Thursday, August 25, 2011

Updating my CV

I am updating my CV now in preparation for a bunch of proposals I am writing for September and October. I am new to the TT, but have more experience than the typical new prof in my field. I have a hybrid-type CV from my years at National Lab that has a long professional experience section describing what I did at each position held in my career (the norm for National Lab) and still includes experiences from PhD U.

Although I am a relative TT noob, I am not eligible for most New Investigator programs due to the time since my PhD. So it feels really weird to me to still have my TA experience and grad school awards on my CV. But it seems most of my peers at the Assistant Professor level in my field keep this stuff on (at least from looking at CVs posted online). I feel like I am a little in no-man's land.

I am thinking of cutting down the professional experience suggestion to the basics, and letting my papers/presentations/patents speak for the work I did. That seems to be more typical for an academic CV. However, I also see people who have more extensive experience descriptions like is common for researchers outside academia, so that makes me reluctant to hit the delete key. I also think I am going to remove TA details and awards and service from before I finished my PhD, but maybe this is stupid if everyone else is keeping this stuff on theirs. What would you do? Any advice?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wimminz in Academia Q&A, now with 100% Fewer Babies Round 2

It is that time again--Mein Hermitage has sent out an interesting and 100% baby free set of questions for her panelists to answer. I don't know how useful my responses are, but thanks again to Hermie for organizing this!

1. It seems to me that often women don't have as strong professional networks as men - the kind that gets built over shared interests (sports or drinking). People seem to gravitate towards others like them. What specific advice do you have for establishing and maintaining network with men as well as other women?

For me, this hasn't been a major problem. I have many interests that are coded male (like sports, sci-fi, and gaming), so I have happily played fantasy sports, gone to cult sci-fi TV show night, and lost sleep to various games (MMOs and others) with my group mates and colleagues. I am not a really big drinker, but I do enjoy a good beer or wine, so I am not averse to hanging out in a bar (especially now that I am not going to reek like an ashtray!). I find that I don't know that many scientists who want to get stinking drunk (though plenty like to drink), and no one cares if I nurse one drink all night or spend the evening drinking Cokes.

I am not a great networker, but the things that work for me are to be myself, try to spend time talking with people in relaxing settings, and use the "friends of friends" effect to maximum advantage (since I am not really a social butterfly). Attending a lot of meeting also helps, since you can reconnect with people at coffee breaks and other social events.

2. Early on, what was your "Oh @!#$%" moment and how did you recover?

When I was a young grad student, I accidentally crossed some wires and trashed a very expensive piece of equipment that was crucial for my project. This was particularly upsetting, since it played into stereotypes about women's competence in building and fixing things. It made me wonder if I was cut out for this work at all at the time.

What I did in response is 1) find out how to fix the problem (it turns out we could fix it on site, with a somewhat scary procedure that I set up and ran), 2) set up a protocol in my work so I couldn't make the same mistake in the future and 3) trust that everyone makes mistakes, and this wasn't a fatal flaw in me as a scientist (probably the hardest part). For years afterwards, I would get upset in thinking about what a stupid thing that was for me to do, and about how I had ruined my advisor's trust in me (which was only true in my mind).

I admit that I felt slightly empowered later on when a male colleague with a similar level of experience made the same mistake, and I was able to step him through the repair.

3. How do you deal with female health issues (heavy periods and period pain that lasts for a week, heavy migraines that strike suddenly, etc.), when you are in a predominantly male environment?

I guess I just don't give many details about health issues that come up, be they female related or not. If I don't feel well/need to take frequent breaks at work/need some time off, I just take it. I arrange breaks around my teaching schedule now. When I was at National Lab, and needed to call in for sick time or otherwise account for my time, I just said I was feeling under the weather and explained what I needed (time off, breaks every X hours, working form home certain days, etc). Most of the time, it was granted with no further information required (though once I needed a doctor's note).

I dealt with my pregnancy and nursing issues in the same way. I had to pump in my office (luckily, I had one office mate at National Lab). I arranged with him to be alone in the office at the specific times I needed and put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door. It probably helped that he had kids himself, but I trust my colleagues to behave like adults, and only give out personal information on a need to know basis.

