Friday, December 31, 2010

Prodigal Resolutions for 2011

I can't believe it is time to think about 2011 already! I guess time flies when you are having fun, but the years have really started to fly now that I am crazy busy in both my work life and my home life. Here are 11 TT resolutions for 2011. I am writing these down (publically) as a way to keep myself on track:

1. Get those last 2 papers from National Lab out! There is no reason I shouldn't have done this already, but there always seems to be something else I need to do. That data isn't getting any fresher, and a paper is paper, right?

2. Set up one day a week as a writing day, and just write all day. I need to focus more on my writing, and I can't get much done without large time blocks.

3. Apply to at least 2 new (to me) funding agencies this year. Sounds easy, but it can take serious time to figure out who to contact, the proper style, and the paperwork of a new agency/foundation.

4. Reorganize my office so I can keep it organized. My current system is clearly not working, since I prefer to make piles rather than put things where they belong and can be easily found.

5. Do a better job on my budgeting/purchase tracking. I am doing the bare minimum required by my University now, but I think setting up a system would be very helpful for tracking what I am buying and when, so I can do a better job projecting my needs.

6. Do a better job networking outside my specialty. I tend to skip seminars that are very far from my field, and also to leave the speaker slots for those whose research is more directly related. I have been thinking this is a mistake, and I should be more proactive about meeting people doing interesting stuff outside my field. This year, I will try to meet with at least one speaker a month that I would normally pass on. I will also pay attention to and attend more seminars in related departments.

7. Spend more one on one time with my students. I feel like I have been slacking a but on this one lately, and it would help both me and them to do more formal meetings rather than relying so much on informal and/or joint meetings.

8. Publish more! We are really, really close to 4 papers, but I can't spend another year waiting for "almost". The data takes its own time sometimes, but I can still try to work some of my proposal intros into reviews. I need to send out suggestions for review topics and also make sure we are getting the most out of the data we do have.

9. Say no more often to students in my class. This year, I was Professor Accessible for my large undergrad class, and as warned by GMP, this didn't really change my student evaluation scores OR grade distribution any. Next year, I will still be available for extra help, but on MY schedule (so I don't have teaching things scheduled for everyday of the week), not as needed.

10. Say no more often to minor service tasks. They add up to quite a bit of time if you always say yes!

11. Do a better job keeping up with the literature. I just set up RSS feeds rather than using emailed Table of Contents. Since it is easier to pick and choose out of RSS, I am hoping I don't just let it all pile up so much. We'll see...

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holidays and Taking Vacation

When I was at National Lab, December was one of my favorite times to work. The lab would start to empty out after the first week as people took their vacations. It was especially common for senior people to be gone, since many of them had reached their maximum banked paid time off, and had "use it or lose it" days that they wanted to use. I really liked being able to work uninterrupted, get access to popular equipment, and carry out sensitive experiments without worrying too much about noise and/or contamination due to others working in the same area.

As a PhD student, there were advisors who were infamous for their heartless vacation time policies (like 2 weeks a year, not during December or summer) to try to maximize research productivity at naturally slow times for other academic responsibilities. I would never have joined such a group, since I know I need my downtime. It also strikes me as monstrously unfair for professors to use academic flexibility for themselves and deny it completely to their group members.

My own advisor was pretty cool about time off, and I follow a similar policy--I tell my group that they can have a"reasonable" amount of time off, where reasonable is in the 3-4 weeks a year range at their discretion, as long as they are making good progress on their projects. I encourage them to stay on campus as much as possible during the summer or to take their summer time off as a large chunk at the beginning or end (popular with students who need to travel far to visit family) rather than taking lots of long weekends, but have no policy (or comment) about December other than don't work in the lab alone.

Personally, I think travel flexibility is one of the best perks of the academic life. I can work from anywhere, since a lot of what I do is reading and writing, so while I rarely take really long stretches completely off, I do like to be able to travel a lot more than I did as a junior Federal employee with limited paid time off. I like to be able to extend this (free) perk to my group members, and I think it makes for a happier and more productive group in the long term.

Happy holidays to my readers, whatever you celebrate!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wimminz in Academia Q&A, now with 100% Fewer Babies Answered!

Well, they always say better late than never, right? I promised to answer the questions posed by Mein Hermitage's Q&A sans babies, so here it goes:

1. How do you command the attention and respect of men in academic settings (e.g. classroom, conferences, faculty meetings)?

In my experience with colleagues, the most important thing is to be good at your job, be professional at all times, and don't lose your temper over the small stuff (even if it is really hard). Especially when you are starting out, you don't want to be known as "THAT woman, you know the one who is touchy and has no sense of humor". For everyone, and especially for visibly obvious members of underrepresented groups, it is your science that people will pay attention to. Without a strong base of good science/other work, no one will care what you think and that goes double for women.

In the classroom, it is REALLY important to establish yourself as in charge. When my large undergrad class gets too loud, I just stop speaking. If it continues for more than 30 seconds or so after that, I remind the class that they need to know the material on the exam whether we cover it in class or not. At that point, usually disruptive students will be shushed by their peers. If there are students who repeatedly question your authority publicly and disruptively, throw them out of the class. I've only had to do that once (when I was a TA), but it really works to establish who is in charge. This is the nuclear option--only use it as a last resort. Never, ever BS something if you don't know the answer. Your students will definitely respect you more if you say you don't know, but you will look it up and let them know next class (and then DO THAT!). in my experience, most students will respect you if you show up to class prepared, show an interest in their learning, respond to questions in some manner, and show some enthusiasm in the classroom.

2. How should women dealing with a two body problem handle assumptions that their career is secondary to their partner's?

I didn't have a two body problem in that my partner is not in research. We did have to make sure my partner could find work wherever I ended up, and I did give my partner veto power over our final location (after all, we both have to live there!). That said, I would ignore your peers' opinion on this. Your advisor will (hopefully) know your career is primary. When it came up interviews (and it almost always will, legal or not), I just said that my partner is not in academia and has lots of job flexibility and left it at that. At ProdigalU, I've seen searches with both male and female trailing partners, and in neither type of situation did the partner situation come up in post-interview discussions of the candidate.

3. What would you like to see from tenure-track and not-yet-tenured menfolk? How can they pitch in?

In my opinion, the most useful thing that concerned menfolk can do are to call out people who are acting like sexist asshats, even if no women are present. Letting the lab degenerate into a frat house party when they women are not around makes it clear that science is a boys club that women can sometimes visit. Speaking up about an inclusive environment is sometimes easier for men, because they are not going to be accused of "looking for sexism" or being "a humorless bitch" for saying something about nasty jokes or comments.

Another thing that men can do is to make sure they nominate/suggest kickass science women as well as kickass science men for awards and seminars. If only male speakers come to mind at first, think a little harder about women active in your field doing interesting science. It is a habit that will break with practice--I noticed the same thing in my own suggestions for speakers (they were overwhelmingly male) until I started thinking more deeply about some of the papers I'd recently read/talks I'd attended given by women doing great stuff.

Don't single people out because they are women. I want to be treated like any other scientist. I just don't want to be the only one thinking I belong in the room.

