Advanced faculty wrangling techniques

Getting a group of faculty members together to accomplish something has often been compared to herding cats. I disagree. When I want to get my cats all into one room to do something at the same time, all I have to do is stand in my kitchen, open a can of Friskies, and yell “Num nums!”

Three cats in a neat row.

Cats, neatly lined up. Completely unlike faculty.

Not so with faculty. If you have, say, 20 professor cats, and you would like them all to arrive in the same place at the same time, you can’t just send out a general email to all 20 of them that says “Num nums will be served in the kitchen at 6 pm.” Most professor cats will just delete that email, if they see it at all. Only 2 or 3 professor cats will show up – the ones with the most interest in num nums and the most criticisms to offer. They will spend the whole time coming up with ways to improve the num num experience, and at the end of dinner time they will have come to an agreement that next time, instead of opening a can of shredded salmon flavored cat food, you go out, catch a fresh salmon, clean it and gut it, and serve the fresh raw filets on ice. And at least three of the no-shows will complain that num nums were served without them, why didn’t anyone tell them there would be num nums.

The lack of response is especially confusing because the professor cats are the ones that suggested the num nums in the first place. They like num nums. They wrote the grants that got the funding for the num nums. And you already polled them and picked a num num eating time that worked for everyone.

So next, time, you decide to make it more personal. Instead of a mass email, you send individual handwritten invitations to each professor cat, that read something like this: “Dear Dr. Kitty: As per the schedule that is clearly posted on the kitchen website, num nums will be served tomorrow in the kitchen at 6 pm. I have made sure that both tuna and chicken flavors will be present, as you suggested last time. I hope to see you there.”

This time the results will be a little better. Maybe half of the professor cats will show up in the kitchen within 30 minutes of the announced time. But others will delegate the num nums, and you will receive several emails from grad student and postdoc cats asking questions about the purpose of the num nums and whether there will be turkey flavor. A couple of other professor cats will call your office phone at 6:05 pm – despite the fact that you have made it known that you will be in the kitchen, not your office, at 6:00 pm – asking where the kitchen is and how to get there.

Afterwards, you will have some leftover num nums that absolutely must be fed to all of the professor cats who were not in attendance, even if you have to feed them a couple of days after the deadline. So you individually email each of the professor cats who didn’t show up: “Dear Dr. Kitty, We served num nums yesterday at 6 pm, and you were not present to eat your num nums. Please come to my office by 5 pm today in order to eat your num nums.”

At least two will respond with, “Sorry, I didn’t realize the num nums were for me.”

Four cats eating their num nums in an orderly fashion.

It's easy to herd cats.

Now you start getting smarter. You realize that the only way to get all the professor cats to eat all their num nums is to make it a requirement in order to receive funding for future num nums. You develop a complicated – but user friendly – online tracking system so that you will have data on which professor cats ate their num nums and which did not. Now you will have to send even more emails and meetings with instructions on: when and where num nums are served (even though it is in the same place every day and has been in the same place every day for the last 5 years), how to report one’s consumption of the num nums, the requirements for eating num nums, and the consequences of not cleaning your plate.

Some professor cats will complain that you send too many emails. Other professor cats will complain that you don’t send enough emails.

You will still never get more than 75% of the professor cats in the kitchen at the appointed time, and you will spend a large chunk of your day fielding complaints about the online tracking system and answering questions that never would be asked if the professor cats had simply read the 6 emails carefully explaining the process, or went to the kitchen website and clicked the tab marked “Daily Num Num Schedule.”

No matter what you do, you will still have to run down the street after wayward fluffy tails, waving a can of num nums and feeling like an idiot.


Email autoreplies

I understand and accept the usefulness of email “away” messages. But I must admit it drives me crazy when someone emails me, and I hit “reply” and send a prompt response, only to get their “away” message in return.

Especially when the away message says “I will return on September 9 and respond to your email as soon as possible”… and it’s September 15.


This paper got accepted this morning, with no further revisions. Hooray! I’m especially pleased about this one because two undergrads who worked with me (one as an REU student, one as an intern) are co-authors, and I am very proud of them. A year ago right now, we were just getting started on the main experiment in the paper – for me, this is extremely fast turnaround.

