31 December 2015

So what happened this year?

In this, the mid-point of the second decade of the twenty-first century (which is still awkward because it doesn't really have a name... nobody calls it the “teens” or anything), what happened for me professionally?

When the year started, I was an associate professor at The University of Texas Pan American. When the year ended, I was a professor at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

I made up a word. And, shockingly, people noticed it. Make you cite this post when you add “kiloauthors”, Oxford English Dictionary!

I saw a rock fall out of the sky!

My name was on the cover of a time travelling book that arrived in print this year, even though every place in the book says it was published in 2016.

My little presentation ebook I self-published got reviewed by the awesome Natalie Morales (who’s the best reason to watch The Grinder) and was translated into Russian.

I wrote or contributed to some review articles.

But I was happiest about publishing three reasonably big data-driven papers this year (plus a note): one with the most direct test of the “lobster in the pot” problem yet, one on beautiful giant neurons in shrimp, and one the crayfish pet trade. And two of them were all me. I’m happy that I still collect my own data, and not just write grants and supervise other people’s research. I want more like those in 2016, please!

But it’ll be tricky. Currently, the only thing I have in press is a chapter in the forthcoming Science Blogging book. Data collection on two projects is officially complete today, but there are, of course, lots of other teaching and service tasks to do.

Note to self:

28 December 2015

Time policing

Are you reading the blog post from your home or your office?

It’s the start of the week between Christmas and New Year’s. There is a lot of discussion on my social media feed today about academic work, I think prompted by this tweet:

Quick test to see if you're going to “make it” in academia: Are you working this week?

As advice, it’s dumb. Whether you’re working this week is no test of whether you will be a successful academic. Lots of people might work this week, but work on the wrong things. Like writing a blog post instead of that NSF pre-proposal... but I digress.

As a joke, it’s mean. It suggests overwork is the norm in academia, and that if you’re not working now, you are obviously inferior.

Academia has a deep and sometimes oppressive culture of overwork. There are many examples on this blog. There was Scott Kern saying colleagues lacked passion because research labs were empty on evenings and weekends. More recently, Eletftherios Diamandis wrote about how he worked sixteen hours a day, left childcare to his wife, and had his kids playing in the lobby and eating food from the microwave – and this was in a career advice column as an exemplar of success.

Put that attitude together in a person whose position gives them a fair amount of power and minimal oversight – like someone in charge of a grad student or post-doc – and you have the potential for stressful, terrible situations where people work like dogs because they think there is no alternative.

That said... I am a bit concerned by the potential for time policing that’s hinted at in the reactions to this tweet, and in similar situations.

First, a lot of people outside of academia have to work the week between Christmas and New Year’s. For most people, suggesting that you work this week is not something that only a Dickensian factory owner would say. That is is even an argument could contribute to the perception among non-academics that academics are overpaid, lazy fat cats.

Second, we should be careful about criticizing academics who do choose to work this week. There are many reasons to do so.

I have animals that need feeding and looking after. It’s my job to look after them. I don’t like the implication that I’m contributing to a workaholic culture because I’m doing animal care.

There are also externalities that work against taking this week off for many people. For instance, for biologists, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting is held in early January. The deadline for many National Science Foundation pre-proposals is in January. Yes, in theory, people are well organized to have completed all those proposal and presentations and posters before Christmas, but in actuality, for real people, this is a good time to do that work.

And that sort of leads into my biggest point. Is it so bad to like what you do? SciCurious wrote:

Well, I mean...it doesn't help that I...enjoy work. A lot. Part of academic conditioning?

I’m reluctant to admit that I am in the office writing this post, and that I’m happy about working this week. I like the quiet. I like that I don’t have meetings or deadlines. Yet if you’re an academic who likes working more than 40 hours a week, you can be tagged as part of the problem and a victim of mindwashing. For instance:

Nobody dies wishing they published one more paper.

We’re expected to resent work. Mike Rowe talks about this, based in part on his experience on the TV show Dirty Jobs (emphasis added):

We’ve declared war on work, as a society, all of us. It’s a civil war. It’s a cold war, really. We didn’t set out to do it and we didn’t twist our mustache in some Machiavellian way, but we’ve done it. ... We’ve waged this war on Madison Avenue. I mean, so many of the commercials that come out there – in the way of a message, what’s really being said? Your life would be better if you could work a little less, if you didn’t have to work so hard, if you could get home a little earlier, if you could retire a little faster, if you could punch out a little sooner – it’s all in there, over and over, again and again.

A job well done is rewarding. It’s rewarding to be able to look back and see that you have created a body of work. Some people might die wishing they had created more, or done more professionally, or solved an unanswered question. Why should regrets about unfinished things be confined to the personal, non-work realm?

