The NSF and career-life balance

The NSF recently announced some new policies concerning work-life balance. There seems to have been a publicity push about it on the part of the White House, as it made the regular news. The main changes seem to be adding flexibility to grant rules for new parents. Mostly pretty obvious stuff like letting people delay the use of their grant if they go on parental leave. Good ideas to be sure, but mostly just catching up to what they already should have been doing.

This reminded me of one of my favorite ideas I’ve heard for an NSF policy change which would help career-life balance. Currently the MSPRF postdoc policy reads:

Changes in the host institution will be approved only under extremely unusual and compelling circumstances… Securing a position at an institution other than the proposed host institution is not considered an “extremely unusual and compelling circumstance.”

The suggestion is to change this by adding the line:

Nonetheless, if the fellow has a partner who is unable to procure a job near the sponsoring institution, and both the fellow and their partner have job offers in other city, that will be considered compelling circumstances.

A plea for putting grant applications online

A few years ago, I decided as a public service to post my old job application materials online.  Hopefully they were helpful to a person or two out there in the world.  I also tried to make that blog post a bit of a hint to people that they could do the same; I know Noah did, and at least one other person said in comments to that post that they would as well.

The problem with such things is that they aren’t that easy to find even when people put them up.  Being an old fogey who (God I hope) won’t be applying for jobs any time too soon, I’m more interested in NSF grant applications (which while lower stakes than job applications are more mystifying), but I don’t see any need to make a distinction.  I think the world as a whole would be a better place if more people put these documents online.  In that vein, I have a two-part proposal.

  1. You (the internet) make your old job application materials and grant applications available online.  You, of course, should use your judgement about how recent to go and what to include.
  2. I will make a webpage collating these; if you put them on your own website, I will link to them.  If you want I can host the documents myself.  Obviously, if you’d prefer I didn’t link, that’s fine too.

I’ve put a “proof of concept” webpage up with a few examples I already know. I may look a little bit for more for examples people have posted, but mostly I’m hoping people will come to me (after all, I don’t want to give people publicity they don’t want).

Crowdsourced department ranking

So, I was reading The Monkey Cage this morning, and happened upon a post about crowdsourcing rankings of political science and sociology departments.  Basically, there’s a website that lets you put in an arbitrary list of options (which it somewhat unfortunately insists on calling “ideas”) and gives the internet as a whole to vote on them pairwise.  Of course, the next step was obvious (and while, yes, it was procrastination, in my defense it was actually incredibly easy), so I set up such a listing for math departments.  If you have nothing better to do with your time, you can go and vote a bit.  You can also see the results, though of course, at the moment they are pretty meaningless (not that they won’t be meaningless after lots of people vote, but I think at the moment, some schools have received no votes either way).

Before anybody complains about the schools listed: I just took the listing of graduate programs in mathematics in the United States and Canada from the Notable Math Wiki.  Obviously, it was a little unfortunate to have to be so nationalistic (continentalistic?) but otherwise, I think the overwhelming number of pairs for anyone would have been two schools they had never heard of.  If somebody else wants to set up an option for schools in different parts of the world, of course, they are free.

EDIT: I decided the full list was just too unwieldy; I eliminated all the schools whose “score” (roughly their probability of being liked better than a random school) was below 40 (though, of course, the remaining ones are going to spread out now).  Interestingly, the results are not nearly as “conventional wisdom” as I expected; Northwestern is a lovely school, but I don’t think many would rank it above Harvard, MIT, and Princeton as it is at the time of writing.  If that’s a statistical fluke, presumably it will go away a lot faster now, as the remaining schools will get voted on more often.

What would be an ideal system through which amateurs can advertise their results?

(this is a guest post by Theo Johnson-Freyd)

Occasionally on MathOverflow (and elsewhere on and off the internet), amateur mathematicians try to advertise their research results and solicit feedback from professionals. For example, recently HH Hannett (who holds a long-ago BS in mathematics, but has been doing non-math engineering work for many years) asked a well-meaning but inappropriate-for-the-forum question about Where to submit a recent paper, and how to cope with the negative or dismissive responses received from a previous journal submission. In a comment on a subsequent (now-deleted) post, Hannett wished “that there might be a mechanism whereby amateur (“non-PhD”) contributions can get a fair shake …. Perhaps some sort of delegated, tiered system that a paper has to survive.”

Discussing whether/what/how such a system should exist/be like/be set up is, to my mind, valuable. A potential answer is that the existing peer-review process is already adequate. I could certainly believe that the best answer is “no change necessary”: I’m young enough that I don’t really know the full extent of the current system; maybe we should just continue to avoid the cranks. But most amateurs don’t want to waste professionals’ time — they want to do math, and for the same reason (it’s fun!) that professionals do, and the current academic system, clearly, does not provide sufficient outlets for well-meaning amateurs (or “cranks” wouldn’t be a problem).

My hope with this post, then, is to constructively generate some ideas for relieving this pressure. In particular, it’s all well and good to ask that amateurs learn and follow reasonable advice, but my goal is to come up with things that professionals can do (pro)actively. These ideas could range from the fantastical (design a better peer-review system! establish free universal advanced mathematics education!) to the specific (make “respond to amateurs” part of universities’ “service” requirements!). An important note: My goal is not to establish yet another thread in which we can swap stories of all the dumb things amateurs have sent us. That’s certainly a fun game, but there are other outlets for it.

So, netizens: What, specifically, are the weaknesses and strengths of the current system when it comes to amateur mathematics? What would
be an ideal system through which amateur mathematicians could advertise their work and solicit feedback? How can professional
mathematicians help to set up such a system?

(this is an addendum by Ben)

Maybe I should save this for the comments, but I can’t resist abusing my blog privileges and throwing out an idea.  I don’t think that any system that require a lot of input from people on the usual professional mathematics track is likely to succeed; it’s hard enough to get them to seriously read each other’s papers (for example, I’d much rather see a system whereby graduate students can read and give feedback on each other’s papers than one where they read amateur mathematicians).  But perhaps we can ask amateurs to review each other’s work.

One could have a website where anyone can upload preprints and then give people function to vote on the preprints, write reviews and vote on the reviews.  The power of your vote could be regulated using a page-rank type system where you only get real voting power as other people vote up your work.  This wouldn’t have to restricted to amateurs only, but it’s hard for me to imagine it catching on quickly with professionals.  Of course, it’s hard to know whether it would attract a big enough and diverse enough user base to effectively sort through papers, but you never know, it might.

More math news

In more parochial math news, my alma mater has hired Sophie Morel. This means that after 374 years we finally have a woman as a full professor. I don’t believe in congratulating a school for doing something that’s at least 75 years overdue (I hear that Emmy Noether was on the market in 1933), but as an alum I’m certainly relieved that this is no longer a continued source of embarrassment. This is just the first step, and I look forward to the day when Harvard has at least two women on faculty, like both of the other institutions I’ve been affiliated with.

Speaking of Prof. Morel, her advisor Gerard Laumon has quite the string of superstar students. Anyone know what the current record is for who has the most students with Fields medals?

Draft piece on Math Overflow for the Notices

Ravi Vakil, Anton Geraschenko and I are writing an opinion piece for the Notices about Math Overflow. Following in the fine tradition that John Baez started with his opinion piece about mathematical blogging, we’d like to post our draft here, and ask for suggestions and criticism!

Note that we’re working inside a fairly strict ~800 word limit for an opinion piece, so if you tell us to add a whole new section, expect to be disappointed. (On the other hand, we are listening for ideas about things that you feel should be covered in a longer article, as we’re writing one of those too!) Particularly helpful would be advice from anyone who’s standing a little bit further away from Math Overflow than we are, and can point out any background or context we’re implicitly assuming of the reader.

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“Et al” is unethical

So apparently the AMS has a document on Ethical Guidelines. It’s actually remarkably well done. It has lots of tips that can help young mathematicians learn how to behave professionally. I was also impressed by the way that the guidelines avoid making too controversial of stands (which would go beyond the basics of ethics) while still not being milquetoast. For example, “No one should be exploited by the offer of a temporary position at an unreasonably low salary and/or an unreasonably heavy work load” is certainly an ethical obligation, but one that may be difficult to live up to.

I also thought that the guidelines about correct attribution were well phrased. For example:

To give appropriate credit, even to unpublished materials and announced results (because the knowledge that something is true or false is valuable, however it is obtained);

I have my own suggestion for a guideline on ethical use of citations: you should never ever use “et. al.” citations. Furthermore, if journal typesetters add them you should ask them to replace them with full citations.

If a bibliography just says “et al.” many readers are never going to get around to looking at the other names thereby effectively failing to properly attribute everyone. People at the end of the alphabet are already at enough of a professional disadvantage (see What’s in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success by Liran Einav and Leeat Yariv,), the use of “et al” just exacerbates this.

Hat tip: I learned about this document in a MathOverflow comment by Bill Johnson

In which I freep the President

In this blog (in contrast to when you meet us in person), we tend to steer away from politics. But, of course, we do make an exception for science/technology politics, and I’d like to talk to you about some of that today. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is holding an open web forum on access to scientific results; specifically, how to craft a policy for when to require federally funded research to be openly accessible. I recommend that all of you go and leave respectful comments encouraging as strong a requirement along these lines as possible.

You also might want to go sign this petition for open-access in the EU.

Remarks on career advice

There have been a few questions about the job application process on MathOverflow, and I’d like to make a few remarks in an open forum.

First of all, I think there have been some really good questions, and really good answers. I found it especially illuminating when mathematicians who have been on hiring committees weighed in on what they thought was important in an application. Depending on your social circle and who your advisor is, it can be difficult to get accurate information when you are a graduate student (or a postdoc – I recently learned that my research statement was too long by a factor of 2 or 3). So, hats off to the people who give well-informed advice. Please keep it up.

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