4. How do you deal with insinuations that you were only chosen for a position/award/etc because of affirmative action?

I ignore them. Most of the people who say these things are jealous or insecure. There is nothing you can say to change their minds, so don't bother.

I can say that although I have experienced individual acts of sexism, and faced discriminatory environments, most of the people I have met in my career are just people trying to get ahead and also be a decent human being. If you act like you are self-confident (even if you feel like an impostor), know your stuff, and work hard, that will take you a long way.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The chalk talk, non-bio edition

Gerty-Z has a great post up about chalk talks in her field. In my field, we also do chalk talks, and it is absolutely crucial to do well there to get an offer. Like G-Z, I really enjoyed my chalk talks, since I went in well prepared and found it to be a fun scientific discussion. I came away with lots of good ideas for interesting research directions after most of my interviews. Unlike in G-Z's field, in my field, it is common to do "chalk talks" with powerpoint slides. That said, there are many important differences between a normal talk and a chalk talk.

Typically, the chalk talk will be restricted to faculty only, since you will be presenting your future research ideas and vision for your lab. Although it starts out like a normal talk, you should expect to be interrupted frequently. Although most of the faculty will have seen your job talk on the previous day, you can't assume everyone did (or that everyone remembers the key points). Any really important points from your job talk that are crucial to understanding your future research will have to be BRIEFLY reviewed (emphasis on the briefly). Your goal in the chalk talk is to describe what you envision doing as a researcher. You should describe the scientific problem and then explain your approach. You need to be really clear on the scientific problem, and also describe your approach.

Your audience will ask lots and lots of questions. Some will be really easy and some will challenge your science. You need to answer all of them to the best of your ability respectfully. DO NOT get defensive. Saying "I don't know" or some variant is better than trying to BS your way through something--there will probably be someone(s) who are also well-versed in the field. The department will be watching to see how you think on your feet, how well you have thought things through, and how you interact with your potential colleagues.

You need to be able to answer the following questions:

1. Where will I look for funding for this project (in general is OK--is it NSF/DoE/DoD fundable?)
2. What will happen if the project doesn't work? This is important--is there important science to write up along the way, or is the project only publishable if everything works as planned?
3. What are other groups doing in this area? Why is your approach unique/better?
4. If this is a continuation of prior work, will you be in direct competition with your mentor for funding? If so, why would agencies fund you and not your mentor?
5. What do you need to do the work equipment and space-wise, and how much will it cost (ballpark is OK)?
6. What are your initial staffing needs? Will you need a tech? How many students/postdocs will you look to get in the first 2 years when you are running on startup?

You should also be able to describe your target steady state group size, how quickly you can get started if you were to get an offer, and what mix of students/postdocs/techs are you looking for. Your research plans should include things that are short term, medium term, and long term. This is really important--you need to convince the department that you have a research agenda that is sustainable for 10+ years. If your proposed project is amazing, but it will be more or less complete when done, you need to know what will be next. You should plan on describing 3 projects, 2 in detail and 1 in outline due to time limitations, but be prepared with details on all 3 just in case. It is also a good idea to point out potential collaborations in the department and/or at the University if it is a natural extension of your proposed research.

They will probably also ask you what you want to and/or are prepared to teach in the department. This is not a deal breaker, but you should at least give it a little thought--you are applying to work at a University!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

8 months of Prodigal Academic

I really like this meme, kicked off by DrugMonkey and Proflike Substance from my blogroll! Here is the summary of my first 8 months blogging, written as the first sentence of each month (click the month names to see the whole post):

May: When I was preparing to make the switch back to academia, I started reading lots of academic blogs.

June: Fueled by a recent set of posts by geekmommyprof and DrDrA, Ihave been giving this issue some thought.

July: I have always had summer students, even in my first year as a postdoc at National Lab.

Aug: I am away this week and trying to limit my Internet access.

Sept: Inspired by Februa's awesome post on "alternative" careers for PhDs in the life sciences, I present my post on "alternate" careers in science that require a PhD that I am familiar with (through my own experience and through my grad school classmates).

Oct: I was doing my projected budget for this year, and boy am I freaking out.

Nov: When I first got to Prodigal U, I was a bit surprised by the number of formal reviews our grad students undergo.

Dec: There has been a lot of electronic ink spilled on this one, both positive and negative.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cheerleaders for science

There has been a lot of electronic ink spilled on this one, both positive and negative. I had strong negative feelings about Cheerleaders for Science, but I didn't really know how to put it in words until I read Candid Engineer's awesome post on the subject.

In addition to her awesome discussion about internalized -isms, I completely agree with her thoughts about not wanting to be represented by cheerleaders herself, or reminded that many people think that cheerleaders represent the ideal woman that many of us fall short from. And I hardly need another reminder in my life that women are valued for their attractiveness to men over any other attribute.

I also want to add that as a girl, I would have been horrified beyond belief by science cheerleaders. My thought process would have been "oh great, here is another place where I don't fit in." As a kid, I hated cheerleaders. I hated skirts, pink, glitter, and dancing. I already had issues with not wanting to "dress like a girl", play with barbies, or be bad at math. I LOVED science, but Cheerleaders for Science would have tainted my refuge from the world I already didn't fit properly in. Is it worth turning away non-stereotypical girls to attract the cheerleader types? Is the target audience for Cheerleaders for Science really little girls, given that the appearance that set all this off was at the National Science and Engineering Festival?

FWIW, my own child would probably love cheerleaders, but she already thinks science is cool even without all that. She mostly needs to NOT be discouraged, not to be enticed.

I was also completely disgusted by the discussion on the topic here. Although many of the commenters posted thoughtful remarks, there was an ugly thread hijack in the middle about former girlfriends' intimate habits. Like CPP mentions on his blog, I do not think this was a random occurrence.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Needy students

I've tended to make myself pretty available to the students in my classes for extra help outside class. I really do want the students to learn, and it is also a good way to boost teaching evaluation scores without compromising grading standards. It seems to me that 5-10% of the students take 80-90% of my out of class time. I am beginning to wonder if I am doing some of these students a disservice by not forcing them to learn how to access resources other than their professors for help.

I really think that part of what students go to University for is to learn how to learn things quickly. I've noticed that many of my timesink students do not belong to study groups and tend to study and work alone almost all the time. It is very difficult to get a BS or BSE in my field without learning how to work in groups. There is no way I would have been able to get much out of my senior level labs and problem sets without working the material through with my classmates. I imagine other STEM fields are similar. In the job world, pretty much everyone works in teams, so they may as well learn how to now. So now I am starting to wonder if I am falling into the academic equivalent of a helicopter parent for some of my students.

Maybe next time, I should make myself more of a last resort than a first place to go for questions via email.

Monday, November 22, 2010

An annoying trend

Maybe this is just me and my luck of the draw, but I am noticing an increasing number of manuscripts coming back to me for a second review. I try to be a good citizen and all, and accept as many reviews as I can, but if each review ends up being 2 for 1, I will have to take this into consideration.

