Category: Academia

How Not to Mentor Your Students

By Julianne Dalcanton | October 10, 2012 11:42 pm

As a vigorous defender of “work-life” balance, I am compelled to weigh in on the recent circulation of a letter sent to the graduate students in a “well regarded astronomy program”. The lengthy (10-point) letter was a summary of the department’s internal review of grad student performance, along with additional information and guidance. Such a review is not an unusual occurrence, nor is there typically any interest in publicizing routine intradepartmental correspondence.

However, what made the letter notable was that put in writing clear confirmation of pretty much every fear that students have about how they’re viewed and what they’re expected to sacrifice for “success”. On one level, it’s perhaps good to have this all out in the open, rather than having a secret set of criteria that students are never told about.  However, the criteria listed are, frankly, kind of nuts.  Kelle Cruz at AstroBetter and Ethan Siegal have gone through some of the highlights, with most of the outrage coming in response to the implication that failure to work 80-100 hours a week (or simply to not want to work 80-100 hours a week) was a sign that scientific research might not be for you.

Putting aside the fact that I’m highly doubtful that most faculty were actually pulling off sustained 80-100 hour work weeks even in their halcyon grad student days (90 hours a week is roughly 13 hours of work a day, every day — i.e., getting in at 9am, leaving at 11pm, every day, assuming 2 half-hour meal breaks — puh-leeeze), and ignoring the many points in the letter that others have addressed with well-deserved ranty vigor, I find myself agog at how far off the mark the letter is simply as a management tool. The letter was clearly intended to be helpful, but never in the history of modern academic life has anyone been goaded into success by a 10 point email.

So, if generic scolding is out, how is a department to deal with the fact that, inevitably, some graduate students will not be as engaged with their research as they might be, some will be engaged but not productive, and some will indeed failing to invest much time in their education? Failing to “put their heart and souls” into research can indeed be a symptom, but the most effective treatment depends on the underlying illness. The key is therefore why an individual student falls in these categories, and naturally, there will be no universal answer. From student to student, the reasons will be radically different, and successful mentoring and training should be focused on helping the student to identify their particular obstacle and figure out the solution. It’s hard, time intensive, and takes tact and perception. It is also fundamentally more nuanced that the original letter’s prescription for success: “Be more like me”.


Subtleties of the Crappy Job Market for Scientists

By Julianne Dalcanton | July 9, 2012 3:22 am

Recent reports and articles have generated a lot of buzz about the difficulty of finding employment in the sciences. These articles mirror the anxieties of the young astronomy community with whom I am most familiar. Scientists are not stupid and are pretty good with data, so they can look at the number of graduate students, the number of postdoctoral positions, and the number of faculty ads, and correctly assess that the odds of winding up with a long-term academic position are not good.

However, difficulty finding a “long term academic position” is not the same thing as difficulty finding a job. Buried in those same articles is the fact that the unemployment rate for physicists (which likely mirrors that of astronomers) is between 1-2%. In contrast, the lab-based biologists and chemists (which are the focus of the articles) are not finding employment at all, or if they do, it’s frequently in a position that makes no use of their technical skills.

To me, what this implies is that most of the skills mastered by PhD-level lab-based scientists are not readily transferable to other jobs, and are not easily generalized (or at least, are not perceived as generalizable by employers).  The ability to work well in a lab setting is only valuable if the economy supports large numbers of labs.  Industry used to host these, but the era of corporate research is largely over.

In contrast, a typical astronomy postdoc has experience with software development, image processing, filtering, large data volumes, experimental design, data visualization, project management, proposal preparation, and technical writing — all of which are generic skills that can be applied to a wide variety of technical positions outside of astronomy.  Jobs that use these skills do not require large infrastructure overheads, and thus can be found in start-ups, and in almost any region of the country. Moreover, the typical astronomy or physics postdoc has had much more autonomy and freedom to lead projects, whereas lab-based biology appears to be far more pyramidal, giving postdocs far fewer venues in which to demonstrate their initiative and leadership.

In short, while few astronomy and physics PhD’s are explicitly educated for positions outside of academia, their training actually transfers quite well.

