Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Transferring money from students to billionaires

While the new tax bill covers many things, Inside Higher Ed has a look at how this might impact students (more discussion here). There are two main concerns here, from my perspective. The first worrisome part is that the tax plan will end student loan interest deductions, greatly increasing the costs of higher education, especially given how rapidly education debt has been rising. This, of course, will disproportionately impact lower income students who need to take on more debt. Furthermore, adding to the cost of loans will make important but low paying jobs (that mean no rapid loan repayment) requiring high education such as teacher, social worker, or librarian that much less attractive.

Even more relevant to most readers of this blog, the new tax bill proposes to make tuition wavers taxable. According to the Inside Higher Ed article:

The proposal would also eliminate a provision of the tax code used by many universities to waive the cost of tuition for graduate students filling positions like teaching assistantships. If the proposal were to go through, those institutions wouldn't be able to waive tuition costs without imposing new taxable income on grad students, said Steven Bloom, director of government relations at the American Council on Education.

OK. So we will take students making stipends of $25-30k and then tax them as if they were making $60-75k. That would bump people up from the 15% bracket to the 25% bracket on money they don't even see,. Given that many US students already have debt from undergrad, it is hard to see how this wouldn't greatly reduce the number of students able to attend grad school, especially when combined with removing the tax deduction on student loan interest. Now, I know that there are people who think we should reduce the number of grad students in STEM fields, but do we really want to cull the numbers with an economic means test?

This seems like a really strange proposal. For one thing, how much money can taxing grad school tuition wavers actually bring in? For another, why wouldn't grad schools drastically lower tuition in the programs that routinely provide such wavers, since it seems mostly like a bookkeeping fiction anyways? Its not like some programs don't have higher tuition than others already, and plenty of programs already have different tuition rates for students before and after they pass to PhD candidates.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

True professor confession: I don't like hosting seminar speakers

I know we are supposed to be happy about hosting. We get to invite someone we really want to bring in, we get to spend extra time with them, and enjoy a meal with them on ProdigalU. But the truth is, I really don't like hosting. I can do all those things (except pick the speaker) when someone else hosts, and then I don't have to harangue my colleagues into signing up to fill the schedule, make sure all the proper arrangements have been made, do the introduction (which I find awkward), or deal with any random logistical nightmares that occur. I realize this makes me a freeloader, and that I should do my share for the department. But I definitely don't enjoy it.

Anyone else have something to confess?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Bureaucracy!

When dealing with any large organization, it is necessary to navigate the bureaucracy. Over time, there are more and more layers of people to enforce more and more detailed rules. In my experience at National Lab and at ProdigalU, bureaucracy mostly slows down the honest folks who are trying to get things done, while the people who wish to cheat/steal/not follow the rules just figure out how to get around each new layer as it appears.

I am feeling frustrated by the new levels generated at ProdigalU to ensure rule and policy compliance. I feel like more and more of my time is spent navigating bureaucracy, which is even less rewarding than service.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Getting the most out of conference travel

I think attending conferences is really important for students at all levels. I can only afford to send my grad students (though I have sent undergrads to local meetings), but I make a strong effort to send every student who has something they can present to one meeting per year. In practice, this means pretty much all of them, every year. I think this is so important to their development, that this is a priority for me. We also apply for any travel support that is available to facilitate this.

This last conference I attended with some of my students, I noticed that some of them were not really making the most of the (professional) opportunity. Then I remembered that when I was a student (a shy, introverted, not really self-confident student), I spent most conferences hanging out with people I already knew from my undergrad or PhD universities, which was fun, but not really the point. No one ever suggested ways I could get more out of meetings, which would have helped newbie Prodigal a lot. So I decided to start explaining to my students what they should be doing to make the most of a conference (especially since in lean years, we scrape by so I can send them).

