Secret tricks: Never ever pay for access to a scientific article!

It is a cold shock to see a request for money for a scientific article. I just saw one for $35.95 for a paper I actually wrote! Now why would I pay for a paper I published in 2014? I subscribe to the journal, as does my institution. It isn’t new. It isn’t going to lead to any patents or anything, though I’m happy to see it has been cited 11 times already. I could have found it on my own computer, but searching Google Scholar can be more convenient.

I am strongly for open source everything. Second to that, why can’t every journal follow what PNAS does, make everything available after 6 months, and immediately from many countries? I publish often, but not always, in open journals, but this is not the topic for this entry. What do I do when I hit one of those infuriating pay walls? First, remember never to pay!

I’m at a university that subscribes to a lot, so I have a way to just proxy the request and get the article. This nearly always works for me, but it may not for you. What should you do if you are not at a university that subscribes to the journal?

  1. Email the author. They will nearly always quickly send you a PDF of the paper.
  2. Email a friend who can get the paper for free because they are at a university.
  3. Go to a university and work in their library or elsewhere if you can then log on as a guest and get behind the paywalls.
  4. If you are willing to move on the edge, go to Sci-Hub. I’m not posting a URL because this a cite that breaks copyright, which is illegal in many places, so I’m guessing the host changes often. I might have entered the URL of my own paper into Google, gone to the first site, which might have been in Cyrillic alphabet, and I might have entered the DOI of my paper and bingo, it might have downloaded just like it looked in the journal.


    Vulture publishers put up paywalls

So, yes, this blog is really a place to tell you about Sci-Hub. Here is the Wikipedia article about it. I have heard some people with the same ability to get behind the pay wall with proxies, use Sci-Hub because it is fast and convenient. It may not be easy to email all the authors of papers you want.

My research is paid for by two sources: the National Science Foundation, which is a USA federal agency supported by our tax dollars, and my university, a non-profit which means it is also supported by tax dollars since it doesn’t pay taxes. Why should some other party be allowed to block my work from ready access? I know this is in my hands and I can publish only in open places, but for my students that is a decision that could hurt them. Also, my actions are not going to change the whole system very soon.

The publishing climate is changing quickly. Until everything is free, there are options. Use them and read!

Posted in Public Communication, Research | 3 Comments

What is the point of a grad school rotation?

In a way a grad school rotations are like trying on a family. With our actual families we don’t get to do that, but why should you commit to a research group based on a couple of days of interview? A research group could be a bad fit for a lot of reasons. You might not get along with the professor that heads the group. You might not like the research. You might want more guidance, or less guidance. You might want a group with more resources. You might want a larger group or a smaller one. You might want a more eminent or wise mentor. All of these things can be worked out with a few rotations.

So how do you learn what you need to know in a rotation? First, it is essential that you understand the point of rotations. There is only one and it is to choose a lab group for your Ph.D. (I don’t know if Master’s degree programs have rotations but if they do, they should be short.) Here at Washington University, the Plant and Microbial Sciences program has a particularly thoughtful description of how a rotation should inform you about research. In that program, rotations are to last no more than 6 weeks and can be ended after 3 weeks if it is clear in that time that the lab is not a good fit. You have to do at least three rotations, so if you think you know where you want to go, you could do 2 trial 3 week rotations, then the lab of choice. You might even change your mind!. The point is to try on a lab, not to get a significant research project done or to learn any particular techniques.They expect that a grad student will affiliate with a lab no later than 1 May of their first year.

I would go even further than that and say all rotations should normally be completed in fall of the first year. If there is truly no expectation of accomplishing significant research, will it really take 6 weeks to decide on fit? I think 4 weeks will do. The above-mentioned program also states that the expectation is that a student spend only 10 to 15 hours per week at the bench in the trial lab.

The reason rotations should be completed quickly is that it is important to get on with your real grad school research. The sooner you affiliate with a lab, the better. After all, there is no reason to stay in grad school any longer than necessary and rotations just delay the process.