The problem in astronomy and physics is therefore not employment, but expectations. The fact remains that many PhD students do not fully understand that they are unlikely to ever have the equivalent of their advisor’s job, and leading to (completely understandable) fear and frustration when discovering that one’s goal is not likely to ever be achieved. This misconception is primarily a failure of mentoring and education. First, astronomy and physics have never had a 1-to-1 ratio between people earning PhDs and the number of faculty jobs, so while the ratio may be particularly unfavorable now, there was never a golden era. Second, there is no reason that the routine business of being a faculty member should be an appealing job description to every single person who is interested in astrophysics. As such, students should never be made to feel that they’re failures for not getting a particular flavor of academic position, and should instead always be encouraged to explore other avenues that could use their talents while bringing them greater day-to-day satisfaction. And based on the studies, I’m grateful that those options appear to exist for the physicists and astronomers who change their direction.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science and Society

Guest Post: Marc Sher on the Nonprofit Textbook Movement

By Sean Carroll | May 21, 2012 10:28 am

The price of university textbooks (not to mention scholarly journals) is like the weather: everyone complains about it, but nobody does anything about it. My own graduate textbook in GR hovers around $100, but I’d be happier if it were half that price or less. But the real scam is not with niche-market graduate textbooks, which move small volumes and therefore have at least some justification for their prices (and which often serve as useful references for years down the road) — it’s with the large-volume introductory textbooks that students are forced to buy.

But that might be about to change. We’re very happy to have Marc Sher, a particle theorist at William and Mary, explain an interesting new initiative that hopes to provide a much lower-cost alternative to the mainstream publishers.

(Update: I changed the title from “Open Textbook” to “Nonprofit Textbook,” since “Open” has certain technical connotations that might not apply here. The confusion is mine, not Marc’s.)


The textbook publishers’ price-gouging monopoly may be ending.

For decades, college students have been exploited by publishers of introductory textbooks. The publishers charge about $200 for a textbook, and then every 3-4 years they make some minor cosmetic changes, reorder some of the problems, add a few new problems, and call it a “new edition”. They then take the previous edition out of print. The purpose, of course, is to destroy the used book market and to continue charging students exorbitant amounts of money.

The Gates and Hewlett Foundations have apparently decided to help provide an alternative to this monopoly. The course I teach is “Physics for Life-Scientists”, which typically uses algebra-based textbooks, often entitled “College Physics.” For much of the late 1990’s, I used a book by Peter Urone. It was an excellent book with many biological applications. Unfortunately, after the second edition, it went out of print. Urone obtained the rights to the textbook from the publisher and has given it to a nonprofit group called OpenStax College, which, working with collaborators across the country has significantly revised the work and has produced a third edition. They have just begun putting this edition online (ePub for mobile and PDF), completely free of charge. The entire 1200 page book will be online within a month. People can access it without charge, or the company will print it for the cost of printing (approximately $40/book). Several online homework companies, such as Sapling Learning and Webassign, will include this book in their coverage.

OpenStax College Physics’ textbook is terrific, and with this free book available online, there will be enormous pressure on faculty to use it rather than a $200 textbook. OpenStax College plans to produce many other introductory textbooks, including sociology and biology textbooks. As a nonprofit they are sustained by philanthropy, through partnerships, and print sales, though the price for the print book is also very low.

Many of the details are at a website that has been set up at, and the book can be downloaded at As of the end of last week, 11 of the first 16 chapters had been uploaded, and the rest will follow shortly. If you teach an algebra-based physics course, please look at this textbook; it isn’t too late to use it for the fall semester. An instructor can just give the students the URL in the syllabus. If you don’t teach such a course, please show this announcement to someone who does. Of course, students will find out about the book as well, and will certainly inform their instructors. The monopoly may be ending, and students could save billions of dollars. For decades, the outrageous practices of textbook publishers have not been challenged by serious competition. This is serious competition. OpenStax College as a nonprofit and foundation supported entity does not have a sales force, so word of mouth is the way to go: Tell everyone!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Guest Post, Top Posts, Words

Wrapping Up the Semester: Fests, Workshops and Exams

By Mark Trodden | April 30, 2012 4:39 am

We are very close to the end of the semester here at Penn, and the last couple of weeks have been the usual flurry of activity as teaching comes to an end, exam period begins, and a few late semester/early summer meetings all take place at the same time.

