How to be an ally—an example

I want to tell you a story about how a white man in a position of power used his white male seniority for good.  It was not a huge thing—there was no marching on the streets, no boycotts, no petitions—but it made a great deal of difference to this junior-level woman.

I am a graduate student in a university department that works closely with several other departments, sub-departments, non-profit organizations, and related groups.   It’s very common for emails of professional relevance to go out to all of these groups at once.  (It’s not uncommon for different people to send the same email to everyone, resulting in us all getting the same message about NSF funding three or four times, but that’s another story.)

Last week, one of these out-to-everyone emails stirred up some controversy.  The head of Dept. A decided that the email (about a petition to our national professional society) was overly political and therefore should not be sent over Dept. A’s email list.  This ruling seemed inconsistent with Dept. A’s prior practices, and in the resulting discussion, the head of Dept. A decided to retroactively disapprove of emails that had been sent in the past.

Specifically, the head of Dept. A decided that he was no longer OK with a month-old email that had urged senior employees to take steps against sexual and racial harassment.

After a few more general affirmations from mid-level staff on the importance of diversity and human rights, a different mid-level employee told us we were all being idiots to even care about this, and the email chain went silent.

It hurt.  When the senior people don’t stand up for you, it hurts.  When you’re a woman or other marginalized person in a junior position and the message you hear is “don’t talk about harassment, don’t talk about human rights, don’t talk about diversity”—it hurts.

I waited for someone to say something.  For hours—an eternity in email time—no one did.

I emailed the head of Dept. B, my department, and got back a wishy-washy bureaucratic brush-off.

I guess I wasn’t really that surprised.

Then, almost out of nowhere, the head of Org. C stepped in.  We rarely hear from him; he is one of many white men who hide in the upper floors of our building and are very busy with their own things.   This time, though, he was emphatic.  He pointed out, politely and firmly, that combating sexual harassment was not a political statement and he was very concerned that Dept. A’s new interpretation of the email rules would affect the safety of his colleagues.

I actually cried.  OK, I cry a lot, and had already been crying throughout this incident, but now I was crying out of a huge sense of relief.  Somebody out there has my back.  Somebody in charge actually cares. 

Some might say that the head of Org. C could’ve gone further, that he should’ve stood up for the spirit of human rights and diversity presented in the original email, the one that first set off all the controversy.  I disagree.  Had he done so, I think the arguments would have continued, the point would not have been made so strongly, and the result may not have been as useful.  By choosing to fight for the older email, the one specifically about harassment, he was able to draw a clear, hard, and basically unarguable line that talking about harassment has to be OK.

The head of Org. C was an ally.  He used his status—as a white person, as a man, as a head—to stand up for the rest of us.  It was just an email, and yet it had an enormous effect on my comfort level at the university.

I wrote him a thank-you, not because allies need thank-yous, but because I like thanking people who’ve had an impact on me.  I also think it might help down the line: if he ever has to defend his position, he can say that he heard from grad students about the importance of the issue.

Has anyone been an ally for you lately?  Tell me about it in the comments.

Trying not to scare away potential PhDs

Earlier this week, a friend drew my attention to this article on Times Higher Education, addressing the question of when to give up on an academic career.  When do you decide that the sacrifices are too much, and the chances of successfully landing a tenure-track professorship too small?

The article takes a particularly interesting tack: it imagines academia as a boyfriend who “does not want to commit himself,” insisting his partner give everything to the relationship while refusing to make any firm plans.  Basically, the kind of guy that makes advice-givers want to say, “Dump him now!

I think this analogy is really interesting, if imperfect.  Confession time: sometimes, when I’m in the car singing cheesy country break-up songs to myself, I think of them as break-up messages to grad school.  You know, stuff like “You stole my happy, you made me cry…”  (What can I say, my marriage is happy and stable, so I don’t really have any feeling-wronged emotions to express in that direction.)

As I do, I shared the article on Twitter:

(In retrospect I think this was maybe a bit glib toward people who have had to deal with real abusive partners, and for that I apologize.)

