Thursday, November 28, 2013

On Diversity: a couple of suggestions for increasing ethnic and gender diversity in your department

Over the last few years I’ve been chair of the Diversity Committee at the college level and I think we’ve come up with some innovative and cheap ideas to increase ethnic and gender diversity. We are mainly targeting increasing gender and ethnic diversity at the faculty level and I’d like to share two of the simplest of these changes that I think have the potential to work anywhere. These are (1) the appointment of a Diversity Advocate on every faculty search and student recruitment committee and (2) the creation of a hybrid postdoc/assistant professor position to bridge targeted hires to becoming stronger candidates for tenure track positions.

1. The Diversity Advocate position is simply appointing someone already on any faculty search or student recruitment committee as the person who will bring attention to diversity issues related to the search. This person should try their best to contact groups, clubs or individuals representing traditionally under-represented groups in the field related to the search. So for instance a member of the search committee for a position in Ecology could contact the Women and Minorities in Ecology (WAMIE) Committee to ask them to spread the word among their members about this search and to encourage their members to apply for this position. Too often the pool of applicants for a given search have few applicants that are women or members of underrepresented minorities. The reasons for the paucity of underrepresented candidates varies (follow @DNLee5 and @AtheneDonald for some answers). Having a Diversity Advocate ensures that someone is trying to make an honest effort to increase diversity among the pool of applicants. Likewise the Diversity Advocate could call attention to someone who didn’t make the shortlist but is the strongest candidate not to make it among those from traditionally underrepresented groups. It might be someone that the department decides to add to the shortlist because it is otherwise not very diverse. I’ve seriously seen several cases where this additionally invited candidate blows everyone away and has gotten the job. The beauty of the Diversity Advocate position is that you don’t need to add a new person onto a committee, you are just appointing someone already on it to help advocate for diversity. In our College we have a form that we ask each Diversity Advocate to fill out and send to our Dean once the search is done. This tells us what was done to increase diversity among the pool of applicants (

                        Examples of what the Diversity Advocate can do:
(1) On A Search Committee - encourage or seek out minority/female applicants from other institutions to apply for a particular job opening for an upcoming search
(2) On A Graduate Admissions Committee – ensure that applications from underrepresented groups are properly treated and perhaps act to connect potential faculty members with these applicants
(3) On A Search Committee - encourage the department to bring in a 3rd or 4th short-list candidate among the pool of job applicants if none of the top choices are female or part of an underrepresented minority

2. We also recommend the creation of a hybrid postdoc/assistant-professor position to target diversity hires for folks who are not quite ready to join the tenure track. This position is not a postdoctoral fellowship nor a tenure-track position but something in-between that is meant to be a bridge to a tenure-track faculty position. The position can be used to target postdoctoral students of underrepresented groups that don’t quite have a strong enough CV to compete for a faculty position. The intent is to create this position to allow the candidate to apply for grants and write papers in order to become more competitive in a faculty search in the future (hopefully at our institution but not necessarily).
(1) On paper to be titled a “Research Assistant Professorship” but is not initially a tenure-track position.
(2) The candidate can apply as a PI for external grant funding and is expected to apply
(3) The candidate will work in a fostering PI’s lab (mentor’s lab) as a post-doc would, but with greater independence. Some funds will be provided for equipment that would stay with the mentor’s lab and for disposables. Some funding may also be made available for the mentoring PI’s as incentive to take the fellow under their mentorship.
(4) Expected to write and publish scientific papers in order to become competitive for an R1 position.
(5) Will have a mentoring committee (composed of at least three senior faculty) just like assistant professors receive. This committee will provide feedback to the researcher on their progress and will prepare a report for the Chair of the department.
(6) Expected to build CV to eventually apply to, and join, the tenure track.

   This hybrid position is meant to help seal the leaky postdoc pipeline where many underrepresented candidates drop out of science because of the lack of opportunities. Unlike the Diversity Advocate position this position actually costs money. However, it is a worthy investment if the result is someone who becomes a strong candidate for a faculty position that would have otherwise become another statistic.

I’ve been on three diversity committees: once as a graduate student, once in my department, and now as chair at the college level. Just having one of these committees in your department should be a must if the faculty are serious about dealing with issues of diversity. I’ve seen real progress being made by the suggestions of these committees.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Where to publish?