A week or so ago, I spent a couple of days back at Syracuse University, where I was a faculty member for quite a few years. I was there primarily to participate in a special event that preceded the East Coast Gravity Meeting being held there on the following weekend. The event was a celebration – GoldbergFest – of the career of Josh Goldberg, a good personal friend, and an eminent relativist at Syracuse, who has been an emeritus professor there for many years now.

Josh began as a graduate student at Syracuse in the early 1950’s, working on conservation laws in General Relativity (GR) and on canonical quantization. At the time Syracuse had one of the few well-known relativity groups in the world, led by Peter Bergmann, and an impressive group of young people were trained under him, and later under Josh, as students and postdocs; people like Ted Newman, Ray Sachs, Art Komar, Roger Penrose, and many others. I’m certainly no expert on the precise history of the Syracuse group, but fortunately, as part of a special issue of General Relativity and Gravitation dedicated to Josh, to which I was honored to also contribute, Ted Newman describes it wonderfully. The Fest was a lovely event. I enjoyed the other speakers’ talks – John Stachel, Rafael Sorkin and Peter Saulson, and Ted Newman’s hilarious and touching after dinner speech, and the reminiscences of the other people at the dinner made for what I hope Josh thought was a wonderful day.

Over the next two days quite a few of our students and postdocs from Penn gave talks at the East Coast Gravity Meeting, and I was delighted to hear that our very own Godfrey Miller won the award for the best student presentation.

Returning To Penn, I just about had enough time to finish putting together the take-home final exam for my graduate General Relativity course, before heading off to NYU on Wednesday with our whole group for our semesterly joint meeting. We were joined, as usual, by a nice crowd from Columbia and Case Western for a day of talks and discussion. I always find these meetings to be incredibly useful scientifically, because the group is so interactive, boisterous and interested in the material, while being such warm and friendly hosts. It makes for an enjoyable day every time. Beyond the obvious exchange of ideas, these meetings also provide an opportunity for our students to get used to giving talks on their work. This time my student – Garrett Goon – and one of my colleague Justin Khoury’s students – Austin Joyce – gave our student talks, leading to some healthy discussion Wess-Zumino terms in new field theories and conformal cosmology, respectively. Both did a terrific job, although they’re becoming old pros at this point, rather than beginning students in need of practice.

To close out last week, Greg Gabadadze from NYU came down on Friday so that we could try to finish up some details in a project that is close to completion, before we start dispersing for various summer conferences. I’ll discuss these soon, I expect.

Today my final exam will be turned in and grading starts, an old friend is delivering a seminar in our group, and Sean’s student Kim Boddy arrives for a week so that the three of us can try to finish up a paper. The end of the semester always seems to go this way. While all these things are fun, life becomes excessively hectic for two weeks, and then travel begins.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science, Travel

Boycott Elsevier

By Sean Carroll | January 30, 2012 8:56 am

While I have the blog open, let me throw in a quick two cents to support the Boycott Elsevier movement. As most working scientists know, Elsevier is a publishing company that controls many important journals, and uses their position to charge amazingly exorbitant prices to university libraries — and then makes the published papers very hard to access for anyone not at one of the universities. In physics their journals include Nuclear Physics, Physics Letters, and other biggies. It’s exactly the opposite of what should be the model, in which scientific papers are shared freely and openly.