When I first started reviewing, it was really rare for me to see something a second time before publication. Now it seems to be happening for about 1 in 3 manuscripts I review, and most of them are completely unnecessary. Now, I don't mind if I get something back after saying "publishable with major revisions" as long as the authors have actually done some of the revisions! The last three manuscripts I've gotten back for a re-review have been:

1) something I said needed minor revisions. Isn't this something the editor or assistant editor can make a call on?

2) something I rejected for publication. I don't reject things lightly--I had major issues with the science and many of them are still there. If there ever is a time for adding reviewer 3 or 4, this is it, rather than sending it back to me. I don't think that papers that are rejected should go back to the original reviewers. If the editor thinks there is something the reviewer missed, it is time for a new review.

3) something I said needed major revisions to be accepted, and sent along 2 pages of suggestions. Almost none of them were implemented, and most were completely ignored. In their response, the authors pretty much said "The reviewer is wrong." without any additional evidence or support for their position. Why bother sending this back to me?

I find this particular trend really annoying. It is almost like editors don't want to make a call on anything anymore (and I can say that never having done it myself :-).

I've also had the situation where I get a manuscript from a big name group, and it is terrible. I reject it with lots of comments, and it comes back polished up after implementing all of the reviewer comments. I really resent that Professor Big Name has too many people to properly oversee/mentor their trainees in how to write papers and is farming it out to reviewers. It makes me not want to do such a thorough job.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Interested in non-parenting issues facing women in science?

TheHermitage is organizing a Q&A with women in science at various career stages. Go ahead and submit your questions, and she will pick 4 of them to forward on to her panelists, including yours truly. The only rule: no babies.

We all love babies, and some of us panelists have had a few, but most discussions of women in science end up as a discussion of kids/motherhood when these issues only affect a subset of women, and certainly aren't the only issues facing women that are worth discussing. Here's your chance to spark a discussion on ANYTHING else facing women in science today!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cheating, professors, students, and "the system"

There was this article at The Chronicle of Higher Ed on ghostwriting academic papers that has attracted lots of comments and some attention. I was really shocked by this. First, I knew about the existence of this stuff back when I was a student, and it has only gotten easier to make contact with potential ghostwriters over the Web since then. Second, why do people feel it is the professor's job to suss out cheaters like this?

Here is my take: too many people go to college these days because they need the validation of the degree, not because they are interested in learning anything. Because a college degree now is what a high school diploma was a generation or two ago (in terms of job requirements), there are plenty of motivated people who just want to get through their classes so they can get a decent job with some security. The system doesn't care if they have any particular knowledge, just if they have a degree. This encourages gaming the system, so it is only natural that some people make a living serving that niche.

I don't work too hard to catch cheaters myself. I follow all the security rules set up by my University, I don't put too much weight on things that are easy to fake (like online quizzes), and I give out old reference exams to level the playing field a bit so students don't feel like they need to buy copies of my old exams. Anything obvious I crack down on, since otherwise it can be very demoralizing for my hard working students, but I have too much to do to try to worry about all the ways a student can cheat on an exam.

That said, I don't collect my assigned problem sets, because I am not a jailer keeping my students from free time. The ones that want to learn do the assigned work and learn. The ones that don't, don't. I tell my students that they will get out of my course what they put into it, and I focus on the ones who are trying to learn, not the ones who are gaming the system. There will always be cheaters, and people will always try to game the system. Many of the rules designed to catch cheaters make life much more difficult for everyone.

I still believe that the cream will rise. I have a hard time thinking that someone who pays ringers to do all of their work for them will be able to pass an oral board exam in medicine, or stay on the job for very long as an engineer, or make it as a bench scientist, making their "fake" credential a very expensive gold star. If someone can learn the material without doing the assigned work, that means they have talent, and I wouldn't mind working with them if their "fake" degree gets them in the door. The bigger problem in my mind is the disconnect between the credential and the competence of the credential-holder. We see academics complain about this all the time when recruiting postdocs. It seems just as true in every other field. Buying papers is just a symptom.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Quick tips for proposal writers

I am reviewing a bunch of proposals now for my panel. If you are writing a proposal PLEASE keep in mind that many of your reviewers will be reading 10+ proposals in a short period of time, not all of which are well within their expertise. I never appreciated how difficult it is to do a good and thorough job until I am doing it myself!

Prodigal's 10 quick tips:

1. Use figures. Really. It helps break up the text, illustrates your thoughts and plans, and can help someone vaguely familiar with a technique remember more about how it works. You don't need preliminary data as much as schematics and cartoons.

2. Use paragraphs! The wall'o'text is REALLY hard to read through and maintain concentration for 80+ pages!

3. Define your acronyms and abbreviations. Not everyone will remember the abbreviations you use in your daily work, especially after 8 hours on a panel.

4. Make sure you refer to others working in your field who have made significant advances, not just your group and your collaborators/friends. People on the panel WILL notice this one! Don't get lazy on lit review.

5. Make sure your proposed research is easy to find. In some of the proposals I am reading, it is difficult to figure out what has been done recently, what is background, and what will be done with the money over the course of the proposal.

6. Use headers! Go ahead and bold them. When I need to go back to look for something, I want it to be easy to find.

7. Don't blow off broader impacts/diversity statements. They WILL be read, remarked on, and used for funding decisions. The top proposals have both awesome science and well planned broader impacts, so just awesome science alone won't cut it.

8. If your proposal is a team proposal, clearly state what each team member will do. Don't just add names and not talk about their research contributions. Saying "Professor X will make calculations in support of the experiment" or "Professor Y will characterize the samples" are NOT research contributions!

9. If your proposal has both theory and experimental parts, talk about how the two parts will be integrated. Team proposals should be TEAMS, not 2 cool PIs working in parallel. If that is the case, you each should have written a separate proposal.

10. Be concise and as clear as possible. If you have to make a choice, though, pick clarity.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Annual reviews for students

When I first got to Prodigal U, I was a bit surprised by the number of formal reviews our grad students undergo. At PhD U, we had a 2nd year oral exam (not on research, with a few profs assigned to a whole cohort by sub-specialty), a General Exam (on research with the student's committee), and our defense. Since a PhD take 5-6 years, this is one review every 2 years or so, and is not too uncommon a pattern in my field. Here at ProdigalU, our students have a presentation based review every year, and I find I like this system very much.

For the student, it means a closer relationship with the professors on the review committee (which is the set up on a student by student basis) who see them every year. On the committees I have sat on, we are able to provide specific project related feedback, which can be a huge help to them. It also means more oversight, in case an adviser (through ignorance or maliciousness) is not acting in a student's best interests in terms of their research and training. The process also insures that students get to give high stakes presentations of their research at least once a year, which is much more practice at giving talks than I had as a newbie grad student.

For the professors, it is really nice to see the annual progress made by various students in the department. I was amazed this year to see just how much difference a year has made in scientific maturity for some of the students I am reviewing. It is also a way to keep up with what is going on in my colleagues labs, and perhaps spark collaborations. In addition, advisers can get some feedback or advice from peers on how to handle situations with their trainees from people who are familiar with their work. Though I haven't used this yet, I can see that it is a great potential resource. The major downside is that a proper review takes an hour, and we all have to review our own students, plus other students in the department so it can eat up a lot of time.

