Sunday, October 7, 2012

Thinking about retirement

So as part of the standard paperwork overload of starting a new position, I had to fill out paperwork relating to my retirement account.  In both this new position and the position I had last year, I had two options: pension or private.

Unlike my old university, which let you choose one and then swap 5 years down the road if you so chose (one time only), at my new university, you have to choose one within 6 months of starting, and you can never, ever, ever (ever ever) go back.  Even if you leave the university and come back later, you're stuck in that same original choice.

The pension plan is typically a good deal if you plan to stay with that university (or within the state university system) for the rest of your career.  The way the pension plan works (at least at my new university), is you put in a set amount of your paycheck (~10%) into the pension plan (pre tax), and when you retire, they calculate how much your pension will be based on a special formula.  From what I understand, this formula takes into account how many years you've worked for the pension system (30 years seems to be what's needed to get the 'maximum' benefit), an average of your highest 3(?) salaries, and how old you are. So hypothetically, if you worked 30 years paying into the pension system, was of retirement age (~67ish?), and your highest 3 years of salary were $100,000, you'd end up somewhere with $80,000/year in pension until you croak.  If you worked fewer years, retired earlier, or made less salary, your pension would be lower.  Still, the benefits are largely guaranteed, so once you put in your time, you can sit back and let the cash roll in.
...So that seems like a pretty sweet deal.

The 'alternative' retirement program worked as follows: You put in the same amount (pretax) that is withheld from the pension (~10%), but that goes into a private retirement account that you own.  You can choose 3 providers to manage that account (e.g., TIAA-CREF), and the university will put in a matching amount of ~5%.  So in essence you end up with ~15% of your salary going into your retirement account each year, though it only costs you ~10% of your salary to do this (the rest is matching).  You are 100% vested from the start, which means that's your money (both your own and the matching) if you ever leave the university.  Your retirement fund grows over the years through your contributions, university matching, and as the markets increase in value.  Meanwhile, you have a few options of how to use your funds, such as in money market, real estate, bonds, stocks, etc.  All of these are mutual fund type investments, so you don't actually put your money in specific homes (if you choose real estate) or specific stocks, instead you buy shares in a mutual fund that uses their resources to purchase a number of different investments within that field (e.g., many different stocks).  From all of the literature I've seen, if you have a balanced investment strategy you can reasonably expect to earn 5-7% per year on your money (whether that holds up in real life, who knows).  You can't withdraw your retirement funds before you retire, otherwise you pay a HUGE amount of taxes/penalties on it.

The key things I had to consider when choosing between these options were:
1. Do I think the pension plan will still be around in ~35 years?  (Most definitely)
2. Do I think I'll stay with the same university/university system to ~35 years (Hopefully?)
3. Would I get seriously screwed over if I left the system early, such as not getting tenure or taking another position elsewhere in 10 years (Yes)
4. Do I expect to retire on time (late 60's) to start collecting the pension? (Maybe)
5. Do I expect to live a really long time in retirement? (Probably not)

So while I like my new position, and I hope to be at the same university until I retire, I ended up choosing the 'alternative' plan.  

There were a few reasons I did this:
1. I simply can't predict the future, and it seems like too much of a gamble to plan on being at the same university for 35+ years.
2. I'm not sure I'd want to retire when I hit mid/late 60's, since being a professor is a pretty sweet gig, and once you make full professor, you can pretty much do whatever you want in terms of research, and you always get summers off, and if you have a 2/2 load, the teaching is very reasonable.
3. I'm not convinced I'll live until I'm 80 or 90, so I'd rather have something that would go to my wife/children if I croak sooner rather than later.
4. I'm untenured, and while I'd like to think I'll get tenure at my new university, that decision is still 5+ years away.  If I don't get tenure, and I have the pension plan, my options would be to go to another state-university school (hard to do, unlikely to be a Ph.D. program, likely a big hit in salary), or take a HUGE hit on my retirement account and leave the system.
5. Even if I get tenure, if I wanted to move on to someplace new in 10 or 15 years, the pension would seem like a pair of golden handcuffs.  Good to have, but making it too costly to go anywhere else.

Another thing I had to consider was that under the university/state system, I don't pay social security tax (yay!), but I also wouldn't GET social security when I retire (boo!).  I fully expect social security to have crashed and burned well before I retire, or at best, be severely eviscerated, so I'm not too worried about that.  It basically gives me 4-6% more in my salary that I could use for a supplemental retirement fund (or beer).

Hopefully I'm making the right decision.  I expect that the pension system might have been a slightly better choice, since I don't plan on leaving the new university, but the alternative system seems like the safer of the two.  There's nothing I can do about my choice now (since, again, the only way to change your choice is with a time machine), so I guess I should just not worry and work instead on getting tenure.

...Of course, in 40 years if I'm stuck eating cat food because the market crashed and I don't have social security, I'm going to look back on this post and be pretty pissed.
While Professor Fluffykins' 401k crashed and burned,
the prospect of having to eat cat food in retirement
doesn't seem all that bad to him.

Monday, July 23, 2012

On student deception and righteous justice

Good book.
Highly recommended.
In one of my classes, I have a writing assignment that students must complete. The assignment involves reading a fairly-easy-to-read book (Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun)  choosing a micro-level (person-level) Criminological theory, and linking what the theory says should happen with what the main character, Geoffrey Canada, experiences in the book. Students must turn in a .doc (or similar) file of the assignment using an online 'drop box' website.

The assignment itself has a minimum length of 5 double-spaced pages of 12-point Times New Roman font, with 1" margins.  Realistically, a decent student, having read the book and listened during class, could probably poop out in a couple hours a paper that would earn a B from me.

I occasionally get students who, for whatever reason, decide that '5 full pages' means 'anything over 4 full pages', and turn in papers in the 4 1/2-page range.  This irks me, but I don't take off too much from their grade (5-10%).

However, this last semester, I had a student (we'll call her Jane) try and pull a fast one on me.  They tried to stretch their <5 page paper into 'looking' like 5+ pages.  This is the story of this attempt, and its outcome:

When I grade my student's papers, I typically print them out 2-pages-per-printed-page, and mark them up by hand.  After reading 10-20 of these papers, little deviations from the standard format (larger margins/font/spacing) are pretty easy to spot.

When I came upon Jane's paper, I noticed right away that *something* was amiss.  The lines on Jane's paper looked *slightly* more than double spaced (clue #1), and it just *barely* hit the full 5 page mark (clue #2). Also, something about the font seemed odd, but I couldn't place it (clue #3).  At this point, I was intrigued.

