Archive for the 'Careerism' category

Academic jobs were affected by the removal of mandatory retirement

Nov 02 2018 Published by under Careerism

I have occasionally noted that we have structural problems in academic science that are caused in large part by the behavior of one generation of scientists. This has created a suppression of the productivity and aspirations of GenX scientists whereby we will never live up to our scientific potential.

It is unclear whether these impacts will continue to trickle down on millennial scientists and beyond but a certain segment of the rapidly emeritizing population is trying to make up for what it has done to Gen X. And by "make up for" I mean they are skipping right over Gen X, the generation of scientists who they most affected, to cry crocodile tears and wring hands about the youngsters these days.

There's a new version of this posted by one Richard C. Larson in Science. It's interesting because it ties into an ongoing and very real phenomenon.

There have been numerous cases over the past ~8 years of a certain trend. It is the rumor or plain statement that Professor Smith is "planning to retire". Or perhaps merely thinking about retiring. Usually this is coupled to a low ebb of grant funding for Professor Smith compared to the salad days. Perhaps a long interval of failure to get grants funded is referenced or perhaps not but the overall picture is clear.
1) Professor Smith can retire. Whatever this person has going on in the personal life, retirement is financially possible as a choice.
2) Professor Smith is inevitably at or past traditional ages of retirement (i.e., mid 60s).
3) Professor Smith is very tired of the grant game and particularly the current necessity to submit many, many grants. (Whether or not he or she has been working as hard as the rest of us always have is immaterial, btw)

Then.....drum roll....

Anther grant hits. And Professor Smith takes it for another sweet 5 years of funding.

What is optional at this point in the distribution is whether said Professors Smith have any intention of really returning to full PI work. I imagine some do. Some, I assert, really just can't figure out how to retire. They like to be PI. They like to be employed and they LOOOOOVE to be able to still junket around the world to meetings. They expect to be living out their final days with some highly productive trainees pumping out papers with relatively little input from Professor Smith.

At this point, as always, someone is thinking I have a very specific Professor Smith in mind. I do not. That is how common this character has become. Every colleague I know, at far flung universities, seems to know this character.

Professor Larson asks "What are you waiting for?"

When I was hired as an assistant professor in 1969, mandatory retirement at age 65 was the law of the land for tenured faculty members. I was 26 years old at the time...by the time I was 50...federal law had removed all age limits. I could stay in my tenured position forever! That's how, in 2011, I found myself still an active professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge at age 68.

Typical set up.

how eliminating mandatory retirement had affected the availability of positions for new assistant professors. The question struck me as important but not personally relevant—until my colleagues and I got our results.

Our initial intuition was that there would be no substantial long-term effect. We expected to find that the number of open positions dipped just after the law's two changes. After all, the number of available tenure-track faculty slots is essentially fixed—at MIT, there are approximately 1000. To create room for a new faculty member, an existing one has to leave. But after a brief dip, we thought, retirements should return to normal, creating room for new recruits.

How convenient. Magical thinking to justify their selfish behavior. How can retirement return to "normal" if there is no more retirement and health care continues to extend life?

we discovered that eliminating the retirement age had reduced the number of new slots for MIT assistant professors by 19%, from 57 to 46 per year. Put simply, without a mandatory retirement age, senior faculty members are much slower to leave.

Who could have ever predicted that they would not leave at all, ever, until they literally died?

I had hired a postdoc ...he worried that, like many postdocs, he might not be able to get the tenure-track position he sought. There are simply too many applicants seeking too few positions. And I began to realize that I and other professors older than 65 were blocking the way of many young scholars who seek academic careers.

Really. You "began to realize" only because your dude was having trouble.

(In the meantime, [postdoc] secured that tenure-track position and is now an associate professor with tenure.)

Oh look. "no harm no foul" right? The really "superlative young scholar" postdocs were okay! ...this guy. smh.

Once “professor, post-tenure” was announced in 2016, I found it increasingly attractive. It wasn't the same as “emeritus”—not full retirement. I could retain my office, teach and supervise students, and be a principal investigator on research grants—all with great flexibility. I would get to choose which projects I wanted to do and be paid accordingly, up to 49% of my previous salary.

Need we mention that this half of previous salary is a whole assistant professor salary? Or perhaps a nice little chunk of bridge funding for the struggling associate professor? I mean...dude!

At 74, I in essence removed 9 years from someone else's career. I should have stepped aside sooner.

Holy crap. 74? and you are still on half time? which, btw, doesn't "remove 9 years". IT PREVENTS AN ENTIRE CAREER from ever happening.