I admit I was a bit dubious when I first heard of this system, but I have been won over by seeing how annual reviews work in practice. I think it is much better for our grad students than the system I experienced, even though it is a time sink for me at a point in my career where I am already overscheduled.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

International collaborations

I may be about to start one. It is with someone in another country very far away. We have minimal funding to do this, but we are both starting out on the TT (or local equivalent) and are interested in the science. We have met face to face before at meetings, and this person is a well known and well liked former group mate of one of my current colleagues.

Because of the distance (and lack of funds), we are starting out just sending materials back and forth. The cost of FedEx does add up, though, especially to Far Away. We are hoping to get some nice preliminary data we can then use to get joint funding, and have more actual interactions between the groups. I am not sure how this will work out in the end, since I have never done an international collaboration like this before. For all the talk about how much "smaller" or "flatter" the world is, I really don't see it. I mean Skype is free, but transportation is not. I have done coast to coast in the US, but international shipping rates and airfares are much, much higher (even for the same distance). In the past, I have seen my collaborators from the other coast at least once a year. Not sure how an electronic only collaboration will go.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Procrastinating with the NRC grad school data

In my post about academia and pyramid schemes, Games With Words left a comment about grad schools and outcomes. He later discussed this over at his blog and associated comments, and lamented about lack of data and lack of knowledge of what exactly my field is. While I am not inclined to publicly pierce my pseudonymity (though I bet people can probably guess if they are really determined), thanks to the NRC, we can talk about data for my field (which has a strong industry demand for PhD and MS holders, and has a very low unemployment rate compared to the national average).

I, like him, was interested in data beyond anecdotes, since attrition rates, outcomes, and the "value" of a PhD from a non-Top 5 school seem to me to be very dependent on field. Looking in detail for my field (and with the caveat that there are definitely problems with the NRC dataset), I was very surprised by the data. Here is what I found (using the NRC S-ranking, and noting that academic plans means signed contract for postdoctoral fellowship or permanent academic job):

Top 10 schools: ~60% complete PhDs, ~20% with academic plans
Top 20 schools: ~50% complete PhDs, ~20% with academic plans
Bottom 10 schools: ~50% complete PhDs, ~20% with academic plans
Bottom 20 schools: ~50% complete PhDs, ~20% with academic plans

I will note that academic plans does not mean faculty positions (as implied by the Chronicle for Higher Ed flash tool, now pay to use)--the NRC definition is negotiating or signed a contract for an academic position including postdoctoral fellowships. In fact, I suspect most of these are postdocs. I think it would be really hard for schools to report on how many students have faculty positions for my field, given that a postdoc is more or less required, and most schools don't seem to follow up much after the initial placement (at least no one I know has been contacted as an alumni for that information). Still, the numbers are a lot smaller and a lot more consistent across the rankings than I would have expected, especially given the hysteria about overproduction of PhDs. I should also note that for a graduate of a US University, it isn't incredibly difficult to find a postdoctoral position in my field, though positions in top schools and/or top labs are very competitive.

The average number of PhDs graduated per year ranges from ~2 to ~30, with a mean of ~14. The net result is ~2500 PhDs produced per year (which is in line with the data from my field's society), of whom ~500 will go into academia (probably postdocs) immediately after their degree. This does not seem like a terrible oversupply of PhDs/postdocs even just considering those 500 per year, especially since anecdotally, some large percentage of them will not pursue faculty positions. Granted, not all of them can get positions at large research universities (which is what many people who want faculty positions profess to want), but I would guess that across academia at all levels, there are probably 200-300 faculty openings per year in my field. This is a much better match of supply with demand than I was expecting, even given my hand waving invocation of anecdata at the end.

UPDATE: Note, that I am NOT implying that getting a faculty job is easy, since I know it isn't. Nor I am implying that many openings don't have hundreds of applicants (I know we get that at ProdigalU). Just that supply of jobs across academia is probably a lot closer to demand than I would have guessed in the absence of data, especially if we lump all the different types of Universities together, which is obviously a gross simplification. I know that many of my research colleagues (me included!) would have gone to industry to do development rather than a community college to teach due to personal work preference.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Undergraduate researchers and time

Although I've supervised many undergraduate researchers over the summer, both at ProdigalU last year and at National Lab before that, this semester is the first time I have a student doing research for credit during the academic year. My undergrad seems sharp, and has a good class schedule for research, but I don't see this person in lab much. The project has only been running for a month, and there was an initial report due, which required lots of background reading. I have to admit, though, that right now I am a bit underwhelmed by the commitment level of the student.

I realize that this particular student will require a whole lot more oversight than my summer students, especially since many of my summer students came in every day vs a few times a week due to their class schedules (and lack thereof). This is something I don't want to put on the grad student who is supervising the day-to-day lab stuff. So I clearly need to bring my undergrad in for a chat about expectations, but since the "official" time alloted for student research is only 10 hours per week (curse the credit system!), I am thinking hard about how to approach it.

Ideally, I want the student to be able to complete a (small) project during their time in the lab, which is what I have done in the past with my summer students. I just don't think it will happen with 10 hours a week. So, do I start using the student as a technician in support of my grad students rather than a "researcher"? Do I keep the student on the current project knowing that decent progress is unlikely with this time commitment? Do I change the project to something more amenable to 10 hour per week bites, even though I think it will be a worse overall experience for everyone involved (including the supervising grad student, who is getting a chance to mentor someone with supervision)? I do plan to explain all of this, and then make a decision based on the student response. Any other suggestions?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Diversity and hiring

FCS had an awesome post a week or so ago at her place about diversity in hiring. She pointed out that due to legal issues (EEO requirements, fear of lawsuits) and appearance issues (no one wants to think they are a bigot), most (all?) job ads have boilerplate text on this issue:

But even more than that, I am intrigued by how statements of diversity are phrased. According to institutions that are Equal Opportunity (EEO) and/or Affirmative Action (AA) employers, federal law says they must at the very least include this:
FooBar is an Equal Opportunity / Affirmative Action Employer.
But some institutions go beyond this, and actually craft wording into their ad which makes me believe they mean it. For example, when they say something like, "We are committed to building a diverse organization, and strongly encourage people from minority groups, women, and people with disabilities to apply," I am far more likely to believe them. And when they even go beyond that and explain what steps they've done to build a more inclusive workplace, such as on site childcare, a fully accessible campus, etc., I am even more likely to believe them.

FCS then goes on to make some suggestions as to how to really signal an interest in diversity. You should read the whole post, and also the comments which added to the discussion (and stayed civil).

I had two additional thoughts on the subject that later became post-length. First, it is not good enough to just write nicer text to improve diversity in a department (and this goes for academia or industry). Lip service is lip service, no matter how poetic. So what is a department to do when they realize that everyone on the faculty is white and male, but the world contains people of all colors of the rainbow and more than one gender? I am the type of person who thinks it is never too late to change, and in this job market the key issue is in expand diversity in the applicant pool. There are lots and lots of qualified candidates of all races and genders. So how to get them interested in the position?