Prodigal's rules for conference success:

1.  The stated point of a conference is to exchange ideas. So you need to:

Get your work out there! This of course means that it is important to present your work well in a good presentation (THAT DOESN'T GO OVER TIME!) or as a well thought out poster. It means you need to be at your poster for at least half of the poster session. But most importantly, it means you must discuss your work with other people, even outside of your talk/poster.

Attend talks/posters on things that interest you that might not be directly relevant ot your project. This is a great way to get new ideas, and to learn about a new direction/new area. Most speakers will be distilling one or more papers into the allotted speaking time. The good ones will get you up to speed on the key points during their talks, which can save hours of laboring over papers and references. I find that attending talks on topics I am interested in is the best way to spark my creativity with my own work.

Talk to people in your field to hear about negative results. Negative results are usually thrown in to another paper (as an add-on to positive results), so it could be years before anyone knows that a particular line of research is unlikely to be fruitful. People will talk about negative results in person when discussing their research, though. The publication bias towards positive results means that many labs try the same thing that leads nowhere until someone puts it into the literature that the method doesn't work and stops new entrants to the field from trying it. You can avoid that by talking to other people so you don't invest loads of time in something unlikely to be successful. You should do the same for others, by the way, to help save them time too. 


2. The actual point of a conference is networking. So there are three things you need to do:

Look over the program and "stalk" people who you'd like to meet.  By "stalk", I don't mean actually stalk! Just find out when they will be presenting and attend the session. You can ask a question/introduce yourself at a break. This is your chance to meet people in your field! As a student, it works best with younger, less established scientists, but there are well-established folks who enjoy meeting students. There are also well-established folks who decidedly don't, but that is good information to find out too.

Make sure you meet new people! This may seem obvious, but it is not. It is easiest to do at mixers/coffee breaks, where people are feeling social, or at poster sessions, where there is a natural way to approach people (at posters) and a natural topic (the research). You can also have your existing friends/mentors introduce you to new people. The people you meet at conferences are your peers. They will be reviewing your manuscripts and proposals, inviting people to various events, and possibly telling you about professional opportunities. They will also tell you the real story about their research (the stuff you can't/don't put into papers). You need to get your name out there. Being talented is not enough if no one but you and your advisor know it. You should also follow up with the ones that you clicked best with after the conference via email.

Refresh connections with people you've met before. Ways to do this: attend their talks/posters, contact them and set up a meeting, arrange to bump into them at a coffee break, track them down at conference social events. Even if you meet someone face to face once a year, it is enough to make them a professional contact after a few meetings. It also gives you someone outside your university to hang out with who can introduce you to new people (see previous). 

Point 2 on networking (and its importance) came as a surprise to some of my less experienced students. Early on, many of them still believe that science is a strict meritocracy, and are shocked that networking is so important to success. It is best for them to learn this early, so they can start figuring out networking strategies that work for them.

After my students return from a conference, I like to have them give a group meeting on what they saw, with an emphasis on things that will help our projects, things they thought were the most interesting, and people they think we should pay attention to.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Parenting older children

Another rant about work-life balance. When people talk about trying to balance parenthood and career, I find that they almost always refer to the baby stage. Yes, parental leave is really important when you have a newborn. Yes, sleep deprivation is a major issue when your kids don't sleep though the night. Yes, adequate access to daycare is a major problem. But parenting doesn't end when the children reach school age, and yet the challenges of raising older children while excelling in a a challenging career are not often discussed.

There was this article in The Atlantic back in 2012 by Anne-Marie Slaughter in which she discusses her decision to quit a high powered job to spend more time with her family. At the time, the article kicked off lots of discussion, mostly about whether women could "have it all" and not so much about the child raising parts.

The truth is, kids remain a huge time sink up until they move out of the house. Until the kids reach at least 11 or 12, someone has to be home with them in the mornings before school starts (not so much a problem for our family, since school starts pretty early) and after school (which ends in the middle of the afternoon). We are lucky to have quality after school programs for the Prodigal Kids, but not everyone is so fortunate. Even so, someone still has to do drop off and pick up on time every day. This makes work-related travel very difficult for the home parent, especially if there is more than one kid in more than one place. It also makes things like late meetings/late classes a problem at a time when the workplace is lot less sympathetic then it was for the baby stage.

