Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Learning how to be a good reviewer

Considering how important reviewing is to research science, I am really surprised by how little thought goes in to teaching students how to do a good job as a referee. I got literally no training--I started getting review requests as a postdoc, and learned on the fly. I am sure I was unreasonably harsh the first few times, and I am truly grateful to the journals that send on all the comments so I could scale my comments with those of other reviewers.

Students are notoriously harsh when it comes to reviewing the work of others. I see it in class, when students give absurdly low marks when asked to score each others' presentations, in journal club when students harsh on the work of other groups, and sometimes in reviews, when I have senior students review papers with me so they can see how I do it. At the same time, students are very sensitive to harsh remarks sent on their own work, but don't have the experience to put either their own reports or the reports they receive in context.

Writing a good referee report is a skill that can/must be learned like any other. Even considering how to phrase something is important if you care about how the comment will be received. "There are a number of typos and grammatical errors that should be double checked before final publication" and "The writer is obviously not a native English speaker and should get someone to edit their horrible writing" both comment on the same thing, but one is more likely to be received constructively than the other.

When I am going over reviewing with a student, I go through how I approach a manuscript with them, then have them write a "review", then go through the review with them before editing into the final report. I never send a student report without doing a review myself, just to make sure I agree with the comments (which will have my name on them). So how do I go about reviewing a manuscript?

1. I have a new file open to type my comments as I go. I don't like to have to try to remember what I was thinking, particularly for long manuscripts.

2. I start with a summary of the manuscript (which I add to as I read). This tells the authors what I think the manuscript is about after reading it. If my summary does not match what they thought they wrote, they will know there is a miscommunication that should be cleaned up. This has actually happened to me once when I was a postdoc--the summary did not reflect what I thought the paper was about. I've also received some great insights into my own work this way, particularly for my first first author paper.

3. I point out glaring typos/grammatical issues until I get past 5 or 6, and then I just add "There are a number of typos and grammatical errors that should be double checked before final publication". I really dislike editing via referee report. If the writing is of a quality that I cannot understand what the authors did (this happened once), I stop reviewing and send it back with a comment to that effect.

4. If the paper is in my area, I sometimes have some suggestions of papers to add to the background (I only sometimes suggest papers from my group. More often, it is something else I think they may have overlooked). If the paper is not exactly in my area, I take more time with the introduction/background, and make suggestions if there is anything I need to look up myself in order to understand the manuscript.

5. I go through each reported experimental result, look at the figure(s) or table, and think about how I would interpret that data. If I conclude something different from the authors, I mention it. If I think the authors are overinterpreting, underinterpreting, or missing a control, I mention that too. I also mention if I agree/if the discussion is appropriate. If any questions come up, I write them down. If the questions are just for interest and are likely beyond the scope of the paper, I preface the question with  "This may be beyond the scope of the paper, but..." to make sure the question is taken in the spirit offered (and doesn't block publication of an otherwise fine manuscript because the editor insists that everything be addressed).

6. I go through the methods section and try to imagine replicating the work from just the methods section.  I often have questions about details here that I think should be reported.

7. I read through the concluding remarks and make sure they make sense and place the work in the perspective of the field.

When I am done, I look through the paper again quickly to see if I missed anything. My final report is usually 1-2 pages long. I've never recommended acceptance without revision, though I rarely reject manuscripts outright (in my opinion, suggesting major revisions and/or a different journal is not outright rejection). It takes me a while to do a good review, but I really appreciate thorough reviews of my own work, so it is worth it to me. I'd say I take a good 1-3 hours to do a typical review (depends on length and my familiarity with the area).

When I am reviewing with a student, usually their first draft is way too harsh, asks for a huge number of additional control or scope experiments, does not differentiate between simple experiments one can expect anyone in the field to be able to do and super-heroic experiments that very few groups can even attempt let alone get usable data from, and is either way too brief or super long. Student reviews are often about showing off a students' knowledge or protecting against looking stupid rather than an attempt to improve the work that was submitted. It is a big mental shift for a student to start thinking of themselves as a knowledgeable scientist rather than as someone who will be graded on their review. Through it takes longer to do a review with a student, I'd rather have my students learn how to do this with guidance then get thrown into the deep end right away.