1. Advertise the position in targeted scientific publications or websites (for example, groups like the Society of Women Engineers, the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, or the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science). There are many of these support/advocacy groups out there, and most will advertise jobs to their members. Taking the time/money to advertise with them sends a strong message that OldBoy U is really and truly interested in hiring someone different looking. It will also help broaden the applicant pool, since you have a much better chance of reaching qualified scientists from underrepresented groups.

2. Be inclusive at the interview (and this should be for EVERYONE). Don't have conversations at meals that the candidate can't possibly participate in! This is awkward for any candidate. It will particularly make the "otherness" stand out for someone who already will be the only one of their group in your department.

Diversity (or lack thereof) absolutely is noticeable to candidates! Quoting an earlier post of mine:

When I was interviewing for faculty positions, I noted the number of women and underrepresented minorities on the faculty and in the student body. Several departments had just one woman and no visible underrepresented minorities. This was hugely unattractive to me, especially after working in my diverse division at National Lab. My current department has almost 20% women and several underrepresented visible minorities on the faculty. This was an important secondary consideration (after research fit and startup package, and on par with location and salary). I definitely prefer to work in my department with many women at all ranks than to be alone or 1 of 2.

This is clearly a recruitment edge for my department. I do understand that by not wanting to be a pioneer, this just passes the burden to someone else, and I am grateful to the women who came before me for doing just that. But in this day and age, foresighted departments/workplaces/divisions should get to reap the benefit of their hard work to diversify in the past. The presence of women in positions of leadership in the department and at the university is an important signal...

I think that diversity recruiting can be a vicious or virtuous cycle, where groups that are all-male can have trouble recruiting female students due to the actual or feared lab culture, and groups that are more balanced are more attractive to women (as in the case for me when I was job searching). It would not surprise me if this were true for people from other underrepresented groups as well.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Giving exams

Before I started on the TT, I had NO IDEA how labor intensive it is to give an exam in a large class. Writing a fair exam for the first time is difficult (which I expected), but I had some help from a colleague who previously taught this class so I could see about what level to aim at. The grading takes a while (especially grading 200 exams alone--yikes!). But what really gets me is all the overhead.

The first annoyance is having to have 4 versions to cut down on the temptation to cheat. THis is pretty annoying, even though it just involves scrambling the questions. Making up the multiple choice exam keys for the grading machine is pretty annoying as well.

On or shortly before exam day, I need to: count the printed exams to make sure the numbers are correct, check the exams for typos/printing errors, meet with the proctors to go over the ground rules, alternately help and turn away desperate students, make sure I have a seating map for the room so I can post a seating chart 15 minutes before the exam starts, make said chart, distribute the exams with the proctors, walk through the exam a few times to answer mostly inane questions (as in "How do I do this? Sorry I can't tell you."), collect the exam, count the exams to make sure we have them all, and then submit the multiple choice part for grading. I also get to listen to all kinds of excuses for not showing up, complaints about how hard the class is, and whines about how hard they worked even though their grade doesn't show it. I actually like the grading part, and it is fun to help out the conscientious students. I didn't know any of this on the day I found out I would be teaching 200 non-majors this subject.

I also had no idea how nervous I would be for my students!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Why I love my commute!

So many times people bitch about their commutes, so today I thought I would praise mine. When we moved to Prodigal City, Prodigal Spouse and I decided to only look for houses so that we could either walk 15-20 minutes (or less) or take public transit. We ended up around 30-40 min away by transit, and right near a bike path. So now I commute by bike (also 30-40 minutes) most of the time, and take transit during bad weather.

Here's why I love my commute:
1. By bike, I get to do physical activity 1 to 1.5 hrs a day WITHOUT adding extra time to my schedule.
2. Either on the bike or on transit, I am alone with no Internet and don't use my phone, so I have some good time to think.
3. My commute is really cheap, and I get to live far enough away from Prodigal U that there are few drunken students.
4. On transit, I can actually read papers (if I am so inclined UNINTERRUPTED for 30 minutes!)

When I was a student, I had to live where I could afford it. When I was at National Lab, I picked a place I really wanted to live without thinking about what it would be like to commute there every day. After that experience (and having added kids), I decided to use pleasant commute as one of the main considerations in where to live, since I commute twice a day at least 5 days a week, and go out maybe once a month (post-kids). I have to say that the quality of my life is vastly improved living a bit out of the way with a good commute over living in a "better" location with a crappy commute.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Unanticipated benefits

Quickie post while I wait for a draft to print! I've been writing lots of proposals, and trying to keep an eye on how my research program is developing. One of the unanticipated benefits of moving to ProdigalU is a recent new branch in my research that I am really excited about. We have some nice preliminary results from one of my summer students that I am looking to convert into a funded project. I never would have moved in this direction if I hadn't been here, but now that I am working on this problem, I see how it could potentially become a major part of my future research.

In hindsight, this is really obvious--of COURSE my research program would change to accommodate the local environment. When I was deciding what to do during my job search, I was in the fortunate position to have 3 offers in hand. I considered the local resources in terms of equipment more heavily than the research programs currently in place (though I had good research overlap and potential collaborators everywhere I was considering). I ended up picking ProdigalU, though I was offered a MUCH lower salary and a little less startup support, because I was much more excited by the other research going on here, both in my department and in other departments. At the time, I wondered if this was a dumb choice since it seemed stupid to turn down the money, but now I can truly say I have no regrets.

In some ways, this is like those late night student conversations about "what if I went to a different bar that night and never met my husband", but something about the TT application process made me think of my research program as a package in isolation and not something that would adapt to my new department and colleagues. I feel fortunate that I ended up in such a good place for me creatively without even considering that aspect.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Funding freakout

I was doing my projected budget for this year, and boy am I freaking out. I decided to go for it with a "burn the ships" spending strategy on my startup, but the reality of seeing that nest egg dwindle is jarring.

Due to some unfortunate issues, I had to start preparing a material in my own lab that I used to get from a collaborator. I was always planning on doing this, but not for another year or two. The earlier spending on supplies and equipment severely depleted my emergency fund. I took on 4 students, which is at the upper limit of what I can support, and doesn't leave much leftover for emergencies.

Now, I knew all along that this strategy had risks and rewards. I have all of my equipment installed and running in my renovated lab. By this time next year, it looks like I will have 4 papers based on data exclusively from my new lab, which would not be happening without all the spending. This, on top of the 3 last papers from National Lab data, plus a potential mini-review stemming from all my proposal writing means my CV is definitely benefiting. The issue is converting this early success into more reliable funding. I had some success last year, but all with small grants or new investigator programs. We are in austerity mode, buying only essentials now. I had already planned on attending 2 meetings with significant travel, but other travel will have to be local (or paid for!) until I get more money.

This is why I am spending so much time writing now--3 proposals done for September, with another 2 white papers + 1 proposal to do by mid-November. The reality of my situation hit me hard last week now that I have 4 mouths to feed. I am freaking out!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Overlap in proposal writing

I've got proposals on my mind (polishing #3 for Sept, then on to 3 more white papers by the first week in Nov). One thing I am wrestling with in my mind is on how much overlap is OK between proposals. I've been writing proposals for a while now, so I have a nice library of introductions, methods, and motivations I can copy and paste from, which really helps in the writing efficiency. I have no issues at all with this type of self-plagiarism. But I was talking to a colleague, and this person mentioned using the same project in two proposals. I was a bit taken aback--I never do this, considering it to be unethical to propose the same exact project to two agencies. It certainly was not allowed at National Lab, where we had to promise that our internally funded projects had no external funding (since part of the point of internal funding was to get preliminary data for external funding).