It is true that older kids require less physical labor and are more self-sufficient, but they still don't buy food (or anything else!) for themselves, meal plan, cook, or do their laundry (at least ours don't--I know some people have their kids start helping out with the laundry at 10 or so). As they age, they need more stuff, and that stuff needs to be in the right place at the right time. Scheduling becomes another thing to do. The schools don't help, because sometimes they need a photo for tomorrow (which sucks for us, since we don't usually print ours), or a last minute school supply, or a trip to the library when the weekend is already full.

Worse, the problems they have now are more difficult to solve. It used to be they were hungry, thirsty, wet, or tired. As a parent, there was something we could do to help them. Now they have social circles to navigate (or not) and schoolwork to master (or not). They make decisions on their own that have long term consequences, and have to deal with the fallout. As a parent, we can offer advice, but they must do the work. It is really hard to watch your child struggle with a frenemy or have difficulty learning something, or be completely unable to organize themselves. And it isn't like power struggles go away--instead of fighting about wearing proper clothing with a toddler, now we are fighting about finishing homework with a tween.

I love my kids, and I am happy with the life choices I made. But I have to say that it really annoys me when people (especially men who have stay at home wives to deal with all of this) assume that because my kids are no longer babies, I can behave as if I don't have kids at home anymore, and that not doing so makes me lazy/uncommitted/less serious/not a real scientist.

Monday, September 25, 2017

On getting older

Contrary to what pop culture tells the young about getting older (with all the emphasis on mid-life crises, lying about your age, worrying about appearance, etc), I find that I am much happier as I move into middle age. I am both more aware of and more accepting of who I am, both the things I like about myself and the things I don't. At this point in time, I am who I am, and that is unlikely to dramatically change. And I am OK with that.

When I was younger, I worried much more about what other people thought, about what was "acceptable" and about making mistakes. Now, I know that I will make mistakes, but that most of them will be fixable (or at least I'll be able to recover from them). I don't care so much about what I "should" be doing, and can focus more on what I want to do, even though I have many more  responsibilities (both personal and professional) now than I did 15 years ago. Coming along with feeling better about myself in other areas, I find that while I still have flare-ups of Imposter Syndrome, I am more easily able to put them aside and do what I need to do with less panic.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Digital privacy in academia and beyond

Bottom line: you have none.

Go look at the posts and comments on this by potnia theron and fighty squirrel. If you use your University's network access, you may as well consider them to have a list of every site you visit, if not a keylogger for what you do online. If you use your business email address for non-business things, you are inviting your boss to know anything you wrote. When I worked at National Lab, we knew our phones and mail accounts were monitored, so people used cell phones/alternate email accounts or face to face meetings for private discussion. What is true then is as true now--never, ever put anything in email that you would not mind becoming public knowledge. If you get involved in anything that triggers an investigation of you (even as a witness to something, even if it was something crazy your office mate did, even if it is something innocuous taken out of context), your electronic history will be combed through in detail. Best to confine specific gripes about specific people to in person conversations!

At the same time, while privacy tools like TOR help, human nature is working against you. It is really, really hard to stay anonymous on the Internet. One minor mistake posting using the wrong account, checking email without TOR, or referring to something done by an alternate persona, and you are done. Private VPN sites don't work for everything one might want to do, making it really hard to stop your access provider from tracking you at least some of the time.

I use a thin pseud because I don't want it to be easy to find me, but I am well aware that there probably are people who know (or could find out quickly if they so desired) who I am. Almost everyone in truth relies on "I am a tiny needle in a giant haystack" for privacy, but that only works if no one decides to look for information about you.