Monday, July 10, 2017

TT and children

Xykademiqz recently put up an excellent post on the spacing of her kids' ages and her career trajectory, growing out of a question after a post about enjoying her kids. This is an issue that comes up again and again--family, life decisions, and academia. I am linking back to her, and posting this, because I think this is such an important issue. When I was a student, I was convinced that having a family was incompatible with the TT, especially for a woman. This is one of the reasons I didn't even consider an academic position when I finished my PhD. Part of the reason I felt so strongly about this was that up until that point, I had NEVER had a female professor for any of my STEM courses. My undergrad department had one female faculty member (not in my area), untenured with no family. My graduate department had one female faculty member (not in my area), who got tenure while I was a student and then immediately got pregnant, leading to snickering all around by the (mostly) male students and some of the faculty members in the department. There were no counter examples to help me make an informed decision about family and academia--all was rumor and guesswork.

Fast forward to now, and I have both tenure and a family. I had both of my kids pre-tenure. I am a living example that it is possible to get tenure AND have young kids at the same time. In fact, I had one child inside academic (at ProdigalU) and one child outside of academia (at National Lab). From this perspective, I can say that it is much, much easier to have young kids at ProdigalU even pre-tenure than it was at National Lab. Academia is just so much more flexible than most other jobs, and with balancing anything, flexibility is key.

At National Lab, I was required to be at work for set hours. If I needed to be somewhere during those hours, I had to take time off. Since I also got only 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave (the standard FMLA is what Feds get), I burned ALL of my sick leave and vacation time after giving birth, leaving me with practically no wiggle room when LittleProdigal got sick. From observing my colleagues, even after a few years, it is really hard to build up enough vacation time to both have reasonable vacations and be available for kids school and other activities that take place during the workday.

In contrast, as an academic, your schedule is your own. It is long hours, but you set them. Other than scheduled classes and meetings, I can leave work whenever I want to or need to without worry. I don't really ever worry about missing an activity with my kids. Unless I am traveling, it is no problem. This is as true for fun things like concerts as it is for emergencies like sick kids or closed daycares.

On top of keeping track of hours, face time was a thing at National Lab. It was really important to look visibly busy all the time and have the appearance of working in your office or lab for at least 8 or 9 hours a day every day. Asking for time off during the day was frowned upon--better to just take a whole day off then look not serious about your work. Some of my friends in non-academic jobs worry about being mommy- or daddy- tracked, and are reluctant to ask to go to a soccer game or school concert.

There isn't really face time in academia in the same way. As far as I know, no one cares whether I am in my office, or even worries about where I might be when I am not there. I certainly don't keep track of the people in my hallway. There is still a culture of looking busy/complaining about how busy we all are, but there is little or no checking up. Everyone teaches and travels at all different times anyway, so you'd need quite a lot of free time to really track this stuff anyway. 

It wasn't super easy to have 2 preschool aged kids while working towards tenure. I worked at home many nights, but at the same time, I was able to reserve the time from 5 pm until 8 pm for family almost every night. I can't imagine that any demanding career is easy to balance with the needs of kids (who can't really wait for many things). In fact, I'd say medicine is way worse (at least until training is done, which can be 7 or more years post-med school), and oddly, medicine is considered a somewhat family friendly career (I certainly was told that a lot when I was a student).

There's never really a good time to have kids, so you may as well have them when you are ready and let the chips fall where they may--you can figure it out in the middle of things without preplanning every second! Not everyone can balance career and family in a way that makes them happy, but don't let people tell you that you can't have kids on the TT, or that serious academics can't have more than one, or that academia is uniquely incompatible with family life, because it just isn't true.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Funding ideas for sabbatical planners

Inspired by xykademiqz's comment on my previous post, I am going to link dump everything I had in my bookmark list from when I was planning my sabbatical. No sense in wasting all this work!

Ideas for sabbatical funding:
These are just what I found when I was looking for my own sabbatical. There are probably more things out there--this is by no means a comprehensive list. If you know of something else, feel free to add it in the comments or send me an email, and I'll add it.

I have also found that many universities have their own internal funding for visiting professors. This money can (usually) only be applied for by a local host, but can pay for travel costs and housing for short term stays. It is worth asking about! After my sabbatical, I was invited to another university for a few weeks though one of these programs, which was fantastic.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tips for dragging your family along on a travel sabbatical

Everywhere I go, once people hear that I did a travel sabbatical with young (elementary school aged) kids, they ask me for more information/advice on how to do it. I've written more generally before about what I wish I knew before a travel sabbatical, but not specifically about kid stuff. So, I am collecting my thoughts about it here. The most important piece of advice: you have to be really committed to do this--you can't decide last minute, or be half hearted. So, here is Prodigal's list of what to do when you want to take a sabbatical abroad with your family.