What are you waiting for, Professor, Post-tenure Larson?

27 responses so far

It's coming from inside the room

Several recent experiences have brought me to ponder a question this week. And in one of the several formulations in my mind it reads: Is it more effective to drive change of large systems from a position inside of the room or from a position outside of the room?

In one way of defining this, I am wondering if change happens with large institutions (the US government/polity, Universities, NIH extramural granting activities, you know, the usual targets) most rapidly and assuredly if it is driven by the barbarians at the gate or by the insiders.

To a first approximation this also means something about the tone and the approach to change. We are more likely to get inside the room if we align ourselves with the powers that be. We are more likely to get inside the room with an approach and a tone and a personality that is compatible with (read: similar to) the already-empowered folks.

I exist in what I think of as a duality that does a half-assed job of being inside the room and a half-assed job of being outside of the room. To a certain view, I’m a NIH extramural funding insider. I was trained in at least one stop around people who were very successful grant getting folks. I started my faculty position around folks that were not only good at getting grants but were themselves more than usually powerful. Leaders of societies, editors of journals, people that went on National Advisory Council of NIH ICs. People who were able to just phone up an IC director at will and have that person take their call. I have been awarded NIH grants as a PI on more than one occasion. I have served an appointed stint on study section and still get invited to review with enough regularity for me to maintain continual-submission privileges most of the time. My institutional affiliation commands respect in some quarters although of course that is down to all the other folks who do and have worked for it, not to me.

Particularly when it comes to NIH granting matters, I am often inside the room. Or, at least one of the anterooms. This gives me the opportunity to influence things. I have a direct role in review of proposals and in voting for scores of proposals. I can contribute to the discussion of grants, potentially affecting not just the outcome of that grant but the way other reviewers approach review*. My comments reach the ears of Program Officers, giving them (my words) the opportunity to effect change**.

The reach of these opportunities is limited in scope. I only reach so many folks.

I also have the opportunity to rant from outside the room in several ways, most pointedly through this blog and the online academic community. As you know, I do so. But in addition, in real life, there are many scenarios in which I am not in the room. As you ascend the ranks of the NIH ICs to where the RealPower lies, I’m definitely an outsider. I have maybe one Director that would take my call but it is not the the most useful IC for me, under most circumstances. My work is not good enough to command attention all the way to the top. I am not empowered within academic societies or journals. My institution has never really liked me much.

Many of us exist in these diverse roles with respect to the insider/outsider status. It is on a spectrum and it is highly fluid. And, as we know from broader discussions of privilege, it is nigh on impossible for real humans in academia to see their own insider-ness for what it is. And, more specifically, for how it appears to everyone who is just outside that particular door of power.

What is more effective? I don’t know. Take the example of careers that are shaped in large part by the success of the individual under the NIH grant scheme. If I’m on study section I can fight hard for good applications that are submitted by African-American PIs. I can even choose to review as much as I possibly can, such that my fighting has the chance to reach as many applications from black PIs as possible. That’s nice and sober insider guy behavior. I can, if I choose, make occasional oblique or pointed comments that refer to the Ginther report finding on discrimination and bias. Maybe it will counter an implicit bias here or there. Maybe a reviewer or a PO will start trying to counter such biases themselves. Slightly more shouty, but still insider-dude stuff.

Or I could rant and rave and bring Gither up at the slightest excuse. I don’t tend to do this inside the room. I think that would be less*** effective…but I really don’t know.

From outside the room in my social media life, as you know Dear Reader, I cast a few more stones and shout louder. I keep Ginther refreshed, seven years later, in the minds of my fellow travelers. (I have other issues as well). I hope my ranting reaches new audiences, since we have new people finding the online science community daily. I yell at the NIH Director’s twitter account but that’s mostly street theatre for the crowd, I know ol’ Francis Collins isn’t really paying any attention.

By this point you are getting the feeling that I think that the best thing to do is to pursue both avenues. And you would be right. I do think that the best and most assured way to effect maximal change of ponderous systems is to both gain insider power and to continue to shout and rave from outside the gates.

The example I used is one person on an agenda but most typically this involves different people pursing the same agenda.

I call it the Martin and Malcolm scenario, if you will permit. This requires a certain cartoonized view of the Civil Rights era in this country but I think it suffices even if it polarizes the two men (and their movements) in a way that is historically less than accurate. We lionize Martin Luther King, Jr. as the personification of the pacifist approach that worked within the system in sober and solid ways. His movement essentially shamed the powers that be into doing better. Or argued the powers that be into doing better. And this was much more effective than the aggressive, even violent, approach of Malcolm X and his movement.