Monday, September 11, 2017

If you hear something, say something

In this age of increasing incivility, I just want to remind people that speaking up when you hear something you feel is demeaning, bigoted, or inappropriate can make a difference. A personal story: when I was a grad student, I worked with a professor who sometimes told racist jokes in social situations with his research group. This is something I don't particularly enjoy, and I was sure it was making the non-white students uncomfortable. Even though I wanted to keep working with this person, and even though I wanted this person to write me letters in the future, and even though this person was on my committee, after a little while, I decided that the next time he made one of these little jokes, I would say something.

I was very nervous about it--I had no idea how it would go, though this person is generally reasonable. I practiced to myself what I would say, and sure enough at lunch one day, I had my chance. Shortly after he had just told a racist joke, I was alone with him. I told him that I don't like those kinds of jokes, and that I would prefer if he didn't tell them when I was around. After that, he never told one in my presence (I have no idea what he did when I wasn't around). I think he didn't realize that such jokes can make people feel uncomfortable, since he didn't "mean" it. That said, it can be horrible to work in an environment where people (like your PI!) routinely make disparaging remarks about your culture or background. It is worth saying something to improve things, or even to make sure things don't get worse.

Three things:
1. It is much, much easier to say something when the remarks/behaviors are about someone else. I am not sure how this would have played out if it was sexist humor in this situation, but I have definitely been told that I have no sense of humor and/or need to lighten up when pointing out troubling sexism to peers. Saying something about jokes that target you can also get you labeled as a troublemaker or complainer. So help out your colleagues--say something when they are the butt of the "joke", and hopefully someone will have your back as well.

2. I kept my comments about myself "I don't like" and about the jokes "that kind of humor" rather than calling the professor a racist, or implying that he was being cruel on purpose. I think people are less likely to feel defensive with this approach, and it is more likely to get results. As far as I could tell, the professor treated everyone fairly. It was just the "jokes".

3. Not every person is reasonable. This is not an option for everyone, but if it is, I recommend doing your bit for the social atmosphere. I certainly enjoyed working with him a lot more without having to listen to racist humor, but I was also fortunate, and this incident could have ruined an opportunity for me. I suppose in the worst case, it could have cost me my PhD. If a negative outcome will have very adverse affects, make sure you think things through. I am also talking about the occasional inappropriate remark or joke, not actual harassment, which is a much more serious problem (and likely will not get better with this approach).

Thursday, August 31, 2017

On interviewing: to Skype or not?

As the academic year begins, it is also the beginning of job search season for TT applicants. In my field, the typical timeline is to have application deadlines in the Fall, with most interviews complete by Feb or Mar. Last year, I took place in some Skype pre-interview screening for the first time (it is not common in my field). Traditionally, my department has made the interview list using materials from the application file alone (see here for more details on our usual process). Then we bring in 4-5 candidates for a two day interview.

After seeing how helpful I found the Skype interviews (we used Skype--we had our candidates share their screen and give us a brief research overview), here are the pros as I see them:
  • We can screen more candidates--it is hard to go from the long list to the short list just on the paper applications, and often we'd like to see more than 4 or 5 applicants
  • We don't waste trip money plus 2 days of departmental time on candidates who obviously won't work (English not good enough, can't explain their research live, can't answer questions, etc)
  •  It is harder to fake a presentation and answer questions than a written proposal (after some of our interviews, I have wondered if the candidate wrote the proposal)
  • We can clarify points of possible research overlap/fundability/feasibility that may be unclear in the application due to the inexperience of many of our candidates in writing proposals. Naivete in a proposal may be due to moving into a new area and not being fully immersed yet, or it may be holes in thinking. 
  • Skype pre-screening seemed to help less experienced candidates who are perceived as riskier choices to bring out for an interview.
It is not all positive though. There are some significant downsides too, and some of my colleagues are reluctant to add an additional step to an already long and intense process:
  • It is not the norm in my field (though I think this is changing to be honest), and we may turn off good candidates 
  • It is another time and work intensive thing to add to the search committee's burden (already large, since there are lots of files to read in a short time that overlaps with Fall proposal season)
  • Technical glitches may influence opinions unfairly
  • It can be hard to schedule time when all (or even most) of the search committee can be present at the same time as the candidate, and this is not considering time differences
  • It is yet another hoop/timesink for candidates (since we asked for a brief presentation)
The bit about helping less experienced/riskier interview choices might end up more important in the end. I've noticed since joining ProdigalU that our faculty candidates (and therefore our new hires) tend to have more and more experience prior to getting a TT job. The percentage of applicants in the pool applying from their first postdoc without other experience is dropping, so in some sense, candidates are self-selecting (so if you are in your first postdoc, apply anyway!)