1. Have a flexible partner
This one is tough, since not everyone has a flexible-type job. I have friends outside academia who have asked (and received!) leaves of absence from their jobs for various reasons (family, health, travel), but this is usually unpaid, and depends highly on the company as to whether or not it can happen. We were fortunate, and Prodigal Spouse is in a very flexible work situation right now. That was one of the reasons we pushed so hard to travel this time, since next time, we may not be so flexible. I would not have done a long-term travel sabbatical with young kids if Prodigal Spouse could not come along!

2. Plan ahead
Way ahead! We started planning for our trip almost as soon as my sabbatical was approved, which was 18+ months before we left (we did not spend the whole year abroad). In the early planning stage we had three main concerns: 1) what would Prodigal Spouse do? 2) where would our kids go to school and would they be able to come back with no issues? 3) how would we maintain 2 households for an extended period of time?

3. Pick a location
We needed to find someplace that would be a good opportunity for me and provide something engaging for Prodigal Spouse to do. At this point, we figured we'd arrange things for the adults and then confirm we could arrange schooling for the kids. My first choice location did not work out for a variety of reasons, so we ended up going with my second choice, which worked out great in the end. We went about selecting locations by me suggesting something, and the Prodigal Spouse looking for opportunities in the same place. Finding a good host is a key part of all of this, since my host was a good fit scientifically, where both my host and I would benefit. Even better, my host was able to help me out with logistics quite a bit. My sabbatical led to one published paper, one manuscript in prep, and currently ongoing experiments, so I would say it worked out for both of us!

4. Apply for funding if available!
This is huge help with expenses. Travel sabbaticals with kids are very expensive! Not only were we maintaining two households, but we had to buy a bunch of stuff locally after arrival that we would not have had we stayed home (school supplies, food staples, clothing the kids needed replaced, etc). With a minimalist packing approach (which I endorse!), you can count on having to replace some clothing and shoes from wear, even if the kids don't grow out of them. I applied for and received funding, which made a big difference.

5. Start arranging school
After looking in great detail, we decided to send our kids to the local public schools, rather than pay for an international school. The cost was just one issue here (though it was quite significant! International Schools are very, very expensive, since their prime target is ex-pats assigned abroad by companies that sometimes pay for or subsidize such schools). We also thought the kids would have a much better cultural experience attending school with locals rather than with ex-pats, even though they did not speak the local language. There was a great deal of paperwork involved here, and the International Office at my host University was a huge help in letting us know exactly what we needed to bring and in setting up required appointments for us in advance so we could get the kids into school as soon as possible. We had to make sure our kids would be able to return seamlessly to their home schools, and worked to get letters in hand to make this happen, plus instructions on how we should enroll early or from a distance for both school and the after school program. We also had to figure out what to do in the after school period (after instruction ends, but while we are still working). We were very happy to find out that most local schools in our host city had after school programs, which was a huge relief! If not, though, we would have had to figure out what to do with our kids.

6. Other paperwork
Figuring out exactly what visa/residence permits/study permits we needed was quite stressful and difficult. I found the local consulate for my host country to be supremely unhelpful, but YMMV. The International Office for my host University was a much better source of information. They helped me make appointments in advance with the appropriate local government agencies in my host country to make sure we would be in compliance with local law. We needed to buy a local insurance policy (this was a requirement for our residence permits), but luckily we found something at a reasonable price that was easy to do online. It was quite annoying to have to pay twice for insurance, and this was an unexpected cost that we found out about quite late in our process. We also needed to have our birth certificates and marriage license translated into the local language for processing to get the kids in to school with me and Prodigal Spouse listed as their parents (for pick up and permission purposes). This was one place the local consulate was helpful--they maintained a list of authorized translators.

7. Preparing the children
We told the children it was an adventure, and started preparing them as soon as we knew where we were going. At their ages, the kids were flexible enough to get into the adventurous spirit, though they were quite nervous as the trip got closer. We started them on Duolingo (a language learning app) and Pimsleur audio courses (often found at the library) 9ish months before we left so they would have at least some familiarity with the local language. We had the kids tell their friends they were traveling a few months before we left, and some of their friends set up email accounts so they could keep in touch while we were gone, which was really nice. Another friend gave us a few pre-addressed envelopes so the kids could exchange letters. The kids were very excited when we received letters or email from home, so I highly recommend something like this. We showed them where we were going and talked about all the things we might do there.

