Postdoc Oversupply…

On a tweet from @David_Dobbs I found this article in the World View column of the journal Nature by Jennifer Rohn entitled ‘Give Postdocs a Career Not Empty Promises”  (Published online 2 March 2011 | Nature 471, 7 (2011) | doi:10.1038/471007a).

One of Jennifer’s points is that we have an over-abundance of post docs, too little funding for them (only going to get worse, BTW), and a vanishingly small number of faculty positions for them:

“In coffee rooms across the world, postdocs commiserate with each other amid rising anxiety about biology’s dirty little secret: dwindling opportunity. Fellowships are few, every advertised academic post draws a flood of candidates, and grants fund only a tiny fraction of applicants.”

Quite. I’m with you 100% Jennifer. Thanks for bringing up this topic and I read your solution with interest:

“This is a familiar lament, but I also propose a solution: we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.”

“Every academic lab could employ a few of these staff along with a reduced number of trainees. Although the permanent staff would cost more, there would be fewer needed: a researcher with 10–20 years experience is probably at least twice as efficient as a green trainee.”

I’ve seen labs that have professional post-docs or senior scientists that act as lieutenants in the group – they do their own project, manage training of a grad student, and run certain aspects of the lab- and are completely scientifically and intellectually engaged with the PI. We already have a professional career track for such individuals, usually bestowed upon them when they are deemed ready for grant-writing,  and it is has the title “Assistant Professor for Research” and sometimes “Assistant Professor, non-tenure track”, and sometimes ‘Instructor’.

And long-term these ‘Assistant Professor (R)’ positions are costly and unstable. The current NIH guideline for postdoc salaries for postdocs with 7 or more years experience is an annual salary of $52K. Add benefits to that and you are talking in the neighborhood of 70K/year in total compensation for a very experienced postdoc. And this number will only rise as years of experience rise. Start approaching 80-90K per year in total compensation and this is a big, big chunk of a single NIH grant. if the modular budgetary limitation of $250K/year applies. Furthermore, these positions are unstable when tied to the PIs research support- in that they last only 4-5 years- the length of a typical NIH grant. This grant uncertainty would make it very hard to keep that highly trained person that holds an important part of the lab’s scientific memory around for longer than that. This ‘instability’ issue  has been discussed previously by Drugmonkey, who suggests that there may already be existing funding mechanism models (using the K05 as a model) that could be used to fund the salaries of such career research scientists. Maybe.

As for institutions chipping in with salary lines and such- while this is a lovely idea- it just doesn’t seem practical right now. Getting institutions to pay the salaries of their tenure track and tenured faculty these days is a challenge. The medical school standard in the US (and I fear that this is for generous institutions) is that they currently pay only 50% of a tenure track faculty member’s salary anyway. This is 1/2 a position. In the current economic downturn lecturers, instructors, and non- tenure track faculty are being laid off.

Anyway- I think Jennifer is on the right track that we have a postdoc oversupply- but I think we need to get down to the root causes. We are making too many post docs because we train too many graduate students. Right now every department I know of is running around madly recruiting young, fresh faced, un-aware of the rat race of science graduate student candidates. I see the numbers- 15 recruits here, 20 recruits there, 35 recruits somewhere else.   I see all of this in the face (as Jennifer points out) of a dearth of tenure track faculty positions, reduced state funding in many places for education, and rock bottom NIH pay lines. So far I haven’t heard too much rational discussion about why we train the numbers of graduate students that we do- and any thoughts on where we expect these bright kids to go when they leave our programs. Do we have  to train 50 students for each one who eventually makes it into a TT position, or could we be amazingly selective, train fewer and get a higher percentage into great post docs and eventually have those two gain tenure track positions? (I’m waiting for the sports analogy).

.

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Faking up the Charm…

There is a kerfluffle going on in the blogosphere over how support staff should be treated. I’m just going to pause here and say WTF???

You should treat everyone that you work with (and everyone that you interact with in general in the other parts of your life) with kindness, respect and the benefit of the doubt. Even people who are rude to you. Period. You don’t need to go about this with fakery and stealth, like our beloved Comrade Physioproffe confesses to do:

Example: I like to eat a few hard candies every day after lunch, but I don’t want to keep them in my office, because then I pound them instead of just eating a few. So I keep a dish in our department business office stocked with candies that I buy, and every day after lunch, I pop into the office to grab a few. While I am in there, I say hello to the admins, and make small talk for a few minutes.