One of my followers, PB (@fuckyascience), reacted:

And I felt sort of bad, because PB is a neuroscience student who’s really interested in pursuing a PhD.  We’ve had chats about the grad school admissions process, and now here I was saying that an academic career was all kinds of awful.

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about how to respond.  I’ve written about this dilemma in various forms before, puzzling about how to talk to prospective grad students and sorting out my advice to incoming grads.  But neither of those quite captures what I want to say today, which is this:

Yes, the job market in higher education is crap.  If you want to do a PhD, you should know that.  Don’t go to grad school because you want to be a professor, go to grad school because you think something is really cool and you want to study it for 4, 5, 6+ years.

Yes, the academic employment system is pretty exploitative of early-career researchers.  You get paid very little as a grad student, and then a mediocre salary as a postdoc, and then nothing fantastic money-wise as a professor.  You should be aware of this going in.

Yes, at some point, grad school is going to suck.  There’s a reason why PhD Comics is so popular.

But I can’t in good conscience actively discourage anyone from pursuing a PhD, and I don’t want to.  Plenty of people are very happy in academia and can’t imagine themselves doing anything else.  You, dear reader, could be one of those people!

Go to grad school, with your eyes open to its problems and the difficulties that people face.  Know that at every stage, there are people who’ve been there, done that, and can offer support.  If at any point you find that the cons of academia are outweighing the pros, give yourself permission to re-evaluate your plans.

And if you ever need to, know that it’s OK to sing cheesy country break-up songs about your career.

Going public with my decision to leave academia

Today I officially announced my plans to leave academia after the PhD.

By “officially announced,” I mean “told my thesis committee as a group and not in a wishy-washy I’m thinking of leaving academia way but a definitive I’m never applying for postdocs way.”

“Academia is not a healthy place for me to be,” I told them.  “And I’ve learned that I’d much rather mess about with code than come up with big-picture science questions.”

So I’m kind of freaking out a bit about that now.  Not as much as I was freaking out about it last year, when I was afraid to tell anyone that I was even thinking about exiting academia.  But a little.  Because it feels kind of permanent now, you know?

Still, I’ve made my decision, and academia is not for me.

Last year, I was worried that I might fall back in love with my field of study if I somehow figured out how to overcome the depression and anxiety that had become closely linked with it.  This year, I know I won’t.  Maybe someday, from a distance, I will learn to be excited again about cool related science in the news.  Here, though, in the daily grind of writing and stressing and making plots—no, I won’t love it.  This year I was fortunate enough to produce some really interesting results, and it helped, but it didn’t help enough.

I’ve come to properly realize that although anxiety and depression are parts of me that will follow me everywhere, they are made enormously worse by the environment of academia.  Isolation, lack of help, intense career pressure, an almost total lack of positive feedback: those things all feed the brain monsters and send me into places I cannot control.  I don’t expect that another career path will be all sunshine and roses, but it will be different and it will be outside the cult-like insularity of the ivory tower.

Of course, I still have to finish my PhD, which is freaking me out A LOT on a daily basis.  My thesis committee was divided between those who thought I was making good progress and those who didn’t believe I could do it in a year.  Not exactly the most encouraging of situations.  Still, I think if I can force myself to bang out the text of another paper by the end of the month, I might be able to convince myself that I can do it.  So that’s the current goal.  Expect to hear lots of complaints about writing.

Let’s talk about sexual harassment in academia

[Content note: In addition to the potentially triggering nature of the topic at hand, I’m probably going to curse a lot.]

It’s been in my news feed again.  Two cases of sexual harassment by professors—one recently at Caltech, another a decade ago in Arizona—came out in the same week.  Both were in the same field—astronomy—that was shaken last fall by the news that a prominent professor at UC Berkeley had been harassing women for years.  All of this, of course, spawned a flurry of pieces about “the sexual harassment problem in astronomy,” as though it’s something that’s contained to one distasteful little community that hasn’t caught up with the 21st century.

So let’s get one thing out of the way before we go any further:

Sexual harassment isn’t limited to any one field.  It isn’t just astronomy.  It’s anthropology.  It’s physics.  It’s philosophy.  It’s everywhere.  This happens all the time, people.  All the time.