8. Find a flat/home near a public school
We were in a city, so this was not so hard. In my host country, kids usually go to the neighborhood elementary school. I looked at the city website, and found out where the schools are in our target neighborhoods. The kids walked to school every day, and made friends in the neighborhood, which was very helpful while we were there. We were looking for short term (less than a year) rentals, ideally furnished. Most of this sort of housing is aimed at traveling business folks, so it was not so easy to find a 2-bedroom place that was affordable. Since we were looking short term and furnished, it didn't make sense to do the wander with a cellphone approach to finding a place. I used a local real estate website to find possible apartments. Google translate does an adequate job at translation for descriptions, but I also spoke with some people from my host country about what certain terms meant in the context of renting an apartment to avoid surprises. Through this website, I was able to make several appointments to see apartments our first week in town, with the idea we'd sign a lease ASAP and move in right away. This was crucial to getting settled right away, which was important to the kids.

9. Keeping up with the home school
The kids' teachers were really gracious about telling us what would be covered the rest of the school year, and gave us some of the work they planned to assign. One teacher photocopied all of the worksheets for us, and lent us a textbook. We took this stuff with us. It took us about a month from landing until the kids got into their school (we needed various appointments to happen first), so we used this material to homeschool during that first month. Prodigal Spouse and I took turns staying with them. I had already planned to start in my host lab a month after arrival, and that was a good call.

10. Local accounts
When staying for this long, we needed a local bank account to pay certain expenses, since school fees (for lunch and after school) can't be paid by credit card or cash, and they don't use checks.  We asked around a few students/postdocs from host country for advice, and also used Google to figure out what bank we wanted to use and what we needed to get an account set up. Crazily enough, the best way to get money into this account from the US was to withdraw via ATM, then redeposit, due to the backward-ness of the US when it comes to moving money around. We also needed local cellphone numbers so people (like the school!) could actually call us. We used a local prepaid cell plan that was actually much cheaper than what we paid at home.

11. Things to bring for the kids
We planned on traveling a bit at the end of our trip, so we packed light. We needed to be able to carry everything with us on trains. We took minimal clothing, in layers for multiple seasons. For the kids, we had 5 days of outfits plus 3 extra days of underwear and socks. We allowed each kid to bring 1 stuffed animal. We had tablets for the kids to read/play on while traveling. We downloaded books in English so my reading kid would still be able to read while learning the local language. Amazon does NOT do well when you change countries--any tablet or phone is assigned a country, and it gets very confused when you try to use Amazon in another country (in fact, check out the link for a description of other issues resulting from changing countries in the digital age). You can in fact only buy ebooks from your home country, which was an issue when we wanted to bring some ebooks in the local language for Little Prodigal 1 back to our home.

After some poking at it, I found that the US Amazon actually has quite a decent selection of foreign language ebooks, some of which are free (and which ones are free changes periodically, so it is possible to check back and get more later). This is something I never knew before. Little Prodigal 2 was just learning to read, and we used the material from school for reading. Planning ahead for reading was actually really good in retrospect, since the selection of kids books in English in the local city library was small, and mostly dedicated to kids learning English from the local language (which totally makes sense). Even without their toys from home, our kids made due. They were really creative with making their own toys from old boxes and paper, and we had lots to do in our host city, so they were rarely bored.

12. Right after we arrived
Our first week was nuts--we dragged the kids around looking at flats and neighborhoods, attending appointments for residence permits and school registration, and getting Prodigal Spouse set up for his stuff. We took an Airbnb so we would have a separate bedroom from the kids, someplace to sit and hang out, and a kitchen. The kids were a bit overwhelmed at times, and they were pretty jet lagged, so eating meals at home was pretty helpful.  We cooked a few of their favorites to help them feel less homesick. We moved into our flat after a week.

The first month, the kids were home from school. We spent a lot of time in local parks and exploring our neighborhood. The kids liked finding neighborhood stores, and we quickly found a local restaurant we all liked as our family place to go out. We set up a local Amazon account to buy things urgently needed--we had no idea where to buy some things locally, but Amazon had them at decent prices. This was actually really important when the kids brought home lists of school supplies and we had no idea what they were. A quick Amazon search let us figure out 90% of what we needed, and we in fact ordered some of it from Amazon rather than doing an extensive local search.

Once the kids were settled into a routine, the first month of school was still super hard on them. It was a good thing we have 2, since they could talk to each other in the after school program. Only 1 kid in the whole school spoke English, so they were pretty isolated until they learned some of the local language. After the first month, things were much easier. The kids started making friends in class, and they understood enough to play with other kids. Both kids were still young enough that they could rapidly pick up the basics through immersion. This would be a lot more of a challenge with an older child, although we would be more likely to have paid a tutor and/or allowed an older child to use more interactive learning methods (busuu, local language meetups, etc).