One thing that rotations do not do is teach substantive material. We have often thought students could learn cool techniques when rotating. But they do not. During the rotations they tend to do the easier things. After all, who is going to invest a lot in teaching the hardest techniques to someone who is going to leave? Learn through courses, through collaborations, or through contacts specifically set up to learn particular techniques.

Rotations work better in some areas than others, but this difference diminishes with the understanding that real research will not be accomplished. When I was first a professor back in the early 80s at Rice University, the only two ecology/evolution types were me and Paul Harcombe. Rotations did not make sense because few grad students came into the program uncertain as to whether they might want to work on forest ecology or wasp behavior.

The PMB program here has some additional good advice. They recommend not planning any rotation beyond the current one too far in advance. This is because you might change your mind, and rotations are a time to explore. They also state that no discussions of where a student will eventually affiliate should take place with mentors before the rotations are done.

Rotations in our group have not generally followed the philosophy here. They have been longer and more intense. I think that should change for the student’s best interest. Rotate only to decide on fit, leave when it is not right, affiliate if it is, no later than 15 January of your first year, if possible.



This is the goal, a successful Ph.D. defense! Congratulations, Tracy!

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Do you have a lab philosophy?

Recently our lab group spent a bit of time deciding on exactly how we want to interact with one another. What is this  whole lab group business all about? What are the rules?

My father taught me about academia over thousands of dinner table conversations, including this one at his 90th birthday.

My father taught me about academia over thousands of dinner table conversations, including this one at his 90th birthday.

What are the guidelines? Do we have an overall philosophy? We want to figure out cool science and learn how to do that and to discover. We hope this document will make it easier for a new person to thrive in our group. I hope you have a similar document. I certainly looked at a number of these before presenting the group with an early draft of this one. Feel free to take what works for you.  I like having the three different sections and feel they do different things. We give everyone a copy and have them sign one, so they can’t say they didn’t see it. We reinforce certain things verbally (back up plans, for example).

Here it is:


Queller/Strassmann Group: Philosophy, Guidelines, and Rules

updated 11 July 2016 (Copyright CC 4.0 International, ), use, modify, with attribution and maintaining sharing.


Welcome! We are at Washington University in St. Louis. We study social evolution and mutualisms. We are interested in how natural selection acts on traits that influence interactions, which means we mostly use theory from kin selection and symbiosis. We focus on social amoebae, Dictyostelium, and their microbial affiliates. We use observation of natural clones, theoretical modeling, microscopy, fluorescence, experimental evolution, molecular evolution, knockout libraries, many cell biology techniques, microfluidics, genomics, next generation sequencing, and phylogenetics as tools and approaches.


Principal Investigators: David Queller,

Joan Strassmann,

Laboratory head: Debbie Brock,

Technician: Usman Bashir,

For others, see personnel sheet or web page,


We have a blog,


Structure of research and learning in the Queller/Strassmann group.

  1. Lab meeting is Wednesdays at 9:00 in McDonnell 412. We alternate between talks and discussing articles. Most current schedule is posted in break room and web page.
  2. Lunch in the break room is generally 12:00 to 1:00. All are welcome.
  3. Meet with Joan and Dave. We have an open door policy and are happy to talk any time. We will set up meetings periodically. We are usually at lunch and are happy to talk.
  4. Sign out on break room calendar if you are going to be out of the office one or more days. This is a permanent record of time out of the lab, which Joan keeps.
  5. Get shared information. This includes the Dicty manual, Excel sheets of clones, shared files.
  6. Undergraduate Research Perspectives Tuesdays at 5pm, academic year.
  7. Undergraduate Summer Meetings are undergrad only, run this summer by Junior Erica Ryu.
  8. Seminars are worth going to: Monday 16:00 departmental seminar, Thursday 16:00 Ecology and Evolution seminar, alternate Fridays 16:00 Bioforum, see all here: other seminars on med campus, DBBS, here: or Anthropology, or Psychology,