It happens outside the academic world too, of course, because people suck and society isn’t nearly as enlightened as it likes to think.  But the way careers are structured in academia makes those lower on the hierarchy particularly susceptible: students and postdocs are typically supervised by a single advisor, and their careers depend on that advisor’s good word and networking connections.  While it may be hard to quit a regular job and find a new one when your boss is an asshole, it’s nigh on impossible to do so in academia.

One more preliminary note:

People of any gender can harass people of any gender.  However, I’m going to use pronouns that assume the harasser is male and the harassed is female.  Why?  Because that’s what all the recent examples have been.  And because loads and loads and loads of studies have shown that that’s the most common scenario.  And because the societal response to sexual harassment stories tends to be very gender-biased.

That response is one of the things I want to talk about, actually.  This next point is addressed to men in general, and particularly to men who want to not be assholes:

Dudes, you have to stop getting defensive.  (Or, as Hope Jahren puts it, calm the fuck down.)  When a story comes out about a male professor sexually harassing a bunch of students, that’s not an attack on you.  If you take it like it’s an attack on you, what you’re actually saying is that you would prefer to continue telling sexist jokes and hitting on your underlings and generally not having your power threatened in any way.  When you say, “Enough of talking about this, let’s get back to research,” what you’re really saying is that you’re an asshole.

“But I’m not an asshole!” you might say.  “I’m just worried that I’m going to say something that gets taken the wrong way!”

No.

Are you sticking your hand up grad students’ skirts?

Are you holding meetings at strip clubs?

Do you tell your underlings they would teach better without underwear?

(All of the above are real examples from the three recent cases in astronomy.)

It’s not about innocent actions being misinterpreted.

We all know that there are a fair number of people in academia who are socially awkward, and that people sometimes unintentionally say things that can be taken the wrong way.  New flash: women can be awkward and nerdy too!  We get it!  When we talk about ending sexual harassment, we don’t mean kicking you out because you complimented us on our shirt that one time.  If you read the cases linked above, these are all people who persisted in creepy, manipulative, intentional behavior for years.  They were all told—often multiple times—that their behavior was inappropriate.  They were also all found, after full investigations by their universities, to have violated campus policies.  They got due process.  They’re already swimming in the benefit of the doubt.  Nobody owes them any more.

Another thing that seems to get men all up in arms is the belief that anti-harassment policies will cramp their dating style.  Here’s a hint, dudes: if your dating strategy constitutes sexual harassment, you are doing it wrong.  I can speak from experience on this—I managed to date and marry someone in my field without anyone being creepy or anyone getting harassed.  I know quite a few grad students who’ve dated other grad students, in their own departments and elsewhere.  And heck, I think half the faculty in my department are married to each other.  So go ahead, have relationships, fall in love.  Just don’t be a fucking jerk about it.  Don’t feel like you’re entitled to women’s attention, or that you have a right to keep making flirty comments if someone asks you to stop.  And definitely don’t try to date your students.

Whew.  OK.  Moving on.

A lot of the narratives about sexual harassment in the news of late proclaim that we are making progress.  That we are going to Stop The Harassment from here on out.  “Astronomers are finally doing something about sexual harassment,” proclaimed The Atlantic in a piece that came out, rather ironically, a week before the latest two cases were revealed.  I suppose the academic world has made some progress—we’re actually talking about this stuff.  There exist offices at universities to whom one can report issues.  But…

Departments aren’t doing anywhere near enough.  In the sexual harassment cases at Berkeley and Caltech, there were great big shining fat red flags that were ignored.  Over the course of seven years at Caltech, the professor in question had graduated just two PhD students.  Which is maybe not that odd, given how long PhDs take to complete, except for the fact that nine students had started working in his group and then left.  Some report that they left because he was a jerk; others were “fired” (which isn’t a normal thing at the PhD level).  Even without any of the sexual harassment, the man was clearly a terrible advisor.  And yet he got tenure.