In the end, we are really lucky to speak English, since English is taught as a second language starting in grade 1 in our host country, and is a commonly known second language. Importantly, at places like the kids' school and local governmental offices, there were always some staff who could tell us what we needed to know in English. For the kids' school, we actually had an orientation a few days before the kids started where some teachers explained (in English) how lunch works, how after school works, and showed the kids their classrooms. By the time we did serious travel outside urban areas, the kids could translate for us.

There you have it--an outline of what we did to travel on sabbatical with kids. It was a lot of work, and sometimes very frustrating, but as a family, it was a great experience. The kids learned another language, were exposed to a new culture, made friends in a new place, and got to travel all around our location. I loved living in host city, and also liked traveling around a new place. Professionally, it was really great for me to take a break from ProdigalU, and reasonably productive too.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Burner laptops

The last two times I attended conferences outside the US, I spoke with several people who brought "burner laptops" with them. In one case, the people involved wanted to avoid issues surrounding intrusive border searches, and only put exactly what they needed on the hard drive just in case. In the other case, they were trying to avoid the uncertainty of the US security position on laptops. The main concern here is that the Trump administration will suddenly announce a rule change while they are abroad, leaving them with no choice but to risk checking their laptops (like the last time).

The complete craziness of putting a whole bunch of lithium battery containing "security threats" in one place in the cargo hold aside, there is no way I would be happy putting my expensive main work machine into checked luggage of any kind. These burner laptops are relatively cheap ($200-300), so if they are lost or stolen while in the cargo hold, it is not such a huge loss. Plus, it is possible to set them up with a limited set of data, so there are fewer security/privacy concerns with searches or lost hard drives. I imagine just the uncertainty of it all will push more people (especially those who work with sensitive data) towards cloud-based storage solutions.

If I didn't need to work while traveling, I'd probably consider just presenting off my phone. There have been a few folks doing that almost since the dawn of smart phones, so I know it is possible. I don't really want to spend grant money on a burner laptop (also the justification as not general purpose would be interesting). I definitely don't want to spend my own money on a mostly useless machine. Just another reason why I really hate flying these days.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Being an introvert in the age of social media

I've always been a very introverted person. Too much social interaction definitely tires me out, and I've never had a large group of friends (or been the life of the party). I am also a pretty anti-social person. I don't need that much daily social interaction to not feel lonely. These things used to be important career-wise for their impacts on networking. Modern life definitely rewards the extroverted (and especially the extrovert with social skills). Us introverts have had to learn to deal with our feelings of being overwhelmed in order to do things like make connections at conferences, meet potential program officers, and get through 2 day interviews.

I don't know it is just me and my particular combination of introversion, anti-social behavior, and paranoia about Internet companies (if you can't tell what they are selling, they are selling you!), but I find most social media uninteresting and at times overwhelming. For now, this is not a major problem. Most recruiting is done via more traditional networking rather than through Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. Like most modern academics, I have a website that interested folks can use to find out more about my research, my group, or my professional self. But I don't have a Twitter account. I have accounts on LinkedIn and Facebook that I don't actually use except to accept friend requests from people I know. I have a ResearchGate account that lists my publications, since a colleague mentioned it helps with citations, but I only log in to it when I have a new publication.

I see some colleagues (mostly, but not all younger) advertising their social media presences at the end of their talks. I've had conversations with people worried about the social media presence of their groups, and about how to raise their digital profile. And now I wonder if this is the future--if social media luddites will be seen as out of touch as the departmental dinosaurs who used to print out their emails.

I find this concerning on two levels. For me, introversion in real life follows me online. It would be yet another unpleasant thing I have to force myself to do in order to be successful, but this time it would be primarily on my downtime. I don't feel shut out by not having the information my friends and relatives post to Facebook. If it is important, I hear about it from them. If not, I don't miss it. I don't miss Twitter conversations, having never really been able to engage with Twitter in the first place. When I did try out Facebook, it was kind of fun to hear about the (mostly good things) going on in other people's lives (people do tend to keep the bad things to themselves or their REAL intimate circles), but I had to search hard for things to post myself. I was like an online eavesdropper, never really contributing to the conversation. It made me think of when I was learning social and networking skills in the first place, only with Facebook, any mistakes would be recorded for posterity.

On a second level, I find it highly disturbing that a portion of professional success would be dependent on giving freebies to large rich companies like Facebook and Google. That other people are willing to do this is not surprising--in 2004 and again in 2014, a majority of people were willing to trade things like computer passwords or other personal indentifiers away for a candy bar or a cookie. I am not so eager to give away pieces of myself in order to see targeted ads (oh yeah, and connect with people online).