  1. Ask and answer big questions.
  2. Research and discovery are really fun.
  3. Do careful science, with controls, appropriate statistics, and alternative hypotheses.
  4. Finish your work through to publication in a timely but thorough manner.
  5. Learn the natural history of your organisms.
  6. Understand the history of your question.
  7. Read and re-read the literature. You will take away different things from additional readings.
  8. Learn new techniques, lab, field, genomics, cell biology, evolution, statistics, modeling.
  9. Writing is essential; is best learned by doing it frequently.
  10. Never lose anything because it was not backed up properly, daily in the cloud.
  11. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.
  12. People work best when they have a say in what they do.
  13. Collaboration is synergistic and leads to great science.
  14. Ask questions often; brainstorm with others on anything new.
  15. Your time in this group is one of discovery. Make the most of it!



  1. Read the literature. You need to stay up to date with what is going on. Subscribe to tables of contents. Set up alerts on Google Scholar for topics that interest you, kin selection, endosymbiosis, Dictyostelium, Burkholderia, people’s names, or whatever you like. Read the abstracts as they come in and read a paper or more every day.
  2. Design careful experiments. Consider alternative hypotheses. Run power analyses on dummy datasets. Do all the right controls. “To call in the statistician after the experiment is done may be no more than asking him to perform a post-mortem examination: he may be able to say what the experiment died of.” Ronald Fisher.
  3. Visualize your hypotheses and your results effectively. Become a master of clear figures, appropriate to the data and show distributions.
  4. Write your papers as soon as possible. Getting your work done and out there is essential. The best plan is to write at least once a week, ideally every day. Write an introduction and methods before you begin and modify them as you go along.
  5. Write up methods and protocols as you do them and share. This is particularly important for undergrads and people new to the group, and will help with ultimate paper writing.
  6. Accept mentoring and be a mentor and teacher. We all have a lot to learn and can do this by helping others and learning ourselves. Mentoring a student is a responsibility. Keep careful track of your students and ask us for mentoring advice.
  7. Ask questions all the time! Remember the Star Trek quote: “I respect an officer who is prepared to admit ignorance and ask a question, rather than one who, out of pride, will blunder blindly forward” -Capt. Jean-Luc
  8. Be helpful. You might know something that could be helpful to someone else that you realize before they do. Take the initiative and talk to them. Science is not a zero-sum game. Careers might be zero-sum because there are only so many positions. But even that is not a competition against your labmates. It’s a competition against everyone and one of the best ways to compete is cooperative collaboration with your labmates.
  9. Learn new things. Take MOOCs, talk to other lab members and learn specific things all the time, whether they be techniques, approaches, or something else, planning active learning is always good. Take workshops regularly and sign up early:
  10. Address authorship issues early. Authorship in a collaborative lab group can be challenging. You should ideally be first author on work you lead and write. There can be ties and they should be discussed and resolved in ways fair to all. When in doubt, include someone as an author. Joan and Dave have final say on all authorship issues.
  11. Talk to people outside our research group. There are people outside our group who know things we do not know and they can help.
  12. Apply for funding. There are funding opportunities available for all levels of researchers from undergrad to postdoc. Apply for funding whenever possible. Be sure to workshop any proposals with the group and to give them to Joan and Dave with plenty of time for review. Grad students can apply for DDIG, NRSA, GRFP and others. Postdocs can apply for NRSA and sometimes for NSF or LSRF and others. There is also Sigma Xi, and others. Maybe someone can find a list!