So now an official boycott has been organized, and is gaining steam — if you’re a working scientist, feel free to add your signature. Many bloggers have chimed in, e.g. Cosma Shalizi and Scott Aaronson. Almost all scientists want their papers to be widely accessible — given all the readily available alternatives to Elsevier (including the new Physical Review X), all we need to do is self-organize a bit and we can make it happen.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science and Society


By Sean Carroll | December 1, 2011 1:54 pm

Zachary Ernst, a philosopher at the University of Missouri, has written up an aggravating tale of sexism in academia. (Via New APPS. I initially mistakenly said Ernst was at the University of Wisconsin, which is where he went to grad school — fixed by commenters.) A woman philosopher in his department — who happened to be his wife — was denied tenure. It’s always hard to discern the influence of sexism in individual cases, but he was able to directly compare what his wife was forced to go through to his own experience in the same process. I have no way of judging the merits of the tenure case (and the opportunity for bias in this kind of report is clear, and clearly acknowledged), but the differences in standards seem to be pretty clear.

But I wanted to highlight this bit, because it makes a different point that I have touched on before. [Update: in the comments, Andrew Melnyk (who I gather was the department chair being quoted) offers a different recollection of this conversation.]

While I was still an assistant professor, I had published in several different areas – I had papers in ethics, action theory, game theory, logic, and philosophy of science. The chair of my department was unhappy about this, and he told me so. He said, quite explicitly, that it would be very difficult for me to get tenure with such research breadth. This may sound unbelievable to someone outside of academia, but his reasoning was quite sound. Tenure decisions were made largely based on whether the faculty member had developed a reputation in the field. And it is easier to do that if you repeatedly publish in the same narrow subset of the academic literature. Spreading myself around too much, I was told, might result in my having failed to achieve a reputation. At the time I had this conversation, I had two distinct feelings. On the one hand, I felt that this was totally absurd – how can the ability to publish in several distinct areas be considered a liability? But on the other hand, I had to admit that he was right, and that this was good advice.

The reality is that everyone likes breadth and interdisciplinarity in theory, but the resistance in practice is considerable. A university is a bureaucracy, and a bureaucracy is made of slots, into which people are fit. We know what slots we like, and are suspicious when people or ideas don’t fit into the slots. Note that Ernst wasn’t exactly straying way off the reservation, dabbling in aeronautical engineering or Medieval prosody; he was doing technical work in philosophy, just in more than one different area. To an outsider it might be hard to discern any difference at all, but within a department this is taken as a lack of seriousness.

One could certainly imagine an unapologetic defense of narrow interdisciplinary categories for their own sake; research proceeds fastest when attention is focused on depth rather than breadth, something like that. But this defense is very rarely explicitly articulated; the department chair in the above quote was just more candid than usual. (And he wasn’t trying to defend the state of affairs, just making sure it was understood.)

For those of us who do think interdisciplinary work is useful, it’s hard to know exactly how to change things. The problem is structural; universities are divided into departments, each with their own carefully-guarded boundaries, and strict sub-categorizations within the department itself. (Everyone loves biophysics, but people who actually try to do biophysics within either biology departments or physics departments inevitably encounter stumbling blocks.) Some specific institutions can be populated by individuals who respect boundary-crossing and even encourage it, and of course there will always be ornery researchers who do it despite any obstacles that are thrown their way. But it would be nice to have more reliable and institutional ways of encouraging good work for its own sake, rather than only because it fulfills a narrow ideal of what work counts as valuable. From the comments at New APPS, here’s news of an interesting attempt along these lines at USC. It would be good to see other universities consider similar strategies.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Top Posts

All-Male Conferences

By Sean Carroll | November 12, 2011 8:59 am

We all know that certain areas of academia exhibit a profound gender imbalance — philosophy, it turns out, is nearly as bad as physics. Interestingly, one often sees major conferences organized in which the ratio of men to women on the invited speakers list is substantially higher than one would expect even on the basis of gender-blind selection. I have nothing profound to say about this interesting phenomenon, except to quote in full this lovely comment by “Modalist” concerning the 2011 Oxford Graduate Conference (in philosophy).