I can certainly understand the temptation. With funding rates so low, odds are that both projects won't be funded at the same time anyway. But this seems like crossing a line to me. If both projects were to be funded, my colleague would either be setting up trainees in direct competition with each other, or else using money earmarked for one thing for something else entirely. It is one thing to use some of a project's budget on interesting side avenues--after all if we knew the outcome already, it wouldn't be research. I've heard that in some fields, it is the norm to have most of the data already (not just preliminary stuff) before submitting proposals, but not in mine. Maybe this is how they do it? It is not like anyone really checks up to make sure that no double dipping is going on.

I do propose strongly related projects that emphasize different aspects of an overall theme, since this is the only sensible way to get enough money to do longterm projects and/or projects that require a lot of resources, especially at my career stage. I also want my students to have clearly delineated and separable projects so there are no issues when it comes to writing up their PhDs. But I try to avoid the temptation to allow the degree of overlap to get too large--if the NSF is paying for something it hardly seems right to charge the DOE for the same thing!

Am I hopelessly naive?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

2 down, 1 to go

Still grant writing like a crazy person. I've finished 2 of my targeted 3 for the month, and the last one is a 4-page white paper I already outlined and did the background lit search for. Phew!

At least I am not alone: GMP and PiT are slogging through grantwriting hell with me. It's times like these that I really appreciate the blogosphere--it's not like I can complain to my colleagues about all this and not sound like a total whiner.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Prodigal U does its part to help out TT wannabes

We're hiring! My department at Prodigal U is searching for not one, but two TT positions (one is a failed search from last year, one is a retirement replacement)! This means a lot more work for me, though thankfully I am not on either committee this year.

In honor of TT job postings, I sum up my short list (ha ha) of academic job hunting advice:

1. Thoughts on the academic job market.
2. Looking for a TT job from outside academia.
3. How search committees go from 200+ applications to a short list.

Just a quick re-post, since I am still drowning in work. Personal update: one Sept proposal is done, one was sent to my co-PI for comments, and I am starting the last one today (it is a short 4-pager). Three more for October, but one just requires minor revisions before resubmitting, and the other two are short white papers. One is now due the first week in Nov (not sure if I just want to be done or not), and one is already outlined.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How much is too much?

I am in a proposal writing frenzy right now. I have 3 I intend to submit by the end of the month, and another 3 I am working on for October. One is a dramatic revamp of an older proposal, and one is pretty much a revise and resubmit, but that still leaves 4 fresh proposals to do. Granted there is some degree of overlap between them (for the introduction and methods, anyway), but I am feeling overwhelmed. Working on these is consuming a large fraction of my not already spoken for time, so I feel like I am neglecting my students a bit.

And now I have 4 more to integrate! This recruitment season, I added two more grad students (woot!), so now I have 4. I will also have 2 undergrads working in my lab this year for credit instead of cash. My success in recruiting, while exciting, is also stressing me out, since now I have to feed all of these mouths. In a way, I am feeling more freaked out and lost right now than in my first few months here. I feel like I am being drained of my ideas, but maybe that is the recent overwork period talking. I am also trying to find the line between too much overlap to be ethical, and too little overlap to be practical in my proposals. I am finding that making a research plan in theory is very different from the practically of getting it paid for!

After this fall, I do plan to take a proposing break, but I wonder how wise that is given the current funding climate.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Orienting new faculty

In honor of all those new faculty currently drowning now that the school year has started, I've been thinking about new faculty orientation, and how inadequate it is. For Prodigal U's new faculty orientation, we were bombarded with information about teaching resources, University governance, research VPs given speeches, dealing with students, policies on cheating and the like. All of this is important, and I will admit that few would actually read the details if they weren't given in a required day of lectures.

But that doesn't get to what new faculty REALLY need to know (some of which can't or shouldn't be written). So I am making a list of things to tell the next newbie to join my department at Prodigal U. FWIW, I can't even imagine how overwhelming all of this would be if I didn't already have some clue about proposal writing, research planning, and budgeting from my years at National Lab!

1. The research/grants office (first--is there one?)
How does it work? At Prodigal U, each funding agency has an assigned person. That person knows (or is supposed to know) the ins and outs of the rules and regulations for applying. Some funding mechanisms require a filled out checklist to be submitted to this office with the Department chair's and/or Dean's signature on them. It is a good idea to check the office website for a list of these.
What can they provide? This depends on the person and the agency. The frequently applied for mechanisms have someone who can proof your proposal for obvious formatting or rules errors, make sure your budget isn't unrealistically out of line with what everyone else at Prodigal U is asking for, and in general look over things to make sure you aren't making a newbie mistake. Very valuable! Of course, this requires that you finish before the submission deadline, which won't happen too often if you are like me.
What is the deal with the office deadline so far before the submission deadline? For most things, this is just if you want your proposal reviewed. If you submit at the last minute, they just send it on without looking (if it is something they send) or you submit it without them seeing it.
Who are the useful people over there? Obviously can't be written, but I wish someone had told me this!

2. The admin office
Who is responsible for what in the office? In my department the admins all have different spheres they are in charge of. I was apparently expected to learn this by osmosis, since no one told me, and I often asked the wrong person for different information and/or services.
What is the procedure for getting funds reimbursed? Super important! Find out what you need receipts to have on them BEFORE spending big bucks out of pocket.
Who is responsible for the departmental website? Important, because you want your information up ASAP so you can start attracting students!

3. Teaching
How are exams scheduled? This is important--if you need a room for a big class, you need to know this ASAP so you can make sure you have one for your exams!
When do textbook orders need to be in? I found out by luck--a good thing for my students.
How long do you need to keep student work? If your department or U has a rule, best to find out BEFORE recycling those old exams. Also best to find out if you need to shred the exams before disposal (we do for student privacy).

4. Serving on students' supervising committees
How often/how much supervision? Unlike me, try to find out before you agree to do lots of this. You can say no!
What happens at PhD defenses? Go see one in your department before you are on an examining committee. Really--do it. You never know when you will be asked to join someone's committee for whatever reason. I've already been an examiner twice. The first time could have been highly embarrassing without seeing how the examinations usually go in my department.
What courses do students in your group need to take? This may be non-obvious! At Prodigal U, professors have much more latitude in selecting courses for their trainees at than at my PhD U. I was surprised when I was recruiting and students asked about it--you shouldn't be.

5. Misc stuff
Who can you ask budget questions? You need to know how much you should charge a budget for postdoc benefits. You need to know what the overhead tax is (at Prodigal U, it varies by funding source sometimes). You need to know how much to charge for a student. Is there a difference between residents and non-residents? Citizens and non-citizens? Find out who to ask.
Where are the good/fast/cheap places for coffee/lunch/beer? You need this info ASAP!
How do the projectors work in classrooms? At Prodigal U we have a standard system with a non-obvious user interface. A nice colleague offered to show me how it works before classes started. I had no idea I needed to know this.