So why should you bother? Because it is the right thing to do. Not because your job might be made easier (and for the record I don’t think this is what CE really meant), not because you think you should, but because it is the right thing to do. I don’t know how to explain it any more simply than that.

I have a special ire for people who think that because of their profession or position they are ‘above’ people in other professions or positions and they act accordingly. The kind woman who empties the trash can in my office works every bit as hard as I do- and I’ve had every advantage. The compliance officer, who I often spar with over the rules, has a job that is amazingly difficult in ways totally different from my job, and a totally unenviable one at that. What we all have in common is that we are all trying to do our best at our jobs and for the competing demands of our various lives.

NIH to allow explanation of lags in productivity… Finally!!

I’d like to post the text of a letter that I wrote and sent in early 2008, to Dr. Vivian Pinn, Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at NIH. The back story is that I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Pinn at an event on my campus – during a small group session I mentioned the stoppage of tenure clocks is useless for women in science, without an equivalent stoppage of the NIH clock or some way to explain gaps in productivity to reviewers. I was delighted to see that this suggestion, which I am certain has also been made by many, many others, has finally been acted upon. Three cheers NIH, you have my eternal gratitude.

Dear Dr. Pinn-

I don’t mean to crowd up your email inbox, but you asked me to send you an email regarding the suggestion that I made during the faculty discussion following your talk at my institution several weeks ago (January 2008).  I’m sorry it has taken me some time to finally get to this.

If you recall, our discussion concerned promoting the participation of women in academic scientific careers. My point was simply that the criteria that we are judged upon as scientists are funding and research productivity, and these two are interdependent.  Lags in productivity of papers, negatively affect the ability to obtain federal funding (and vice versa)- and these lags are more likely to happen for women for many reasons- including childbearing and child care (even with the most enlightened spouse), entry of women into research careers via non-traditional routes or ‘research faculty’ appointments (non-tenure track appointments where one has to provide one’s own salary-hard to produce papers when continuously writing grants) – just to name a couple.

When grants are considered during the peer review process at NIH, lags in productivity are counted against the applicant and are many times directly unfavorably commented upon by reviewers.  Currently, the only formal information that reviewers have about an applicant is the Curriculum Vitae and a list of publications- it’s a simple calculation – divide the number of publications by the number of perceived years in the workforce. This kind of calculation will never take into account lags in productivity that disproportionately affects women scientists. Stopping the tenure clock and other measures that might be taken at an institutional level will not change this.

Several granting agencies (such as the American Heart Association) allow an applicant to explain unusual circumstances that have occurred during their careers in a special section on the application.  Such a section could be added into the NIH grant application for explicit explanation of unusual circumstances or lags in productivity that would otherwise be counted against an applicant, and might make the funding playing field more fair for women scientists.

I have myself, on various applications, inserted an ‘introduction to the principal investigator’ section into my USDA proposals, with the express purpose of explaining publication gaps after I became frustrated at having low productivity pointed out on my NIH proposals (I was finishing veterinary school, gave birth to two daughters, and my postdoc advisor moved to another institution during my postdoc leaving me to support myself). When I have done this, I have not had a single comment about my ‘low productivity’ on the review sheets for my grants, but have been acknowledged a ‘junior’ investigator, and have had favorable comments on my willingness to collaborate with established investigators (and been scored well).

I am sorry for the lengthy email, but as a young woman scientist who struggles every day with the balance between a job that I love, and a family that I need  – I have a vested interest in finding ways to make this system work better for all women in my position. That drain in talent that is occurring when women scientists leave the pipeline after their postdoctoral years, or in their early academic career- is many times because we have been taught that family life and a successful career as a scientist are incompatible (and involve such family sacrifices such as putting off having a family until AFTER tenure decisions). Our senior mentors, both male and female, teach us this and we have precious few more enlightened role models.

I apologize again for the lengthy email.

Sincerely,

The scientist also known as DrdrA

ASM Action Alert: Federal Funding for Science…… in Jeopardy.(UPDATED)

I’m delighted that the to A2 or not to A2 bomb in my last post is generating so much discussion all over the blogosphere. It is obvious that people have strong opinions about this subject in one direction or another, but I hope that most everyone agrees that there is a problem. The problem is bigger than A1 vs. A2- it is a problem of shrinking total dollars, and how those total dollars are going to be distributed for the research enterprise.