Or so goes the tale of the insider crowd. The more educated ones even try to point out how Malcolm X moderated his position and became more conciliatory later on.

My view is that the Martin approach only gained traction as a more palatable alternative to the scenario raised by the Malcolm X type approach.

And I think you can see this interplay reflected in countless historical struggles in which political solutions to imbalances of power were reached. Quite often history credits progress to the sober efforts of working the levers of the insiders. It may be work done by actual insiders or by people patiently and quietly trying to move the insiders. It may be people working slowly to become insiders. But my reading of history says that structures of power only relent and start to negotiate with the sober, insider crowd because they are in existential fear of the barbarians at the gate.

This analysis, however, doesn’t answer the question in any sort of fine-grained manner. On any given issue, at any given time, are we more in need of anger? Or are we in need of a greater emphasis on sober, staid, insider-club efforts? When has the ground been sufficiently prepared to suggest now is the time for sowing and nurturing seedlings?

To this very month I struggle with how shouty versus sober I should be in trying to improve the way institutions behave. To return to the above example, anytime I am on a study section I have to moderate my behavior. When do I speak up and what do I say? When do I have an opportunity to help advance what I think is the best thing to do and when are my goals best served by shutting up? And given that DM is such a poorly kept secret at this point, to what extent do my opinions expressed on social media compromise my efforts inside the room?

And, to bring it to a fine point, I see my colleagues and friends out there who are trying to effect change in science, academics and professional life grappling with these issues daily.

It is not always comfortable. I’ve been trying to describe my own duality here, this is the easy version. I think I’m a pretty good dude and I respect what I’m trying to do. So shouty-me isn’t too mad when insider-club me misses a trick, soft-pedals when I might kick more tail, acts diplomatically and accepts slow and incremental over the dramatic. Insider-club me understand whole heartedly why shouty-me is angry and totally supports it. Insider-me might tell shouty-me to tone it down a bit and wring the hands a bit over efficacy (see above) but in general is on board. Outsider-me understands the while insider-me has a certain standing inside the club, this is tenuous and hard won and does not convey the power that it may appear to convey to other outsiders.

This isn’t so easy when the insider and the outsider are not the same person.

Outsiders are quick to view the insider who is putatively on their side as a quisling if they do not slay all the dragons right now with extreme prejudice.

Insiders are quick to castigate the outsider as a counter-productive, self-aggrandizing egotist who is hurting the shared cause more than helping it.

We see this in Democratic party politics. Bernie supporters versus Hillary supporters expressed some of this dynamic. We see this in intersectional feminism.

We also see this, I think, in solving the Real Problems of the NIH. And of Open / Paywall publishing. And of career trajectories of trainees.

And we see this in the fight to reduce sexual harassment, sexual assault and sex-based discrimination that occurs in and around academic science careers.

I think we need both voices. We need people inside the clubs. We need people who are really, really angry shouting loudly from outside of the room (and sometimes inside of the room). I do not support confidence that either position, quisling apologist versus enraged pure soul, is obviously correct, right or most productive. I don't think that history supports such a conclusion on either side.

We need both.
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*Just this month a friend was recollecting something I had said at a study section meeting when we first met, something over 10 years ago.
**Which may not be in the direction I would desire, of course.
***I’m already enough of “that guy” who people roll their eyes at. I don’t need more of that baggage, I suspect.

12 responses so far

Please help MeTooSTEM launch as a nonprofit organization

This post is to ask you to consider donating to a fundraiser to launch MeTooSTEM as a charitable organization.

I know I do not have to belabor the obvious for my audience but we have a problem with sexual harassment, sexual assault, sex based-discrimination, and occupational retaliation against people attempting to ameliorate the effects of these events.

The National Academies of Science convened some investigations and issued a report, if you need a starter source.

The #MeToo hashtag was joined by a related tag specific to the issues of harassment and assault in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, #MeTooSTEM.

As this has unfolded, Professor Beth Ann McLaughlin has been doing heroic work to foreground victims, bring their stories to light for those who are unaware and to hold institutional feet to the fire to do better. This has resulted in gains that range from the basic decency for victims who finally have been heard, to clueless people in academia finally seeking the problem, to major policy changes of institutions. Famously, the RateMyProfessor organization was called to task and decided to discontinue its rating for "hot" professors.

We still have much work to do.