I think it worth emphasizing that the most important thing for everyone involved in the GCC is to ensure, by all means possible, that they bend over backwards so as to make sure that there is never any possibility that some Anonymous Internet Person might conceivably be offended at the suggestion that conference organizers anywhere—let alone conference organizers at an institution such as Oxford, whose commitment to gender equity and rejection of male privilege in education runs as far back as the High Middle Ages I’m sorry, I mean 1974—should risk feeling any twinge of private or, Heaven forfend, public embarrassment in the face of some no doubt imagined tendency to repeatedly organize conferences that feature only men on the program. We are, it is worth remembering, only in the second decade of the twenty first century. Mary Wollstonecraft is not yet cold in her grave. Surely Philosophy as an enterprise—nay, an endeavor; a vocation; the love of wisdom itself; a noble calling that grabs one by the testicles early in life and refuses to let go; perhaps indeed the last best hope of rationality and clarity of argument on this benighted Earth—can only suffer terribly if small, unfunded websites populated by aggressive viragos and their emasculated enablers insist on making a habit of pointing out the unfortunate yet, I am sure, entirely accidental Male Pattern Allness occasionally visible at conferences within the field. I should also like to remind the organizers of this “campaign” that a policy such as I have recommended—characterized as it is by polite deference, an unwillingness to make any person feel in any way even slightly out-of-sorts or unpleasantly compelled to recognize their so-called “privilege” on an otherwise perfectly pleasant sort of afternoon in the Junior Common Room, combined with a constant willingness to apologetically back down at the slightest suggestion that umbrage has been taken, or the first appearance of a convoluted description of an imaginary yet technically possible state of affairs wherein the observed outcome might not have been sexist in any way, shape, or form—has been shown by repeated historical experience to be without question the most effective means of effectuating change, especially the kind of modest, incremental and above all comfortably distant, blame-free social change that I am sure we all agree would be the best outcome in this case. Now if you’ll excuse me, my cocoa is getting cold and I do not want to have to ask my wife to heat it up again.

Via the always interesting New APPS.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Women in Science

NSF Tries to Make Family/Career Balance Easier

By Sean Carroll | September 27, 2011 10:30 am

Among the various difficulties that women experience when they embark on a scientific career, a big one is how to balance the challenges of work with raising a family. (In principle men could face the same challenges; in practice the burden usually falls on women. Individual cases will vary.) Science is extremely competitive, and it’s generally not a 9-to-5 job. The years when you might be at your scientifically most productive can be precisely those years when you want to have kids. I’m not familiar myself, but I understand that raising kids actually takes up some of your time.

So it’s great to see the National Science Foundation trying to do something to help. The White House just announced a major new initiative aimed at giving parents new flexibility in their careers. As explained in this press release, the general focus is flexibility, which is a great idea anyway: letting grant recipients defer for a year, and cutting down on the demands for investigators to travel to NSF headquarters when applying or renewing. (Via New APPS.)

These are tiny steps, and there are many other hurdles women face in academia other than the timing of their grants. But every little bit helps, and it’s certainly good to know that someone upstairs is paying attention.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Women in Science

The Core Ideas of Science

By Sean Carroll | July 29, 2011 12:08 pm

A National Academy of Sciences panel, chaired by Helen Quinn, has released a new report that seeks to identify “the key scientific practices, concepts and ideas that all students should learn by the time they complete high school.” An ambitious undertaking, but a sensible one. At the very least, efforts like this serve to focus attention on what’s important across a wide variety of K-12 curricula, and at best it could help prod schools (or states, really) across the country into teaching more coherent and useful science to kids. Here’s the web page for the report, a summary (pdf), and the report itself (pdf, free after you register).

So what are the core ideas of science? They are all listed in the summary report, and divided into three categories. The first category is “Scientific and Engineering Practices,” and includes such laudable concepts as ” Analyzing and interpreting data.” The second category is “Crosscutting Concepts That Have Common Application Across Fields,” by which they mean things like “Scale, proportion, and quantity” or ” Stability and change.” It’s great that the organizational scheme emphasizes ideas that stretch across disciplinary boundaries, but there is definitely a danger that the resulting items come off as a bit vague. The secret to success here will be how they can be implemented, with concrete examples.