One thing that I have very much appreciated in all of this is the call to activism for us basic scientists. In my daily life I’m an activist for all kinds of things, science education, public education in general, the death penalty (against), equal rights, a woman’s right to choose… but in the course of my career I think I’ve been very lax about activism that could benefit academic science. I can’t remember having lobbied my congress person about a topic related to my research career or research funding… like… ever.

I recognize that I am late to the game- but this seems like a do or die moment for all of us who run labs supported by federal tax dollars- so I’ll start right here with this plea from ASM (American Society for Microbiology) to contact my congressional representatives. I will contact them both by phone and by email, and I challenge you to do the same.

UPDATE: The gorgeous and talented Isis has posted a similar call to action at her blog today as well.

Action Alert: Federal Funding for Science and
Public Health Programs in Jeopardy

Dear Colleague:

Federal funding for science and public health programs is in jeopardy as Congress begins the budget process to reduce federal spending for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.The House of Representatives is expected to consider later this week an FY 2011 funding bill (HR 1) that would make major cuts in science and public health programs.If these cuts are enacted, they will have an extremely negative impact on science and public health programs in the United States.

It is very important that Members of Congress hear from their constituents about the adverse impact of reducing federal funding for science and pubic health programs at the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Energy Science Office and the Environmental Protection Agency. We ask that you contact your congressional delegation now to oppose draconian cuts to federal funding for science and public health programs.

A draft letter, which you can edit and personalize, and talking points to help you make the case for science and public health programs supported by federal funding are available on the ASM’s Legislative Action Center website.We urge you to personalize your communications and describe in personal terms how federal funding impacts your research, your institution and your community. Personal stories resonate most with policymakers.

In the coming days, we urge you to do the following, if possible:

* Call your congressional delegation in both their local and Washington offices
* Visit your elected officials’ district offices or scheduled Town Hall meetings
* Send a personalized email to your congressional delegation

The time to act is now. Please contact your Congressional delegation to reject deep reductions in federal budgets for science and public health programs.

Go to the ASM’s Legislative Action Center to send a message http://capwiz.com/asmusa/issues/alert/?alertid=27665501 <http://emessage.asm.org/emessageirs/servlet/IRSL?v=4&l=1&r=997&m=8516&e=2 <http://emessage.asm.org/emessageirs/servlet/IRSL?v=4&l=1&r=997&m=8516&e=2>>.The ASM has provided you with a draft message that you can edit with specific examples of how federally funded research benefits you, your community and the world.There are also talking points that you can reference in your message.Please add state, district, or institutional specific data that highlight the importance of federally funded research and public health programs.

President Obama released his FY 2012 budget proposal on February 14. The House of Representatives’ action on the FY 2011 Continuing Resolution (CR) is the first step in the budget process that will play out in the coming months. The ASM web site will have budget and appropriation highlights as they become available:http://www.asm.org/index.php/policy/radfy2012.html <http://emessage.asm.org/emessageirs/servlet/IRSL?v=4&l=2&r=997&m=8516&e=2 <http://emessage.asm.org/emessageirs/servlet/IRSL?v=4&l=2&r=997&m=8516&e=2>>.

Thank you for your support.

Bonnie Bassler, Ph.D., President, ASM

Roberto Kolter, Ph.D., Chair, Public and Scientific Affairs Board

A ranty rant about the supposed evils and costs of tenure…

I’ve been meaning to comment on this post by Female Science Professor.  In her post she refers to a piece that she wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in response to numerous articles that have appeared recently in the media, articles, and books, about the evils of tenure, the slacker work style of tenured faculty everywhere, and the cost of tenure in $$.  Some of the fervor last year was generated by the publication of a book entitled Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, written by one Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University Department of Religion.

I too have been disturbed by the seemingly constant barrage in the media lately about the evils of tenure. Although I will say that some departments seem to have a member whose research interests have faded and that don’t participate to their full ability in the teaching mission of the department…. Sometimes called dead wood faculty, … I venture to say that these individuals are a VERY small minority in the ranks of tenured faculty in the biological sciences. It seems like those who think that all tenured faculty are slackers- just aren’t aware of the fact that we didn’t set out on our faculty careers just to get tenure, or primarily to get tenure or for huge paychecks… we set out on our faculty careers by and large because we find a particular subject fascinating, we want to contribute to the generation of new knowledge in subjects of interest to us …. That’s otherwise called research,  and we want to pass our knowledge the current state of our field AND this new knowledge generated by our research to younger generations. Collectively, this whole business is called scholarship, and it is something you get when you have research (the generation of new knowledge), and teaching (the passing on of knowledge) happening together- and THIS is what takes place in R1 Universities.