Academic societies are only haltingly developing new policies that permit them to remove members who have been determined by their own institutions to have engaged in sexual harassment, assault, discrimination or retaliation. You would think this would be a no brainer but thanks to the efforts of Dr. McLaughlin we are painfully aware of how many societies claim to have no mechanism for removal of their members, elected fellows and other hoi polloi.

We still have famous journals of science that will publish Letter to the Editor type defenses of a colleague proven to have engaged in sustained misconduct. We have editors of famous journals of science that I respect tremendously that still cannot see how damaging it is to let those sorts of letters persist on the internet.

This is why I am asking you to consider a donation to the fledgling MeTooSTEM organization. No donation is too small, if you can manage $5 or $10 it is welcome. If you can only manage communicating this fundraiser to your friends, family, or social media followers, it is welcome.

From the fundraiser text:

MeTooSTEM Needs Your Help To Take Our Organization NonProfit and Provide Resources to Graduate Students, Post Docs and Women Who Have Been Hurt by Sexual Harassment.

MeTooSTEM Started as a grassroots movement by students and professors frustrated by the inaction of national organizations and government funding agencies to protect women. Men guilty of sexually assaulting trainees, ending women's careers and retaliating viciously were still on campus, getting national awards, serving on study sections and going to conferences where they intimidate and retaliate against survivors.

4 responses so far

The R01 Doesn't Even Pay for Revisions

Sep 11 2018 Published by under Academics, Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

Hard charging early career Glam neuroscientist Kay Tye had an interesting claim on the twitters recently.

The message she was replying to indicated that a recent request for manuscript revisions was going to amount to $1,000, making Kay's costs anywhere from $100,000 to $10,000,000. Big range. Luckily she got more specific.

One Million Dollars.

For manuscript revisions.

Let us recap.

The bog standard NIH "major award" is the R01, offered most generically in the 5-year, $250,000 direct cost per year version. $1,250,000 for a five year major (whoa, congrats dude, you got an R01! You have it made!) award.

Dr. Tye has just informed us that it is routine for reviewers to ask for manuscript (one. single. manuscript.) revisions that amount to $1,000,000 in cost.

Ex-NIGMS Director Jeremy Berg cheer-led (and possibly initiated) a series of NIH analyses and data dumps showing that something on the order of 7 (+/- 2) published papers were expected from each R01 award's full interval of funding. This launched a thousand ships of opinionating on "efficiency" of NIH grant award and how it proves that one grant for everyone is the best use of NIH money. It isn't.

I have frequently hit the productivity zone identified in NIGMS data...and had my competing revisions criticized severely for lack of productivity. I have tripled this on at least one interval of R01 funding and received essentially no extra kudos for good productivity. I would be highly curious to hear from anyone who has had a 5 year interval of R01 support described as even reasonably productive with one paper published.

Because even if Dr. Tye is describing a situation in which you barely invest in the original submission (doubtful), it has to be at least $250,000, right? That plus $1,000,000 in revisions and you end up with at best 1 paper per interval of R01 funding. And it takes you five years to do it.

The Office of Extramural Research showed that the vast majority of NIH-funded PIs hold 1 (>70%) or at most 2 (cumulative >90%) major awards at a time.

NIGMS (and some of my fellow NIH-watchers) have been exceptionally dishonest about interpreting the the efficiency data they produce and slippery as otters about resulting policy on per-PI dollar limitations. Nevertheless, one interpretation of their data is that $750,000 in direct costs per year is maximally efficient. Merely mentioning that an honest interpretation of their data ends up here (and reminding that the NIGMS policy for greybeard insiders was in fact to be about $750,000 per year) usually results in the the sound of sharpening stone on steel farm implements and the smell of burning pitch.

Even that level of grant largesse ("largesse") does not pay for the single manuscript revisions that Professor Tye describes within a single year.

I have zero reason to doubt Professor Tye's characterization, I will note. I am familiar with how Glam labs operate. I am familiar with the circle jerk of escalating high-cost "necessary" experimental demands they gratify each other with in manuscript review. I am familiar with the way extremely well funded labs use this bullshit as a gatekeeping function to eliminate the intellectual competition. I am perhaps overly familiar with Glam science labs in which postdocs blowing $40,000 on single fucked up experiments (because they don't bother to think things through, are sloppy or are plain wasteful) is entirely routine.

The R01 does not pay for itself. It does not pay for the expected productivity necessary to look merely minimally productive, particularly when "high impact publications" are the standard.

But even that isn't the point.

