Archive for May, 2009

I wonder how many (other) graduate student blogs consist mostly of reposts from PHD Comics…

Read Full Post »

One of the things that I am most looking forward to about starting a tenure track job is the opportunity to dig into the area and get to know it.  I’ve lived in the same town for the past seven years and the same apartment for the past five, but my life here has always felt temporary.  This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed living here – if given the chance, I could probably live here forever – but living here forever is not an option.  So I waited while friends bought houses and had children, knowing that upon the completion of my degree I would move on to another town where those things would likely take place.

Because I have been looking forward to having a more permanent existence I was surprised to see a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed post about a professor who has decided to put down roots after nine years, tenure, two additional children, and the relocation of his parents.  Despite these ties, he has remained insulated from his community:

I have, however, been less engaged with the life of my community than I might have been. I’ve held back reflexively.

Apart from my colleagues at the college, I have made hardly any local friends. My family and I belong to a church, but I’ve avoided getting involved in service activities. We have a stake in things like zoning laws and building permits, but I don’t go to the county meetings. Outside of the college, I am almost entirely disengaged: Work and home constitute 99 percent of my life. I can count the conversations I’ve had with my immediate neighbors on one hand.

Maybe because I have little desire to compete for prestige, I don’t see myself as the type of “potted plant – in anticipation of the next relocation” that Benton describes elsewhere in his post.  I am ready to get on with my life.  This includes learning the state bird, state flower, and state tree, which I never bothered to do in my current state but which will come in handy if I have children some day.  I’m also looking forward to learning about the history of my new community and its restaurants, parks, organizations, and people.

Like Benton, I am not returning home.  Unlike Benton, nearly all of my family members still live in the state in which I was born.  Because of this, I suppose that if an opportunity ever arose at a good school in that state I would have to consider it.  Rather than waiting for such an opportunity, however, I am going to live as if my next community and my first academic job will be my last.  I am going to dig in.

Read Full Post »

Female Science Professor has a nice post today about questions that have been raised about Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor.  Obviously, it is important to thoroughly examine people who will be put in influential positions (clearly, we don’t need someone like this on the Supreme Court), but some of the questions that have been asked about Sotomayer focus on whether, as a woman, she will be guided by her emotions rather than the law.  FSP provides a few examples from people named John:

Republican senators will have to conduct thorough questioning in the confirmation hearings to make sure that she will not be a results-oriented voter, voting her emotions and politics rather than the law. (John Yoo)

She must prove her commitment to impartially deciding cases based on the law, rather than based on her own personal politics, feelings, and preferences. (John Cornyn)

It will be important to determine if Judge Sotomayor will decide cases based on her own personal feelings and political views, or the bedrock rule of law. (John Thune)

She then adds:

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a big computer program to decide cases strictly on The Law? With a program, no one, not even a sensitive male judge, would be tempted to consult their feelings about an issue and we wouldn’t have to worry about all these emotional females populating the Highest Court in the Land every decade or two, tossing aside the rule of law on a whim if it suits their (probably hysterical) feelings to do so.

As an FSP, I am of course always doing that with my own personal research. Despite decades of experience as a scientist, I’ll be doing some research thing, and when it comes time to interpret the results, or make any big decision for that matter, I get all emotional and I forget all the bedrock rules of math and science, and I just go with whatever my emotions tell me to do at that exact moment. I really can’t help it.

It’s too bad I’m not teaching right now, since this would make a great case for the discussion of gender stereotypes.

Read Full Post »

Last week I noted that there is more to a potential job than the school’s rank, even though nobody in my family has heard of the school where I will start work in the fall.  My experiences as a graduate student (and observer of junior faculty) in a highly-ranked department led me to seek a different type of career.  To many (especially my family members), it is probably hard to believe that I would prefer the job that I received to one at a prestigious institution such as Columbia, but I am constantly reminded of this fact when reading things like this (the original post has since been taken down):

The back story here is that I applied for a small grant from Columbia and they replied saying, “A serious research proposal should go beyond your impressions of and personal history with one institution. If it does not, it will remain at the level of anecdotal, single-case evidence, and will count as autobiography rather than systematic research.” Translation: ethnography isn’t real research. To their credit, my senior colleagues rallied around me, agrily responding that the rejection was ridiculous. They wrote a letter on my behalf, asked me to send a chapter from my book in contract, and leave it be. The response just came back from the VP’s office. It was worse than ever. This time, not some under-VP, but the VP himself responded,

“At this moment, the submitted material is highly readable, but the FDC [faculty development committee] believes that it does not sufficiently display an exercise of the research abilities we expect in a major research university. It will be work that displays such abilities that will also be important in meeting the standard for tenure.”