It is a whole level of ironic for me that many warriors for Open Access then go ahead and use privately held social media companies without a thought about giving away information for free that Facebook is willing to pay for to help them increase profits. And by using these platforms, they give away information about their social contacts as well that is used to make money for the companies. This information is only accessible from the privately held walled off garden run by each company. How is this all that different from the publishing company/society based publication model they wish to overthrow?

I understand that there are loads of people who love Facebook and Twitter. I have nothing against them and their enjoyment. I just hope that opting out will continue to remain an option.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Hoop jumping and success

There is a definite difference between tests/courses/other hoops to jump through that are required in order to do a particular job and the ability to do that job successfully. I am not sure that any of the standardized tests we encounter in life actually test something other than test taking skill + some base knowledge that can probably be looked up if needed outside the test setting. I mean, we definitely want doctors who can diagnose without looking every other symptom up and lawyers who can answer questions in less than an hour, and engineers who can give a back of the envelope answer without extended consultations, so base knowledge is important. Since it is easier to test in a multiple choice format for large cohorts, we prioritize this over other forms of testing for admissions to various programs.

Same with classes--doctors probably don't need to know so much organic chemistry, engineers might not all need a deep understanding of algorithms, and physicists can probably succeed without two semesters of biology. In all majors, students probably don't NEED as much depth in every sub-field as is required for a typical degree. BUT, the ability to at least pass a class in these things is required for graduation/admission to the next program. So therefore, someone who wants to be a doctor, for example, needs to pass organic chemistry and do well on the MCAT whether or not these things are indicators of later success as a doctor in and of themselves. 

This is true throughout the training and credentialing process. To get to my lofty position here at ProdigalU, I definitely had to take classes I didn't not enjoy to learn material I have never used since I completed the final exam. I had to take exams that have no real relationship to the things I did in grad school, let alone as a professor. It doesn't matter in the end. These things are required as hoops to jump through along my career path, so I did them. I actually do believe that these sorts of hoops have a kind of predictive value--they predict whether someone can buckle down and do them to a minimum level of competency. I would bet that doing what needs to be done competently is predictive of future success.

While I am sure that at least some of the students who do poorly in my class would probably be good doctors/engineers/scientists (the sort of people who are required take my classes), the truth is that most students who work hard can earn at least a B+ if not an A. Those that can't despite their hard work are unlikely to be able to jump all the hoops required between my class and their goal, and they may as well find this out sooner rather than later. Similarly, those that can't muster up the will to do the required work for my class may also have issues mustering up the required will for the unpleasant or difficult parts of their future career. Sure, people change over time, and that is why I know people who went to various professional schools later in life after not working hard in University, but the key word there is later. As in after they learned how to work hard when required, and how to do so effectively.

Most of the students who come to my office to complain about how my class ruined their life are students who never used the tools provided to help them succeed in class. Sometimes, I have never seen them before, even after a whole semester of lectures! While I definitely have sympathy for the (relatively rare) students who work very hard with little to show for it, I also am pretty sure that someone unable to master the material for my sophomore level problem solving-based course is unlikely to do well in higher level courses that build on this material (and by little to show for it, I mean C or lower despite loads of hard work). I've definitely had students go from F the first time to A the second, but that is fairly unusual. Most of those students either didn't work the first time, or worked ineffectively and learned better study skills the second time around.  One student told me that failing my class was the best thing that happened academically in the end, since the shock of it motivated the student to actually listen to advice on how to study effectively.

I don't think encouraging students who work very hard and follow advice (from me and/or study skills resources at ProdigalU) on effective studying to keep on the path they are on is a kindness to them. I don't offer students unsolicited advice unless I am in a supervisory role beyond course instructor, but if asked, I will say so. Hoops may not necessarily be predictive (or even fair), but they are required. It does no favors to pretend otherwise.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Overproduction of PhDs, revisited and with some data

There has been a really interesting discussion of the number of PhDs, the number of TT positions, and exploitation at potnia theron's blog. In thinking about the issues, I looked back at my thoughts on the subject from ages ago. I find that I agree with my younger self still: that making opportunity available to as many qualified applicants that can be supported with current resources is more important to me than the difficulty in finding a TT job. Let people roll the dice on a TT position if they want to. In my field, there are loads of non-academic opportunities, grad students don't make all that much less than a newly minted BA or BSc, and the grad stipend is livable if not luxurious, so the main cost of doing a PhD is opportunity cost.