4. How do you balance "assertiveness" and "bitchiness" - in the sense that it's harder as a female (than a male) to "get away with" being protective of your time, stating your opinion, and so forth?

This is a hard one for me, and it something that I still struggle with at times. I don't know that it is any easier for men on the TT to protect their time. Certainly, my male colleagues all seem to have similar trouble learning to say no to service tasks. In some ways, it seems like a personality thing, although I am well aware that both men and women are socialized to expect women to put their needs below the needs of their group.

I do find that assertiveness on my part is misinterpreted at times in a more negative light. Sometimes, I find it better to have these conversations face to face, where body language can help soften a negative response (though personally that is the most difficult for me). Email is the worst, since there is no tone or nuance at all, and words are always interpreted through the lens of the reader.

With students, I found there was a learning curve. There are classroom management techniques that I just can't do, because I come off as a bitch where an older male colleague comes off as "in charge". I find that simply being aware of this is the first step, since I am finding things that work for my personality that don't alienate my students.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Failed PhD Projects

FSP started an interesting discussion at her Scientopia blog on "pity PhDs". She is responding to a question from a PhD student about to start their 3rd year on a nonworking project. Now, given that this student still has 3-4 years left (or would in my field anyway), recognizing a potential failed project means they have plenty of time to regroup. My own project was only marginally successful at best, but that doesn't have to be a fatal flaw in getting a job, even in academia.

As I said in my comment, I would hire a postdoc with few (or one) publication who came highly recommended. I would be more likely to do so if I knew the recommender (and could guess at the likelihood of being snowed). I would not hire a postdoc with NO publications.

Students who plan a career in research KNOW that publications are key. As a PI, I want to know that someone can finish what they started, can write at least a little, and has gone through the process of converting lab work to manuscript. I do understand that not all projects are successful (which is why they call it research), but that is no excuse for having no publications in 5-6 years of grad school, especially if you plan on an academic postdoc.

My own PhD project was only marginally successful, leading to one publication that I submitted after I started my postdoc. However, like FSP's reader, I saw the writing on the wall. In my third year of grad school, I took on a side project that eventually led to 3 publications. Sometimes, things don't go the way you hope. I think this is actually a GOOD thing for a student, because it helps you learn troubleshooting and triaging skills. Unfortunately, even the very best advisor might not notice that a project has a fatal flaw until it is too late for an individual student. Anyone can fall in love with an idea or some lovely preliminary data and be unable or unwilling to respond quickly to a flawed research direction.

The thing is that no one cares about your career as much as you do. You need to be proactive, even as a student. If you think your project will not produce in time for you take have publications, YOU need to find a side project or two that will. For your side project, you can't pick something else risky and flashy--this is something that has to produce something quickly for you. You also need to go over everything you have done for your main project and see if any of it can be put together for publication. If you are funded by a particular grant, you (and your PI) are on the hook for that project. But most advisors won't care if you do something else on the side, especially if it doesn't require many resources. If one of my students came to me with some really interesting data, I would encourage them to keep working on it and help them get what they need to be successful (as long as whatever they were supposed to be doing continued to get done).

If all else fails, and you do end up with a pity PhD, I can say that the people I knew at PhD U who got pity PhDs are all working in industry quite successfully right now.Link

Thursday, August 11, 2011

No longer the departmental noob

I am no longer the most junior member of our department! Now that I am in the "older, wiser" crowd, I see why the information I received was so spotty and random. I tend to tell the new prof all the things I learned the hard way or wished I knew earlier. I am sure I am leaving out tons of useful stuff other people originally told me when I arrived, but don't remember how useful it was because it doesn't stick out in my memory. I bet all the people who helped me out did the same thing.

It is kind of fun to see how far I have come since starting out in comparison!

Monday, July 25, 2011

July is science scandal month

This month, the C&E News obtained detailed reports (summary here) on the Sezen/Sames data fabrication scandal. For those not following the details, Bengu Sezen (PhD awarded in 2005) was found guilty of 21 counts of research misconduct after it turns out that most of her results were fabricated. Her advisor, Dalibor Sames, ended up retracting 6 publications after the allegations came out and were proven true and spent lots of time and money on fake research. The details are really quite astonishing:

By the time Sezen received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry in 2005, under the supervision of Sames, her fraudulent activity had reached a crescendo, according to the reports. Specifically, the reports detail how Sezen logged into NMR spectrometry equipment under the name of at least one former Sames group member, then merged NMR data and used correction fluid to create fake spectra showing her desired reaction products.

The documents paint a picture of Sezen as a master of deception, a woman very much at ease with manipulating colleagues and supervisors alike to hide her fraudulent activity; a practiced liar who would defend the integrity of her research results in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Columbia has moved to revoke her Ph.D.

Worse, the reports document the toll on other young scientists who worked with Sezen: “Members of the [redacted] expended considerable time attempting to reproduce Respondent’s results. The Committee found that the wasted time and effort, and the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had a severe negative impact on the graduate careers of three (3) of those students, two of whom [redacted] were asked to leave the [redacted] and one of whom decided to leave after her second year.”

Now at first, this seems like one of my worst nightmares--a very clever PhD student spends lots of time falsifying data leading to withdrawn papers, ruined research, and a damaged reputation. But the reports paint an even more troubling picture, with Sames ignoring warning signs as early as 2002 that something was wrong with the data. As irritating as it is that people wasted time trying to replicate false results, this is how science works, and is what lead to the discovery of the fraud.

What I find truly disturbing is that at least three students left the Sames group after being unable to replicate the results. Three students! Even if Sezen was the reincarnation of Marie Curie, shouldn't Sames have been worried that not one, not two, but three people IN HIS OWN LAB could not reproduce Sezen's work? This is on top of outside groups having problems. I have been guilty myself of falling in love with my own data, but surely doubts would creep in after the second failure--I could understand thinking that maybe one person was just not cut out for the work, but three?!? Also, did no one else in the department wonder that attrition was so high in the Sames group (although maybe that is not so unusual for the Columbia Chemistry department, which is in some ways even more upsetting)? In this particular scandal no one comes off particularly well, except for the unnamed members of the Sames group caught in the crossfire of this incident.

The other major science scandal news this month is that Marc Hauser (of the faked monkey research) has resigned his position at Harvard. I also find this situation troubling, since Hauser is apparently abandoning his group now that his research has been discredited and moving on to bigger and better things (for him, at least). Like the Elizabeth Goodwin case, this is yet another example of how fraud can pay for dishonest academics: boost your career with goosed results, then move on to something else (lucrative) when caught, leaving your trainees behind to pay the price. Surely research fraud should have a stronger penalty than leaving academia for industry? And again I ask what will happen to Hauser's students?


Monday, July 18, 2011

Getting scooped

Well, it happened (sort of). Another group recently published the results of an experiment we are trying to do in a prominent journal for our field. Now at first, I was upset about it, given that this experiment is the core of one of my student's PhDs. It is really easy to see this work in print, and get all freaked out.

Taking a second look, I found that Namnezia is totally right about scientific scooping (in my decidedly not crystallography/single answer field). Our experiment is similar in broad outline to what has been published, but the details vary in some very significant ways. Yes, we may be second, but at least we have had our thinking validated! First of all, this is an interesting scientific problem--at least one other good group is working on solving it. Second, our original intuition has been confirmed, demonstrating that our GENERAL approach will definitely work (which wasn't at all guaranteed). I am also hoping that a little competition will be motivating, but on that one, you never know.

Now, I would certainly have been happier to be the first to demonstrate this concept, but the sky isn't falling, this didn't wreck my tenure chances, my student will still get nice publications, and all our hard work to date isn't wasted. In some ways this is new to me (much of my prior work was on REALLY niche systems or in systems with a relatively high barrier to entry). I am actually pretty happy to have more scientific playmates now, so to speak. But everything is a mixed blessing, so working in a more populated area of science means things like this are going to happen.

Our approach has a different set of advantages and disadvantages than the one already published, so I still think our project will produce some interesting new science. Fortunately, being first doesn't really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Women in Science (Now with fewer babies!)

GMP's post today reminded me that I should send you off to Hermitage's blog, where she is organizing an even bigger and better panel of female scientists to answer your questions about anything EXCEPT for babies. Go ahead and post your questions. She will pick 4 questions to be distributed to the panelists, who will answer them 4 weeks later.