We have this exact same problem, albeit at less cost, all down the biomedical NIH-funded research ranks.

I have noted more than once on this blog that I experience a complete disconnect between what is demanded in peer review of manuscripts at a very pedestrian level of journal, the costs involved and the way R01s that pay for those experiments are perceived come time for competitive renewal. Actually, we can generalize this to any new grant as well, because very often grant reviewers are looking at the productivity on entirely unrelated awards to determine the PI's fitness for the next proposal. There is a growing disconnect, I claim, between what is proposed in the average R01 these days and what it can actually pay to accomplish.

And this situation is being created by the exact same super-group of peers. The people who review my grants also review my papers. And each others'. And I review their grants and their manuscripts.

And we are being ridiculous.

We need to restore normalcy and decency in the conduct of this profession. We need to hold the NIH accountable for its fantasy policy that has reduced the spending capability of the normal average grant award to half of what it was a mere twenty years ago. And for policies that seek to limit productive labs so that we can have more and more funded labs who are crippled in what they can accomplish.

We need to hold each other accountable for fantasy thinking about how much science costs. R01 review should return to the days when "overambitious" meant something and was used to keep proposed scope of work minimally related to the necessary costs and the available funds. And we need to stop demanding an amount of work in each and every manuscript that is incompatible with the way the resulting productivity will be viewed in subsequent grant review.

We cannot do anything about the Glam folks, they are lost to all decency. But we can save the core of the NIH-funded biomedical research enterprise.

If you will only join me in a retreat from the abyss.

32 responses so far

Ask DrugMonkey: How do I make those bastards pay for not citing my paper?

Sep 07 2018 Published by under Academics, Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism

This is a highly stylized version of a communication I get in the blog email box now and again:

Dear DrugMonkey,
I love your blog, first time writer, long term reader, etc, etc.

Some bastards have published a paper claiming utterly novel findings and have TOTALLY IGNORED our published paper! How can we make these assholes pay seriously for their crimes?

thanks,
Academic Scientist

...like I said, highly stylized. But it gets at the gist.

I get it.

As we all know, citations of our published papers are hella important for our careers, in the medium to longer term. And citations of our papers can have feed-forward consequences to engender even more citations. When you read a paper you tend to look at the papers it cites. If they are relevant to your work you tend to cite them in a subsequent paper. Maybe often. Maybe they become your go-to methodological or "foundational paper" citation. Do you always do an exhaustive search to make sure that you are citing the first observation*?

So when someone fails to cite you when they should** it costs you something. And particularly for people relatively early in their publishing careers, the cost seems very high. That's because you have few papers and the insult affects a high percentage. The career implications before getting a permanent job, tenure or that first grant may seem to be extremely pointed.

I understand the anger.

I understand the desire to get your deserved credit.

I understand the desire to make those bastards pay for their crimes against you. Sort of.

But you need to sit back and think about what steps you can take, what is the likely upside and what is the likely downside for you.

The bottom line is that you cannot force people to cite you in academic work. You can't force*** them to decide your work is most relevant or deserving of recognition in their own papers. You can't.

The high water mark of direct action is going to be getting a Letter to Editor type of thing published. In which you say "waaah, they should have cited us" or "they claimed priority but we published some thing vaguely similar before". Maybe, I guess, you might get an erratum or correction from the authors or the editors. If the field at large notices (and they mostly won't) they just roll their eyes at the authors. Maybe, just maybe, it results in one or two extra citations of your prior work. Maybe.

Again, I feel you. My work has gone uncited numerous times when it should** have been. This has a material effect on my h-index. My h-index has, at times, come into play in a very direct way in the furtherance of my career and indeed my salary, benefits, retirement, etc. Citations are potentially that important.

I. Get. It.

I also understand that we all can spin this same sort of yarn. And in a lot of cases, someone else in our field can "prove" that we screwed them by not citing their papers when we should** have. It's a normal and relatively impersonal situation in many cases. In the case of intentional bad actors, or people who feel compelled by career pressures to act badly, there is not much we can do about it.

Personally I try to take the medium road and the high road.

The medium road is the sort of semi-defensible record correcting you can take in your own papers. "As we first showed in...". "Doe et al confirmed/replicated our prior finding...". You can also do this any time you are presenting your work orally, from the platform or at poster sessions. In the latter, you just need to be careful about how much of this you do and how hard of a downbeat you put behind it. Don't look like a whiny baby, is my advice.