Things have suddenly gotten busy here at the Center, as we are planning our annual Center conference and also our first meeting with our external advisory board. We also have a meeting with our funding agency in a couple of weeks… pretty stressful stuff, especially since people keep asking me for a schedule for the conference, which I can’t make until I get feedback from people who aren’t answering my emails!! Grr. I politely reminded them last week that I am leaving in two weeks for the field, and if they want my help planning this thing, they need to talk to me NOW, not later. I think I will have to send a less polite reminder out very soon.

In other news, I rediscovered a pair of shoes that I haven’t worn for at least five years. I’ve considered getting rid of them many times because I thought they weren’t my style, but today they seemed just right!

Adjuncting ruins lives

The recent kerfuffle in the blogosphere about advice for adjuncts, plus my own recent observations of friends’ lives, really got me thinking about my own experiences. I have done my time as an adjunct, and I remember it as a very dark period in my life. Unless you’re one of those happy adjuncts who enjoys the job, is treated well, and has financial stability, adjuncting can ruin your life. We are told that it can benefit our careers – and sure, it can be a good way to get some teaching experience. But in many cases, especially if you end up doing it for a long time, I think it can harm more than it helps.

At my graduate institution, being a graduate assistant or a teaching assistant wasn’t a common option. However, the university relied extremely heavily on adjunct labor, and was more than happy to hire grad students as adjuncts to teach classes. I taught my first class in 1999, and taught between one and five classes every fall, spring and summer after that up through spring 2006 (except for when I was doing fieldwork). I was usually paid around $2400 per class per semester, with no benefits. I taught at 4 different campuses. Almost every semester, at least one institution screwed up my paperwork and failed to pay me on time, and somehow tried to make it look like my fault.

I finished my Ph.D. in 2005 and had no idea what I was going to do next. I lived in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and my student loan grace period was going to end soon. I taught even more classes while I applied for tenure-track jobs, community college jobs, visiting assistant professor jobs, postdocs, government research jobs, you name it. [My former field is not one that has much postdoc funding, and many people don’t do postdocs in that field.] I finally did get a postdoc and moved to the Midwest, where I stayed until I got my current position.

The one thing I remember most about that stressful year was the awful, angry desperation. I was being treated very poorly. I had few options. I had no guidance (my graduate advisor was on the verge of retirement and had never done much in the way of advising me). I was falling deeper and deeper into debt, and I was tired of having to rely on financial assistance from my mother-in-law. I spent several hours a day on public transportation, traveling between my many adjuncting gigs. I wanted security, and to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to not have to worry about how I would pay my bills. I felt like I was being led on, strung along with comments from faculty that I was a great teacher and maybe a position would open up for me, and then being shot down, over and over.  I was tired all of the time – from the work, from the worry, from the noise that kept me up at night in our not-very-nice neighborhood. It was one of the worst periods of my life.

My more recent job search was also stressful, but at least I knew I could stay in my postdoc for a few more years if I needed to. I knew I could pay my bills. And I liked where I lived. I didn’t have the security and legitimacy that comes with getting a job, and I wanted it badly. But honestly, the stress of that period doesn’t even come close to the year after I finished grad school.

Recently, I met up with some friends from graduate school who are either close to finishing or have recently finished their degrees. These people are accomplished scholars, good teachers, and fun to be around – they are exactly the kind of people you would expect to succeed. But because of the terrible job market and decreasing funding availability, they don’t have a clear plan for what happens next, and they are adjuncting. I see that angry desperation in their eyes and it saddens me. I see it also in the comments on the job search wiki, on blogs, on friend’s Facebook statuses. The angry desperation affects how you approach everything in your life. It can ruin personal relationships, your perspective about what you want out of life, your ability to function as a scholar, and even (I hate to say it) your chances at getting a job. It’s horrible and unfair and terrifying.

I am not going to tell anyone not to feel this way. (And frankly, I find it appallingly condescending that a blogger suggested that adjuncts should not be angry.) But I will say that you deserve better, and you should go find it. If you find yourself in this position, the chances that continuing to work as an adjunct will benefit your career are very, very small. Your institution will probably not hire you for a tenure-track line. Some people say that postdoc-ing for more than a few years hurts your prospects on the job market – adjuncting for several years isn’t any better.