We do have to be careful not to let that desire to work become a macho bullshit test of endurance. In academia, feeling guilt over not working is almost infinitely more common that feeling shame about working when others are not. The expectation that research academics should work long hours, including evenings, weekends, and holidays, is the bigger problem.

But you shouldn’t be made to feel embarrassed if you’re working this week and you’re happy about it. While we’re pushing back against a very real culture of overwork, let’s not forget how great it is to have work that is fulfilling.

Update: I’m tempted to characterize this as another example of work shaming:

Maybe the most relevant answer to academic productivity discussions on Dec 29th is “Nobody cares, go get a life.”

More additional: Post edited for emphasis and clarity, prompted by Julie Brommaert.

Related posts

My new work week
Why cure disease?Why cure disease?
Glorifying overworking: another self-inflicted crisis in Science Careers

21 December 2015

Beta testing UTRGV

Grades were due today, marking the official end of UTRGV’s first semester.  How did we do?

Well, we kept the wheels on the bus. The university did not grind to a screeching halt, and students took their classes.

But it’s been a rough semester.

After all the “We are one” pep talks at the start of the semester about the distributed campuses in Edinburg, Brownsville, and so on, I saw a whole lot of people who didn’t get that memo. There didn’t seem to be a lot of work into building bridges between the campuses. Quite the opposite: I saw efforts that seemed designed to insulate people at one campus or another.

When UTRGV was pitched, one of the selling points to the politicians and state administrators would be that UTRGV would be less expensive than UTB and UTPA because the number of administrators would be halved. Instead of a president, provost, and college deans at two universities, there would only be one of each.

Instead of streamlining administration, there are clear signs of huge administrative bloat. While it is true that there is only one dean for each college (for example), what wasn’t factored into the discussion was the rapid proliferation of vice provosts, assistant deans, deputy administrators, and sub-vice deputy positions. So far, I haven’t seen any cases of these administrative positions adding any value to the tasks I need to complete. So far, the only power these individuals seem to have is the power to call meetings.

The first semester was like the beta release of UTRGV. Functional, but buggy and glitchy. I think Beta testing will be continuing for at least one more semester.

Picture from here.

18 December 2015

Today is the day and I just can’t wait!

Today is the day I will finish grading this last assignment I gave my neurobiology students! Just five left! I cannot remember the last time grading has taken so long and taken so much out of me. It’s been tough this semester.

Oh yeah, there’s also a sequel out to a movie that rocked my world some thirty odd years ago.

But apart from this blog post, I am staying off social media for a few days* until I can submit my final grades and avoid all the trolls posting Star Wars spoilers!

* Except maybe Google Plus. Because not much ever happens there, right?

15 December 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Dream house

I’ve shown custom hermit crab shells on the blog before, but artist Aki Inomata has made the more beautiful I've seen.

More here.

Hat tip to Amy Freitang and Liz Neeley.

External links

Why not hand over a shelter to hermit crabs?

14 December 2015

Bad design used to make a good point

Michael Eisen recently took all the journal titles off descriptions of his papers on his lab website. This upset some people, which Eisen chalked it up to “the cult of the journal title.”

Alternate hypothesis: maybe it upset people because it was a bad design decision.

I’ve explored design a lot over at the Better Posters blog, and one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned has been that good design is about empathy. Good designers empathize with their users, anticipate their needs, and fulfill their needs.

One of the things a person going to a lab publication list wants to do is to be able to find articles that interest them. Removing journal titles makes it harder for users to find articles. And while many (but, importantly, not all) articles have DOIs and links, they are not necessarily things that people relate to as much as a journal title. If you need to scribble a reference on a piece of paper, a journal, volume, and first page number is easier than a DOI link.

The argument that you don’t need journal titles because everything is on the Internet overlooks that the Internet doesn’t need journal articles. People do. People have to work with imperfect memories (some of us more than others) before starting a search on Google Scholar or PubMed. There are many papers that I look at, and I will never commit the DOI or link to memory. I remember the journal that papers were published in quite regularly, though. I don’t remember journals because of their Impact Factors, but because of the content of the journal, the layout and formatting, and other features. A PLOS ONE paper looks different than a PeerJ paper.

By removing a piece of information that users expect and want, Eisen is not meeting the user’s needs. Quite the opposite, he’s explicitly criticizing users who want this information. But good design is not about the designer. It’s about the experience of the end user.

That said, running in the opposite direction is no better:

This was a joke from Yoav Gilad (archived by Claus Wilke; it doesn’t look like that now). But for the sake of argument, let’s analyze it anyway. Here, the changes in text size for the journals (related to Impact Factor) is, for those outside of academia, pointless, and therefore confusing. For those in academia, it looks like an ego trip. (“Oooh, look at the fancy journal I published in!”)

Again: design is not about you.