I know that this is highly field specific, so there may very well be fields where the calculation is different based on the availability of employment, but I strongly feel that if we artificially limit the number of PhD seats, it will be the underrepresented and/or marginalized folks that will lose opportunity. I find that in my field few incoming students plan on an academic career, so I don't consider myself to be training future professors, just future scientists. I certainly do make sure my students know that many highly desirable  (TT either teaching or research, corporate research science, National Lab staff scientist) are very difficult to get without a bit of luck, and that if they want those things, their job is to get qualified and have a plan B just in case. In any case, a PhD is only worth it if the experience is valuable to someone in its own right. Getting a PhD for the gold star is a waste of time.

I believe there are fields for which these things seem to be more precarious. I believe that there are fields for which many (most?) PhDs are underemployed, forced to leave the field, or otherwise unable to use their degrees in a way they would like, even in STEM fields. I've heard that some biomed/life sciences fields are particularly afflicted as a side effect of the rise and fall in NIH funding. I am not sure how I would feel if I were in one of those fields--my students have (thus far!) all found positions they are happy with that require their degrees. At the same time, I also wonder how generalizable this doom and gloom about overproduction really is.

It's kind of like the extended media coverage and gnashing of teeth about the stress level of high school students who are applying to Ivy League-type schools, when the vast majority of higher ed students attend local schools that are not so competitive, making these articles mostly irrelevant. I do see loads of comments, blog posts, and articles about overproduction of PhDs in my field, which does not match my experience with my students or in my department. Do we see the unhappiness of PhDs unable to find desirable positions coming from "pedigree" schools, while the silent majority are happy enough with their outcomes (note that ProdigalU is not a pedigree school), or is the doom and gloom appropriate across the education landscape? How can we know?

Stats from the professional societies I belong to suggest that PhD unemployment is very low. That said, many of the articles complaining about overproduction in my field say that many of these young employed PhDs are in temporary or underemployed situations. I know that my department only really looks at the first post-degree position, so it is hard to say what happens to those who take postdocs or internships. I do know what happens to my students and to others I've worked with at ProdigalU, but I am one PI and not statistically significant. The NSF data I played around with in 2010 is way out of date. People complain about the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), 2015 data published in 2017, but it is pretty much all we have for newly minted PhDs. I can say that I received a doctorate in the US, and I never saw the survey, so at least some of the questions about the reach of the survey are definitely valid. There is also the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), which follows some people from doctorate to age 76. The SDR is due for an update in May 2017, but the last posted data is from 2013 (published in 2014).

The SED there suggests that a high percentage of those with definite post-grad plans in physical or life sciences at the time of survey plan on a postdoc. Something like 40% of new PhDs are visa-holders, which likely influences their post-grad plans and choices. Postdocs are normal in my field for those who want a research-heavy position, even outside academia, so this is not too surprising. Looking at the trends over time, the percentage of new PhD holders in physical science with definite employment commitments is within the historical norm (65-70%) since 1994. The trend in life sciences is a decrease over time, from a plateau at ~70% to ~57%. There was a sharp 5% drop in 2007, which held steady until 2010, when a slow decline began that continues to 2014. I didn't have a position set when I finished my degree, but I wasn't looking all that hard and found one soon after, so I don't know how strong a statement this is, but it does suggest that things are changing in the life sciences for new PhDs. The percentage of those with definite commitments who are doing a postdoc is more or less unchanged for both physical science (~50%) and life science (~70%) over the period 1994-2015, suggesting that there are fewer life sciences postdocs available, leading to a decrease in those with firm plans at graduation. But is this the result of taking longer to find something, or a sign that new life sciences PhDs are unemployed?

We can check of the SDR for a better idea, at least until 2013. The SDR suggests that as of 2013, unemployment was ~2% across a wide range of fields, and about 3% of surveyed science PhDs have involuntarily left the field (average, highest was 7.4% for physics). I don't have time for a detailed review of the data, but a brief look at the main tables does not suggest a calamity of unemployment for PhDs across all fields, and especially in STEM fields. The percentage of employed PhD holders 5 years or fewer post-degree has held steady from 2010 to 2013, so the trend in postdoc commitments in life sciences from the SED does not show up in the SDR. It remains to be seen if there was a huge change in the upcoming data release.