A partial list of things I plan to tell my next new colleague so they aren't completely lost while learning the ropes of a new place. My department is full of nice, helpful people, so I didn't have too much trouble once I knew I needed to know this stuff. I asked a lot of questions, and got a lot of help. But it seems to me I had a better orientation to my postdoc at National Lab (in terms of the practicalities) than at Prodigal U, so I know it doesn't have to be this way!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

True parent confession

This weekend, I have a nasty head cold. I will admit what I suspect most parents feel at this time--I was wishing that the children fairy would come and take mine away for a day or two so I could nap on the couch, drink tea, and read trashy novels until I feel better.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Was I ever this clueless?

I am the advisor for majors joining our department for the first time as part of my departmental service. I will follow this group for the next 3 years. These are college sophomores, supposedly "digital natives", and a TON of work to deal with.

I am setting up some ground rules given that I will be working with these students for 3 years (and yes, these are responses to things people have already tried since August):

1. Never, ever call me at home or on my cellphone, even if you somehow figure out the numbers.
2. No drop ins. Appointments MUST be scheduled in advance.
3. No phone calls. Email only for questions.
4. Email is greatly preferred to face to face appointments, but appointments will be granted upon request.
5. I will not talk to your parents unless you are having an extreme medical emergency.

So far, the rules are working pretty well. Most of my questions are of the hand holding sort (i.e. Am I taking the right classes? What classes are required for X?) Even after all of the ink spilled on how much better these "digital natives" are at electronic communications, many students still can't find the departmental website. Most of my student advisees are fairly independent, but at least 25% were unable to find the "Typical schedules", "Program requirements", and "Course listings" found right there on our Information for Majors page (linked from the home page). Some of it is certainly scars from helicopter parenting, and some of it is laziness. But the number of people who tell me "Thanks for the link--I didn't see it!" is shocking.

I am also very, very surprised by how the students address me. I expected all the "Miss Academic" after teaching last year (although it really pisses me off). I even expected some "Hey Prof!". I didn't expect undergrads to address me by my first name, nor did I expect then to give me an unsolicited nickname. As part of my advising duties, I am gently informing them of our university norm (which is to call professors Dr. Academic or Prof. Academic unless invited to use something else).

Although it is fun to help the clueful students figure out their science electives, and interesting to see how our major works, it is killing me to have to do all this extra work right when classes start and before the fall proposal deadlines!

Friday, September 3, 2010

"Alternate" careers

Inspired by Februa's awesome post on "alternative" careers for PhDs in the life sciences, I present my post on "alternate" careers in science that require a PhD that I am familiar with (through my own experience and through my grad school classmates). Februa laments that no one ever discusses actual jobs that actual people do at informational seminars in grad school. So this is my list of some actual jobs. For reference, I am in a physical science field where at least 50% of incoming grad students have no plans for the TT, and probably 75%+ have no plans for the TT after grad school. Many of them have vague plans for "industry", which get firmed out (or not) based on their experiences in grad school. My advisor came from industry, so I knew more about it as a student than most PhDs I suspect.

Off the top of my head, I can think of 16 different types of non-academic science jobs I have friends doing with their PhDs.

1. Staff scientist at a National Lab (i.e. my former life). See posts here, here, and here. This type of position is very much like a professor at a research intensive university.

2. Research scientist in industry. Very, very hard to find now that most of the really big corporate labs have shut down. Companies that I know that still have them are in the semiconductor, chemical, pharmaceutical, computer, defense, consumer product, and materials industries though. In startup companies, it is not uncommon for people to be hired to do some research and some other stuff "on the side".

3. Translation engineer (called lots of different things at different companies): A cross-discipline team of scientists and engineers who take discoveries made by more basic researchers and bring them to pilot plants and/or production plants for use in actual products. This one sounds like a really fun job to me. A friend of mine has been doing it for 8+ years and loves it.

4. Application scientist/engineer: I am mostly familiar with this for scientific instrumentation companies. I know 3 or 4 people who do this, and really like it. They spend some fraction of their time supporting researchers (mostly troubleshooting and installing top end systems, but some figuring out how to get their instruments to do specific new tricks requested by customers) and some fraction of their time developing new methods on their instruments and/or improving the instrumentation for the next product iteration. A great job for someone who loves tinkering with equipment. Applications scientists/engineers are the people you talk to when you call a company for technical assistance.

5. Software developer or designer: We use a lot of instrumentation and computation in my research sub-field, so I know a few people who moved into this full time after completing their PhDs. One friend works for a general software development place after doing a computational dissertation on software optimization. Another works for a scientific instrumentation company on their analysis software.

6. Science writer: One of my former classmates is a freelance technical writer/science journalist. The journalism pay sucks, but he finds it more fun. The technical writing pays really, really well (and requires an advanced degree).

7. Program officer at a funding agency: I know 2 people doing this--one left National Lab to become an officer because he wanted to move away from doing research himself. The other started at Booz-Allen as a consultant supporting DARPA after her postdoc, and then liked it so much that she became a program manager herself. Both had extensive research experience prior to becoming a PO. Postdocs are DEFINITELY required for this type of position, and more experience is a big plus so that the POs are familiar with lots of different research environments (where their programs will be carried out).

8. Patent officer: You don't need a PhD for this (a MS is enough I think), but the pay is much better if you have one. You evaluate patents for the US patent office. Sounds really boring to me, but the pay and benefits are excellent.

9. Patent attorney: I know two well--one from my grad school and one from my postdoc. Both got hired by law firms, who then sent them to law school while they worked. A grueling schedule, but they have no law school debt. Again, not something I am really into, but they seem to like the excitement of seeing so much technology on the cutting edge.

10. Contract scientist: The US government hires lots of these. There were quite a few at National Lab. It is a pretty nice job--you get security and benefits from the company, and you get to change projects fairly often so you don't get bored. The most famous of these is SAIC.

11. Science/technology consulting: Booz-Allen is the one I am most familiar with, but there must be others. DARPA uses them to support their POs. My friend who worked there said it was a good job--interesting work, good pay, and interesting opportunities. She organized meetings for her PO (and not just program reviews--she also set up and ran mini-symposia with the leading researchers in the relevant field), went to tons of conferences to keep her PO abreast of new developments in his area, helped screen proposals, helped design calls for proposals, and basically provided technical expertise for her PO to draw on. Required a lot of travel, though.

12. Sales: Scientific equipment sales often requires a PhD. I know one person doing this, and he likes it, because he LOVES talking to people and meeting new people. Requires extensive knowledge of the techniques possible with the equipment to be sold. If you've ever seen a PI buying instrumentation (particularly the stuff worth $75k+), the sales people probably had PhDs so they can actually talk about the experiments with future customers.

13. Formulations scientist/engineer: many products (like medicines, food, coatings, and personal care products) are a mix of active and inactive ingredients. The formulations team designs the final formula to get the best activity profile for the active ingredients while also obtaining desirable color, feel, taste, texture, etc. They also aim for the best cost/most environmentally friendly/best processibility possible. Lots of physical science and characterization is involved (outside of the synthetic parts).