Thankfully, as I mentioned earlier, I have students submit their actual assignment file to me (not just a printed copy), and in this case, it was a MS Word .doc.  I opened Jane's paper up in Word and looked at the spacing setting.  It was set to 'double space plus 10 points', which isn't a huge difference from regular 'double space', but is enough to add up to maybe 1/8 of a page over the course of 5 pages of text.  This alone isn't a big deal, as sometimes MS Word has this as a default setting.  When I set it back to regular 'double space', it took a little off the length, but the spacing still looked a little off.
The further I dug into the paper,
the longer Jane's nose seemed to become.
Jiminy Cricket was getting pissed off.

So I dug a little further into the document, and the font size was set at 12 for the text when I put the cursor on the first line.  This was normal, but also confusing because if it wasn't the font, and it wasn't the line spacing, why did the lines still look too far apart?  When I selected more than one line of text, however, the font size box went blank, indicating that there was a change in font size somewhere in there.

After a couple seconds of trial and error, I realized that ONLY the punctuation (, . : ;) in Jane's paper was size 14 font, and all of the words were size 12.  What this does is make any given line *look* like size 12 font, but the spacing between the lines acts as if everything is size 14 font.  Over the course of ~4 1/2 pages of text, this adds up to almost a 1/2 page extra length.  In a single printed paper, noticing the difference between a size 12 and size 14 comma is pretty difficult.  However, knowing what to look for, it became almost comical how large the punctuation was. Compare this paragraph with the rest, and you'll see what I'm talking about.

This is where I became angry.  It's one thing to try and eek out a little extra length by making paragraphs hang over a couple words into a new line.  That's just smart editing.  It's quite another thing to replace all of the punctuation in the document with a slightly larger font and try and pass this off as a longer paper. That's deception, and needs to be punished with the hand of righteous justice!
Ok, so perhaps a little less righteousness...
So, having caught the deception red handed, I had to figure out what to do about it.  As I noted earlier, I typically take off 5-10% for a paper that is less than the minimum length.  This was a case where the paper was not only too short, but where the student intentionally tried to deceive me.

I thought about this for a while.  Probably longer than I should have, given this was a single student's single assignment.  Finally, I came up with, what I think, is a reasonable punishment:

While I could have failed the student on the assignment, as it was worth 30% of their final grade, the student would have basically failed the course.  This seemed a *little* harsh for changing punctuation font size.  However, I wanted the punishment to still hurt and not just be just a slap on the wrist with no real effect on their grade (or thinking process).

It said "Hello!? Is it
me you're looking for?"
If Jane's paper was actually 5 pages long, the way it was written would have earned her an A-.  Since it was actually about 4 1/2 pages long after 'fixing' the spacing and font changes, this would have originally meant 5%-10% off, earning Jane a B or B-.  Since Jane intentionally tried to deceive me, I took an additional 20% off their grade, bringing it down to a D-.  So overall, the A- paper was knocked down to a D-.

Since the assignment was worth 30% of the grade, the combined 30% taken off Jane's paper grade meant Jane lost about 10 points off their final grade in my course, 3 points for being too short, and 6 points for the deception.  I probably should have taken more off, but in the end I think this was a reasonable punishment.

As a bonus, Jane came to my office before the next class (before grades were posted) and asked for their graded paper back.  I had the pleasure of seeing them squirm as I explained, in excruciating detail, how I discovered their deception.  I have to say I somewhat enjoyed seeing Jane's smirk fade, and her face pale, as I explained how that affected their paper (and final) grade.

And you will know my name
is the LORD, when I lay
my vengeance upon thee.
As I explained all of this, I made sure to keep my voice very calm and even, and keep my eyes locked on hers.  This, I hope, inflicted a little more fear in Jane then if I had just yelled and waved about.  As I spoke to Jane, I imagined being Jules (from Pulp Fiction) when he gave his Ezekiel quote.

Seeing the calm, righteous anger of someone with a cold hard stare is, in my opinion, much scarier than seeing someone blow up.   Hopefully this serves as a deterrent to Jane in the future the next time she tries to con her professor(s), but I doubt it.

In the future, I might implement a word count minimum, rather than a page length minimum.  This would hopefully, cut down on at least some of the more blatant ways to cheat...

So, was I too hard?  Was I too easy?  What do you think?
Image Credits: PeanutsPinocchioJusticeJules,

Friday, May 18, 2012

On Wiser People and Doubts

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." 
Bertrand Russell

This is probably one of my most favorite quotes of all time.  It also, I think, accurately reflects much of what happens when you have earned (or are in the process of earning) a Ph.D.

The Ph.D. process is meant to make you both a jack of some trades and a master of one.  That is, you are expected to have a general knowledge about an entire field (basic as that knowledge may be), but also to become one of the (if not THE) worldwide experts on a little, tiny bit of subject matter within your field.

For instance: Because of my dissertation work, I am probably now one of the top researchers on the one specific type of policy that my dissertation examined, at least to the handful of academics that actually care about said policy.

...You have no idea how many times I revised that last sentence because I thought it was stretching the truth, changing, adding, or deleting phrases such as "top five", "top ten", "maybe" "definitely", "probably", "in America", "I can state with confidence", etc. etc. etc.).  In the end, I still pussed-out and added the "at least to..." clause to the sentence. That, right there, is part of the problem.

"I am an expert on my own dissertation topic!!!"
That is, this provides an excellent example of what Bertrand Russell was talking about.  The more knowledge you have about something, the less confident you feel about your abilities. (Conversely, 'fools and fanatics' are absolutely certain of their talent and abilities.)

This feeling is referred to as impostor syndrome, and I've also seen it referred to as the 'phony police' (as in, the phony police are going to come and arrest me for being a phony scholar).  Even writing a sentence on my own personal blog about something that is probably more true than not (that I'm an expert on my own damn dissertation topic) requires me to put in tons of qualifiers until I feel comfortable typing it.  In truth, the sentence as is still makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but as Bill O'Reilly said: "F*ck it!" (video link, nsfw language).

He made it through grad school
...without experiencing any
feelings of inadequacy.
Now I'm sure there are people who finish their dissertations and never experience any self doubts about their abilities as a scholar.  I've just never met any of those people, and like the majestic Sasquatch, the only evidence that they exist are blurry photos and television shows.  (Side note: Those people are typically referred to as 'assholes').  I'm also willing to bet that feelings of inadequacy/'faking it' are more common among Ph.D.s. (and especially Ph.D. students) than not.  This is one reason why I tell my friends in grad school that it takes at least three years to realize you're not a complete idiot.  (You still feel like a phony, just not so much of an idiotic one).  As such, it seems that it's normal to think of yourself as 'faking it', which really isn't of much consolation.