While I have considered the difficulty of publishing and its effects on tenure, I hadn’t considered that being awarded tenure at a “prestigious” institution would be related to the type of work one does, in addition to the quality.  I want no part of this world.

Read Full Post »

Graduate student attrition has been discussed before, but now Google is using employee data and a computer algorithm to identify employees who might quit their jobs “even before they know they might leave.”  As reported by the Wall Street Journal:

The move is one of a series Google has made to prevent its most promising engineers, designers and sales executives from leaving at a time when its once-powerful draws — a start-up atmosphere and soaring stock price — have been diluted by its growing size. The data crunching supplements more traditional measures like employee training and leadership meetings to evaluate talent.

A fairly big part of the equation that seems to have been left out of the report (and that may be applicable to the issue of graduate student attrition) is what Google actually does when they determine that somebody might quit.  I assume that they don’t go out of their way to keep those who are not seen as valuable.  Maybe they have algorithms for that, too.

Update: Related to graduate student attrition (but not computer algorithms), Fabio at Orgtheory has a post today (part of the grad skool rulz series) following up on a previous post about when to quit graduate school.

Read Full Post »

An article from the spring issue of Contexts has just been posted on The Contexts Blog examining rankings of colleges and graduate schools (they’ve also posted a free link to the PDF version of the article).  Because of the importance many place on rankings, this is a fitting beginning for those embarking on the summer-long journey of preparing for the job market.  For some of us, the ranking of our graduate department will influence how we are viewed on the market.  Candidates from highly-ranked programs may be more likely to be considered for jobs in other highly-ranked programs.  On the other side of the coin, candidates may believe that the rankings say something about the experience of working at a particular school.  If it is highly ranked, there will likely be more pressure to publish and fewer rewards for excellent teaching.  If not, there may be less pressure to publish but also lower pay or a higher teaching load.

When deciding where to apply for jobs, rankings will likely be a consideration but it is important to remember that there is a lot more to a school than its ranking.  As I started my job search last summer, rankings were a primary concern.  I knew that I wanted a liberal arts job, but I also wanted a good liberal arts job, which I arbitrarily considered to be a school in the top 50 of the US News rankings.  That way, I figured that when I told friends and family members where I would be employed and they had never heard of it, I could at least say “It is one of the top liberal arts schools in the country” and they would be impressed.

Early in my search I also viewed rankings as an important marker of my graduate school success.  My graduate program is well-regarded among those who rank such things, so I figured that if I could get a job in a highly-ranked department the graduate students with visions of R1s would have to recognize that I had done well in my chosen area.  Similarly, I figured that professors would need to respect my accomplishments, regardless of how they had perceived me in the past and the department could proudly display my position on the web page so that students considering our program for the future could see that it is possible to graduate and get highly-ranked liberal arts jobs.

Over time, my opinion of the importance of rankings changed.  It would be easy to attribute this to the fact that the job market sucks and candidates should be happy to take anything they can get if I hadn’t, in fact, declined my first offer.  The experience that had the largest impact on my attitude about the rankings was actually looking up the mid-major I attended as an undergraduate and finding that it was categorized as a “Tier 4 National University.”  Tier 4! From the perspective of my job market self I had attended a terrible school, yet nobody bothered to tell this to my undergraduate self or any of my friends or family members.  At this terrible school I also had excellent professors and research opportunities that allowed me to get into a highly-ranked graduate program.

After this, the way I considered the rankings changed.  Yes, the rankings might reveal some underlying differences in resources or teaching loads, but I interviewed at a top-50 school and a Tier 3 school and, other than the size of the endowments (try not to giggle if a faculty member tells you his institution is “well endowed”) the differences in resources were negligible.  Because of this, the geographic location and student body of each school made the lower-ranked school equally compelling.  In the end, I didn’t get a job offer from the top-50 school and I’m not sure what I would have done if I had.  Maybe I would have accepted the offer that came with more prestige but a less desirable location and student body.  Regardless, I realized through this process that rankings are important for those who seek status above all else and much less so for those who seek a stable, enjoyable job with good pay and benefits.  For the record, nobody in my family had heard of either school.

Use at your own risk:

Read Full Post »

As Shamus on Scatterplot posted earlier in the month, Washington State University has decided to eliminate its rural sociology program and, with it, the jobs of eight faculty members.  Today, Inside Higher Ed posted a report on the topic:

That a land grant university would simply abolish the discipline — and in particular a rare freestanding program that is well respected nationally — stunned rural sociologists. Many have come to expect that sociology departments (general ones) will be more occupied with issues of criminology and sexuality and suburban youth than with aging populations in rural towns or the new immigration that is changing those communities.