At Berkeley, the situation was even worse.  Students reported multiple instances of harassment to the department chair back in 2005 and were waved off; a year later, they tried complaining at the university level and were ignored.  Even when the university finally did get its act together and do an investigation, the results of that investigation were kept under wraps.  It wasn’t until BuzzFeed broke the story months later that the man was actually asked to resign.

I know of many more cases like this, some because they’ve been shared publicly, some because they’ve been spoken by people I know.  For all the hype about how prestigious it is to be a university professor, departments do an awfully shitty job of getting rid of people who don’t deserve to be there.  It often seems like the powers that be don’t give a damn about junior people.  They certainly don’t listen to us.

(Why yes, I am bitter about this.  I have thankfully not had any personal experience with sexual harassment, but I have had the lovely experience of working for an advisor who was absolute crap at their job and yet got promoted anyway.  Meritocracy, my foot.)

To wrap this up, I’d like to make a point about how this fits into the bigger picture of women in science.  Which is to say, it’s only one part of the story.

Sexual harassment isn’t the only thing driving women out of science. (And math, and tech, and various other traditionally male fields.)  Not that it isn’t a big problem.  If you think of the “leaky pipeline” metaphor for women in STEM, sexual harassment is like someone chopped off a fire hydrant and now water is just spraying everywhere into the street.  You’ve got to cap that off or all of your other efforts to fix leaks are useless.

But all the other leaks are still there.  Regular ol’ sexism is still there.  The whole structure of an academic career, which expects you to be unattached and willing to work 80 hours a week, or else have a stay-at-home spouse who doesn’t mind your long hours and is willing to move around the country (or world) with you every few years, is still there.  Imposter syndrome is still there.  If you write an article talking about how sexual harassment is The Thing keeping women out of science, then you are wrong.

Referring PhD students to counseling is treating the symptoms, not the disease

I went off on a bit of rant on Twitter yesterday, starting with the sentence above.  Around about the 7th or 8th tweet, I realized that I needed to work this up into a full-fledged blog post.  So here we go.

Two things set off this rant.  The first was reading the latest in a long line of articles about the mental health problem in grad school.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine article, and the more people talk about this, the better.  However, like many of its predecessors, it focuses on access to counseling and other mental health care as the solution.  That’s absolutely important, and so is emphasizing the message that it’s OK to seek treatment.

But offering counseling and antidepressants is just treating the symptoms.  If my toddler woke up with a dangerously high fever, I would give him Tylenol to bring it down, but I’d also take him to the doctor, where the cause of his fever would be evaluated and treated.  If all the kids at his daycare came down with the same serious illness, the staff would give us all information about how to get them treatment, but they’d also clean the heck out of everything and assess whether their hygiene policies needed changing.

Along those same lines, we need to talk about why anxiety and depression are so prevalent among PhD students.  As the links above describe, graduate school causes mental health issues in many students, and exacerbates existing issues in others.  We need to make sure that those students who are suffering feel comfortable asking for help, but we also need to fix the system that’s causing this psychological epidemic in the first place.

I’m sure there are people out there who think that this is just how a PhD has to be, and sure, pushing yourself to your intellectual limits is always going to be hard.  But don’t you think people would do better—be more productive, produce better work—if the system didn’t function in a way that made them miserable?

The second trigger to my rant was a discussion that took place at a gathering of female postdocs and PhD students in my department.  It was a meeting to chat with last week’s (female) colloquium speaker.  Based on who organized this particular meeting, I suspected that any advice might tend toward the useless kind, but I went anyway.  (There were donuts, what can I say?)

The organizer and the guest of honor were both the kind of postdoc that the department likes to bring in to tell all us PhD students “how to succeed:” people who’ve won an especially prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, the kind that will get their resumes placed at the top of the pile in faculty searches.  These people tend to be extroverted, assertive, even cocky; in grad school, they did “groundbreaking research” and somehow managed to publish a half-dozen first-author papers.  Be like these people, goes the message, and you too can be successful and awesome.

This is the mold.  This is the person the system says you have to be.  There’s an underlying assumption that it’s possible, if you just work hard enough, for everyone to become this person—and that if you don’t, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.