  1. Be safe at all times. Stay up to date on safety training. Dress safely. Read equipment manuals and SDS No flame should be left on for a second without you being in front of it. Do not push Bunsen burners back under the lights. Do not eat or drink in the lab. Help others to stay safe by telling anyone immediately if they are doing something unsafe. Report any safety issue, large or small.
  2. Treat everyone with respect. A friendly laboratory atmosphere is essential for productive, fun research. There are no stupid questions and everyone is deserving of support and help.
  3. Benefit from the synergy of working when other people are in the group. We do not want to tell you exactly what your hours should be, but they should overlap with normal business hours daily because cooperation and collaboration are facilitated in this way. If there are problems we will give you more specific instructions.
  4. Clean up after yourself and leave all areas neat and clean. It is very important when working in shared areas that you do not leave a mess anywhere. Areas of particular concern are the balances, the gel rig areas and other common areas. Everything should be labeled with your name and date.
  5. Do not begin a project without a careful plan approved by the PIs. This plan should be written and discussed with Joan and Dave. The work should address an important scientific question, should show deep familiarity of the background literature, show through power analyses that the sample sizes will be appropriate, alternative hypotheses considered, and the methods are feasible. Play with the system to be sure you can do the things you want to do, but the project needs discussion and approval. This is crucial for avoiding problems in study design or inadvertent overlap among lab members. The design can take the form of part of the paper, intro and methods, for example, or a small grant proposal.
  6. Write everything in your laboratory notebook. Your laboratory notebook should be a complete reflection of what you do in the laboratory. It should contain what you do, why you did it, and what you thought about the results. If you choose to do this using your computer, you must print out your work and put it in a loose leaf or other lab notebook at least once a month. Every page should be dated in a way that makes month and day clear (e.g. 6/VI/16, with month roman, or spelled out 6 June 2016. Scientific notation is day month year.
  7. Protect the integrity of your physical samples. If you have collected wild clones, isolated DNA, made labeled transformants, or have any other physical sample, make sure you have a list that includes where the samples are. Ideally they will be in two different minus eighty freezers. Everything should be labeled carefully, with your name, date, and other information as specified for your material. All material remains in our lab, though you may take copies.
  8. All samples, transformants, and lab notebooks remain in our laboratory. Feel free to take a copy of samples, transformant clones, or your lab notebook, but originals remain with us. Lists of your material go to Joan and to the lab server.
  9. Enter clone information in the database and give us 3 vials of each. We are starting a database in which we will have all clones, transformants, bacteria and the like in the freezer in 2 places with everything catalogued. By the end of the summer or if you leave the group, we should have physical samples and entries in the master database.
  10. Protect your data and writing. You must have a clear, automatic back up system, at least daily, and off-site, including cloud back ups for data and Time Machine for computers, or equivalent.
  11. Pay attention to your email. There are many ways of communicating. Use them to your advantage, but you must be responsible for anything sent by email.
  12. Do the trimesterly reports. Three times a year, we ask for an updated CV, a reflection on what you have done in the last 4 months and what you plan to do in the next 4 months. At this time you should give us lists of materials stored and bring your lab notebook to the discussion.
  13. Sign out on the calendar. Let others know in advance if you are not in on any day. The group has worked well without a formal vacation policy, but this could change if there are problems.
  14. Make sure that anyone you are mentoring is practicing good science and following all the rules and guidelines.
  15. Name any file you send to Joan or Dave beginning with your last name.
  16. If there is a problem of any kind, or something you do not know or understand, let one of us know. We are committed to making our laboratory an excellent place for learning and discovery.

Additional rules for undergrads.

  1. Hours counted as paid must be on research. You may not do homework, read material unrelated to the lab, eat lunch, or any such things while being paid by us. You can only work 37.5 hours per week for pay in the summer.. Since we want our lab to be a warm community for you, you may do outside work like homework in the break room but not during lunch hours, 12:00 to 1:30. We love for you to eat lunch with us.
  2. Always be really sure you understand your project. Research is most fun if you understand it, what the big question is, the specific question, and how the actual research will address it. Keep learning and research gets more and more fun.
  3. Take the undergrad courses, Undergraduate Research Perspectives, Bio 4935, and the summer writing and meeting. These courses are required if you are doing research in our group. Weekly writing of 300 words on something scientific, ideally something on your project are due to Joan Wednesdays at midnight.
  4. Participate in the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the spring, and give an 8 minute talk on your research at the end of the summer in our group.
  5. Be on time. If you have an emergency, let your mentor know as soon as possible, certainly before you are late.
  6. Tell us if you break or contaminate something. It is a normal part of learning to break things and inadvertently contaminate resources. Try not to, but if you do, tell us immediately.


