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!