The high road is to make sure to minimize citation offense in your own publications. Like it or not, we have a priority convention. So cite the first paper, eh? What could this possibly cost you? This leaves you plenty of room to cite 1) your own vaguely related work and 2) whatever are the best citations for the point, regardless of priority, JIF or other convention. The high road also suggests you should cite those folks who you feel have not cited you the way that you deserve. Try to take pleasure in your high-minded scholarly approach. It can be enough.

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*the citation of pre-prints is going to be an extra fun issue with respect to proper priority citation

**"should". Even the convention to cite the first paper to observe something relevant to your reason for citing is just an arbitrary convention.

***nope, not even in peer review. You can keep saying "reject" but that paper is eventually going to get in somewhere without citing you if the authors really don't want to do so.

17 responses so far

On the obsessive hobbies of scientists

This is an extension to some thoughts I posted on Twitter awhile ago.

There is a certain species of “amazing scientist who is revolutionizing everything” biographical puff piece that strikes an interesting chord about academics. These are details that come up in seminar introductions, blog posts, media profiles, institutional profiles, award nominations and obituaries.

I am referring specifically to the part where they talk about hobbies, interests and activities that are not directly related to work*.

I surmise the hobby is discussed in these types of pieces to humanize the nerd or to amaze you that their non-science time is just as obsessive and elite as their science**. Possibly both of these apply simultaneously. Typical realms of discussion are obsessive sports participation (very commonly running long distance events or triathlon competition), foodie obsession (he cooks lavish meals for his lab), wine snobbery or the arts. With respect to the arts, you most commonly hear about how the scientist being lionized plays a musical instrument in a band. Presumably this ties into our societal obsession with rock n rollers and their supposed rebel natures. We know Francis Collins plays the guitar in a band. We know Nora Volkow likes to run. I can’t remember hearing about any community minded hobbies of any of the other IC directors.

You don’t hear about how the awesome scientist pulls his (it’s usually a him) weight at home in these types of settings. Obsessive plumbing leak fixer! Soccer dad! Makes meals for his family on the regular!

You don’t hear about community stuff either. Many scientists participate in local groups for improving the schools or city governance or their faith community. Many spend their time volunteering in the classroom.

And it isn’t just the puff pieces that draw this distinction between the externally-focused activities and the obsessively internally-focused ones. Academic science actually punishes people for anything they do that isn’t self-oriented.

If one is highly accomplished in science it is okay to have hobbies as long as they are obsessively self-involved ones like running marathons. It is obvious that any sort of external activity or hobby is only okay if the science work is considered to be of the highest rank. If one is considering a middle of the road scientist then clearly they should be spending more time at work and less time training for a marathon!

Look, I get that we like to know more about people's life outside of their work. Pursuit of the personal detail fuels industries valued in the billions of dollars when it comes to famous movie stars, musicians, politicians and professional athletes. There is no reason that people in science wouldn't also have an interest in the non-work activities of the more famous members of our professions.

But still. The relative selectivity in what we choose to lionize versus criticize about our science peers seems meaningful to me. It has an effect on all of us, including (most importantly) our trainees. Personally, I do not want people in science thinking (no matter how implicitly) that obsessive, self-involved hobbies are associated with the most revered scientists and that community type, external benefit activities are the hallmark of the scientific nobody.

Perhaps we could think twice about those seminar speaker intros we give and the nature of the puff pieces we write or contribute background to.

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*Calm yourselves debate champeens. This set of observations is about which hobbies we choose to laud in a professional context and which ones we do not. It doesn’t mean you are horrible for running every day. Exercise is healthy and good for you. We should all do more of it.

**And I should also note that this doesn't have to devolve into “I only have time for work” snark, no matter the reality. I'm not criticizing hobbies and activities at all. I think that is great if you have things that make you happy. Again, this is about the type of such non-science hobbies that we find reason to congratulate or merely to note in a professionally-oriented biographical piece.

8 responses so far

Anti-Nepotism Rules

Aug 21 2018 Published by under Academics, Careerism

The University of Texas, Austin rule states, in part:

No University employee may approve, recommend, or otherwise take action with regard to the appointment, reappointment, promotion, salary or supervision of a close relative as defined by this policy.

which is not, I think, uncommon.

So: No hiring your spouse or supervising your spouse.

There is also some weasel language that could potentially undercut the policy in practice. If you become married or a spouse transfers under your putative supervision, there has to be notification but it is allowed. The the management and oversight of this nepotistic employee goes to the PI’s boss.

This is likely how a thin veneer of red tape covers the case of a spouse working in the lab of an appointed Professorial rank person.