Anecdotally, it does seem harder for people to find positions, which is backed somewhat by the data in the SED for life sciences, but PhD-holders do seem to be finding them. This is consistent with my experience at ProdigalU, where students are taking a bit longer to find something, but are still finding good jobs in our field. There is a general rise in employment uncertainty in the US right now, with contract and part time labor gaining on full time employment as the new norm, and the adjunctification of some sectors of higher ed is certainly a symptom of that. Coupled with the normalization of full or partial soft money TT positions in medical schools (and really, WTF! I don't understand how a position can be TT soft money!) and the overall reduction in support for basic research, many people are in a precarious situation. But this doesn't appear to reflect the majority of PhD-holders, and I don't think makes a strong case for a reduction in the number of PhDs.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How I spend my summer "vacation"

My family members are pretty much the only people who don't assume that I have the whole summer off, like a K-12 teacher. I actually like the ebb and flow of the academic calendar--except for when I was at National Lab, I lived this way my whole conscious life! I do remember when I was a grad student, sitting in the office with my groupmates, and wondering what our advisor did over the summer. So here's how I plan to spend my summer this year:

1. Academic travel: I have plans to meet with a couple of my collaborators face to face. I am also attending a major conference in my field. I like summer conferences, because I can focus on the conference without the nagging feeling of the teaching I am missing/falling behind on.

2. Research push: Several of my students are sitting on projects that are 70-80% of a story. I am planning on doing a major push to get these manuscript ready (if not written in a first draft) by the end of the summer. Towards this end, I have several undergraduate researchers in the lab this summer, half of whom will be running control or repeat experiments to validate our results. I actually have time to interact with my undergrad researchers over the summer other than hello/goodbye and group meeting.

3. Paper push: I have two or three manuscripts sitting on my desk that need polishing/editing to get ready for submission. I want to get these done over the summer when I (sometimes) have uninterrupted blocks of time to write.

4. Proposal writing: I want to get proposals roughed out and drafted for the fall proposal season so I am not teaching and frantically writing at the last minute this year. I have 2 planned for summer submission and 4 planned for fall submission. It is better to spread the writing out so the proposals stay fresh.

5.  Cleaning up my courses: I am actually mostly done with this--I do it in the first weeks of the summer while I still remember well what worked and didn't. I am teaching the same courses next year, so I spent some time cleaning up my lectures, marking up assignments for editing, and writing notes to myself on what I should improve for next time. I'll pick this back up again a week or two before classes start to get ready.

6. Catch up on literature in my field: I really miss just reading papers that are interesting. I got to do a fair amount of this when I was on sabbatical, and I would like to carve out time for it in my normal work life. This year, I was unsuccessful, so I will try to restart the habit this summer.
 
7. Vacation! I hope to spend at least a week without working. We'll see if I can do it!

Most of my summer plans involve tasks that are best done in largish blocks of time. In the absence of teaching and service obligations, I am hopeful that I can be really productive. We'll see how much of this extremely optimistic list I actually get done.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Recruiting in a time of uncertainty

How are you handling it? Funding my students keeps me awake at night. I dropped my target steady state group size, which actually works better with my management style anyway. While I always want to recruit quality, a mistake in smaller group and with less funding cushion is much, much more painful. I am being VERY careful with who I am taking. In this case, I am attempting to select for enthusiasm, work ethic, and scientific curiosity (better predictors of success than GPA or pedigree, in my experience). Unfortunately, this also means I am only taking students with research experience, because I can't afford for someone to try it out for the first time in my lab and decide it isn't for them.

I am fortunate, because in my field it is possible to do research without lab techs and postdocs (I have exclusively students right now). Postdocs in my field last 1-2 years, so a one year contract with a possibility to renew is the norm, which is helpful in the current funding climate. At ProdigalU, postdocs are still more expensive than students, but students come with a 5-6 year time commitment. This compares poorly to the usual 3 year timeline on grants in my field. It is definitely possible to start a student on a project and then run out of money part-way through the PhD. I worry deeply about this, but so far, I have been able to string together related projects in such a way that my students don't get disrupted.

One may say that there are too many PhDs, and that reducing the number of PhDs is a feature, not a bug of the current funding situation. I don't doubt that this is true in some field and specialties. That said, my students are finding jobs that use their degrees (though it has taken up to a year for some). As is the norm in my area, most of my students are interested in industrial positions, not academia. While I of course think my students are really good, I would think that if there were too many PhDs in my field that some of my students (even if very good) would be unable to find good jobs and would move on to other things. This has not been my experience so far. I actually don't think there is much of a connection between the demand for highly trained workers and support for their training. Aside from the long lag time due to the time to degree, companies can always import trained people from other places if they have unmet needs. And universities will always be able to fill paid student positions as long as the money is there, regardless of whether the students are employable at the end. If there is an actual interest in reducing the overall number of PhDs, I would think that a strategically planned reduction (that targets overpopulated areas) would be much better than random chance, which is what we are getting with the current system.