Additional rules for grad students and postdocs.

  1. It is your responsibility to keep abreast of the requirements of your program or visa. This includes teaching, required courses, timely committee meetings, attending seminars and generally being a good grad student citizen. As part of our continuing mentoring of you, we expect you to choose to TA for Joan or Dave for your first required TA assignment. You can choose to do your second TA for Joan or Dave or someone else consistent with your career goals.
  2. Learn how to mentor undergrads well. They should have a big question, should learn a set of techniques and then be given increasing levels of autonomy. They should not watch you do stuff except for first time learning. Get advice from more senior people in the group. A second or third year undergrad should be working on a project they can do largely on their own. Do not take on a new summer undergrad if you are going to be gone too much.
  3. Figure out how to publish two papers a year, at least after the first 3 years of graduate school. This is going to be challenging, but one can be something you take the lead on and the other can be something you help with. This is to your benefit. Always be alert to new discoveries or ideas that can lead to a paper. The more you write, read, and run statistics, the more quickly your research results can be transformed into a compelling publication.



I have read this document and will ask questions if there are things I do not understand. I am up to date on all safety issues. I will treat everyone with respect.

Printed Name: _________________________________ Date:______________________________

Signature: ________________________________________________________

Posted in Group leadership, Life in the DNA lab, Mentoring, Undergraduates, Your lab group | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Remembering Bill Loomis, a Dictyostelium colleague

Bill Loomis at the Asheville Dicty meeting 2013

Bill Loomis at the Asheville Dicty meeting 2013

Bill leaned towards me, slightly lopsided but intent, holding a glass of white wine at an angle that almost kept it from spilling on me. It was clear he wanted to figure out what I was up to, not quite staring, but listening hard. He always had an opinion and often they were useful. But just as developmental biology is not my strength, evolutionary biology was not his, so there was conflict as perhaps neither of us respected our knowledge limits.

My collaborator, David Queller, and I came late to the world of Dictyostelium, first getting introduced to the players at the Dundee Dicty meeting of 2000. Since we were a lateral transfer, we had no history, had not grown up in any camp, and did not know the issues or the factions. But it wasn’t too hard to figure out who the silverbacks were. I won’t list them all here, but clearly Bill was one of them. So were Pauline Schaap, Rob Kay, and Jeff Williams. People talked about Peter Devreotes, who I think was not at that meeting, in hushed tones of respect. But for us most of all the best silverback was Rich Kessin, who treated us like a new-found treasure with a different perspective. He helped with an intensity and care I hope I can remember to offer to future newcomers to any closed group. Also a cell biologist, but one with a very global view, Rich shared with us what he could, even triumphantly pointing out that our two most likely future collaborators, Adam Kuspa and Gadi Shaulsky, worked at Baylor College of Medicine, right across the street from us. And they, of course, were former postdocs of Bill Loomis.

The good thing about Bill was he was always around to chat since his need for a cigarette took him away from many talks. We quickly figured out that we learned more from private conversations than from the lectures, so we spent a lot of time with Bill. He was always skeptical, but not unwelcoming. He was not the one at that first meeting that actually asked me what we were doing there, as if we were threatening intruders.

We only know Bill from Dicty meetings. Sometimes he was a bit over the top, insisting how much he valued our presence, but giving us an undesirable first or last slot to talk. I think we confused him, but we had shared friends in Gadi and Adam. And when he could be, Bill was very helpful. Perhaps the best time was when we were puzzling over all the very long triplet DNA repeats in Dicty and wondered if they were expressed. Bill had a blot that showed that in fact one of the largest ones was, and let us use this unpublished datum.

Colorful, larger than life personalities make things fun, but can offend. Bill was certainly more in the former than the latter camp. What would a Dicty meeting be like if you couldn’t count on finding Bill smoking away, skipping a talk, giving opinions on just about everything?

After we had seen Bill at multiple Dicty meetings, he seemed more accepting of us. He told some family stories. Apparently he grew up in a very intellectual family, discussed in a book called Tuxedo Park. What I remember is Bill telling of hanging as a kid on the stair railing as people below, major intellectuals of that time, talked about things like splitting the atom.