I am not sure this experience creep is a good thing (or even a bad thing, but it is a thing). It isn't even that we have loads of people doing multiple postdocs (we have some of this too)--many of these more experienced people just plain did something else at some point in life (like me!) before the TT. But life experience (especially writing experience) is a major advantage in a tight field, and it is hard to compare the files of a newly minted postdoc who has been in a student or trainee somewhere since age 5 to someone who has been a group leader, or a decorated educator, or an experienced science editor. With pre-screening, we can see both.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Student recruiting again

It's that time of year again. In the US, there seem to be primarily two systems for admitting students into graduate programs in science, with local variations on the theme. In one, the students are admitted to the department, and select an advisor after starting the program. This may happen with or without rotations through different groups. In the other, students apply to the department and professors select students from the applications that meet admission requirements. Students are then given conditional admission, with the condition that they have to join the group (or one of the groups) they've been selected for. In the Prodigal Department, we admit students to our program, and they join groups after arrival without rotations, so we are entering the busy season for student recruitment.

This year, I will be recruiting hard for new students, as I've had a bunch of recent graduations. My group is small, funding is tight, and I can't really afford a mistake here. I used to do a hard sell when I first started, but now I mostly look for enthusiasm and scientific curiosity. I am never offended when people don't choose my group, because I am well aware that there are different strokes for different folks, and the last thing that I want is someone who does not want to be there in my group. If someone is not excited by their project on Day 1, how will it be on Day 1095?

In addition, I've been thinking about this post at Mistress of the Animals and subsequent comments about a bad PI-student match. There is a big disconnect in the comments, with some people saying that the responsibility lies mostly with the PI (poor mentorship and/or lack of training), and others saying that the responsibility lies mostly with student (poor choice in group and/or not proactive when the situation wasn't working). Like all situations, the truth is probably a little of both, which is why I won't take a student if I don't feel I can work well with them.

With that discussion in mind, each year, I am surprised by the number of incoming students who have already chosen a group from afar. Some choose just from a website, the publication record, and a phone call. Other choose from fairly brief interactions at events for accepted students. Even those who visit ProdigalU separately typically spend just part of one day checking things out, which is a short time to gather enough information to decide if you can work with someone, especially since everyone is likely on their best behavior.

I am pretty sure that everyone who is admitted to our program (which means they have at least a little research experience) has been told that they need to consider the whole group before making a decision and not just the sexy project, the reputation of the PI, someone else's previous experience, or the placement of group alumni. However, these are the only things that people who show up at ProdigalU already set to join a group can use to make their choice. Most of my colleagues who pick up students ahead of time like this have much larger groups than I do, and can more readily afford a mismatch.

So what do I tell my own undergrads when they head off to grad school? Pick a project that excites you. Don't worry too much about how prominent the researcher is as long as they are publishing regularly in good journals. Make sure your future groupmates are people you can work with. Ask about expectations: work hours, progress, expected time in the program, publications and how they will be handled, etc to make sure you and your PI at least start out on the same page. It is NOT crazy to want to know ahead of time about expected work hours and time off.