptions by subordinates is to authorize them to use their own judgment in making day-to-day decisions and in spending up to a certain amount (e.g., $100) and tell them you trust them to make the best decision.

    ii. Train staff to research solutions and organize a list of options before bothering you with a question about how to proceed.  Tell them to save up all their questions for weekly meetings, unless there is an emergency that requires your involvement.

   iii. Also train subordinates to put paperwork in your mailbox for signatures rather than knocking on your door.

   iv. If it's your boss who needs hand-holding, then you must use your own discretion. See the suggestions below, one of which might work.

  b. Office drop-ins (semi-social interactions).  Colleagues, staff, visitors, and others will stop by your office with a question or just to say hello.  One person is not usually a problem, but when a lot of people are doing this all day long, then you'll be constantly interrupted.  Sometimes these are people who have time on their hands, want to chat, and will do so for hours if you let them.

      i. If you are working on a deadline, put a do-not-disturb sign on your door. If you have colleagues or staff who ignore these signs and knock anyway, lock your door and don't answer.  They'll go away. I find that adding "conference call" to the sign deters all but the most persistent.

      ii.  If you must answer your door or want to leave your door open, then don't let people who drop by just ramble on.  Immediately say that you are in the middle of something or have a conference call in 5 minutes and ask what it is they wish to talk about. Don't let them leave with the idea of coming back later when you are finished with your call. Make them get to the point and ask whatever is on their mind right then, or tell them to put it in an email.

      iii. If they catch you in the hall, try to keep walking and say you've got to get back to your office for an important phone call.

      iv. For the persistent talkers (who ignore your hints), simply don't respond verbally or with any encouraging body language.  Keep looking at your watch.  It's nearly impossible for someone to continue a conversation when the other person is not participating.

  c.  Meetings:

      i. Don't agree to a meeting that does not have an agenda. If there isn't one, ask for an agenda (so you can prepare); this will usually force the organizer to set one up.

      ii. Don't agree to a meeting that has no stated duration. If there is none and is likely to go on for hours, tell the moderator that you have another meeting or conference call 30 minutes after the stated start time and then just get up and leave.

      iii. If possible, have one of your staff attend the meeting and report back to you (in an email) any important decisions (there are usually none). You can also get this information from one of your colleagues when you run into them at the coffee pot later in the day.  Just ask them if anything earth-shaking was announced (rarely happens). When I've done this, I've had meetings that lasted for 2 hours summarized for me in five minutes.

      iv. As soon as a meeting is announced, particularly one that you know will be a waste of your time and in which your absence is unlikely to be noticed, schedule something that conflicts and then don't show up or, if asked, say you will be unavailable due to a conflict.

The next post talks about some miscellaneous activities that take a lot of time, but do not directly contribute to your science productivity.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Time Saving Strategies: Part I

I think we all find ourselves at the end of the day wondering why we've not accomplished anything in spite of being busy.  When this happens regularly, we begin to feel overwhelmed because we seem no closer to accomplishing our tasks, yet are exhausted because we've put in 10 or more hours at the office.

I've been thinking a lot lately about time sinks and how to minimize them or avoid them altogether.  Of course, to be successful at this, one must first identify these black holes and then eliminate them. 

For me, these time sinks fall into 3 main categories: 1. electronic communications (phone calls, email), 2. face-to-face communications (work interactions, office drop-ins, meetings), and 3. other activities that take time but don't contribute directly to scientific productivity (reviews for journals, administrative tasks, service).  This post covers the first category:
1. Electronic communications (phone calls, email).  This category covers those communications that involve an electronic device such as a computer or phone.  What distinguishes this type of communication (in terms of time management) is that we have a lot of flexibility in how, when, and where we participate.  We can often postpone or completely avoid some of these interactions if we choose--making this one of the most amenable time sinks to modify.  Many of the calls and email we receive are not important and simply waste our time. There are lots of self-help books out there about time management and how to deal with email. These books often suggest elaborate plans for creating folders and ways of handling email, but the simplest goal to strive for is to avoid the unimportant interruptions and delay the important ones until you are ready to deal with them, preferably all at once.

Here are some of the strategies that seem to work and are simple enough to readily incorporate into your daily routine:

  a. Don't check email constantly (this is a hard habit to break, I know).  Instead, limit checking email to twice per day, just before lunch and around 4 pm. Sticking to these two times allows you to get something productive done in the morning and afternoon and also discourages long email responses due to lack of time.

  b. In the evening or on weekends, don't look at email messages that likely relate to things you cannot deal with until you return to the office. This just sets you up for a night or weekend of worrying--just skip them until you get to your office and can take care of them.

  c. Delete (without opening) those email messages that are mass mailings, e.g., about office recycling, announcements, that don't require a personal response. Get a good spam filter and use it; identifying and deleting spam takes time.

  d. If I get an email that I'm tempted to respond to with a lengthy answer, I wait a couple of days before dealing with it. Often, the urge passes or some other correspondent says the same thing I would have said, but better. 

  e.  Don't answer phone calls from unrecognized numbers or from people who tend to waste your time.

  f.  Set your office phone to go automatically to voice mail and turn off the ringer. Then check your messages near the end of the day and return those that are important. If friends and family call you frequently during the day on your cell phone, turn it off and check messages twice per day (they will eventually stop calling so often).

Some of you probably have other really good suggestions for dealing with email and phone calls. Share them if you like.

Next, I'll talk about face-to-face communications, which require somewhat different strategies.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dial M for Murder and C for Chemistry

I've been reading some murder mysteries featuring a budding female scientist--Flavia de Luce.  This engaging character is eleven years old and quite precocious.  Her love is chemistry, especially the chemistry of poisons.  Here is Flavia:

"Whenever I was upset, I made for my sanctum sanctorum. Here, among the bottles and beakers, I would allow myself to be enveloped by what I thought of as the Spirit of Chemistry. Here, sometimes, I would reenact, step by step, the discoveries of the great chemists....How I gloried in the antiquated names just waiting to be plucked from its pages: Butter of Antimony...Flowers of Arsenic...'Rank poisons,' Lavoisier called them, but I reveled in the recitation of their names like a hog at a spa."

Flavia's knowledge of chemistry puts her at an advantage in disputes with her two sisters.  During one altercation, she puts her talents to work to lovingly extract urushiol, the essential oil of poison ivy, and mix it with her sister's lipstick, which she recasts using the mold for a .45 caliber bullet.  Then she patiently records what happens in her lab notebook: "Friday, 2nd of June 1950, 9:42 a.m. Subject's appearance normal but grumpy (isn't she always?) Onset may vary from 12 to 72 hours."

However, Flavia soon finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery.  She discovers a dying man half buried in the family cucumber patch and uses her knowledge of chemistry to help the local police figure out how the man died (and who murdered him).  Flavia describes her discovery:

"I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn't. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savoring every detail: the fluttering fingers, the almost imperceptible bronze metallic cloudiness that appeared on the skin, as if, before my very eyes, it were being breathed upon by death. ..And then the utter stillness. I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."

Rather reminds me of myself at that age. I particularly remember dissecting out the hearts from fish recently caught and holding them in the palm of my hand--and timing how long each one would continue beating after being detached from its blood and nerve supplies. I suppose today I would be referred to therapists who would figure me to be a budding serial killer, rather than a budding scientist.

But I digress. The above excerpts are from the book "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" by Alan Bradley.  Yes, a man wrote this....and he did a superb job of creating a delightful and memorable female character. I was impressed with how well he conveyed Flavia's fascination with chemistry and her fearless (and dogged) pursuit of the murderer.

After reading this book, I immediately ordered the next one, "The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag". Not quite as good as the first, but still enjoyable.

If you haven't read any of the Flavia de Luce mysteries, I highly recommend them.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Consider the following hypothetical day in the life of a hypothetical student (you) and imagine how you would react:

You go to one of your classes in which the mid-term exam is returned, and you receive a C grade, not something you expected at all.  You are shocked and disappointed. Later, you go to the lab to check on an experiment that has been percolating and find that you forgot to turn on a key piece of equipment. Your samples are lost and now you are going to have to start all over. At the end of the day, you pull out of your parking space and hit another car that you did not see because you were not paying close attention (you were thinking about your samples). You end up spending a couple of hours dealing with the situation before finally being able to go home.

How would you feel? Like a loser? A total klutz? Unlucky?

According to Dr. Carol Dweck, people tend to fall into two groups or mindsets: 

Those with a "fixed mindset" overreact to bad news and tend to see mistakes as a sign of imperfection or weakness. People with a "growth mindset" view mistakes as opportunities to learn; some thrive on turning setbacks into successes.  I see these two mindsets as products of inflexible vs. flexible brains.  The fixed mindset tells a person that talent, intelligence, or personality are fixed traits and cannot be changed. Therefore, any event that challenges their self-image (as a talented, intelligent, or popular person) leads to discomfort, and they try to rationalize their failures. Such people tend to dislike learning and avoid opportunities to learn (because it requires them to acknowledge that they are not as smart or as talented as their self-image).  They dislike challenges (because if they fail, their self-image will suffer).  They end up playing it safe; repeating things that they are good at and avoiding the ones that might show their weaknesses.

The person with a growth mindset reacts quite differently. They don't believe that such traits as intelligence are fixed, but instead can be improved with time and effort. They may not be happy after the hypothetical day described above, but their reaction to those events differs dramatically from that of the person with a fixed mindset.  They consider what went wrong, gather information (talk to the instructor to go over the exam questions; change their study habits), and develop a plan to avoid becoming distracted (leading to lab mistakes or accidents).  These people love learning and when faced with a setback throw themselves with relish into a program to acquire whatever skill is lacking. People with growth mindsets love challenges, because these are seen as opportunities to learn.

Some people fall into one or the other category, but others may be a mixture of the two (fixed mindset about intelligence, but growth mindset about athletic ability).  According to Dweck, it's possible to change your mindset.  Simply being aware of it and how it affects your behavior can help you begin to change.  The point is not that someone with average intelligence will become a genius, but that anyone can improve their skills with experience and effort.

A good example is artistic talent.  People who think they cannot draw believe that those who can are born with this talent and that it cannot be learned. This idea is false. Anyone can learn to draw--and quite well.  It's really a matter of learning to perceive relationships, lighting, edges, and this can be taught. See these examples of self portraits that people drew before and after a 5-day course in drawing. Those who seem to be naturally talented learned early about the relationship between seeing and drawing and simply improved with practice. I've always been good at drawing and often tell others that I can teach them.  Most react with disbelief and refuse to try.  They have a fixed mindset.

As Dweck puts it, "Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn't mean that others can't do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.