Now, there is more to life than good design. Removing journal titles from a publication list is a successful act of advocacy against evaluation by “prestige,” which is a much-needed discussion to have. But it may be that users are upset not (only?) because of a cultish belief that journal titles are important signifiers of quality, but because they realize that the design effectively gives them the finger by leaving out something they want.

Update, 15 December 2015: Expanded the post with Gilad’s joke and more discussion.

External links

What’s in a journal name?
Picture from here.

11 December 2015

A strange attack on tenure from Science

Science’s latest editorial is a strange attack on tenure that seems to have originated from some non-academic think-tank rather than anyone associated with academia. But it’s penned by editor Marcia McNutt.

McNutt opens with a strange argument that tenure is preventing women from succeeding in academia.

(Women) are still underrepresented among tenured faculty as compared to, for example, the number of women in similar positions that do not require tenure... A major reason is that young academics must concentrate on their careers to earn tenure at the same time as they would be starting their families, and this issue affects women disproportionately more. ... Whether women see the tenure hurdle and opt out for family instead, or just never opted in to begin with, the result is that there are too few women for a diverse academic enterprise, and if this process does not evolve, how can the highest institutes of learning promote academic freedom and progress?

So let me get this straight. The institution of tenure is the problem for women, and not, say, unrealistic expectations of tenure decision makers, who, by pretty much every set of summary statistics out there, are over-represented by men?

I am willing to bet not one woman working in academic who would feel that their prospects of continued employment would be enhanced by the removal of tenure.

McNutt then argues that, darn it, professors are just old dogs who can’t learn new tricks.

(N)ot all tenured faculty are motivated to stay abreast of new developments. What might have been a booming job market 20 years ago when a faculty member earned tenure may be entirely moribund now. ... Today, tenured professors can continue to hold their positions 40 to 50 years past the date when they received tenure.

Fortunately, I only had to wait a day before this profile of active, engaged researchers who are past traditional retirement age but still doing good science. McNutt’s argument is discriminatory and ageist.

Revising the tenure system to a more flexible form of employment is not going to be easy. ... Those hurt by the system are powerless.

It’s not clear to me who is hurt by the tenure system. I think McNutt is trying to argue that young academics, particularly women, are hurt, because they are more likely to take non-tenured positions. That is not a problem with tenure. This is a problem with adminstrators trying to cut costs.

McNutt’s suggests basically that universities should just give the finger to their tenure faculty and ideals of shared governance.

But it's time for universities to discuss unilateral action and institute some other mechanism.

The editorial comes just a day before this news of faculty – including tenured faculty – being cut from College of Saint Rose. So... yeah. Tenure provides tissue-thin job protection already.

For example, promotion to associate professor could be rewarded with a longer-term contract (10 years), followed by a series of renewable 10-year contracts (or in rare cases, longer contracts) as a full professor. The contracts would be nonbinding, giving the faculty member flexibility to consider opportunities at other institutions.

Oh! How generous! We have to get rid of tenure to make it easier for people to find new work! Because that’s what people want, to have less stability in their lives!

An appeals process (through a national university association) could adjudicate contract disputes or cases of dismissal on grounds of intellectual disagreements.

I’d be more encouraged is I had ever heard of a case of such a mechanism working. In the United States at least, universities are largely under the regulation of the states, so it’s not clear how any national organization could have any teeth.

For goodness’ sake, tenure is not the problem here. The problem is administrators have been cheap, and have tended to exploit their non-tenured faculty with heavy responsibilities and few benefits because they could. Instead of tearing down tenure and turning everyone into contingent faculty and wondering nomads, why can’t we do the opposite?

Why can we not give women on the tenure clock with reasonable performance expectations, not those determined by workaholics with no other responsibilities?

Why can we not provide adjunct and contingent faculty with some of the job security and resources that tenure people enjoy?

Why can we not have strong post-tenure review that ensures that people continue to be competent at their job?

Tenure is not supposed to be a guarantee of a job for life. It’s supposed to provide security against arbitrary dismissal. That long-term security is valuable for research, and I suspect provides a strong incentive for people to work at universities. It certainly did for me.

Pay at universities is often lower than similar positions in the private sector. Would universities who got rid of tenure be willing to bring their pay in line with what people could get in industry? My guess is, “No.”

When McNutt became editor of Science, lots said, “Hey, it’s great to have a woman in charge of Science!” But this editorial is just the latest in a repeated set of regressive articles getting by Science’s editorial team, which have regularly seemed to involve gender issues, and McNutt’s presence as editor doesn’t seem to be slowing things down. I just don’t get it.

Hat tip to Terry McGlynn and Bashir3000.

Additional: In an unrelated but somehow in the same vein of deeply problematic: AAAS, the publisher of Science, elected Patrick Harran a fellow of the society. Harran was charged with four counts of felony following the death of an undergraduate student in a lab accident. More at the Curious Wavefunction and Chemjobber.