The third category is the nitty-gritty, “Core Ideas in Four Disciplinary Areas,” namely “Physical Sciences,” “Life Sciences,” “Earth and Space Sciences,” and “Engineering, Technology, and the Applications of Science.” (Math is not within the report’s purview.) And here are the actual core ideas proposed for the physical sciences: Read More

Summer Travels – Part 1

By Mark Trodden | July 9, 2011 8:26 am

Like many physicists, I spend a reasonable portion of the summer months traveling, delivering talks at conferences and workshops, and taking the opportunity to meet with colleagues and gain first-hand experience of the range of research being done in my field. For me, this began a couple of hours after my classes ended for the semester (congratulations to my General Relativity class, all of whom did very well at the end of the day), when I headed off to California to hang out with Sean for a few days and to give the Caltech physics colloquium.

I always enjoy visiting Caltech, and I find colloquia particularly fun talks to deliver, since they provide the opportunity to explain what’s going on at the frontiers of the field to physicists who spend most of their time working in their own, different areas. But this talk was particularly exciting to give, because of the location. I hadn’t realized, but the Caltech physics colloquia take place in a rather old lecture hall (201 E. Bridge) in which I was told Richard Feynman delivered his renowned lectures on physics. This part of Caltech is about to undergo a round of renovations, which meant that this was probably my last chance to speak in the same place that Feynman did – a wonderful experience. With most academic travel, the main payback from a trip like this is the chance to develop some new ideas with one’s collaborators. This time was no exception, and Sean, a student of his and I started discussions about a new dark matter idea that I’ll attempt to blog about here should it come to anything.

After a week back in Philadelphia, I was on a plane once more, this time for a short hop to my old stomping grounds in Cleveland, to take part in a workshop on gravity being held at Case Western Reserve University. The last decade or so have seen a resurgence of efforts to seek a sensible way in which General Relativity (GR) might be modified, either in ways that might yield new physics of the early universe, or in a manner that might explain phenomena at late times. The main original impetus for this work has been the possibility that the phenomenon of cosmic acceleration might be signaling a modification of gravity on the largest scales. However, among many researchers the current thrust is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the ways in which gravity may differ from GR, and at what scales one might expect any allowed modifications to appear.

It is, in fact, an extremely tricky proposition to modify GR, with almost any idea one might think of running into trouble either with established tests of the theory within the solar system, or with serious theoretical inconsistencies such as the appearance of particles with negative energies, known as ghosts. Many of the more interesting ideas involve models arising from extra dimensions, which have led not only to interesting modified gravity models, but also to new ideas about field theories in four dimensions, that I will discuss in another post soon. The gravity workshop focused on many of these new ideas, and, as often happens at small intense meetings, I left with lots of new ideas about my own work.

In June, I left for a lightning trip to Brazil, to speak at the very first meeting of the whole of the Brazilian Physical Society. This conference was held in the beautiful location of Iguassu Falls. Although I was, unfortunately, too ill from a flu I had caught to be able to travel to the falls themselves, I was lucky enough to see them from the air a couple of times. I will clearly have to go back! The meeting had several thousand people, and it was clear that Brazilian physics is undergoing a period of rapid expansion, something it is heartening to see given the pressures science is facing in many other parts of the world. One of the highlights was an event launching the new South American branch of the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). The ICTP, in Trieste, Italy, was founded in 1964 by Abdus Salam, with the goal of providing educating scientists from developing countries. Their new branch, in Sao Paulo, will be directed by Nathan Berkovitz and should extend the great work of the original. It’ll be interested to see how this endeavor develops – I wish them all the best.

I’d intended three days in Brazil, but ended up there for an extra twenty-four hours because the airport at Iguassa Falls was closed for a day by particulates from the Chilean volcano. I get delayed many times every year and find myself cursing airlines (I’d missed an important meeting in Cambridge a few weeks earlier thanks to USAir), but it’s hard to be furious at a volcano. The people at the Brazilian Physical society were wonderfully helpful and I’d like to thank them as publically as I can for taking such good care of us, dealing with our hotel rooms, and getting us rebooked on new flights.

Now I’m back to work, taking a few weeks without travel and trying to get new projects up and running, while finishing writing up a few papers before the new semester creeps up on me.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar