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.