So nepotism is officially bad, but University policy has enough wiggle room to permit a de facto case of hiring and supervision of one's spouse.

In a lab the idea of getting meaningful supervisory oversight from the PI’s supervisor is a joke. It in no way can mitigate preferential treatment and in fact justifies it. The PI can set work hours, discipline for poor performance and even fire everyone *except* the spouse.

14 responses so far

Of course the NIH can strong-arm Universities if they really want to

I think the NIH should more frequently use the power of the purse to change the behavior of Universities. I expressed this recently in the context of a Congressional demand for information from the NIH Director on the NIH oversight of the civil rights obligations of their awardee institutions. I have probably expressed this in other contexts as well. Before the invention of the K99/R00 one saw handwringing from the NIH about how Universities wouldn't hire less experienced PhDs and this was the RealProblem accounting for the time-to-first-R01 stat. My observation at the time was that if the NIH was serious they could just ask Universities for their hiring stats and tell ones that didn't hire enough young faculty that they were going to go to the back of the line for any special consideration awards.

This could also apply to occasionally bruited NIH concerns about women, underrepresented groups and other classes of folks not typically treated well by Universities. Exhibit lower than average hiring or promoting of women or URM professors? You go to the back of the special consideration line, sorry.

My suggestions are typically met with "we can't" when I am talking to various NIH Program types and various grades of "they can't" when talking to extramural folks about it.

Of course the NIH can.

They already do.

One very specific case of this is the K99/R00 award when it comes time for administrative review of the R00 phase hiring package. If the NIH finds the proposed hiring package to be deficient they can refuse to award the R00. I have no idea how many times this has been invoked. I have no idea how many times an initial offer of a University has been revised upwards because NIH program balked at the initial offer. But I am confident it has happened at least once. And it is certainly described extensively as a privilege the NIH reserves to itself.

A more general case is the negotiation of award under unusual circumstances. The NIH allows exemptions from the apparent rules all the time. (I say "apparent" because of course NIH operates within the rules at all times. There are just many rules and interpretations of them, I suspect.) They can, and do, refuse to make awards when an original PI is unavailable and the Uni wants to substitute someone else. They cut budgets and funded years. They can insist that other personnel are added to the project before they will fund it. They will pick up some but not other awards with end of year funds based on the overhead rate.

These things have a manipulating effect on awardee institutions. It can force them to make very specific and in some cases costly (startup packages, equipment, space) changes from what they would otherwise have done.

This is NIH using the power of the purse to force awardee institutions to do things. They have this power.

So the only question is whether they choose to use it, for any particular goal that they claim to be in favor of achieving.

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Journal Citation Metrics: Bringing the Distributions

Jul 03 2018 Published by under Careerism, Impact Factor, Scientific Publication

The latest Journal Citation Reports has been released, updating us on the latest JIF for our favorite journals. New for this year is....

.....drumroll.......

provision of the distribution of citations per cited item. At least for the 2017 year.

The data ... represent citation activity in 2017 to items published in the journal in the prior two years.

This is awesome! Let's drive right in (click to enlarge the graphs). The JIF, btw is 5.970.

Oh, now this IS a pretty distribution, is it not? No nasty review articles to muck it up and the "other" category (editorials?) is minimal. One glaring omission is that there doesn't appear to be a bar for 0 citations, surely some articles are not cited. This makes interpretation of the article citation median (in this case 5) a bit tricky. (For one of the distributions that follows, I came up with the missing 0 citation articles constituting anywhere from 17 to 81 items. A big range.)

Still, the skew in the distribution is clear and familiar to anyone who has been around the JIF critic voices for any length of time. Rare highly-cited articles skew just about every JIF upward from what your mind things, i.e., that that is the median for the journal. Still, no biggie, right? 5 versus 5.970 is not all that meaningful. If your article in this journal from the past two years got 4-6 citations in 2017 you are doing great, right there in the middle.

Let's check another Journal....

Ugly. Look at all those "Other" items. And the skew from the highly-cited items, including some reviews, is worse. JIF is 11.982 and the article citation median is 7. So among other things, many authors are going to feel like they impostered their way into this journal since a large part of the distribution is going to fall under the JIF. Don't feel bad! Even if you got only 9-11 citations, you are above the median and with 6-8 you are right there in the hunt.

Final entry of the day:

Not too horrible looking although clearly the review articles contribute a big skew, possibly even more than the second journal where the reviews are seemingly more evenly distributed in terms of citations. Now, I will admit I am a little surprised that reviews don't do even better compared with primary review articles. It seems like they would get cited more than this (for both of these journals) to me. The article citation mean is 4 and the JIF is 6.544, making for a slightly greater range than the first one, if you are trying to bench race your citations against the "typical" for the journal.

The first takeaway message from these new distributions, viewed along with the JIF, is that you can get a much better idea of how your articles are fairing (in your favorite journals, these are just three) compared to the expected value for that journal. Sure, sure we all knew at some level that the distribution contributing to JIF was skewed and that median would be a better number to reflect the colloquial sense of typical, average performance for a journal.

The other takeaway is a bit more negative and self-indulgent. I do it so I'll give you cover for the same.

The fun game is to take a look at the articles that you've had rejected at a given journal (particularly when rejection was on impact grounds) but subsequently published elsewhere. You can take your citations in the "JCR" (aka second) year of the two years after it was published and match that up with the citation distribution of the journal that originally rejected your work. In the past, if you met the JIF number, you could be satisfied they blew it and that your article indeed had impact worthy of their journal. Now you can take it a step farther because you can get a better idea of when your article beat the median. Even if your actual citations are below the JIF of the journal that rejected you, your article may have been one that would have boosted their JIF by beating the median.

Still with me, fellow axe-grinders?

Every editorial staff I've ever seen talk about journal business in earnest is concerned about raising the JIF. I don't care how humble or soaring the baseline, they all want to improve. And they all want to beat some nearby competitors. Which means that if they have any sense at all, they are concerned about decreasing the uncited dogs and increasing the articles that will be cited in the JCR year above their JIF. Hopefully these staffs also understand that they should be beating their median citation year over year to improve. I'm not holding my breath on that one. But this new publication of distributions (and the associated chit chat around the campfire) may help with that.

Final snark.

I once heard someone concerned with JIF of a journal insist that they were not "systematically overlooking good papers" meaning, in context, those that would boost their JIF. The rationale for this was that the manuscripts they had rejected were subsequently published in journals with lower JIFs. This is a fundamental misunderstanding. Of course most articles rejected at one JIF level eventually get published down-market. Of course they do. This has nothing to do with the citations they eventually accumulate. And if anything, the slight downgrade in journal cachet might mean that the actual citations slightly under-represent what would have occurred at the higher JIF journal, had the manuscript been accepted there. If Editorial Boards are worried that they might be letting bigger fish get away, they need to look at the actual citations of their rejects, once published elsewhere. And, back to the story of the day, those actual citations need to be compared with the median for article citations rather than the JIF.

4 responses so far

Faculty Retention: The Rule of 10

Jun 21 2018 Published by under Academics, Careerism

There's a thread on faculty retention (or lack thereof, really) on the twitts today:

I know this is a little weird for the segments of my audience that are facing long odds even to land a faculty job and for those junior faculty who are worried about tenure. Why would a relatively secure Professor look for a job in a different University? Well.....reasons.

As is typical, the thread touched on the question of why Universities won't work harder in advance to keep their faculty so delightfully happy that they would never dream of leaving.

Eventually I mentioned my theory of how Administration views retention of their faculty.

I think Administration (and this is not just academics, I think this applies pretty broadly) operates from the suspicion that workers always complain and most will never do anything about it. I think they suppose that for every 10 disgruntled employees, only 5 will even bother to apply elsewhere. Of these maybe three will get serious offers. Ultimately only one will leave*.

So why invest in 10 to keep 1?

This, anyway, is what I see as motivating much of the upper management thinking on what appear to be inexplicably wasteful faculty departures.

Reality is much more nuanced.

I think one of the biggest mistakes being made is that by the time a last-ditch, generally half-arsed retention ploy is attempted it can be psychologically too late. The departing faculty member is simply too annoyed at the current Uni and too dazzled by the wooing from the new Uni to let any retention offer sway their feelings. The second biggest mistake is that if there is an impression created that "everybody is leaving" and "nobody is being offered reasonable retention" this can spur further attempts to exit the building before the roof caves in.

Yes, I realize some extremely wealthy private Universities all covered in Ivy have the $$ to keep all their people happy all of the time. This is not in any way an interesting case. Most Universities have to be efficient. Spending money on faculty that are going to stay anyway may be a waste, better used elsewhere. Losing too many faculty that you've spent startup costs on is also inefficient.

So how would you strike the right balance if you were Dean at a R1 University solidly in the middle of the pack with respect to resources?
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*Including by method of bribing one or more of the "serious offers" crowd to stay via the mysteries of the RetentionPackageTM

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