Giving a Hammer to a Ph.D.
On a related note, in researching for this post, I came across an article on how to spot a 'fake' Ph.D. (that is, someone who got their degree from a diploma mill).  One thing in the article jumped out at me: "Give a hammer to a phony Ph.D. and he'll treat everything he sees as if it is a nail. Trained minds don't do this."  I get what the author is saying: Fake Ph.D.s think they know everything about anything, and their research findings are more important (and more generalizable) than they really are.

However, I think the reverse is true as well: "Give a hammer to a 'real' Ph.D. and he'll realize that his hammer is only good on certain nails, used on certain boards, under certain environmental conditions, which will never actually be in the same location at the same time. Sane minds don't do this."  

That is, during the Ph.D. process you're taught to cite anything you say that could possibly be attributed to someone else.  You have to qualify statements with phrases such as "The evidence suggests that...", and "While not confirmatory, it appears that..."   As such, I think you internalize the idea that you aren't an original thinker, and are not a 'real' scholar who is able to be an 'expert' on something. (Or maybe not.  Again, who the f*ck am I?)

Constant Judging as Part of the Process
"I've seen better
theoretical models
selling toothpaste
on TV!  Hrumph!"
It also doesn't help that every aspect of obtaining your Ph.D. degree
(classes, comps, dissertation) involves being judged by 'senior' members of the field.  Even after you become a Ph.D., most of your work is subject to peer-review from anonymous 'experts' in your field (and given the low acceptance rates from top journals, is subject to frequent rejection from those same experts).   The entire process of getting a Ph.D. and being an academic involves multiple and repeated cases of being judged by someone with *supposedly* more knowledge than you have, about your work on a topic that you're supposedly an expert scholar in.  (Hence the title of this blog).  All of this leads to a very f*cked up view of your own abilities, and frankly, is extremely exhausting.

Semi-related note: This post also helps shed light onto one of the reasons my posting schedule is infrequent and completely random.  I swing between the extremes of "Hey, I know what I'm talking about!  Maybe I should post something that might help someone in the future!" to the other end of "Post on a academic topic?  Who the f*ck am I?  A nobody who couldn't tell his ass from a hole in the ground!"  Unfortunately, the latter kinds of feelings are (still) more frequent than the former.  I'm still working on getting over this, and I'm not sure I'll ever really be free of these feelings/thoughts. (However, buying and drinking good quality beer seems to help just a little bit).

That's not entirely true. I can, in fact,
tell my ass from a hole in the ground.
[Insert joke about being full of crap]

Image Credits: RussellO'Reilly, The Most Interesting Man in the World, Hole

Note: The actual Russell quote is: "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."  It is from Russell's 1933 essay "The Triumph of Stupidity".  However, I think the paraphrased version is easier to understand and more snappy.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Things to Negotiate in an Academic Job Offer

If you have to kiss the chair's ring,
you're doing it wrong.
Eventually everyone will be faced with a time when they have a job offer and must decide what (if anything) to try an negotiate for.  Having done this recently myself, this is a list of things you may want to consider.  Not all of these I negotiated for myself, and not all of the things I negotiated for were granted, but I don't think you should ever accept an offer with at least trying to negotiate a little.  Remember, you're not asking for 'favors,' you're asking for things that will make you happier with the offer and may help you do your job better.


The is the obvious one.  This depends a lot on the department/college/university in question.  Some have flexibility to bump salary up a lot, some have a little wiggle room (a couple thousand extra), and some simply have no ability (or desire) to change the initial salary offer.  Some have union contracts that specify a specific amount or range for hires, some simply have no additional money for the position, and some are facing serious salary compression issues.  If the department is making multiple hires at once, they may not be able to negotiate all that much if they have to make all other offers equivalent.  Similarly, if they already have someone who accepted X a month ago, they are probably not going to want to give you X + Y if you're being hired at the same level, especially if they would be forced to also provide Y to their already-accepted hire.

If you choose to negotiate/ask for a higher salary, you will probably be better served if you can justify it with comparisons to other (comparable) institutions' salary structures, cost of living differences (especially if you currently have a position/salary), other offers you may have in hand, etc.

You don't want your colleagues
to see you as this guy...

This is, for me at least, the most tricky thing to ask about, as you can easily come off as naive or greedy if you ask for too much.  Further, if you end up jumping ahead of your more senior colleagues due to salary compression, then you can come into the department with bad blood already stacked up against you.  On the other hand, if you get low-balled, and the next year a new hire negotiates for more than you did, you'll feel like you missed an important opportunity and/or that you're being taken advantage of.

In my opinion its best to figure out what the lowest amount you would accept (which might be the initial offer amount), and ask for a reasonable amount over that.  What a 'reasonable amount over that' is really depends on the situation.  I've heard estimates from people that 10% more is reasonable to request at first, 5% more, $5k more, $2k more, etc.  It really depends on your own situation, and (perhaps more importantly) your reading of the situation.  Just remember that every extra dollar in salary will be an extra dollar you get year after year after year, so even a 'modest' increase can add up to a down payment on a house in a few years.

Summer salary or teaching:

Relatedly, if you're in a research-focused department, you might request a month or two of summer salary (or if they're rich and generous, multiple years' worth of summer salary).  This would help you keep focused on your research over the summer (if only for the guilt of getting the extra pay), and may help keep you from picking up additional classes to teach over the summer, thus giving you even more time to work on research.  Some R1/R2 institutions might offer a month or two of summer salary, but more than one summer's worth, at least from what I've seen/heard anecdotally in the sociology/criminology field, seems to be pretty rare.

Alternatively, you might ask to be guaranteed an opportunity to teach over the summer, if that's your department's 'thing.'  A couple of additional courses taught over the summer could, again, be a down payment on a house after a couple years.  If you have the option to teach an already prepped online course, the amount of work you have to put into the summer course could be very reasonable compared to teaching a brand new prep and/or an in-person course.

Teaching load:

While the long term teaching load is likely fixed (2/2, 3/3, etc.), your first semester/year you might be able to get a course reduction (more than that seems quite rare).  You should phrase this negotiation point in terms of the course release(s) helping you to establish your research agenda, write a grant, etc.  If you're in a teaching heavy institution, this is probably less likely to fly, but it might be worth a shot.  In either case, you can also look into setting up a nice course prep schedule (see below).

Course preps:

Depending on the expectations and flexibility of your department, you might request to teach multiple sections of the same course the first semester or year.  This would be a huge benefit in terms of not having to prep multiple courses, especially the first semester, and if you can swing it to teach the same course the whole year, your spring semester should be incredibly easy (possibly allowing you to start prepping for that next fall?).  Even if you can't teach multiple sections, the ability to choose what courses you teach can be a big bonus compared to being assigned courses.  This might also include teaching only undergrad courses the first year, not teaching large seminars, etc.


Being able to choose your
RA can be a very big deal
If you're teaching multiple/large classes, having a TA assigned to you might be the norm.  Even if it's not, you might be able to request a grad student be assigned (and paid) to help you with grading, teaching, etc.  On the other hand, if research is a big thing in the department, you might be able to get an RA assigned to you to help with your research and/or some of the grunt work (literature searches/library runs, data coding/cleaning, etc.).  Having an RA assigned to you could also be a great start to future co-authored work, assuming the RA shares your interests.  Related to this, being able to choose your RA might be something else you can negotiate that can go a long way to setting yourself (and them) up for success.

Research/travel funds:

You'll likely get some type of research start up if you're in a research-focused department.  From what I've seen/experienced in the social sciences, this could range from a few grand at more teaching focused places, to more than $25k at some R1 departments.  Sometimes this start up fund includes moving costs in that amount, and sometimes this is a separate budget.  I personally like the idea of combining moving funds with research funds, assuming that 1) the combined amount is the same as the separate amounts would have added up to, and 2) any amount you don't spend on moving remains for your research.

In any case, if you ask for a larger research budget, you should justify the need for it with a list of expenses (hardware/software, data costs, conference travel, etc.) that you'll likely incur from doing your research.  Similarly, you might be able to negotiate a bump in the annual travel funds you have access to, especially if you need to go to foreign countries for your main conference venues.  Another thing to make sure is that your funds do not expire.  Sometimes there is also a release schedule, so that you'll have access to 50% of your start up funds in year 1, 25% in year 2, and the remaining 25% in year 3.  You'll want to figure out if this is the case up front.

Computer equipment:

Related to research funds, some places will buy your first computer setup as a separate deal from the research funds, whereas others (like my current position) may have you buy your equipment out of your research budget.  If it is a separate deal, then you might want to ask for the ability to specify what setup you get (e.g., laptop vs. desktop, processor speed, RAM, hard drive size, dual monitors, external hard drive backup), rather than simply getting the 'standard' desktop setup.  This also goes for specialty software you might need (SPSS, STATA, ArcGIS, etc.).  It would also be a nice bonus if the department is willing to buy that software separate from your research funds, or if they have access to a site license.

Sometimes departments that buy your first computer will have a replacement schedule.  I know of departments with 3 year schedules, which seems fairly reasonable to me.  In any case, you'll want to figure out how long you need to plan to use the computer before you can get it replaced, as that can influence how much of your research funds (if any) you want to spend to upgrade it.

Regardless of whether the computer is paid for from the department or your research funds, I highly recommend getting dual monitors, which *might* require a specialized video card for the computer itself.  This is definitely an expense I would have no qualms about using my research funds for.

Moving funds:

Not smart, but possibly
tax deductible!
From what I've seen, most places will pay at least some of the costs of your move.  One of my friends was given, essentially, a blank check for moving costs, so he went with full packing/loading/unloading, to the tune of, I think, $12k for his cross country move.  My own cross country move cost around $5k for the movers to load/unload the truck and drive it cross country, with almost all of the packing done ourselves.  There was another ~$2k in misc. expenses like gas/food/hotel costs for driving myself, my wife, and our three cats cross country in our vehicle.  In any case, if you're moving a fairly long distance (500+ miles), I'd expect moving costs to be a substantial chunk of change that hopefully the department will help cover.  Also keep in mind that if the moving van cannot fit down your street (either on pickup or delivery), there will be an extra cost for a shuttle.  This can bump up your expenses by a few thousand dollars, so be aware if this will be an issue where you're moving.  Note that moving expenses are largely tax deductible if you're moving to a job more than, I think, 50 miles away from your current place of employment, with some exceptions (like house hunting trip costs, which are taxable income).

House-hunting trip/costs:

Eh, I'll just rub some dirt on the
bumper. I'm sure they won't notice.
Related to moving costs (and sometimes lumped together in the offer) would be costs to house/apartment hunt a few months before you moved.  This obviously will depend on how far away and how expensive the new location will be to visit.  My own house-hunting expenses were about $2k between the cross country flight (for me and the wife), hotel for ~5 days, rental car, and food/misc expenses.  Note that this (at least in the US), counts as taxable income, so I eventually paid tax on that as if it was pure cash in my paycheck.  Regarding the rental car, you can frequently get damage coverage if you use a VISA or other credit card to pay for it (double check this).  This is incredibly important if you happen to (very slowly) smash into the back of a truck with a tow hitch in a random parking lot... not that I'd know anything about that.  Related to that point, dark colors are easier to hide damage on...

A pre-tenure research semester:

Some of the research-focused departments might offer a pre-tenure research semester (i.e., a mid-tenure sabbatical) that you can use to get papers out the door, finish off a book manuscript, do some important research in far away lands, etc.  The idea is that you don't teach anything for the semester (nor have service requirements), and it's supposed to help you get things done and ready for the tenure packet.  Sometimes you can break up the research semester into multiple-semester-course-releases (so if you normally teach a 2/2, and you'd get a 2-course release for 1 semester, you might be able to take a 1-course release for 2 semesters instead, giving you a 1/1 load for that whole year, albeit possibly with service requirements).  I doubt you can realistically negotiate this point, at least as a new assistant professor -- they probably either do or do not offer this to their tenure-track faculty, but it's at least something to ask about to see if it's available.

Time towards tenure and/or clock resetting:

This doesn't really apply to 'new' people on the job market, but if you were changing positions after a year or more at another department, you might have flexibility in exactly how many years you'll have to your tenure decision.  This might mean going up for tenure a year or two early if you've been super productive already.  If you're on the verge of a tenure decision, it might mean being awarded tenure automatically.  If you are feeling a little behind, this might mean resetting the tenure clock all the way back to a 'year 1' status, or pushing the tenure decision back just a year or two.  In any case, this can be an important thing that can give you some breathing room, peace of mind, or a quicker path to tenure.

One last thing

One thing to keep in mind is who holds the purse strings.  In some cases, the person you negotiate with will be able to approve most or all of your requests themselves.  In other cases, they might have to run things by their boss (i.e., a chair running things by a dean).  So the back and forth might take a few days in between 'rounds' of negotiation, or might be tied up in one phone call.  Regardless of who approves (or disapproves) your requests, you can't get something you don't ask for.

That's all I've got at the moment.  If I think of other things you could potentially negotiate, I'll edit this post.

Image Credit: Baby Bling, The Godfather, DumbMoving, Crash

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Academic Job Talk, Part 1

This post is part of the 'Academic Job Interview' series, and concerns what might be the most important part of the interview process, The Academic Job Talk.  Since this could go on for a while, I'm splitting The Academic Job Talk into two posts, one dealing with the presentation process generally, and another focusing on the content of the presentation.

For most interviews for tenure-track faculty positions, you can expect to have to give a talk about your research agenda. While there are some situations where you might also have to give a teaching demonstration, there probably are not many positions where the teaching demonstration would take the place of the job talk (at community colleges perhaps?).

These presentation can serve a number of purposes: 1) Proving that you can actually talk to a group of people (i.e., you can teach), 2) Proving you know what-the-hell you did in your own research (i.e., you're not just a parrot of your advisor/PI/etc.), 3) Proving you have a research agenda that is sustainable and interesting (i.e., you're not the one-idea-wonder), and 4) Proving you can answer questions about your research afterwards (i.e., you've spent more than 5 minutes thinking about your research).

In any case, you want to have a job talk prepared well before you go on the actual interview. The standard seems to be to use a PowerPoint (PPT) Slideshow for your presentation, expecting a questions and answers period afterwards.  I know there are some new presentation software (softwares?) on the block that might be tempting to use instead of PPT. However, I would recommend against anything that won't splurt out a .ppt file unless you're positive you can use your own laptop in the presentation and you're willing to take the chance of technical difficulties.

Yeah, it's kinda like that.
SIDE NOTE: The software Prezi comes to mind as one of those alternatives to PPT, and if you've ever seen a Prezi presentation, you'll instantly know it because of the 'zoom in and out' style of slide transitions.  Here's a criminology related example from the Prezi website. Obviously opinions will vary, but the first time I saw one of these presentations it was REALLY REALLY cool (you might be thinking the same thing after seeing the example).  The fifth time I saw a Prezi presentation, it was just annoying as hell because the magic of the zoom transition had faded, I had no idea where the slideshow was zooming to next, and it can make you feel a little seasick when the zooming also involves panning the screen to various angles. This apparently was such a problem that Prezi had to tone down the camera zoom and pan. I would also get distracted by the bits of text and images I could see *just* off screen at any given moment.  BOTTOM LINE: If you're a master at Prezi and can produce not only 'cool' but also 'professional' looking presentations that WON'T tick off half-blind 80-year-old professors or make the others seasick to the point where they barf on their sweatervests, then go for it.  If you can't do all these things, then just stick to the tried and true Powerpoints and save the Prezi for the undergrad lectures and conference presentations.

For all of the interviews I've done, I've been told to plan to talk for 30-40 minutes, and the remaining part of the hour or so will be for Q&A.  For me, this means typically a PPT of 20-25 slides, although I make sure to check the timing of my show multiple times.  I find when I practice the presentation alone, I talk a little slower than when I actually give it, so if I'm hitting 37 minutes (for example) giving the presentation to my cats, then I can assume it's going to be closer to 32 minutes or so when I do it for real. Just make sure you actually *do* practice your presentation so you know whether something needs to be added ,dropped, or otherwise changed, and so it comes across as practiced and smooth. I also find it helpful to print out the slideshow (as a handout, with 4 slides per page), and have that hard copy nearby.  I don't ever use it, but it's something that makes me feel more in control and, hopefully, this comes out in my actual presentation.

Practice my Powerpoint presentation?

Obviously content is a major part of the presentation, but the 'presentation' of the presentation is also very important. This relates to the PPT vs. Prezi debate (or at least the debate I made up in my head in the last 10 minutes), to the practicing of your presentation, the timing of your presentation, and also to how it is delivered.  Related to that last point, I've found I'm a wanderer when I present.  I have a hard time standing in one position (like behind a podium/laptop), and instead prefer to wander a few feet here or there.  I warn my audience before I present about this habit, and ask them to bear with me. I think this not only helps them forgive my wandering (a little), but it also helps me show I'm human and be humble about my faults (which secretly tricks them into liking me.  FOOLS!!! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAH! Or something.)

Using a wireless presenter
makes you feel a little like
Zeus, got of Lighting,
Thunder, and PowerPoint
Ok, I got a little sidetracked.  In any case, I like to use a wireless presenter thingy, since it not only lets me wander a little from the laptop/keyboard, but also lets me transition slides smoothly, bypassing the *Stop talking, walk up to keyboard, click keyboard, look at screen to make sure new slide is up, continue talking* thing that I've seen a lot of people do when they inadvertently wander too far from the laptop/keyboard.  It also eliminates the audible 'click' from the keyboard that comes with changing slides, which I guess isn't a big deal, but is just one more little distraction that you don't need while you present.  Finally, it seems a little magical, which is a nice confidence booster when you're doing a presentation and it's clear the audience is slightly impressed with the wireless thing. The wireless presenter I like is the Logitech Professional Presenter R800, mostly because it has a spot to hold the USB plug-in dongle so it's hard to lose, and it has an LCD timer on it that you can set for X minutes and it'll silently vibrate/buzz you when you're getting low on time, as well as show how much time is remaining.  It runs about $80 retail, $60 on sale.  There's also a non-timer-buzzer-thingy (R400 version) that is somewhat cheaper but much less awesome.

Overall, you want to make sure your presentation goes smoothly and comes across as professional, regardless of what you put in it or what software you use to present it.

As noted earlier, I'll have another post soon(ish) about the content of the presentation, but until then, there's a lot of other information about the academic job talk floating around the internet. So to steal from LeVar Burton, don't take my word for it, read the Internets! Here's just a few good posts about it that I found with a simple Google search:

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Academic Job Interview, Part 1

Sorry for the delay in posting these past few months.  This first semester has been a roller coaster ride.  Anyway, back to semi-regular posting! (Maybe.)

This post concerns the Academic Job Interview (*DUN DUUNNN DUUUUNNNN!*)

If you've never been on one, it can be a nerve-wracking experience leading up to the visit, absolutely terrifying while you're on it, and completely exhausting afterwards. Hopefully this series of posts help make planning for it a little easier.

First Things First

The first thing that will probably happen in the interview timeline (after applying, that is), is you'll get a call (maybe an email) asking if you can come to campus for an interview. Sometimes you'll have had a phone interview beforehand, sometimes not.  All of the on-campus interviews I've been on were scheduled a couple weeks in advance, as I recall. So you won't have a lot of notice that you're going on an interview. This means you need to be prepared for an interview invitation to come at any time after you've submitted your application(s) to open positions. So start working on your job talk! (more about this in a future post...)  It also means you need to have interview clothes ready, so if it'll take a few weeks to get that suit tailored to fit right, do it now so it'll be ready when you need it.

When you get the call, you'll need to iron out the details of the visit. This might involve discussions with the search chair, or it might be talking to an admin person instead. In either case, you'll want to confirm the following at some point before the interview:
  • Will you need to book and (more importantly) pay for the flight or hotel expenses yourself up front?
    • If so, what paperwork do you need to provide to be reimbursed?  
      • Realize it may take a few months to actually get the reimbursement, so you'll want to have access to cash or a credit card with enough free space to cover at least a couple interviews (~$2,000?).
    • Side note: In my opinion, if the school is unwilling to reimburse the flight/hotel, you should seriously consider whether you actually want to work for such a (cheap/broke) department.
    • Also, some places in far away locations (Alaska, Hawaii, the UK) might have stipulations that if they offer you the job and you decline, you will not be reimbursed for your travel. Keep this in mind if you're lukewarm about the position.

  • Will other expenses, like meals while traveling, be reimbursed?
    • If so, what receipts do you need to keep?
    • Side note: I wouldn't order alcohol during these travel meals, especially if you need to provide an itemized receipt. Some departments will not reimburse alcohol purchases anyway.)
    • Side side note: These questions on smaller reimbursement things (meals, etc.) have the potential to make you look really cheap and inconsiderate if asked in the wrong way. Be careful with how you phrase these reimbursement questions if you decide to ask about them. Asking about flight/hotel reimbursement, however, is both normal and should be an expected question if it's not clear up front.

  • How will you get from the airport to your next location (whether that's the hotel or dinner if you're arriving the night before, or the department/offices if you're arriving the morning of your interview)?  This might require taking a shuttle from the airport to your hotel (do you book it? Do they? Is it reimbursed?), or meeting a faculty member (or grad student) at the airport (if so, get their contact information).

  • Realize that you probably don't want to barrage whomever calls you to set up the interview with *all* of these questions at once (especially if it's the chair calling you with the interview offer).  Instead, it might be appropriate to send a follow up email about the smaller things, after hammering out the big things first (dates, flight/hotel booking questions, etc.).


In terms of packing for the interview, you need to consider where you're interviewing and what time of the year it will be, as well as for how long you'll be there. Here are a few things to consider:
  • Regarding location/season: If you're interviewing in the South in September, you're probably going to want to dress lighter than if you were interviewing in the Northeast in January.  This might mean packing (or not packing) a pair of snow boots, coat/hat/gloves, or a travel umbrella. For example, I have a wool driving coat with a zip out liner that I love, because it's acceptable outerwear for at least three out of the four seasons, works whether it's raining or snowing, and it looks pretty sharp (in my opinion) when worn over a suit. Something similarly versatile might be a good investment when you're upgrading your wardrobe.

  • You'll need to consider how many outfits you'll need to bring.  For instance, if you're on a one-day interview schedule, then a single suit should be fine (ladies, adjust my recommendations regarding 'suits' accordingly).  Conversely, if you're meeting people for dinner the first evening, having a full day of interviews on day two, and meeting people for breakfast before leaving on the third day, then you'll probably want to bring at least three dress shirts (with three different ties) and a couple of different suits.

  • I recommend packing 1 more dress shirt than you think you'll need, because you never know when you'll spill something on the shirt in the middle of the day and not want to wear it for an evening event.  I also recommend using the same 'one extra' rule for t-shirts, underwear, ties, and socks. It's a relatively small increase in 'stuff' to pack, but a huge increase in 'oh sh*t' insurance.

Things to remember
There are a few other things I wanted to mention that don't really fit anywhere other that a miscellaneous category of things to remember/do/prepare for.  So here it goes:
  • Don't cut your hair right before you leave!  You don't want to get a horrible haircut and be stuck with it on the interview (or if you do it yourself, f*ck something up and have to buzz it completely off the night before and end up looking like a big scary ex-convict... don't ask me how I know this.)  If you need to, I'd cut your hair a couple of weeks before the interview, since you'll have enough time to try and fix it if something does go wrong, but it won't be enough time to look 'shaggy' in the mean time.  Of course, if you rock the buzzcut normally, then disregard this advice and keep on keepin' on.
    • Side note: While I like to think I looked like a big scary ex-convict, after the haircutting incident, realistically I probably looked closer to Louie CK...
Yeah, that's about right.
  • Dress comfortably, but professionally.  For instance, if you have a 'lucky' dress shirt that you feel really comfortable in, like how you look in it, etc., then wear that on your 'long day' (or whatever day you have to give your job talk).  This, of course, is assuming the dress shirt still looks good and doesn't look worn and shabby.  If you end up feeling more comfortable then (I think) that should come through in your interview.  For the same reason, I always buy a new pair of dress socks whenever I have an interview or give a presentation. Weird, I know, but there's just something about a brand new pair of socks that makes me feel more comfortable and confident (plus, I don't have to worry that the socks I packed have a hole in them I didn't notice before, or don't match each other).
Dr. Cable Guy was wondering if you
log-transformed your independent variables...
  • Relatedly, you can never overdress for the interview. I don't care if all of the other faculty are wearing jeans and flannel shirts with no sleeves ala Larry the Cable Guy.  You can't go wrong if you wear a suit (as a guy, at least -- again, ladies please adjust the advice accordingly). Even if you feel overdressed, it's much MUCH better than if you were seen as under dressed. If you feel absolutely uncomfortable wearing the whole suit for the entire time, then maybe lose the tie in the one-on-one interviews if it feels right (but keep it nearby for when you do the job talk or meet with the Dean).  Still, when in doubt, stay dressed up!
  • Bring a notepad/folio, and use it! I never understand when job candidates come for an interview, ask questions, but never write anything down. Writing things down during the one-on-one interviews, and sometimes during the Q&A session after the job talk, shows that you're interested in what people are saying, and also allows you to refer back to your notes after the interview is over. There is simply no way you'll remember 12 different faculty members' answers to 20 difference questions over the course of an 8 hour interview day without writing things down.
  • Bring your job talk's .PPT file on a USB drive (also, email it to yourself), and bring hard copy printouts of the slides. Best case scenario, you won't use the printouts, or might refer to them only during your flight to the interview. Worst case scenario is you have to deal with technology problems or a bad setup of the computer equipment, and have to refer to your printouts during your job talk or load your .PPT from your USB drive.  If you don't have a .PPT, you should seriously consider if your presentation skills are good enough to hold faculty members' attention for 30-45 minutes without .PPT visuals to refer to
  • I like to use a wireless presenter mouse thingy when I do my presentations, whether that's at job talks or conferences. I always make sure it's packed in my carry on. For under $100, you don't have to be tethered to the laptop, and this is especially useful if you are a wanderer/ambler when you present (guilty).
    • Side note: I really like this presenter mouse.  It has a timer on it that 'buzzes' you when you're getting low on time.
  • Bring a bottle of water and some portable, fairly clean snacks (e.g., Powerbars).  You'll be talking for hours at a time, possibly with few chances for a water fountain or snack break. Having access to a bottle of water and a Powerbar or two can help keep your energy up (and stomach in line) during the marathon days that make up the job interview.  This will also help you from pigging out during the lunch and dinner meetings, allowing you to ask and answer questions more easily than if you were shoveling food into your mouth due to starvation.
Overall, it should be clear that there is a LOT of stuff that comes with an academic interview, even before you even get on the plane! This is just a small sample of things to consider.  

Future Posts
In the interest of keeping posts relatively short and digestible, I'll be breaking up posting on The Academic Job Interview into different parts.  Here's some of the future planned posts that I'll eventually get to:
  • The Job Talk
  • Meetings with Faculty and Grad Students
  • Post Interview Stuff

In the meantime, here is an excellent post on how to act when you're on an academic interview:

Image Credit: Louie CKCable Guy,

Saturday, November 12, 2011

How to 'do' research (Part 1)

[Sorry about the long wait time since the last post.  The first-year-on-the-tenure-track mid-semester crunch really slapped the hell out of me these past month or so.]

I was chatting with a new Ph.D. student the other day about their research ideas and (eventual) dissertation topic.  They said that they had plenty of statistical training (they have two master's degrees), but haven't had much training (yet) in the way of research methods.  Midway through the conversation about their research interests and background, they asked me one hell of a question: "How do you actually do research?  Like, how do you find the literature, figure out a research question, write up a literature review, choose a dataset, that kind of stuff?"

I think 'doing research' is closer
to this than anything else...
The answer to that question, I think, is both very complicated and very personal.  I assume that everyone does their research a little differently from anyone else, and it likely depends on whose research methods courses you took in grad school, which articles and books about research you read (and understood/liked), your own personal preferences and habits, the kind of research you're doing, and a whole lot of other things that aren't immediately coming to mind.  So, I don't think it's as simple as "Do X, then Y, then Z, and viola!  Top-tier pub here we come!"

Still, it's a fair (and good) question to ask, especially as a new Ph.D. student whose largely expected to hit the ground running.  While my answer right then wasn't really well thought out, insightful, or likely even coherent, I've had a little more time to think about it.  Thus, this is the way that I typically conduct research (or at least part of it -- I'm sure there will be more to come, hence the 'Part 1' in the title).  It seems to work pretty well for me thus far, so feel free to steal anything that looks like it might help you, since I'm sure I stole most of this from other people along the way.

1. Read the literature for stuff that interests you.

Researching uninteresting stuff
is like watching Golf on TV:
Both make me want to stab my
eyes out with a spoon.
Note the second part of that statement -- 'for stuff that interests me.'  I think one of the biggest mistakes people make as Ph.D. students and new researchers is choosing research topics only because it's what's 'hot' in the field, or because their advisor does it, or because they can be funded through a project to do it, or for any number of other reasons that don't involve being genuinely interested in it. (Yes, there's obviously something to be said for doing research that will eventually get you a good job, but you should be able to balance the marketability of a particular research subject with your interest in it.)

There's a reason I left my stable, fairly well paying office job to earn my Ph.D.: I got to the point where couldn't see myself doing something, as my career, that I didn't absolutely love.  I still feel that way, but now instead of that unloved 'thing' being the 9-5 office job of shuffling papers, it is now conducting research that I really couldn't give two sh*ts about (or even one sh*t about). So I try not to do that on a day-to-day basis, and I think I've been fairly successful at it thus far.

So, I guess the precursor to step 1 would be 'figure out what interests me.'  This likely involves reading a lot of broader literature in your field to find the things that you want to read more about.  Once you've done that, and you know that you're really, really interested in X and Y, go ahead and look up more literature on X and Y and read it.

Keep in mind that this isn't simply reading the latest 3 years of top-tier journal articles that used X and Y as keywords, but also involves figuring out who the big names are (and were) in the field, what the major studies on X and Y are that get cited over and over again are, and what types of methods, data, etc. are generally used in those studies.  You should also read studies that might not be on X or Y, but relate to it somehow (similar methods, similar units of analysis, similar theoretical models, etc.).  All of this reading allows you to talk coherently in your research papers about what's been done before, who has done it, how they did it, and how your stuff is similar.

So, now that you're knee deep in the literature of the stuff that interests you, what's next?  Well, it's something that takes place while you're reading the literature...

2. Figure out what people have been doing poorly, or not at all, in those studies (i.e., find the 'gaps' in the literature).

Similar to the UK warnings,
if you don't mind the gaps in
the literature, you'll be hit by a
metro train called 'peer review'
This really only comes from reading study after study after study.  Invariably you'll be able to spot the limitations of studies that you read, whether it's generalizability, unsophisticated methods, not using Theory A, not studying area B, etc. etc. etc.  Sometimes the authors will do you a solid and list the 'real' limitations of their studies in their respective limitations section.  From what I've seen, however, most of these so-called limitation sections are really just a list of one or two of the most minor problems that barely constitute an actual limitation, with no mention of the more serious limitations of the study.  So read the limitations sections with a grain of salt, but if something keeps popping up over and over again (e.g., 'this study only used cross-tabs and not multiple regression', 'we couldn't study X, so we had to study a proxy of it, Y', 'we could only examine one county of data, so generalizability is a concern', 'historical/longitudinal data were unavailable for X, so this was cross-sectional in design'), then it's likely one of the main gaps in the current literature.  You want to figure out what these gaps are, because they can help you either craft a research question or craft your study's methods section.

For instance, if you find that prior studies have all examined individual states/counties/cities, and no one's compared multiple places, that could be the source of a new study.  Your research question might be as simple as "What are the state/county/city characteristics that influence X", and even though this exact same question might have been asked by multiple prior studies, if your study does something those other studies didn't (e.g., examine multiple places rather than just one), you'll probably be making an important contribution to the literature.  If studies have all ignored Theory A, and you think Theory A could be important in explaining X or Y, then your research question might be "Does Theory A explain the occurrence of X?"

Ok, so you've read (and are continuing to read) the literature on your topic, you've found some things that are missing in the current literature that you might be able to address, and you've incorporated that into your research question.  Now what?

3. Write a good, but concise, literature review. 

You should by now have a handle on who the big names are in your field, what the major studies are, and what the general findings of the literature are on topic X.  Now comes what is, for me, one of the hardest and most boring things: writing the literature review. There are a number of guides on this floating around the interview (see one example here), and I guess now there's one more...

Note that I'm talking not about the 40+ page literature reviews that get published as stand-alone manuscripts in journals. Rather, I mean the shorter, ~5-10 page reviews you see at the front of a 'regular' journal article.

The literature review helps lay the foundation for your study - it talks about what people have done, how they did it, and what they found, but it also connects those findings into a coherent narrative, as well as exposing the gaps that you will be filling with your study. That said, the literature review can vary tremendously depending on how your study is set up. I have most of my experience with quantitative, policy-oriented studies, so that's the type of literature review I'll be discussing. I'm sure this varies for qualitative, historical, theoretical, etc. studies, so buyer beware.

In any case, the point of your literature review should be to give the readers a crash course in what's already been done in the field that relates to your research. Sometimes this will be fairly easy and direct, since a lot of people will have done studies before you on a similar or same issue.

Another research idea:
The effect of access to hoodies
on rates of juvenile delinquency.
For example, suppose you're writing about the relationship between doing poorly in school and juvenile delinquency. If there were a number of studies, or even a specific theory, that can be easily applied to this issue (let's go with Strain Theory, since apparently everybody in my field wants to test this at one time or another), then much of your literature review might be discussing the theory, what it says, and how these studies have supported (or not supported) this theory. So you might want to set up your literature review by first discussing Strain theory generally, and then noting how it easily applies to your specific situation (i.e., doing poorly in school leads to delinquency). Then you can cite prior studies on school achievement and delinquent outcomes, and note whether they support Strain Theory or not. You would note the problems with the prior research, and how more research on this issue is sorely needed (although, really, it isn't in this case... so please stop doing these studies, folks...). This sets up your study by placing it in relation to the prior research and theory, and also helps distinguish it since you've addressed the limitations of prior research.

However, sometimes you're paving new ground, and need to discuss two or three different types of research and blend them together into a coherent story.  For example, maybe you're trying to examine whether access to a cell phone influences juvenile delinquency. It makes sense, since with it you can chat with your friends wherever you are, and you can more easily decide where to meet up to vandalize the school, or burgle the liquor store, etc. Maybe no one has previously looked at this specific issue (if not, I call dibs...). BUT, people HAVE looked at how communicating with friends (in person) can influence delinquency. So, you review this prior research. Then, you realize that socio-economic status (SES) is going to influence who has a cellphone in the first place, and so you need to review the research on how SES can influence delinquency. Now that you've done this, you finish your literature review by pulling together these two prior research fields (communication and delinquency, SES and delinquency), and relate this to juveniles communicating via cellphone, and support why you think this would (or would not) have the same influence on delinquency as face-to-face communication with friends, controlling for SES.

I can't be too much more specific on how to actually organize your literature review, because the organization is going to depend on a number of factors specific to what you're studying, how you're studying it, and what's been done in the past. I recommend reading a lot of articles, mostly from top journals, that have looked at similar things and see how those were set up. This should give you an idea on how to set up your own review section.

Side rant: Tone
Let me take just a minute to talk a little about tone when discussing the prior literature. I'm assuming that the ultimate goal of doing this research will be some type of scholarly journal article that will need to survive the peer review process. If this is the case, then the journal will send your work to other 'experts' in field. While this might include grad students that are just beginning their careers, it might also include some experienced professors whose past research you've cited and discussed in your literature review. How you discussed their research, then, matters a great deal...

Let's consider the following examples:

Example 1: Standing on the shoulders of giants.
Example 1:
"The prior research has been
tremendously important, but
has suffered from some minor
issues which I will address"
Imagine you're one of those distinguished professors reading an article for a journal. The author discusses your article in a neutral fashion, commends certain things that it (you) did well, and even-handedly notes what was missing or otherwise could have been improved upon. The author is acknowledging the contributions of your work, and indirectly suggests that they are 'standing on the shoulders of giants' with their present study. This sets the tone for your thoughts on the article. You think to yourself "Good call, sir! I should have used more than three years of data. I'm glad you're taking the ball and running with it, and glad my research could contribute!" as you sip your brandy and puff on your Meerschaum pipe while sitting by a roaring fire in your study (or where ever/however distinguished professors review journal articles...). The rest of the article is well done, so you send off a positive revise and resubmit recommendation to the editor, with encouraging words for the author.

Example 2: All my predecessors were idiots. 
Example 2:
"The prior work is total
doo-doo done by smelly
caca-heads. My research
is good because it isn't
poop based." 
Now, imagine you're that same distinguished professor reviewing a very similar article. The author cites your work, but does so in a dismissive, critical tone. It's clear that they think your prior research was garbage, and that you were obviously a drooling idiot and/or untrained monkey. While not specifically saying this, they imply that their research can 'save the field' from its past horrific, worthless studies conducted by lesser researchers. "Humph and habberdashery!" you exclaim as you quickly type up your review to the editor with the strong recommendation to reject this horrible, insulting manuscript on the spot. "Little sh*t thinks my research is garbage, does he? Well good luck getting into [top journal of the field], muahahahahaha!" you cackle as you fire off your recommendation to the journal and casually toss the reviewed manuscript into your fireplace.

So kiddos, what did we learn from these examples? Well, first, apparently there are still some people in the world who use the phrase 'habberdashery.' Second, and more importantly, the tone you use to discuss the prior literature can be very important. Yes, you need to point out the gaps in prior studies so you can set up reasons for why your research is an important contribution. However, praising the prior researchers for their contributions, and implying that you're using their research as a basis for yours to help further the field, is a very, very different story compared to one where you're bashing the idiocy of prior researchers to promote your (obviously) much more sophisticated study. You want your manuscript to come across as 'standing on the shoulders of giants,' rather than 'chopping the giants off at the kneecaps.'  So tone matters.

Hopefully what I've written so far will be somewhat helpful to those of you just starting the research process. I'll be posting more on this topic in the future, but this should get you started.

Image credits: GolfHoodies, Old ScholarBaby Scholar, Mind the GapThen a miracle occurs (Harris, 1977)