14. Quality control: In lots of industries, PhD level positions set up and modify the procedures that will be used for quality monitoring. A friend does this for a particular industry using the instrument we used as a workhorse in our PhD research. He selects the brand, type, and models for the instrumentation to be used worldwide by his company, establishes what tests will be done at what points in the manufacturing process, establishes the pass/fail criteria, and develops training protocols so that the same tests can be carried out of different facilities worldwide with the same results. To do this, he must keep up with the latest and greatest in technology changes (which is really fun), and occasionally gets patents and/or papers (depending on which departments he is working with).

15. Defense contract work: The big ones hire scientists and engineers with lots of different backgrounds to make sure they can develop their huge programs from start to finish. I only know two people who do this type of work. One is a designer who works on a tiny piece of a huge project (think designing the landing gear on a new plane). The other specializes in coatings, and helps decide what coatings will be used for various products and how they will put the coating on the final object.

16. Entrepreneur: I know a guy who licensed IP from his PhD research on very favorable terms from his University. He set up a small company selling a niche scientific products for research labs that is now doing quite well. Requires access to some capital, and massive risk tolerance (so I would never have done this), but he seems happy. Before starting his company, he worked for a year as a PhD-level sales person in a company selling related products to learn more about how it all worked.

UPDATED: Fixed grammatical and spelling errors that annoyed me.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

PIs, students, and academic misconduct

With the Marc Hauser misconduct situation making waves all over the blogosphere, and even at the NYT, academic fraud has been on my mind. Yesterday, DM reminded us about the collateral damage academic misconduct leaves in its wake, namely the careers of the blameless trainees. In a Science update on the 2006 case of Elizabeth Goodwin, who was a biologist at the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison when she falsified data and was turned in by her students. Goodwin's punishment, in which she

...has agreed not to participate in federally funded research for 3 years and will pay $50,000 to the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the Justice Department press release.
Seems minor compared to what happened to her students. In doing the right and proper thing and blowing the whistle on their cheating and lying PI, the six students lost pretty much everything:
But the outcome for several students, who were told they had to essentially start over, was unenviable. One, Chantal Ly, had gone through 7 years of graduate school and was told that much of her work was not useable and that she had to start a new project for her Ph.D. (The reason wasn't necessarily because of falsified data but rather, Ly and the others thought, because Goodwin stuck by results that were questionable.) Along with two of the others, she quit graduate school. Allen moved to a school in Colorado. Just two students chose to stay at UW.
Ethics aside (where it seems obvious that turning in a cheater is the right thing to do), whistleblowing is really important in that it ends the cheating behavior ASAP, and stops the literature from being polluted with additional incorrect and falsified results. As noted in this 2006 article in Science, even retracted papers endure and pick up citations. I've noticed in my class last year that students will summarize and cite retracted papers in their coursework, unaware that the information contained is incorrect. From the outcomes in the Goodwin case, it seems that scientists expect trainees who become aware of misconduct to take one for the team, and give up their careers in favor of the benefit to science as a whole. This sucks. How can giving up on your desired career compare to 3 years of giving up Federal support and a $50k fine?

Whistleblowing is immensely risky as a student--there is such an imbalance of power, that the tendency is to assume sour grapes on the part of the student and not that the "proven" PI is cheating (maybe because outright fraud is so rare?). The case much be really, really strong for students to go forward. The easiest (and most self-serving) outcome is to switch groups as soon as possible for the student, before any taint or investigation occurs. Goodwin's students were really brave and really strong to go ahead and turn her in.

On the other hand, maintaining the meaning and value of a PhD degree is important as well. Clearly Goodwin's students can't just get degrees for time served, given that their mentor screwed them over and prevented them from actually doing scholarship. That said, the six students had enough scientific training to notice the inconsistencies and collect enough data to prove a case to the point that Goodwin did not contest the charges. That should count for something, right?

Marc Hauser was also turned in by trainees. He gets a year off from Harvard, and they get?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Paper managing software

Endnote has pissed me off for the last time (I hope)! Now that I have a really large library, it is difficult to find things in it. I sometimes have formatting issues, and it can be annoying to add something to the library. Basically, the software is layer on layer of new stuff on old, and it is just not working for me anymore. Now that I am finishing up an old collaboration (where we used to send each other drafts with Endnote libraries), I am taking this chance to try something else.

Lots of people recommended Papers to me (since I have an old Mac in my office), but I find I am using the Mac less and less (since my lab instrumentation is all Windows based, and I like to look at the raw data occasionally). It looks like I will probably start hooking my PC subnotebook up to my big monitor. So I want at least a cross-platform solution.

I decided to try out Mendeley, and I like it so far. I let it grab my paper data out of the pdf files, which took a little while. Once set up, I found that while most of the details it grabbed were correct, I do need to look at entries before using them. Rather than wasting time fixing stuff, I am fixing entries as I use them. There is a tool to look papers up by title in Google Scholar if the data grabbed from the pdf is incorrect, and that is pretty handy.

I am not used to using anything but Adobe to read pdfs, but the ability to add notes to my papers (and highlight text) seems like it could be pretty handy. It is also possible to share annotated papers, which I may eventually do with my group. I signed up for the Web account, but I don't know if I will use it. For now, I just want something that can insert references properly into my manuscripts (I am not a LaTeX person) and search through my library of pdfs.

I'll post a more extensive review after I use Mendeley for the manuscript I started yesterday. Anyone else have paper/reference management software suggestions?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Impressions and realities on the job

Inspired by posts by Dr. Isis, Gerty-Z, and Prof-like Substance, plus my own panic here in year 2 at Prodigal U, I've been thinking about training and preparation along my career track.

When I was an undergrad, I did research. I worked in a lab for 1.5 years (full time over the summer), participated in group meetings, did my share of lab maintenance, and worked with grad students. I thought I knew what grad school would be like. I was completely wrong--grad school threw me for a total loop. I felt lost (there was no clear path to get to my degree). I had all this time, but yet no time at all. Progress was really, really slow, and I was so clueless. I had no idea how to manage my time effectively without classes and deadlines to help me. I didn't know how to properly test things or document them, so I had to repeat a whole series of experiments. I didn't know about all the time TAing takes, all the different pressures on students to study and finish experiments and do this side project quickly and train this new student and help this undergrad in lab while still making progress on my own stuff.

When I was a grad student, I worked with postdocs. I thought I knew what being a postdoc would be like. I was wrong. As a postdoc, I was now THE expert on my technique. My National Lab colleagues were relying on me, ME! to tell them if certain experiments were possible, if certain data was reasonable, if certain timelines were realistic. I had no backup. There was no one else on the project who knew my technique (which is what I was brought in for), but I knew nothing of the system I was studying (which is what I went to learn). I panicked quite a bit when I realized that, then knuckled down and did it. Being a postdoc (at least in my case) was a lot more responsibility and a lot more independence than being a student. It took a lot of getting used to be considered an expert after all those years as a student.

When I was a student, we used to sit in the lab and wonder what our advisor did all day. We would laugh about it actually. Now, I am drowning in it.