We have institutions of higher education that simply do teaching without doing research- and these are called community colleges. I’m not denigrating community colleges by any means- I simply want to point out that their mission is primarily a teaching mission- not a scholarship mission- and that is what differentiates them from R1 institutions.

The particular statements that I hear in the media that drive me crazy are the following:

1.     Tenured faculty don’t work as hard as junior faculty.

I beg to differ. Since I achieved tenure last year, my work hours have gone through the ceiling, my service responsibilities for my department, university, and profession have been tripled, and I’ve been asked to participate in teaching extra courses. That’s reality folks. Junior faculty in the sciences are (and should be protected) from heavy teaching and service responsibilities when possible- but the piper gets paid after tenure docs are signed…

2.     Tenured faculty members earn huge salaries.

This is a doosey. I spent 10 years in graduate and professional school. My first job as a postdoctoral researcher paid 27K, and I had (and still have debt) from professional school. Show me another profession where members do as much education as I have done at top tier places, and then start their first ‘real’ position with a salary in the 60-70K range, and I’ll eat my laptop. Law? Nope. Medicine? Nope. And making tenure at less than 100K/ year… one can’t complain, but to me this isn’t a ‘mega’ salary.

3.     Tenure costs universities huge amounts of money in salary.

This one makes me really mad. First of all- I’m not sure where we though faculty should be free. Every employee that is worth having costs money. So if you thought you were going to get someone to do some scholarship for free- well, you’ll probably get what you paid for.

But let’s just review all the $$ benefits to the institution of having tenured faculty in the biological sciences… and for a moment we’ll just base this argument on the fact that more experienced faculty …i.e. tenured… are those that are best at competing for grants…

Tenured faculty pay ½ of their own salaries. Yes, that’s right. Tenure track faculty at many (if not most) major research universities are expected to bring in research dollars to pay large portions of their own salaries. Much of the time this means that these faculty are paying 50% or more of their own salaries using grant money that they successfully competed for from federal grants. In case that is too obscure for some of you (Mark C. Taylor) to figure out… a tenured faculty member in the biological sciences that takes home 100K per year, IS ONLY BEING PAID 50K PER YEAR from the institution itself. Put another way- the institution is getting a tenure track or tenured productive researcher and teacher FOR HALF PRICE. … or about the price that it would cost to employ a lecturer.  This very fact makes takes the meaning out of tenure- since tenured faculty who lose their grants for whatever reason, can generally not afford to stay and do the same amount of work, only to earn half a salary.

Starting to look like a pretty good deal for the institution… right? Read on.

Tenured faculty grants bring in indirect costs that are paid to the institution.  Federal grants (in the biological sciences) are obtained at vastly higher rates by experienced faculty… and the institution benefits by collecting the indirect costs. These ‘indirect costs’ are usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of the direct costs of the grant. In plain English then, if a researcher is bringing in 250K in direct costs to run their lab in a year… the institution is generally receiving in the neighborhood of 125K per year in overhead (aka “indirect costs”)… that they spend to keep the lights on…as they like.  Wow, so -50K in salary… +125K in overhead… it kinda seems like the institution is making $$ on this deal.

But wait- who pays grad student tuition? Yes, that’s right- successful grant getting tenured faculty use federal grant $$ to pay the tuition of their graduate students at their institutions. And, I hear you cry- but those students take courses… and yes, well they do take courses … for something like 2 years out of a 5-6 year doctoral program… the rest of the time the tenured faculty member is paying tuition to the institution so that the grad student can do research in the PIs lab… and the tuition cost is in addition to paying stipend/health/fringe for the student… off… you guessed it, federal grant $$.

I don’t know… I’d love it if I could employ people for 50% salary, collect the substantial overhead on the money they bring in AND get them to pay me tuition for students that they educate in their labs… who I then award a degree too and take credit for having educated!

Great gig if you can get it.

To Gerty Z on Sunday Afternoon Panic Attacks…

I know I have been neglecting this blog, and I assure you this is not a desired or a permanent state. I am not sure when I’ll get back to regular posting- as I have a January travel hell coming up, but I really want to emerge from my self imposed blog hiatus and give a shout out to Gerty Z, on the occasion of her Sunday afternoon panic attack.