Which brings me back to why I’m not OK with “make counseling more available and less stigmatized” being presented as the full solution for poor mental health among PhD students.  It relieves the system of the burden of change and puts it on the individual students.  There is something wrong with you, says the system.  Go get that taken care of, and when you’re all fixed up, come back and fit yourself into our mold.  

Let me end with a personal example, in hopes of further clarifying my point.  One of the pieces of advice we always get is to talk to lots of faculty who aren’t your research advisor.  Make yourself seem more awesome.  Cultivate people who can write letters of reference for you in the future.

The problem with this advice isn’t its content.  Networking is an important skill that will serve you well in just about any occupation, and fundamentally, people won’t learn about your research unless you tell them about it.  No, the problem with this advice is that it’s universally delivered from the perspective of a confident, gregarious extrovert: “Just go talk to professors!”

I’m a shy introvert with major social anxiety—it’s incredibly difficult for me to “just go talk” to anyone, much less someone who’s presented as an evaluator and an important part of my career.  Talking to someone—taking up their time—makes me feel like I’m being a huge imposition.  These are my issues to overcome, and they do require real mental health care.

But you know what else would really help?  A system that acknowledges that this is hard for me.  A system that is just the tiniest little bit more encouraging of these kinds of interactions.  That reassured me that I’m not doing something dramatically wrong and weird and awkward when I knock on a professor’s door and ask to chat.  That doesn’t treat every discussion about research as an evaluation of me, designed to make the questioner look good.  And above all, a system that doesn’t assume that I’m a bad researcher just because I don’t fit the mold.

Published

It’s official: my first peer-reviewed article has been published.  I’ve been a middle-of-the-list author on a handful of papers already, so the “Publications” section of my CV wasn’t completely blank, but as every academic knows, first-author papers are the only ones that really count.

Yes, the Paper From Hell is absolutely, positively, 100% done.  Forever.  A very small part of me is sad that no one’s going to keep going on the project—my results raised more questions than they answered, and there’s a lot more to be learned from that data set.  That is, if one is willing to wade through all the unusable data, duplicate data, and what-is-the-purpose-of-this? data, and deal with the shocking incompetence and patronizing approach of my former research advisor.  (Pro tip: if you’re going to be patronizing, be right.)

I should be utterly elated to have finally dragged this toxic thing through to the end.  Publication, however, is really quite anticlimactic.  My real sense of achievement came when I submitted it, five months ago.  Once I’d made it that far, I knew I could do the rest.  And most of the rest was waiting.  For all my venting about the referee’s comments, making revisions was essentially just working my way down a list.

So I’m writing this post to help myself feel a bit more accomplished.  To remind myself, as I struggle with the anxiety of working on a new paper (on a project that is way more fun), that I can do this.  I can do this.  I did this.  Hopefully I can do it a little faster this time, though.

Anybody else accomplished anything cool lately?

The fallacy of teaching by derivation

A large chunk of my research time this week was spent trying to teach myself a couple of relevant background concepts.  Whenever I find myself in this situation, the first thing that happens is that I feel really dense.  I’m an Nth-year PhD student, how could I not understand that topic?  The second thing that happens is that I get frustrated about the way the subject is presented in most references.

Without giving away too much about my field of study, let me just say that it can involve a lot of math.  But, for the most part, the math is applied: it’s used to describe real things that exist and happen.

The topics I was looking up this week were almost universally presented in texts and notes in this fashion:

  1. Brief introduction to topic.  We’re talking 2 or 3 sentences.
  2. Extensive, step-by-step derivation of the key equation(s) used to describe the phenomenon.  Usually these equations are named after people.
  3. [optional] Another handful of sentences explaining the results from part 2.

And, ta-da!  You know the math, so now you know the concept!

Except… my brain doesn’t work that way.  It doesn’t easily convert gammas and rhos and plus signs to a mental picture of real physical things.

It’s not that I’m bad at math.  I’m good at math, in fact.  Very good.  I don’t mean to brag or nuthin’, but my partial differential equations professor in college asked me for my notes at the end of the semester.  It can be time-consuming to work through derivations, but I can absolutely do it.