Related posts

Breaking brand: Science magazine’s latest self-inflicted crisis

External links

Whither (wither?) tenure?
Saint Rose faculty informed of cuts Friday

“Hey, did anyone win a Nobel?”

Earlier this week, I got one of those emails that had been forwarded through the administrative chain (Provost’s office to dean to associate dean to department chair to faculty).

“Our Strategic Analysis office need to know what awards our faculty have won!”

I keep wondering why individual faculty are being asked to for this information through email when our institution subscribes to a service called Digital Measures that tracks this stuff. Faculty enter their achievements in the system, and people can pull reports from it at any time. I also wonder why this information can’t be pulled from the annual reports faculty have to submit every year.

Although I hadn’t won any awards, I opened up the spreadsheet to see what they were looking for. First line of the spreadsheet:

Nobel prize.

Eyebrow raise.

I keep looking down the list. Pulitzer prize. McArthur award. Awards that get international coverage.

If a faculty member won a Nobel prize, most universities would have press releases sent to every major news outlet and announcements up on their website out before the first morning coffee break.

The thought that adminstration has to ask, “By the way, did anyone on our campus win a Nobel while we weren’t looking?” makes adminstrators look like they’re isolated in some alternate universe bubble that only rarely connects to our own, and they occasionally manage to break through for a brief peek at what’s happening in the reality of faculty, staff, students, and major media outlets.

08 December 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Down deep

This crustacean isn’t big, but space is in short supply when you’re 1.4 kilometers under the surface of the earth.

This little animal may be a copepod - Borgonie and colleagues (2015) list it as Amphiascoides with a question mark behind it, but provide no more details.

This picture has been contrast enhanced from the original in the journal article.


Borgonie G, Linage-Alvarez B, Ojo AO, Mundle SOC, Freese LB, Van Rooyen C, Kuloyo O, Albertyn J, Pohl C, Cason ED, Vermeulen J, Pienaar C, Litthauer D, Van Niekerk H, Van Eeden J, Sherwood. Lollar B, Onstott TC, Van Heerden E. 2015. Eukaryotic opportunists dominate the deep-subsurface biosphere in South Africa. Nature Communications 6: 8952. http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1038/ncomms9952

External link 

Animals found living in rock deep, deep underground

02 December 2015

Ideas are cheap

In tooling around Quora, I see a lot of questions from non-scientists that sort of run like this:

“I have an idea! How do I proclaim it to science?”

I’ve heard that authors get similar things all the time. Someone will approach them and say, “I have this great idea for a book. Why don’t I tell you the idea, you write it, and we’ll split the profits?” To which the writer says, “So... you want me to do all the work, and you take half of the money? Thank you, but no.”

To top it off, when people tell the author their brilliant idea for a book, the idea is usually hackneyed and trite. “A man and a woman in a space ship crash land on a deserted alien planet. Their names are.... wait for it... Adam and Eve. Brilliant, huh?”

The cold reality is scientists will probably think your idea is not worthy of their time or talents. Scientists have ideas of their own that they want to test. They don’t lack for ideas.

This is not a knock against non-scientists having ideas. Scientists have much the same reaction to ideas from other scientists. Most of them are not going to influence the research questions that we already want to solve.

Ideas are cheap and plentiful. Testing them is hard.

That’s not to say that scientists don’t need to have ideas. Far from it. One of the reasons why first authorship of papers is so critical for early career scientists is that middle authorship is associated with being a data collector, not the intellectual driver of the project.

To be a scientist, you need ideas plus willingness to put in the grunt work.

External links

The efficient research hypothesis

01 December 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Funding a familiar face

Ah, Emerita analoga. It’s been a while. What have you been up to?

Emerita analoga is one of the sand crabs species I studied for my doctoral work. I found this picture in the usual roundabout way. I was reading an article on science crowdfunding (a topic with which I have substantial experience, though I say it myself) at UT Austin. I went to check out the UT Austin crowdfunding site, Hornraiser, and stumbled across the familiar face above. It’s a project I’m happy to support!

The project is on Emerita analoga’s distribution, which is pretty interesting (shown in green in the map below, from here):

They have these two disconnected places they live: the west coast of North America, from Alaska down to California. They stop through Central America, and pick up again along the coast of Peru and Chile. Are those two different populations connected at all? Are they really the same species, or are they two different species genetically?

I’m happy to support this project! And, of course, you can, too! Because sand crabs are super cute crusties and are awesome!

But where were you when I was doing this kind of crowdfunding stuff years ago, Texas Tribune? Huh?

External links

With Federal Funding Elusive, Professors Crowdfund ResearchAssessing Retention in Sand Crab Populations