And they say they have seen agriculture colleges focus more of their research on genomics and biotechnology and less on family farms. So Washington State’s decision has come to be seen as mattering nationally — and is galvanizing scholars who have no particular ties to the university and whose frustration extends beyond that one institution.

An interesting aspect of the report is the idea that rural sociology is a candidate for the chopping block because rural life itself seems less important to some than it has in the past:

And thus the reaction to Washington State relates very much to concerns about land grants generally. “There aren’t very many rural sociology programs around. There’s a general perception that rural doesn’t matter anymore. Whenever financial problems arise and administrators get a little touchy about how they are going to manage budgets, this is the sort of thing that happens,” said Kenneth Pigg, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, one institution that still has a freestanding program.

Pigg said that social sciences were once viewed as central to the land grant mission — that departments of rural sociology (or agriculture economics) were applying research to help rural communities. “Now, with the emphasis on life sciences generally, you don’t see that at a lot of universities,” he said. Pigg’s work currently focuses on the impact of technological change in rural areas. While many have said that the Internet is “a savior” for rural life, Pigg said that there’s not nearly enough attention paid to the impact it has and the lack of real access to technology of many people outside of urban areas.

I think that closures such as these point to the increasing importance of public sociology.  While we need to do work that is relevant to public concerns, sociologists also need to have a larger role in informing the public about why our findings matter and which concerns are socially important.  If our discipline is to survive the public needs to know the benefits of taking a sociological view in addition to a biological or psychological view on human behavior.

Read Full Post »

Business CardsDo you need business cards if you are not a businessperson?  Last spring, in anticipation of the upcoming job market, I thought that it might be helpful to have something for others to remember me by.  I imagined giving business cards to prospective employers that I happened to run into in the hallways of the ASA hotels, leaving business cards with those I met for the employment service, and giving business cards to friends and faculty members who would be eager to distribute them on my behalf.  While I would probably have been content with 50, official departmental business cards could only be ordered in quantities of 500.  Nevertheless, it seemed like a worthwhile purchase.

It turns out that I had no business ordering business cards.  I did give one to individuals from a particular school (to which I decided not to apply) at the employment service and another to somebody else I met at the conference.  I still have the rest.  Now that their intended purpose is of no use to me I suppose that I can use them in the place of scraps of paper to jot down notes and grocery lists.  I would have been better served to give people scraps of paper with my name and e-mail address.  Of course, in the fall I will happily accept business cards with my new institutional affiliation.  At least this time I’ll have six years or so before their expiration date.

*The soundtrack for this post is available here.

Read Full Post »

Religion may prevent socially disapproved behaviors because of an omniscient, judging other (panopticon religion), but it also prevents individuals from taking action because of a promised “better” life ahead (opiate religion).  It appears that religion is failing us on both fronts.  The potential presense of an omnisicient, judging other does not prevent all of us from doing reprehensible acts, nor does it allow all of us to accept these acts because of a promised “better” life ahead.  Because of this, we look for earthly solutions.

Some make much more money than others, so we tax them at higher rates; some businesses are harmful to the environment, so we create environmental regulations; some are rewarded for the failure of their companies, so we create pay limits.  In each case, there are loopholes.

Escape HatchesIf Obama really were a deity we wouldn’t have these problems.  As it is, the chance of getting caught and punished for abusing these loopholes appears to be continually outweighed by the potential gains that come with taking advantage of them.  If society were a prison, we could implement Bentham’s panopticon in order to create the illusion of an omniscient other and, thus, prevent these behaviors.  In case you haven’t noticed, however, society is not a prison.

The failure of religion, social norms, and actual regulations to regulate these behaviors creates a situation in which it is easy enough to conclude that we need increased governmental controls on behaviors such as these for the good of the people!  We need a digital panopticon!  Two-way screens in every room to protect us from the worst among us!


I love Big Brother.

Read Full Post »

My mom was recently talking to my grandparents about my upcoming graduation and job and she happened to mention that I would be starting as an assistant professor.  They couldn’t belive that after all of the years I’ve spent in grad school to earn my Ph.D. I would only be assisting others with teaching and research.  She explained the situation but, since my grandfather continues to ask her why I won’t be seeing patients, there is no guarantee that her effort was successful.  I’m not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that they’re not alone in their confusion.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »