|L-R: Tom, Doug Rumble, Marilyn, Joe Boyd, 1990|
A White Dude from the ‘50s
Tom Hoering walked to the Geophysical Lab on Upton Street
every morning, arriving on campus by about 8:00 am. In winter he sported a
long, beige trench coat and a woolen pork pie hat, gloves, and if it was snowy
or icy, an old-fashioned pair of black galoshes that slipped over his shoes.
Typically he wore a white shirt, an older, slightly rumpled tie, and a pair of
trousers, usually khakis from LL Beans. In spring, he donned a sport coat and
wore it throughout the day, unless he was glassblowing or using chemical solvents.
In summer, he lost the tie, wearing a thinner, short-sleeved shirt.
He worked throughout the morning, started by spending an
hour or so writing on a typewriter perched to the left of his old oak desk.
Then, he’d saunter into his lab, turn on instruments, gather his “tools” for
the day and make measurements.
If Tom’s phone rang, he’d shout, “A ringing telephone is a
request, not a demand!” and keep working.
By noon, he’d meet up with his colleagues, Felix Chayes and
Hat Yoder, then the threesome would walk down to Connecticut Avenue to eat
lunch at the Hot Shoppes. Some days, he’d have a martini lunch, afterwards putting
his feet up on his desk and taking a snooze for 30 minutes or so. He’d head
back into the lab where he often remained until his day ended at 5:30 pm.
Sometimes, but not often, he’d pack up a leather brief case with some papers to
take home. In the evening, he enjoyed cracking open a new issue of Geochimica et Cosmochima Acta with its
orange and white cover and reading about the latest scientific discoveries in
|Tom fishing on the R/V Longhorn, 1974|
On Saturdays, he strolled into the Lab around 9:00 am,
usually in more worn out khakis, older shoes, and an open front shirt. He’d tap
some memos out on his typewriter, check out his lab, walk around the building
to make sure no water was leaking, or any other not-to-unusual things were
happening in the Lab. By lunchtime, he’d head back home.
Yearly, Tom worked seriously on one or two projects
typically culminating in a Carnegie Annual Report article in June. Often, he
published his work only in this informal, yet widely read, medium. If he was
into something “hot,” he’d work on it until he was truly satisfied, then would
write a proper peer-reviewed manuscript. He usually mentored one postdoc at a
time, as well as counsel a parade of scientists both young and old who wanted
his advice. Tom loved giving advice and cared deeply about the people in his
On the home front, Tom’s wife Martha took care of their two
children, the house, did the shopping and cooking, washed his clothes and took his
suits to the dry cleaners. He had very few home life things he needed to take care
of in his early years. [This situation changed drastically when Tom was in his
late fifties. Then, he took on the health care of Martha, learned to cook and
Tom was truly a White Dude of the 1950s. Over his career, he
published about 60 papers in journals along with another 60 or so in the
Carnegie’s Annual Report of the Director of the Geophysical Laboratory—not many
by today’s standards. He wrote letters of recommendation, probably reviewed 6
papers and a few grants per year, gave a seminar or two, and went to one
national meeting annually.
|Treibs award ceremony, 1987|
But he was enormously successful and influential, because
the work that he did do was creative and thorough. The standards he set for
himself—analytical rigor and novel hypotheses—he looked for in others. He
didn’t “count” papers or demand outreach or service. He viewed an early career
scientist with an eye to figure out whether that person came up with original
ideas that could be tested. He looked for analytical prowess. He recognized a
good speaker and a good writer. He also recognized bull shitters, slackers, and
fakes. Knowing this, he attracted competent people.
|Kate Freeman's Speech for Tom's Treibs Medal Ceremony, 1987|
Tom’s counterpoint on the west coast was Sam Epstein,
professor at Caltech. Sam’s influence in geochemistry is equally influential,
if not a tad greater, as Tom Hoering’s. Epstein published about 130 papers in
his career, often with one of his bright grad students as coauthor. The two men
resembled each other in appearance with curly grey hair, short stature, and
slightly formal manner. Both knew their stuff in the lab, could recognize
talent, and were very creative people.
|Sam Epstein, Caltech|
Today it is popular
for some entering the early stages of a scientific career to think that White
Dudes from the ‘50s made up the criteria for which people are judged today.
I don’t think this is necessarily so.
Communication until the mid-1980s happened by snail
mail—letters pounded out on a typewriter or written by hand. Telephone calls
were expensive. Personal computers were uncommon. Secretaries typed your
manuscripts. Graphics were done by hand or sent out to a professional drafts
person. To travel, people used travel agents and held paper tickets. To read
the literature, you needed to physically go into the Library, take a book off
the shelf, and then Xerox the paper you’d want to read later. Life was slower, much less complicated.
How are scientists evaluated today—1950s ethics or something more
For the past two years, I served on AGU’s Macelwane awards
committee, reading and evaluating 60+ nominees each year, then having to choose
only 5 to get the award. These nominees, all within 10 years of earning their
PhDs, have remarkable records of accomplishment! Many of them have published 60
to 90 papers, have brought in millions in grant funding, established new
programs, often before becoming full professors. This simply phenomenal rate of
accomplishment isn’t based on White Dudes from the ‘50s.
I’m often asked to provide an assessment of a professor for
tenure and promotion. Some universities provide a candidate’s written statement
20-25 pages long, not including a separate CV. University “bean counting” makes
them list every talk, seminar, paper review, and student evaluation so that
people like me can write an assessment. The sheer amount of tasks that early
career earth scientists must undertake to be “successful” is numbing. Based on
feedback from colleagues at this point in time, it can also lead to burnout.
Where did the metrics
for scientist’s reviews come from? How often are we evaluated and reviewed in
our careers? How often do we evaluate and review others?
Here’s an estimate.
I published about 200+ papers in my career. For each paper,
an editor judged it 3 times, and three reviewers read and commented on it twice
for a total of 9 evaluations/paper and 1,800 evaluations for the body of work.
For the people who actually read the papers, maybe 10 formed an opinion, adding
another 2,000 “reviews” to the mix.
|Informality years ago...|
I submitted maybe 60+ grant proposals during my career. At
NSF, for example, a program officer evaluated it three times, three outside
peers provided reviews, as well as 8 panel members: 840 reviews in total.
I gave about 2 seminars per year and 2 talks or posters at
conferences to audiences of about 50 people each time. Say 10 of them formed an
opinion—in 45 years, that’s 1620 informal reviews!
I came late to classroom teaching--600 students total in 8
years: another 600 evaluations.
In the collaborations along the way, I worked on over 200
projects with at least 3 colleagues that commented on all aspects of the work
multiple times: 1,800 evaluations of approaches, methods, and data. Add to that
coauthor reviews of manuscripts: another 600 reviews and edits.
That’s 9260 evaluations, conservatively, about 4 per week
for 45 years.
Here’s an estimate of
how many scientists I have reviewed or evaluated.
I probably review 6 manuscripts per year: often twice: 405
Thirty some postdocs and 40 some grad students were
evaluated informally probably three times a year for 3 years each: 630
In classroom teaching, 600 students took 3 exams and wrote
one paper: 2,400 evaluations.
I review maybe 5 grant proposals per year (for 30 years):
I attended about 30 seminars per year and probably listened
to, and paid attention to, about 25 talks per year for 45 years: 1825 informal
Tenure and promotion reviews are much less frequent, maybe
three per year for 20 years: 60 detailed assessments.
Editing manuscripts I coauthor takes time and I work on them
until they seem as good as we can make them. 200 manuscripts edited 4 times
each: 800 reviews.
At the University of California, I reviewed faculty “files”
for merit and promotion increases, usually 7 per year for 7 years: 49
6319 formal and informal assessments, reviews, and
evaluations. For 40 years, that’s about 3 per week, for 50 weeks every year.
The Yin and Yang of it all is clear. People judge you; you judge them.
Scientists expect they’ll be reviewed, but most of us don’t
like it, particularly if the reviews of ourselves are negative. Here’s what
|No one likes a review that starts like this--ever.|
1. Be thankful for any editorial improvements that your
colleagues and anonymous reviewers make on your manuscripts. In general, if
someone tells you your sentence is unclear, it probably is. Accept their help.
I advise against “let’s submit it now and let the reviewers make it better.”
Always submit your best work.
2. Grants are panned for different reasons—not enough funds,
greater scrutiny when money is involved, and protecting turf. When your
proposal is nixed, reflect. Could it have been clearer? Is it your best idea?
It’s easy to think your greatest critics are the people who have given negative
reviews. Based on my time at NSF, I learned that who you thought panned you,
wasn’t usually the case. Re-submit at least once, if not twice, if this is one
of your best ideas.
3. When you give a talk or seminar, practice in front of
colleagues and your supervisor during your early years. Give yourself enough
time to revise your presentation. For more seasoned folks, prepare in advance,
not just the day of your talk! Make the presentation shorter, not longer. Your
audience will be pleased that you don’t talk longer than your allotted time.
4. Poll students mid-semester to find out how you can
improve as a teacher. Make an effort to see what helps them succeed, while
having to keep your own ego unbruised. When you do get student evaluations,
take a breath. Many of my own evaluations and those of my colleagues contain
criticism about accents, clothing, appearance, style, and computer skills. What
irked me the most was when students wrote that I was “unprepared.” Keep a talk
about your most intriguing research in your “pocket” when that might happen. I
have found students love to be able to sit back and be entertained by something
as cool as your personal research.
5. For that big tenure review, I’ve seen two different
responses by folks at this stressful time: cool and prepared vs. nervous and
worried. Some people are by nature nervous and worried. If you are one, plan
early and start making personal connections with people who might be asked to
write an assessment of you. Is this outright schmoozing? You bet. More likely
you’ll make a valuable scientific connection that might serve you both for
Steady progress is best…a paper a year may not seem like a
lot, but by six years, you’ll have six papers. Additional manuscripts from
colleagues and your students should supplement your own first author
While it’s good to get your self “out there,” too much
outreach, too many talks, too much service can be exhausting and actually
dilute what is most important: are you independent and can you “drive your own
Cool and prepared folks have kept a steady but not
overwhelming pace. They publish some of their postdoc work to keep the stream
of science coming while establishing their labs, find grad students and begin
teaching. Personally, speaking up for your self and others, contributing to
faculty discussions, and being a positive person helps. Having a healthy
work-life balance is, in my opinion, somehow helpful in the process.
Back to the question of where did the extreme review mantra come from?
I think it’s exacerbated by the fast pace of the internet,
email, and even social media. Your citations are no longer difficult to track,
but can be easily accessed via Google Scholar. Now, people can see what you’ve
been publishing instantly and how well its been received.
Students no longer fill out evaluations by hand in class,
but can do so at home online.
When people give a popular talk or publish a good paper, it
can instantly be sent out to the world on social media. [I do this as well.]
There are simply more early-career scientists these days—and
greater competition for coveted jobs.
Finally, I’ll add that it might be that Older White Dudes of
the ‘70s and ‘80s may be the department chairs, deans, and directors who are
judging your work. The phrase “Back in my day…” is all too prevalent sometimes.
Back in my day, the world was simpler.
Today it is more multi-faceted and complex.
Now, many universities have added accomplishments in
diversity, equity, and inclusion as another aspect of academic evaluations.
These added criteria are important, but I’ve noticed that we don’t yet have
metrics for properly evaluating them—in either BIPOC scientists or Older White
Dudes. Eventually, we’d all like to reach fairness and respect for everyone. In
my work as College Equity Advisor at UC Riverside, I’ve seen departments that
“get it,” while others are struggling to make this work for them. COVID has
injected another layer into the mix with work stoppages for parents, early
career job seekers, and those with health concerns.
I know this is a controversial topic and indeed a tricky
time. I hope that we’ll come out the other side enlightened and committed to
fair, thoughtful, and even helpful, reviews.