So you’ve begun writing a research paper and you are starting to think about where to send it. Sometimes picking the journal is easy: the subject matter is so specific that there are only a few places that will take it. Other times picking the journal to send your article feels like you are trying to find the right foster parents for your baby. (Okay, maybe not that hard.) Do you go for open access? Highest impact factor? Speed? Prestige? All these factors matter and yes your academic career can be defined by where, and where you don’t, publish.
            What’s that you say, the journal doesn’t matter, only the content. Good luck with that. When you apply for an academic job the first thing (perhaps the only thing) that will be scrutinized is your list of pubs in your CV, not necessarily the pubs themselves. The person looking over your CV will look at your list of pubs and thinking thoughts like, “Hmmm…lots of first authored things, all of them are in low tier journals though….the best papers [the ones in high impact journals] were written by someone else.” Wouldn’t you think it was odd reading someone’s CV and seeing they have 15 publications all published in one journal? Unless that lone journal is Science, diversity is a good thing to have among the journals you’ve published in. I try not to submit different papers to the same journal even in the same year. Doing so may give the appearance that you have a friend on the inside that can fast track it or help out with negative reviews. Unlikely the case, but people think strange things when trying to read between the lines of someone’s resume.
            I love open access (OA) journals like the PLoS group. Unfortunately even though this is one of the best run outlets for science, some people, especially the old guard, have stigmatized open access. Some think open access journals are “pay-to-play” even though you can get part or all of the publishing fees waived at PLoS very easily. (You should pay if you can to help out, remember PLoS isn’t your traditional publishing powerhouse Other open access journals are far cheaper (e.g., PeerJ). Open access also takes a big hit from a stereotype caused by predatory OA journals that don’t actually put much effort into reviews but that do want your money ( but also see rebuttal here No matter these concerns, open access is the future. Still most journals don’t have this option and in order to diversify you might need to look elsewhere.
            The traditional line is to publish your paper in the best journal you can get it into. If you really have something good and want to go high impact you still have some decisions to make. You can go for the actual highest impact factor or the most prestigious. This is kind of like picking a college. If you are a zoology major you might pick a small public university because it actual has a zoology program over going to Harvard (which doesn’t), even though Harvard carries more prestige. Likewise, Molecular Ecology is a great journal with an impact factor of 6.25 but it doesn’t have nearly the prestige of Evolution (4.86) or American Naturalist (4.55). I picked Molecular Ecology for a paper that I could have easily sent to those other two journals because I wanted the paper to come out quickly and those other two journals are notoriously slow (would likely take more than a year). I almost always have picked speed over prestige in my career, mostly because I like to get things off my plate and I’m aiming to average about five pubs a year. I don’t think I sacrificed quality for quantity in doing so. Still, I do sometimes regret those decisions. Part of it is pride, when I’m introduced for a seminar it would be nice to hear, “he has published in Science, Nature, and Systematic Biology,” but I haven’t. My Molecular Ecology paper was published in 2011 and is one of my favorites. I was very happy with how it was handled at that journal and how it looks. The topic is bioluminescence and sexual selection and included phylogenetic analyses, and analyses of disparity and diversification (; it was the culmination of my postdoctoral project and it has been cited exactly zero times. I can’t help but wonder if more people would have seen it if I sent it to one of the slower but more well known journals. This is a little counter intuitive since Molecular Ecology’s higher impact factor is due to its papers getting cited more on average than these other journals.
            I recently went up for tenure and had a positive vote, I was told that one place to improve was having some papers in more prestigious journals. I agree, especially as I transition into this more stable academic period. These journals may be slow but they are traditionally the most selective with what they publish and so there is some honor associated with publishing there. However, I would recommend to students and pre-tenure folks that in general, it is definitely okay to go for speed, especially if (1) you might get scooped; (2) you need to maintain a relatively high and steady rate of publishing (> 3-5 pubs a yr). Keep in mind that one first authored paper in a very prestigious journal might be worth several in very low ranking journals. The sacrifice of prestige over speed often isn’t always that much. If you can maintain a steady rate of publishing and still have a few projects to send to big journals by all means go for prestige even if that means a few more months of waiting and perhaps an extra reviewer. I think in the near future the “best” journals will be fast, free, open access, prestigious and highest impact. Unfortunately, today those qualities are rarely found in one place so you have to pick what you want for each paper and calculate what you are willing to sacrifice to get it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Going up for Tenure

So I’m like going up for tenure and stuff.
I just submitted my tenure package this morning and thought I’d share some thoughts and experiences. It all feels so odd, like I’m getting tested for a deadly disease. I obviously knew this was coming, I don’t really feel nervous, maybe anxious, it’s all a little strange. Not unlike gearing up to defend your Ph.D. thesis actually. I’ve never really liked the idea of people scrutinizing my scientific output - but that’s the process. In fact you can’t advance to any stage in academia without that happening. I have noticed that I’ve been a lot more forgiving when judging other people’s CVs in the last year. Perhaps I’m hoping people don’t look so harshly at mine. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I feel confident. I’ve done what I needed to do to earn tenure – but, you never know. People a lot smarter than me have failed the tenure process and the academic landscape is littered with the bones of more failed academics than successful ones. (Not that you can only be a successful academic if you get tenure.)
My actual hardcopy tenure package.
            So what’s the big deal about tenure. Well for one, if I don’t get it, I don’t get to keep my job, i.e., I’m fired. If I do get it, I get to keep my job, potentially for as long as I want. The academic freedom of tenure is something worth coveting. I’ll give you an example of its power. If a paper company caused a forest fire I could write a scientific paper about that event that proved the company was at fault without having to worry about being fired by the university. Why would the university fire me? Well let’s say that paper company had promised to give ten-million dollars to help fund a new geology building at the university, they could pull that money if I published that paper. The university would want that money more than it wanted me, so I could be offed; unless that is, I had tenure. Tenure is academic freedom, it is permanent job security. Unlike any old employee at a business, a tenured professor can’t be fired just because they disagree with the administration or because they are publishing papers the Vice Chancellor disagrees with. Tenure is why you should listen to academics when they are being interviewed on the news. They speak from the evidence (so you hope) without being swayed by forces that might cost them their job (so you hope).
            So back to me for a bit. My hope is this little post will help anyone else on the tenure-track, to demystify the process. Applying for tenure is very much like reapplying for your job. You hand in an application (with research and teaching statements, a CV), you give a departmental seminar and then you wait for people to give you a thumbs-up or down. (Every institution is obviously a little different, but tenure is generally the same at most Research 1’s. Harvard and Yale are special.) There are also big differences between applying for tenure and applying for a job, namely that you are already employed by the institution. Also you have five (seven in some places) years of being an Assistant Professor under your belt to prove your track record.
I’ve had a lot of support pre-tenure, I was assigned a mentoring committee made up of three colleagues in my department. These folks are there to give it to me straight. Once a year they tell me how I’m doing and if I’m on course for getting tenure. They submit a recommendation to the head of the department, and along with an annual report that I submit, an evaluation on my progress is made which I get to inspect and ponder. This is all set up to let me know if I am keeping up to speed with expectations. There was also a third-year review that basically is a intra-departmental review where the tenured faculty vote on your progress, a sort of mini-(in house) tenure review.
So what did the university expect from me pre-tenure. I was told basically that at LSU, like other R1 institutions I was expected to publish at least two papers a year in quality journals, get a grant of a sum that should be around my start-up package size, and have good teaching evaluations for the courses I teach. I’ve met all of these targets, but I still need to be fully vetted by both those at my institution and by my peers at other places. So I submit a tenure package.

What’s in My Tenure Package:
(1) Regular CV
(2) “LSU” Promotion and Tenure CV
(3) Research Statement
(4) Teaching Statement
(5) Curation Statement
(6) Syallabi from most recent courses (Evolution, Ichthyology)
(7) All Pubs as pdfs (Before and After LSU)
(8) Annual Reports/Teaching Evaluations
(9) Support Letters from Full Professors outside of LSU (between 5-10)
(10) Support Letter for LSUs fish collection from local government agent who uses collection regularly
(11)  PDFs of a poster that we presented talking about the improvements to the collection
(12)  Selected Press (BBC Radio, NPR radio link; Science, CNN links to articles, etc.)
(13)  Support Letters (Editorial Service), Award Letters (LSU Rainmaker, McGill Alumni)
(14)  Example lab and lecture slides as PDFs from classes
(15)  Links to “A Guide to Academia,” including link to the review in Science
(16)  Certificate from an NSF sponsored teaching workshop.

The items in red (1-7) are things I was asked to supply. Items in blue (8 & 9) are things supplied on my behalf by the department, and the remaining items (10-16) are things I’m throwing in there that I think will enhance my case.
            There are two versions of my CV (items 1 & 2), the one with the layout I made myself and the LSU CV that has standard sections that I fill in. The LSU CV probably is the best one for upper administrators to look at and compare faculty from disparate backgrounds. Never-the-less most of the items in the different CVs are largely the same, just organized differently.
           The research, teaching, and curation statements (items 3-5) are all similar to what I would put into a job application. Most people don’t have to do a curation statement, but as a fish curator at the Museum of Natural Science it is part of my job (My appointment is 50% research, 25% curation and 25% teaching). The teaching syllabi (item 6) for the courses I taught provide an overview of the topics I teach, and I’ve supplemented this with an example lab handout and powerpoint slides from a lecture (item 14). The pubs (item 7) are perhaps the most important part of the package. I have a total of 35 peer-reviewed publications in journals, 20 since joining LSU. All of them are included in the package, numbered as they are in my CV, clearly showing which were published at LSU and which don’t have an LSU address. I also have to make clear which ones I am the corresponding author on. Along with the grant money generated, the quality and quantity of the publications can really make or break your tenure application.     
   The annual reports and evaluations I spoke of before are again supplied by the department, as are outside letters. To get a good non-biased look at a candidate the department asks about ten people not affiliated with the university to review a tenure package. These folks are established and well respected people in the candidates field. A few months ago I was asked to supply a list of five names of potential letter writers and short blurbs about each person’s credentials (e.g., H-index, # of pubs, area of expertise, awards). They had to be full professors (no associate and no pre-tenure folks), and they could not be my colleagues strictly at stand-alone museums. That last bit was a bummer for me, because as a curator I look up to people at the Smithsonian, Field Museum, American Museum of Natural History, etc. But they don’t have the same academic system as a university in terms of teaching and service so these institutions are not deemed peer academic institutions. The five full professors I named need to be at places like LSU or “better” (i.e., higher ranked, bigger reputation). The folks I picked also can’t have overlapped with me at any previous institution, even if they were in a different department. Obviously I couldn’t list anyone that would have a conflict of interest like my former advisors or co-authors. I can pick people I know, as long as they could still be trusted to be objective. The chair of my mentoring committee also had to come up with five to ten people to ask for evaluations, again all full professors that could independently evaluate my work. The chair of the department then picks between seven and ten of these people to formally ask. The department hopes to get at least five letters of evaluation to be included in my review. These letters are part of the reason it takes about a year to find out about your tenure decision.
            I also included some extra items (#10-16) that I thought would help complement the core items (#1-9) of my package. For instance, I didn’t know if everyone reading my tenure package would understand what I had to do as a curator. I inherited a collection in disrepair and made it into something better and so I included a PDF of a poster that explains the renovations and changes to the collections over the last five years (#10). I also added a letter from a local Fish and Wildlife agent that regularly uses our collection to verify and compare his identifications (#11).
            I wanted to strengthen the teaching section of the package as well by showing that I wrote a book about academia, so I included a link to the Amazon and Wiley pages that sell and discuss the book (#15). I also included links to the reviews of that book including one that was in Science. I also had some training through a teaching workshop so I included the certificate I got there because I figured it couldn’t hurt to include it (#16).
            I’ve been lucky to get my share of press and research awards so I tried to put some links to letters and example press. These I think show that I’m a good communicator of my research and that some people think highly enough of my research to give me an award or to call me to discuss a topic for a newspaper or radio story. I also threw in some of the acknowledgments I got from my editorial work. You don’t generally end up with much tangible to show for your efforts with service; which is unfortunate because service is an important part of your academic life.
            After I put in this package I will give a research talk to the department. Then in a few months someone will present a summary of my package in powerpoint form at a department faculty meeting (it will also be available in full for anyone to see) and then the tenured professors will vote in favor (or against) me becoming a tenured professor. The tally from this vote and my package will be sent up through different levels of university administration all the way up to the very top. Then, hopefully around this time next year, I will get a little letter in my mailbox that tells me I get to keep my job - or so I hope! Wish me luck.             

I highly recommend you also read: 

You can find examples of research, teaching, and curation statements in my book along with other items related to going up for tenure.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

On why graduate students need to ask questions during seminars.

One of my pet peeves as a professor is seeing that it is largely just us professors asking questions after a seminar. It isn’t that the graduate students don’t have questions: it’s just that they are not inclined to ask. Here I’d like to address why I think it is important that grad students speak up for the betterment of their own maturation as an academic and also for the good of science in general.

As a young student at the University of Michigan we were regaled with tales of the “good old days” when the systematics world was being turned on its head by the faculty (e.g., Arnold Kluge, Bill Fink) and especially the graduate students (e.g., Steve Farris). There was an atmosphere of scholarship and clear thinking because of the competitive environment among the young scholars there at the time. I’ve heard from people who gave talks at Michigan in those days about how scary it was to give a seminar there back then. If you had any insecurities the question period would really bring it out. As a graduate student I saw the reputation being upheld and I was proud to be part of it. Students and faculty asked difficult probing questions to get to the heart of an issue or problem. You might be picturing an angry audience full of people frothing at the mouth waiting to ask a “gotcha question” that makes the speaker look like a fool. To the contrary most questions were basically variations on “why did you do it like this, and not this other way?” or “what is the basic thing you are trying to discover?”
The result of a department’s reputation for asking tough questions is usually hearing lots of good talks. People who gave seminars were better prepared to answer questions and explain the fundamentals of their research. The American Museum of Natural History is another place where I also see the audience’s reputation for asking probing questions change the nature of the style of talks being presented. Seminar speakers are more nervous before their talk but those that come prepared generally do well. This environment may not be the best place to present preliminary work and that is certainly a drawback. Can audience members sometimes go too far and ask questions that are sometimes aimed more to embarrass the speaker, unfortunately that too can be the case. (That only serves to make the person asking the question look like a jerk.) However, in my opinion it is more respectful to ask a speaker a difficult but fair question than to ask no question at all. I think it is terribly embarrassing not to be asked a question during a seminar, both for the speaker and the audience. The speaker is thinking, “geez, I guess they didn’t get it or they didn’t care” and the audience might be thinking “damn it, why doesn’t somebody think of something to ask so we don’t look dumb.” It is the kind of palpable awkward silence you usually only get during a bad blind date. In my life as an academic I think I’ve learned more during the question periods of talks than I have during the talks themselves. That is because the questions and answers can bring out the fundamentals of what was being said over the entirety of the talk, and they sometimes reveal what was missing during the prepared speech. A question can give the speaker a chance to say, “what I meant was….”

So why does a graduate student need to ask questions during seminars? For one thing it is practice for public speaking. Even though you may be seated seemingly safely among your peers, everyone is listening to you. You may only say one sentence, but you are being judged on the quality of that sentence. (By the way the adage, “There are no stupid questions” may be true, but there are certainly 'stupidly worded questions.') A good question that reveals something new to the audience and speaker will highlight your intellect or at least knowledge of a subject, just as a badly worded question will leave people wondering what was the last grade of elementary school you completed. Because of the consequences of asking a good or bad question, it is only natural to get nervous before asking one. Everyone asks both good and bad questions in their life but the people who generally ask the best questions have asked the most. I know I’ve gotten a few collaborations out of projects that were born out of a question I asked or heard someone ask at a seminar.

Graduate students also need to ask questions because they need practice thinking on their feet. You don’t generally have much time to think about how you will be articulating your brief question. The quickest thinkers often ask the best questions, and thinking quickly comes with practice. People who ask good questions often give good seminars; they also typically give good answers to questions. These folks can anticipate the kinds of questions they may be asked. In a graduate school qualifying exam you will be asked many rapid-fire questions by faculty members with a lot more experience than you. If you can’t think on your feet, or anticipate what's coming, you will be in big trouble.

So what if you are just too shy to ask a question. That’s okay - lots of people are shy and many of those people are now not as shy because they forced themselves to be a little bit more outgoing. They did so perhaps by asking a short simple question during seminars until they got more comfortable with public speaking. I personally broke my shyness by taking notes during seminars. I write interesting things that I have heard and to try to formulate a good question to ask. I don’t always ask my question but I always try to write at least one. These notes and questions generally help me think about my own research more clearly. It certainly helps me articulate a good question and synthesize what I’ve learned or didn’t understand.

I’ve heard lots of excuses from graduate students about why they don’t ask questions: “I don’t want to show-up the speaker,” “I don’t know enough about the topic,” etc. I never hear “I couldn’t think of anything.” Usually I hear a great deal of talk about the presentation in little conversations away from the speaker. “I wonder why she ran that analysis?,” or “that was great, but I didn’t understand the part about…..”, or “that was awful, doesn’t he know about statistics?” If you think of a question or didn’t understand something a speaker says it is disrespectful not to ask something. Private conversations behind the speaker’s back don’t help anybody. Talking to the speaker privately after a seminar is fine too, although you do lose the practice of public speaking and thinking on your feet.

So grad students, go forth and ask some friggin’ question, for your sake and for the sake of promoting good science.

Intro to Blog

This is "A Guide to Academia" The Blog by Prosanta Chakrabarty, author of the book by the same name. This blog will serve to provide additional information and opinions on matters that I hope will help graduate students, undergraduates and other academics on the path to success.

Learn more about the book here:

Learn more about the author here: