Ask the grumpies: Can I really recommend accept with minor revisions in the first round?

Lucy asks:

I am trying to write a referee report on a paper and other than things I know are minutiae I have no comments!  Other than not showing anything causal (which the authors readily admit and isn’t really necessary for their question), I have no major criticism of anything they have done. The outlet is probably appropriate. So…do I seriously recommend publish as-is? Have you ever done that? It seems like such a cop out.

I think I have recommended some things be published with only minor revisions.  I know I’ve typed out under the Major section:  “I have no major concerns.”  And as an editor I’ve definitely gotten people making that recommendation, “Accept with only minor revisions”, even in the first round.  I just did one, in fact, that came back with “accept with minor revisions” from two reviewers in the first round.  And then I read it and was like, yeah, they should cut out that one section and see a copy-editor, but this is definitely an accept with minor revisions.

What you need to do so that the editor believes you (IMHO on the receiving end of these reports) is to explain in the cover letter why you think it doesn’t need revising.  So you say what you told me.  It exhaustively documents info, it doesn’t show anything causal but the authors are upfront about that and you don’t think it is necessary for them to show causation given the topic, the outlet is appropriate, etc.  The authors should be commended, etc.

It’s not enough to say, “accept with minor revisions” because then I’m all… should I trust you, or are you just lazy?  But if you can say why the paper is interesting and important/appropriate and anticipate problems that you don’t think are problems, then your letter is really helpful when I have to compare it to someone who, say, believes the paper should be rejected because it isn’t causal.  I had a situation like that once with two extremely enthusiastic reviewers and two who wanted to reject the paper outright and one of the rejects and one of the minor revisions were useless because they didn’t tell me anything useful.  If the second accept with minor revisions had told me why to accept, then the decision would have been a lot easier for me.  (Or if the other reject had said something other than, “this paper doesn’t cite [my papers]” even though it cited a literature review that contained said papers.)

Please use more topic sentences

In your technical writing.  Please!

What is a topic sentence, you ask?  Since they no longer seem to cover that in third grade…

A topic sentence is the first sentence in a paragraph that provides the main idea of the paragraph.  Essentially it introduces a paragraph and summarizes what the paragraph is going to say.  It isn’t, “Now we turn to Table 2”.   It isn’t, “[Author (DATE)] studies X.”  What does Table 2 say?  Why is it there?  Why are you talking about Author (DATE)?  What is the relationship to your paper?  Convey this information in the first sentence of each paragraph.

The topic sentence should tell you why that paragraph is there.  If you don’t know why that paragraph is there, then maybe it shouldn’t be.

This PSA brought to you by a grumpy rumbler who has had to do waaay too many referee reports recently.

Stocks and bonds, Writing and outreach

I had an idea.  Follow me, here:

For academic careers, writing is like investing in stocks.  Outreach and translational research are like investing in bonds.

Stocks and writing:  Get lots while you’re young.  You need to write prolifically enough to get tenure, and gain the national or international reputation you need for those outside letters.  Spread your name, become known in your field.  Start early.  Because the return is uncertain, put a lot of writing out there in the world (and buy stocks).  Stocks are a good investment when you have a long timeline until retirement; you have time to weather the ups-and-downs of the market and can have a higher tolerance for risk, in exchange for possibly higher returns.

Bonds and outreach/translation:  These are more effective when you’re older.  When you’re more experienced in your field, you have more experience and a reputation that you can leverage for influence.  Research-wise, you’ve got a better idea of what works and what’s worth developing further, as well as potential pitfalls and objections.  You also know people who can help spread your ideas.  You may have more time to devote to making the world a better place.  When you’re closer to retirement, you also want the safety and security of bonds: potentially lower return, but steady.

In financial investing, as in an academic career, you’ll need a balance and variety throughout your life.  You might want to be doing both of these things (and more!) at all times, but in varying ratios.  Diversify and rebalance your portfolio and life.

This idea: off the wall, or right on target?  Tell me, Grumpeteers.

Where do I get my research ideas?

This year I have been giving an awful lot of talks.  Along with these talks, I’ve been meeting with a lot of graduate grad students during my visit.  A  common question I get when I meet with a group of students (you know, the ones with free time) is how I get my research ideas.  This usually comes from students who are floundering without a dissertation topic.  I thought I’d write up my answer.

  1. First, I get ideas from my contrarian nature.  Perhaps it’s my math training, but I am always looking for a counter-example, I am always questioning statements taken to be true.  My own job market paper topic, in fact, was a reaction from a statement one of my professors had made in a second-year class that struck me as possibly not true and when I looked into it, I found very little research on the topic.  I figured out how to test it better than the one or two previous papers, and voila, an amazing paper.
  2. Another place to get ideas that haven’t been worked on over and over is to think about your own unique experiences.  This can be something as broad as thinking about your own female perspective on sexist things that your male-dominated field takes for granted (ex. all the new research coming out showing that women aren’t irrational, they’re just working under different constraints) or as specific as a public program that not many people know about but you know lots about because your grandfather was on it.  You have lots of unique things that you bring to your discipline.  Think about what they are.  Think about who you know.  Look at the broader world around you and question it.
  3. It is ok to start out feeling like you keep coming up with ideas that have already been done– when I started out, it seemed like when I started the lit review I’d find that the exact paper I wanted to write had been written 10 years ago.  But my next idea had been published 3 years ago.  And the one after that, maybe just out.  Eventually I started coming up with ideas that were working papers.  And then new papers.  You may also find yourself in the situation where you’re half done with a paper and it seems like you’ve just been scooped– but you haven’t been really– it is unlikely your paper is identical to this other one and if it is, you can still change things, pursue different directions, answer some things better, etc. to differentiate it.  You want to be working in a hot field because it means your question is important.  See if you can create conference panels with this other paper.
  4. It gets a lot easier once you’ve gotten immersed.  After you’ve started a project, you start realizing there are huge gaps in the literature– things you really need to know now in order to fully answer your question but that are themselves their own projects.  You’ll also come up with new questions that your project has provided you… if this is true, then why this other thing?
  5. If you don’t do a perfect job, that means future people will fill in the gaps in your literature later!  It’s kind of exciting seeing people do a better job than you did because they are taking your paper as a starting point.  You know, so long as they cite you.

Where do you get your ideas?  What advice would you give current graduate students looking for inspiration?

Ask the grumpies: How to handle the emotional aspects of moving for a job

Katherine asks:

A question about moving for a job, with a spouse:

I am about to finish my phd, and I’ve been interviewing for jobs all over the country. My husband and I currently live in his home state (where we met, but I have no ties to this place other than I love his family who mostly live in state), and if I wasn’t in the picture he would want to stay here (in this state) for the rest of his life. He hates our current city and doesn’t have good job prospects here anyway. We’re both really excited about moving away from here, but I’m feeling increasingly guilty about being the reason he’s going to move across the country to a place he’s never been – and nervous myself about moving to a place I will have probably only visited for 30 hours, tops. How did you and your partners handle the emotional aspects of moving for academic jobs?

Don’t feel guilty! This is a fun new adventure for both of you! Going to a new place that you’ve never been before and living there is a wonderful thing to do– you become more cultured and a better person. Like that wear sunscreen graduation speech goes (“Live in NYC but not so long that it makes you hard, live in LA but not so long as it makes you soft”). And if it doesn’t work out, you can do like #2 did and move again.  It’s only a permanent thing if you want it to be.

(Note:  #2 had to move for a job without her significant other– that was pretty awful emotionally.  But the moving to a new place means lots of fun new discoveries at first, even if you end up someplace that turns out to be a Blasted Wasteland and not a permanent living place.)

Good luck!

UPDATE:  We are NOT saying that there is anything wrong with Katherine.  We are not saying her feelings are abnormal.  We are not saying she’s a bad person for feeling guilty.  We are giving her permission to NOT FEEL GUILTY and to reframe this move as an adventure and a potential learning experience and not something permanent (unless they want it to be permanent).  Her husband is already excited about the opportunity.

So please, no more comments saying, “I disagree, Katherine has every right to feel guilty.”  Yes, she can continue to feel guilty if that’s what she wants to do.  But it wasn’t our sense that that was how she wanted to handle the emotional aspects of moving to a new place and trying to solve the two-body problem.

Part 2 of Writing Productivity: Quick starters

Part 1 is herePart 3 is herePart 4.

What follows is a series of chunks from a paper I wrote for a class.  If you’re my boss or co-worker (or mom), please don’t tell anybody my secret identity  :-)

The paper is about a topic near and dear to us here on this blog: how to be a more productive writer.

These sections are mostly unedited [they could use it but this is a blog post], but some parts have been snipped out for snappier reading (hahaha!).

In part 1 I talked about what ‘writer’s block’ might be.  In part 2, I discuss its opposite.  It’s behind the cut (for length).

Read the rest of this entry »

Ask the Grumpies: What to do after tenure denial?

Someone who is feeling quite grumpy writes:

I am hoping for some advice from you and your readers: I was denied tenure— what should I do?

Some background that might be useful: When I initially went on the job market, I had a fair bit of success and received several offers. I made a list of what I wanted in a job, asked the same set of questions during each campus visit, took notes, and made detailed charts comparing offers. I accepted a position at a SLAC that seemed great and (literally) checked all the boxes. My husband found a job in the same city, and we moved across the country.

I quickly began to suspect that I had made a mistake. Things were so different than promised that I actually dug out the notes I had taken on my campus visit to confirm that my memory wasn’t failing me. Both the department and institution are incredibly dysfunctional. The patriarchy is strong here.

I considered leaving many times. The economy and the academic job market were weak, but I did some (discreet) searches. Once, I was told I would receive an offer, but then the entire position was cancelled. My general plan, though, was to maintain professional connections, develop a long-term research agenda, and eventually leave the craziness behind. I wasn’t incredibly worried about tenure. However, tenure requirements rose dramatically fairly recently.* I scrambled to get more publications out, but turn around in my field can be slow, and I have several papers in the R&R stage.

1. What should I do now? I mean this almost literally. My institution does not offer a terminal year, so I need to figure something out! I can relocate. My husband has a job, so I can remain unemployed for the next year. I’d prefer not to adjunct, since I really should focus on getting ready for the job search. However, I’ve heard it can be difficult to search for academic jobs without an affiliation. I’d ideally like to stay in academia, but I’ve been told a tenure denial can be difficult on the job market. I’m not even sure how to explain it yet. I’m feeling a bit battered and bruised and am tempted to move to some Zika-free tropical island for a year.

2. Should I appeal? I wonder if anyone has any experience with this?

3. How do I deal with feelings of regret— regret that I didn’t take another job, regret that I didn’t leave earlier, regret that I’ve been working really hard at this job for years for no purpose, etc., etc., ?

Any advice really would be appreciated.

Congrats on the R&Rs!  If everything lands soon that will put you in a good position to go on the market.  Definitely revise and send those back out if you’re still holding on to them. (#2 says: Get those R&Rs out ASAP. That will help you in the future. Do this right away. A tenure denial per se may not hurt you on the job market that much, but a lack of publication certainly will. But R&Rs are a great step! Congrats on getting those decisions. Now revise until they say yes.)

1.  That is bizarre about not offering a terminal year.  We agree that you should try to get affiliation somewhere, but disagree about whether or not that affiliation should come with adjuncting.  #2 thinks adjuncting a class or two to get the affiliation is fine.  #1 thinks you should not adjunct if you can afford not to and to spend that additional time researching or job hunting.  She suggests to see if you can keep your current affiliation for a year (no strings) or to find an affiliation elsewhere.  Many places will be happy to give you an unpaid official position that allows them to put you on their website and allows you to use their letterhead, and possibly library, but not much else.

Additionally, if you are movable, the temporary (but non-adjunct) job market isn’t over yet.  You may still be able to aim for a visiting professor position for a year… we sometimes hire for emergency temporary positions in the summer which come with full benefits and a reasonable salary.  Or, depending on your field, you can also look for post-doc positions depending on your field.  These types of jobs often target people right out of the market who didn’t land a TT job, but if you can find out about them and you’re able to move, you may be in a very strong position for such positions.  If you are going to be teaching, aim for someplace more prestigious than your current institution if you can.

2.  #1 and #2 are in complete agreement on this item.  The job sounds like it sucks horribly.  If you appeal and get the job, would you want to keep it?  It doesn’t sound worth the hassle of an appeal.  However, there are some things to think about, like your other job opportunities, your husband’s other job opportunities, etc.  If you’re in a case where you’re kind of stuck where you are and there aren’t other job opportunities then an appeal might be worth it.  If you have more flexibility, spending the year waiting for things to land and publishing new stuff sounds like a better idea. #2 notes: don’t appeal. This is a blessing in disguise. Read stories from people who were denied tenure and later became successful either at another school or in another career. There are many better places to work (both inside and outside of academia). Remember academia is just a job, and you can get another one.  #1 notes that she does have a friend who did a successful appeal– zie had a bunch of R&R stuff that landed during her extra year and suddenly was a hot commodity on the market (we tried to lure hir away ourselves).  But hir case was different– zie’d had some bad luck with publication timing (and lack of early mentoring) and pretty much all of the papers that should have been published while tenure track landed at the same time when it was too late.  There wasn’t a problem with the department, just bad luck, and everyone was happy about the appeal which succeeded.  (Query:  Would appealing extend your affiliation without forcing you to teach?)

3.  #1 says:  Sunk cost And, of course, you’ve learned a lot of things since taking this job, you’ve made a difference in people’s lives, etc. etc. etc.  There is no optimal decision and in any case, you can’t change the past, you can only look at where you are now and go forward.  It sucks, but now you’re going to end up in a better situation.  This is an opportunity and somehow the universe has decided you’re not allowed to be miserable at this horrible school all your life.  It made the choice for you so you didn’t have to.  #2 says:  Try a counselor. I bet you have lots of feels right now. At the very least, cultivate your friends and share what you can with them. Ask for whatever support you need from them. Non-academics might not know what a big deal this is, but if your support system sees that you are in distress, then hopefully they’ll mobilize around you.

Additional comments:

Start saving up now and think about how not to get into debt.  Read your money or your life.

Think hard about what you want in a career and what your other opportunities are.  If your uni has a career counseling service, you can visit it– they don’t usually limit themselves to helping students.  Even better is talking to career counseling at your own grad and undergrad schools, especially if they have more resources.  Are there other parts of the country you’d like to live in?  Are there non-academic positions that would be of interest?

TALK TO PEOPLE.  Update your linked in profile, make sure all your work is on REPEC and you have a google scholar page, etc.  Email your grad school professors.  Talk to friends from grad school and who you’ve met at conferences or who like your work.  Email your papers to scholars whose work you cite.  Hook up with alumni groups virtually and in person.  Network like crazy.

Also:  Tenure denial does not have to be a negative signal on the job market.  Tenure denial means that you’re not just playing for a salary increase and you’re not wasting anybody’s time.  It means you are going to move. It means you’re willing to start as an assistant prof (unless you’re denied tenure at say, Harvard), so they don’t have to take as much of a risk on you.

When on the market, talk about how the department’s expectations changed, not in terms of more vs. less research but in terms of the emphasis placed on research vs. teaching/students/service (you weren’t not publishing, you were excelling in things that no longer counted) and as soon as you got the memo, you made the switch (while still being an excellent teacher/colleague) which is evidenced by your hefty pipeline, but you didn’t get the memo in time to help your case given some bad luck in timing (hopefully now resolved and resulting in publications).  Also you talk about what draws you to the other schools, etc.

But yes, focus on the job market. Do you want to stay in academia? Breathe, reflect, refocus. Work your professional networks as much as you can. Would your husband like to move? It could be an opportunity for both of you to work towards long-term career plans or hopes or experiments.

And here are some links from other places on the internets:

Good luck!!!

Grumpy nation, do you have any suggestions for our Grumpy colleague?  (Also, sorry we had to bump the how to take care of your glasses post, but this seemed timely and important.)


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