Bill Loomis, opinionated, penetrating, interested in everything, and fun. I’m going to miss you! You died too young, but thus did not suffer the indignities that extreme old age eventually brings to us all.

Posted in Scientific community, Scientific meetings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

You have ten minutes to win a great score on your grant proposal

Have you seen the studies that indicate a high correspondence between what students say about your class when queried after 10 minutes and after an entire semester? What if a similar effect influences whether or not your grant proposal is funded?

The panel member has just opened your proposal. She spends ten minutes reading the introductory material, perhaps flipping to some other section also. She peruses your aims. She might look at your publication list or at what university you call home. In these first few minutes she is forming an opinion of your proposal. This first opinion might be very hard to change. She may well spend the rest of the time reading through the proposal to justify her first opinions, finding either flaws in the details of the methods for a negative outcome, or strengths for a positive one. If those first few minutes color everything what should we do?

Really? Only ten minutes for my proposal?

Really? Only ten minutes for my proposal?

You may argue vehemently that you absolutely do not do this when you read a proposal. You read the whole thing before judging. You are careful. The process is fair. But how do you know? Anyone who reads much of Daniel Kahneman or Daniel Ariely among others realizes how little we understand of how we actually make judgements. (Why did two male names come to my mind first anyway?)

Of course it is true that a grant proposal is carefully read and discussed. A reader might change their mind in the process. There might actually be a subtle fatal flaw in the methods. What  looked very creative might not actually be so original. The disjointedness of the proposal might reflect a similar problem in the thinking. But when I look even at my own funded and unfunded proposals, there seems to be a huge random factor. Does some of that come from the impressions from the first ten minutes?

So what do you do? Polish. Make the headings look harmonious and informative. Help the reader see the connections and the structure, even after a quick glance. Sooth the reader with clarity. Make the different aims connect to a larger goal, a complete picture. Do not use negative words, even if you are saying you won’t do those things. The word might stick longer than the context. Break the text up with nice figures on important points. Hold the reader’s hand.

Give the proposal to friends and time them, giving them 10 minutes to look at the proposal and give a quick opinion. They should know what it is about and how you are going about answering the questions even in this short time. You might even try the same thing for slightly longer periods, or even just five minutes.

The good news is that doing things for the first 10 minutes also helps the entire proposal. But if you still do not think this can possibly be true, think about grading essay exams. I imagine you are like me and do this blind. But sometimes you sneak a look at who it is. If it is a generally good student, you can almost feel your brain frantically finding reasons why a weak essay is actually stronger than it is, or a good one is actually shallow.

So, try to be the careful reader throughout when you are on the panel. Write your own proposal early so you can bring even complex and exciting research problems to clarity in ten minutes.


Posted in Grant proposals | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Who gets to be the corresponding author?

Let’s just get one thing straight about authorship. It is a political statement. Like all political statements, it is highly subject to dispute, but also has some underlying truth. Authorship is a convention and the conventions are different in different fields. Authorship rules also change with time. If you want my overall philosophy, it is to fit in with your field and to be generous both with authorship and issues like author order and who is senior or corresponding author.

When I was trying to decide what laboratory to join as an undergraduate, I first visited a neurobiology lab on the med campus at Michigan (almost no one knows this, but it is true). The kindly professor showed me around a bit and gave me a few reprints. I also met his technician. I don’t remember how it came up, but I will never forget what the professor told me about authorship. It was that the technician did a great deal of the work and got her credit in the acknowledgements, which was just what she wanted, he explained. Right then and there I decided that being acknowledged was not what I wanted and did not join that lab.

Chandra Jack, first author and corresponding author,

Chandra Jack, first author and corresponding author,

But 40 years ago it is probably true that technicians were more likely to be acknowledged than to be in the author list. That has changed. Many other things have changed, like the size of collaborating groups and what constitutes a publishable unit. I could write about who gets to be first author, senior author, or last author. But instead for now I’ll focus on something else, corresponding author.

The corresponding author is the one who gets a little indication by their name for correspondence and then their contact information is given, at least an email address. I opened the latest issue of Evolution and see that for one paper Erik Svensson is both first author and is the one with an email address, though no formal designation of corresponding author is given. The next paper I opened from the same issue of Evolution has the last author, Nick Royle, as the one with an email. How about PLoS Biology? Planarians has a little envelope sign by the last author, as does a CNS myelination paper. It seems like the corresponding author is being used here to indicate whose lab the work was done in. How about ecology? Also in PLoS Biology, from January, a paper on forest biodiversity has the little envelope by the first two authors. Another paper has it by both the first and last author. In the journal, Ecology, it was the first author with the little envelope on all of the papers I checked.

What does corresponding author really mean when we can usually easily find the email of any author we choose? Are they really the only one we should communicate with? Does the corresponding author tell the official party line about the study, leaving out all the difficulties?

I think corresponding author is being used to claim leadership for the work. This is probably really annoying for postdocs and graduate students who would like to be the one to talk about their own work. But the PIs of the lab might feel ownership also, even if they didn’t do the hands-on work, particularly if the project was part of a grant they wrote.  If you are looking for a rule on how to balance these two legitimate kinds of claims, probably between first and last authors, it is a good idea to think about who will automatically get credit and who might benefit from more recognition. Under this criterion, corresponding author should go to the earlier-career person.

Oh, of course corresponding author has nothing to do at all with who paid for anything, publications or otherwise. And, no, it is not just about who handles the paperwork of the submission. It is a political statement. From among the qualified authors, use it to benefit the newest person where it can do the most good.

Posted in authorship | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

How to write a tenure letter about a colleague


We got tenure a long time ago, but are still active in the process.

Letters that inform a committee on whether or not someone should get tenure are really important because the deciders include people that do not  know the field. They can be deans and department chairs from other departments and ultimately a university wide committee. Think of these people when you write a tenure letter. Explain things you might not explain to your closest colleagues.

In some respects this is a letter like any other, where you should make clear some standard things. As I mentioned in the cited post, you should give an overview, how you know the person, what they have discovered and why it is important, then make them come alive with a story or two and finally mention any special skills or techniques they use or have developed. But a tenure letter is special. It is a potentially 30 or 40 year commitment to someone’s entire active career. How can you make a judgement on that?

Elsewhere, I have written about the importance of helping someone get tenure. I view tenure failure as a social failure and an extremely expensive one, though it is perhaps not as expensive as a tenure mistake. But mentoring is done and you are now helping a department and university decide what to do next.

If you are an outside letter writer you should focus on what you know, the research career. Don’t try to interpret the teaching or service statements. Leave that to the home institution. Instead try to communicate the importance of the work. Most of the time I view tenure letters as advocacy pieces where you are explaining to a possibly unfriendly or distant administration why your whole field and this person’s work in particular is important. This can be fun and easy. You don’t have to read everything. Focus on 5 or 6 cool papers, taking care that some of them are very recent.

But you would not be doing your job properly if you did not alert the readers to possible warning signs. Has early productivity continued? Are there some cool recent ideas? Does the professor seem to be expanding or changing field or is he essentially repeatedly re-doing his dissertation? Growth is essential for continued productivity in this business. Look for new collaborations, new ideas, an active group. If the person’s fame is all from early on, tell the reader.

The first tenure letter I ever wrote I spent a week on. I read everything the person wrote. I pored over all the documents the committee sent me. To this day, I know that person’s early work well. I do not do this any more. You are not being fair to yourself and your own other commitments if you generally spend anything over 2 to 4 hours on this task. Remember, it is not micro details, but big picture that matters.

In fact it seems like the higher the recognition the shorter the recommendation. Some fancy national societies expect only a couple hundred words and a dozen or so references. You will write more than that and it may take some time to find the best dozen words, but don’t make the job bigger than it has to be.

Posted in Recommendations, Tenure | Tagged , | 1 Comment