And it’s not that the math isn’t important.  Mathematics is a critical tool for describing, interpreting, and predicting the world.  If you’re in a highly applied field, like, say, architectural engineering, being able to do the math correctly could make the difference between a building staying up or collapsing on the people inside of it.

But knowing the math is not the same thing as knowing the concept.  Teaching the former does not automatically confer upon your students an understanding of the latter.

My brain isn’t the only one that struggles to convert equations to conceptual understanding.  During my time as a PhD student, I’ve been a teaching assistant (read: lab instructor, grader, substitute teacher, and cell-phone patroller) for a number of introductory classes.  Some of those classes were geared toward students hoping to major in the subject, while others were designed for folks trying to check a box on their list of Gen Ed requirements.

It turns out that there are exactly two differences between these groups of students.

One, the majors are significantly more motivated than the non-majors, on average.

And two, the majors are better at math.

You know what wasn’t a difference?  Their conceptual understanding.  The majors could rearrange equations and calculate numerical answers like nobody’s business, but they made the same basic errors as the Gen Ed students when asked to explain how things work.  All that math we were showing them didn’t help them build a better mental framework of the fundamentals.

So why do we do this?  Why is “teaching by derivation” the default in science and engineering?

Is it that there’s a subset of people whose brains do readily make the connection between math and concepts, and those are the people who go on to be STEM professors?

Is it that (and I suspect this is most likely) that our professors are just presenting the material the same way they were taught?

Or is it that (and I really do wonder if this might be a little true, too) that they don’t fully grasp the underlying concepts themselves?

Whatever the case, if you are teaching science or engineering, or putting together lecture notes, or writing a textbook, I beg of you: please, please, please explain the concepts before you go through all of the derivations.  If the derivations reveal new concepts, explain those too!  Use words!  Use pictures!  Be different!

Your students will thank you.

My advice to new PhD students: do what you love

Dear new PhD students:

It’s the end of September, and you’ve been in the thick of things for about a month now.  Chances are, the graduate school experience is feeling pretty intense at this point.  You’ve got homework.  Research.  Umpteen seminars and discussions.  Maybe teaching on top of that.  Some of you are thriving on the chaos, and some of you are worried you’re about to drown.

It’s right about this time that the senior PhD students in my department traditionally host a grad-to-grad advice lunch.  I missed it this year, which is probably better for everyone.  I am cranky and bitter and bad at small talk.

However, I do have one piece of non-cranky advice that I’d like to share with you, which is the following:

Do what you love.

Find the things in grad school that make you happy, and do them.  Pursue your interests.  Follow your curiosity.

You’re going to hear a lot of advice on what you “need” to do to be successful in academia.  Ignore it.  Or maybe don’t ignore it completely, but put it away in a mental filing cabinet, to be reviewed only periodically.

Because if you spend your time in graduate school worrying about how many papers you’ve written, or how many potential reference-letter-writers you’ve cultivated, or how many lines you have on your CV, you’re going to be miserable.

The best way to write papers is to care enough about your results that you want to tell everyone about them.

The best way to develop collaborations is have ideas you think are cool and skills you want to share.

If you’re working on something you love, the rest will follow.  It might not necessarily follow easily—you might, like me, dislike writing in general, or it just might not be your strong suit.  Maybe presenting at conferences will require getting over a fear of public speaking, or maybe your interests are so far-flung that they’ll take a little wrangling to shape into a coherent thesis.  But writing and public speaking are skills that can be learned.  They’re steps to an end goal (sharing your cool research with others), not the goal itself.

Somewhere along the line, you might discover that the things you love doing are not the things that academia thinks you should love doing.  That’s OK.  That’s something you need to know about yourself.

Do what you love.

Because if you don’t, you’ll end up like me: cranky and bitter and not totally sure why you’re still here.

All the best,

Me

I needed that today

I started the day feeling discouraged and wrung out.  Both physically—I’ve been fighting a cold—and mentally—I’m always fighting to stave off the thought that I’m never going to finish my PhD.  My one significant accomplishment of late (the Paper From Hell was accepted for publication!!!) had been deflated by the realization that there were small errors in two of the figures.  Very tiny errors, really; little points in the middle of a bunch of other points on a plot.  They have no effect on our interpretation of the data or the paper’s conclusions.  Still, they are real mistakes and will need to be fixed before the official version of the paper is published.

Fixing the mistakes means sending updated figures to the journal when I check the page proofs.  I think you can do that, but I felt so embarrassed about having to do it.  How could I have missed these details?  What is the editor going to think about having to sign off on the changes?

I was feeling completely un-confident about my ability to do anything right.

In a perfect coincidence, that’s when the hashtag #FailingInSTEM appeared in my Twitter feed.  Scientists were sharing their stories about screwing up in ways big and small.  It was such a relief to be reassured that everybody makes mistakes sometimes, even folks who go on to be very successful in academia and in life.

I learned that someone I deeply respect once had to issue an erratum to correct some misplaced points in a published plot.  Suddenly catching a similar issue at the proofs stage didn’t seem so bad.  This is the stage when I’m supposed to double-check everything one last time, right?

Sometime, when I’m feeling a bit more coherent, I’ll write a longer post on how academia promotes a culture of You Should Be The Best Perfect Best Amazing Perfect Researcher and how that’s fed the hungry brain monster of my perfectionism.  For now, let me just say that I wish we talked more about our mistakes.  It helps those of us who feel terrible about ourselves.  It really does.

Referee report ridiculousness

Research has been a huge, tedious drag this week—even more than usual, I mean.  At least I still feel like I’m inching ever-so-slowly forward.  I’m responding to the referee’s report on the Paper From Hell.

For my non-academic readers, when you submit a paper to a scholarly journal, your paper gets sent out to one or more reviewers.  These reviewers, or referees, decide whether the paper is worth publishing.  This system is called peer review, although grad students don’t typically do the reviewing, so the referee isn’t really my “peer” right now.  Anyway, if the referee thinks your paper is OK-ish, he or she writes a bunch of comments on how to make it better.

The good news is that the Paper From Hell was not rejected.  It’s likely to be published with maybe one more round of edits after this.  The really good news is that the referee (there’s only one in my case) made almost zero comments on my interpretation and conclusions, which I frankly think are the shakiest sections of the paper.  Nearly all of her/his feedback has to do with the technical stuff.  That stuff is solid; apparently I just have to make sure I explain it re-e-e-e-e-e-ally clearly.

The bad news is that my referee clearly doesn’t work in my (fairly broad) subfield, and has asked a bunch of rather dumb questions as a result.  There’s always a fair point to be made that if your reviewer didn’t understand something, other readers might also not understand it, and therefore you should make it clearer even if it already seems obvious.  And so I do, but not without rolling my eyes.

One part of the Paper From Hell, roughly two paragraphs long, says (and I’m paraphrasing here, obviously), “To accomplish Z, we did X, and then we did Y.”  The referee asks:

1) “To accomplish Z, did you do Y?”

2) “When you did Y, did you do Extremely Common Technique, or did you do Thing That Doesn’t Actually Work For Y?”

3) “Where you say that you did X, you should say that you did Y instead.”

These really are three separate comments in a 23-point list.

Item #15 was easy.  “You should show some figures of Q.  See item #21.”  Item #21 turned out to be a repetition of this request, along with more specific suggestions on what she/he wanted to see in these figures.  It remains unclear to me why it was necessary to list these as two distinct points.

The general cluelessness of the comments has left us debating whether our referee is a young, inexperienced person or a cranky old guy.  I’m leaning toward the latter.  The phrasing of the comments gives off a subtle vibe—it could just be in my head, but it’s persistent—of implying that we didn’t have a clue what we were doing.  Let this be a warning: beware of adopting that tone, lest it turn out that it is in fact you who are the ignorant one in the situation.

Still, in the end, it could be a lot worse.  I’ve tidied up some paragraphs, added a couple of new figures, and written some stuff about how “we thank the referee for a constructive report.”  I’ve tracked down some fiddly details from my co-authors (which involved some truly absurd conversations, but that’s a story for another day).  The referee will hopefully be happy with our response, and I in turn will be happy that I never have to work on this paper again.