My advice is to find a way out, no matter what. Re-evaluate what is important to you: do you really love teaching, or does it just seem to be the only option available to you? (In my case, no, I did not love teaching, but I had convinced myself that it was what I wanted to do.) Can you move to a different city? If so, find something else, anything else. If you are unable to move because of family or other reasons, start researching other possibilities locally. I promise, the world won’t end if you decide to do something else – you might even be happier if you get out of academia. And make sure you have some other part of your life that you love – whether it’s spending time with family, playing music, or cooking gourmet food. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you deserve to enjoy your life. Don’t let them take that away from you.

Research Week, Day 4 Report

I don’t know if any of you out there have ever tried to work productively at home, with 8 territorial and emotionally needy pets (ok, only 7 – the tortoise doesn’t really give a shit about anything except his heat lamp and food) – which is bad enough, but just wait ’til you get to the end of the sentence — while having a new furnace installed. If you haven’t tried it but are considering it, let me give you a word of advice: don’t.

I did my 30 minutes of crap writing this morning, and then sort of fumbled through 90 minutes of researchy writing cutting and pasting. It was too difficult to concentrate with the banging coming from the basement, the dog barking and whining, the cat growling at the noise in the heating vent, the other cat insisting on climbing into my lab because he’s cold and there’s no heat, and the parrot squawking. I haven’t even bothered trying to read any scientific papers. I did answer a whole bunch of work emails. But this afternoon I don’t seem to be accomplishing much besides laundry and reading the Regretsy archives.

Maybe I’ll get more done later today… maybe not. But here’s the tally so far:

Minutes spent writing: 120

Words: 2490

Papers read: 0

Progress on manuscript: thought of many ways in which I’m doing it wrong. Is that progress?

Weather: colder, grayer, and freaking SNOW.

Shoes: well, I haven’t left the house today, so I’m not wearing shoes. But I am wearing these:

Now with bonus territorial dog and chilly cat.

Update: After posting this, I felt bad about myself for being a slacker, so I ate a Cadbury Creme Egg and read two papers (so what if they were just short communications?). Here’s a photo of the good dog, being good:

Waiting for co-authors

At the moment, I do not have any articles in review, which pains me. I do have four that are pretty close to getting out there (or back out there, as the case may be for a few of them) – two are papers on which I am the first author, and two on which I am a co-author. All four of these have two co-authors in common – my postdoctoral adviser (PA), and a grad student (GS) in PA’s lab.

PA is notoriously busy and important, though well-meaning, and it always takes a long time for PA to get around to reading and commenting on drafts. I won’t lie, it pisses me off – but I try to remember that PA puts a lot of work into reading carefully and making helpful comments. Also PA has been around a long time and has hundreds of publications, and my research is somewhat outside of PA’s main research interest. So, I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it.

GS takes even longer to get drafts back to me. GS has gotten entirely too self important for GS’s own good, I think. Though still a grad student, GS claims to be “too busy” and gets “too many emails to keep up with.” If GS is supposedly too busy and important now, what on earth is going to happen when GS is a faculty member?

Yes, GS does good work, and some of it may end up being pretty important in the field. But it never will if GS doesn’t hurry up and finish something for once in GS’s life. GS has no first-authored papers yet – and only because GS is so unbelievably slow to get things written and submitted.

It took GS and PA over two months to get comments back to me on the draft I wrote in November. I made major revisions (in just a few days, mind you) last week and sent it back, asking for final approval to submit. I wonder how long that will take?? I am trying to work up the energy to get back to revising the thrice-rejected Paper that Will Not Die, but part of my reluctance is related to the fact that GS and PA are co-authors. Why bother hurrying if they are going to take months and months to read it?

And of course, the other two papers on which I am co-author – yep, GS is first author. One of those is a revise and resubmit that has been sitting around for well over a year, while more established people in that particular subfield have published several papers. All of GS’s time has been devoted to trying to get the other paper reviewed by a couple of journals who have single-word-titles, both of which have rejected it without review (and have also rejected GS’s subsequent appeal to the decision). It’s been nearly six months of this. Can we move on, please?

Big deadline today

Major report about the Center is due today. This report is one of the primary responsibilities of my job. I have written the 100-or-so-page narrative, that’s all ready to go. But we are still pulling together the financial reporting side of it — which is the responsibility of someone else. And it’s not ready yet and I am getting antsy about it. We also have to gather some signatures. This is going to be a big pain in my ass.