I too recall when I was a beginning Assistant Professor, trying on my new lab for the first time, feeling like I could accomplish everything and nothing all at the same time. The science, as the thing I knew best, seemed like the least of my concerns since I had to deal with all kinds of subjects I had little experience in like hiring people, mentoring rotating people, managing budgets, attend a bunch of meetings (that seemed pointless at the time), and- importantly- submitting 1001 grants on 1001 different deadlines each with their own 1001 pieces of supporting paperwork. I don’t think I mentioned the bane of my existence … compliance paperwork for about the most complicated set of experiments one could imagine- 3 different animal models, non-survival surgeries, and biohazardous agents. And, I was lonely in my new position- not having a fellow jr. faculty buddy to compare notes, successes and mistakes with. Tenure seemed so far off, and I kidded myself that I just wanted a honest shot at it under my own power and it didn’t really matter to me whether I got tenure or not. What I’m trying to say (and perhaps should have used less words for) Gerty Z- is I know where you are coming from.

Take heart though- I’ve made it to the other side of tenure now, and if I can make it- so can you. First- the pep talk. You must trust in yourself, your abilities, and your education, recognize that few mistakes are fatal and try to avoid those that are. Do your science and build a network of colleagues and collaborators as though your life depends on it. Worry less about absolute number of papers you need to get tenure, and more about having every piece of preliminary data you need, publishing it all, hitting every grant deadline, and taking those reviewers just as seriously as you can. Don’t compare yourself to others, just DO the science that got you on the tenure track. And… ENJOY IT… after all… you do this because you love the questions and seeing the results, don’t you?

As for your specific questions….I’ll revert to my preferred mode… the list:

2. In a desperate fit of procrastination, I have been reading drdrA’s most excellent advice about the tenure track and Odyssey’s repost about how many papers you need to get tenure. These seem like great nuggets of useful advice. But I just feel more like I have no idea what is going on. Why are tenure requirements so fucking vague????

Wow. Good one. Stop looking at the tree and look at the forest. Less important that you need 7.4 published papers in journals with impact factors of 9 or higher to get tenure (ok, I totally made those #s up), more important to recognize that if you don’t have a GRANT you are highly unlikely to get tenure at a research heavy institution. More important to recognize that without publishing your data you are unlikely to get a grant… reviewers will say you are unproductive. Tenure requirements are vague, I think (and I’m sure physioprof will correct me if I’m wrong) in part because they depend on your departmental standards, your institutions standards, and what the field considers important contributions. These will vary from field to field, candidate to candidate.

3. How do I know if I am talking to my Chair enough? or too much?

You will know that you are talking to her too much when she tells you to go away. IMHO- better to err on the side of too much talking to chairpeople and senior colleagues- science talk, grant talk, paper talk, or career talk not idle chatter. You are bound to make some mistakes in all that chat- but remember, not everything is a test, and if people remember even 10% of what you say to them I would be shocked. What they will remember is that feeling of being in the loop, that they know that you are trying (submitting grants and papers!), and they will feel brilliant when they can solve a problem or an issue for you.

4. I’m still trying to figure out how you actually meet people in this place. How does a nOOb Asst. Prof get “advocates” that are senior faculty in other departments? Am I supposed to just start stopping by and sticking my head into people’s offices? I assume that other people are busy, and I don’t even know what I would say. I don’t want to piss anyone off or make them think I am stupid! How do I meet other Jr. faculty? There are none in my dept. I assume there must be others in different departments, but how would I know?

Wow, that’s a lot of questions. I’ve had new jr. faculty send me emails saying basically, I’m new, I see our projects are closely related, I wondered about bla bla bla (interesting research angle), and would you have time to meet. You can find other junior faculty by asking around, and by looking at departments related to yours and seeing who has recently been added as asst. prof on their web pages. As for getting ‘advocates’ that are more senior faculty in other departments… I’m not sure why at this early stage you should be thinking about this. You’ve got time. Set up your primary relationships in your own department, seek out other scientists with the expertise that you need on projects that are of mutual interest to you, mentoring relationships and senior faculty advocacy of you will flow from this.

5. I have a rotation student starting in a month!?!?! What the fuck am I supposed to do about that? I barely remember my rotations. Postdoc PI had a way of just throwing people into the lab without a project or even pairing them up with anyone-this never seemed to work all that well. But I have no idea what students expect for a rotation. I really don’t want to start off on a bad foot with the students.

This is an easy one. You need to set up a short, contained project utilizing very few specialized techniques, and preferably some that can be repeated. Unless you have a great tech or postdoc, you will need to hold the rotation student’s hand at first. You should think more about what YOUR expectations for the rotation students are- and less about what their expectations might be of the rotation. Talk to a colleague in your department that has high success recruiting grad students, who gets the smart ones, and whose students walk out having done great projects… if you need advice on how to set up a rotation and how to recruit the best students.

I’m going to skip over 6, 7… and cut straight to:

8. How do I “pick mentors”? I think that I am supposed to have an official mentoring committee, but I have no idea how to get folks to be on it. This is more terrifying than picking a grad committee by like a million-fold. At least then I had someone (my PI) that helped me choose people who would be looking out for me. What if I step in a steaming pile of department politics inadvertently?

There are two issues here- the ‘official’ mentoring committees and those people who are your real scientific and career mentors. These can be the same individuals but often they are not. You must have individuals in your department and in your previous life as a postdoc and grad student that you know well, and whose opinion you trust. I have news for you – those people are ALREADY your mentors. Network like a madman at meetings … find people in your field with like interests, or experiences…  As for the official mentoring committee, no need to set that up this instant. If you have a sense that one or two of the faculty members in your department are in your corner, and are willing to give you solid, straight shooting advice EVEN when that advice might be something you don’t want to hear… then at least you have a start on this.

9. I don’t know how to collaborate. I really like talking about science with people, and collaborating sounds like lots of fun. But I have never been involved in collaborations. Almost all of my pubs are 2-person affairs. Neither my grad school or postdoc PIs were very collaborative. Should I be collaborating with people? I assume so – but how does that work?

This is also a tough question. I never participated in any collaborations as a student, and only one as a postdoc. Now I’m hideously and insanely collaborative. Do all of these collaborations work? Nope. Did I expect them all to work? Nope. Have I gained some really awesome colleagues and mentors this way- and have some really excellent projects been spawned because of this? YES, without a doubt. My advice to you is start slowly, with a colleague that you have a good relationship with and trust, and with someone who has a skill set that is unique to yours. My most fantastic collaborations are with individuals interested in significantly similar questions… but who have an expertise that is completely different from mine. Expect that some (or even many) collaborations are going to fail, and fail miserably. Expect that a few will be better than you could possibly imagine.

10. There are no other jr. faculty in my dept. The last person (and the ONLY person in the last 7 years) that went up for tenure was a fucking rock-star. There is no way in hell that I will not look shitty by comparison.

There is a tendency to compare yourself to the last guy/girl. But resist. You have a unique set of projects- and you know that the milestones are doing great science, putting out some well-thought out solid papers, and bringing $$ into your lab. Outside of that resist the temptation to compare yourself to the last guy.

The Basics of Professional Communication, Part 1

I received the following email recently:

Hello DrDrA,

I am in the process of putting together my thesis committee. I would be honored if you would consider being a member of my supervisory committee. Once I have a list of potential faculty members, I will, at a later date, arrange for a committee meeting early next year. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me, and I am readily available for a chat if you would rather meet in person.

Have a great day!

Grad-Student-With-Fairly-Common-Last-Name

Nice, polite request for me to be on his/her thesis committee. Just one problem: I have NO IDEA who this person is, what his/her project is, or WHY he/she thought my expertise might be a valuable addition to the thesis committee, nor did (s)he give me any clues. The only details I removed from that email were my name and his/hers. I’m in the mood to be snarky today- but I’m going to hold back and try to be instructive instead. Here is what I’d like to see next time:

Hello DrDrA,

My name is Very-Thorough-Student, and I am a graduate student in the Widget Making Department pursuing my doctoral work in the laboratory of Big-Shot Professor (actually it doesn’t matter if she’s a big shot professor, as long as you tell me WHO your advisor is). I am a second year student and my thesis project is to understand the molecular basis for widget function (might elaborate on this just a touch).

I am in the process of putting together my thesis committee, and your expertise in widgetry would be very helpful. Would you be willing to be on my thesis committee?  We are tentatively planning to have my first committee meeting early next year. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me. Thanks for considering this request.

Sincerely-

Very-Thorough-Grad-Student-With-Fairly-Common-Last-Name

In this second version all the important details are included. Let the person you are making a request of know who you are, where you are from, what you are working on, and why you think their expertise is needed. If you do it this way you are much more likely to get a response.