Last year's questions were an interesting mix. My answers are here. This year's panel is larger, and covers a wider range of experiences from postdoc to senior scientist. Here's your chance to find out anything you want to know about women in science but were afraid to ask in real life.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Submitting the publication

Not much to say lately--life has been very busy. We are about to send out my lab's first solo publication (i.e. just me and my student as authors). This is the first really significant piece of science to come out of my lab, and is something I have dreamed of since I first started thinking of getting back into academia. All my writing energy has been going there, and now it is just about time for the payoff (hopefully the first of many). Woo hoo!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Giving talks and practice

I am sure this sounds really stupid now, but before I switched to an academic position, I never really thought about how much better I would be at speaking in public after doing a semester's worth of lectures to 150+ three times a week. While teaching a class is definitely not the same thing as giving a talk, I find that I am much more at ease in front of crowds (large and otherwise) after spending so much time in front of a lecture hall. There is a confidence in the familiarity of being in front of a crowd that I never had before.

That's not to say that I don't get nervous before giving a talk--I definitely do. My PhD advisor said he still gets nervous even after a lifetime in science. I find that some nerves give my talks an energy and an edge that I like. But I don't feel paralyzed or intimidated in the same way that I used to, especially at high stakes talks. It would have taken me many years to get to this point if I had stayed at National Lab, and that is yet another originally unanticipated benefit to switching to the TT.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

More on conferences: networking

Over the years, I have taught myself to overcome my introvert tendencies and talk to new people at conferences (which is the one of the most important reasons to go). I've become somewhat of a decent networker, and have met many people I later worked with later on.

My real weakness these days is in the follow-up. In my head, I know it is important to follow up with the people I met in order to capitalize on the connections I made at the meeting. But once I am home, away from the thrill of the moment, I find it easy to procrastinate and indulge my introvert tendencies. It is easy when someone has asked for a reprint or preprint, but much harder when there is no compelling reason to contact someone. This is definitely something I need to work on, since each step in my career has only strengthened my understanding of how important networking is to any human endeavor.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In honor of the summer conference season

I will admit that it is really tempting to use this blog as a venting space, especially for the little things that grate that non-academics wouldn't understand and I can't complain about to colleagues. In order to balance out some of the negativity, here are 5 advantages I've found from personal experience to attending conferences as woman in a male dominated field:

1. No bathroom lines. Bonus: During short coffee breaks, there is sometimes a line for the men's room, so you get to enjoy that little role-reversal.

2. When you present, people remember you more easily, as in "I enjoyed your talk--you were the woman who presented this morning. Can I ask you a few questions?"

3. If you present at a small conference while hugely pregnant, people will remember you for many years, even with only minor interactions at the meeting.

4. You are easier to find in the crowd, so it is easier to run into old friends and colleagues at coffee breaks without necessarily prearranging things.

5. Vendors in the exposition will sometimes break out the good swag and/or give you multiple valuable samples (but getting hit on by the vendors is otherwise annoying).

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Taking students to conferences

This summer is the first time my students will be giving talks at conferences. Last year, they gave several poster presentations, and they give talks a few times a year in multi-professor group meetings for practice. As a student, I didn't have a lot of opportunities to attend conferences, so I feel strongly about giving the opportunity to my own students. I have discovered that the process is seriously stressful and not just on the students!

It is really hard to watch my students talk sometimes--I am sitting there thinking "don't say THAT!" and "remember to say this". I think I am more nervous for them sometimes than they are. It feels like watching my kids running off to do stuff independently! And just like kids, I have to let them go or they will never grow into independent scientists.

It is also hard to let my students (who of course, deserve this opportunity for their hard work) go and be the first to talk about the exciting new results from our lab. As a new PI coming from outside academia, the invited talks don't fall from the sky like rain, so we are all doing contributed talks. This year, we have some awesome results that are about to be submitted. I am just a little bummed that I won't get to talk about them this summer. Both because I find it exciting to be the first to present new results, and also because I feel (given that I have many, many more years of experience giving conference talks) that I would likely do a better job presenting the new data. This is just one more thing I am giving up in the transition from bench scientist to PI.

That's not to say that my students aren't doing a good job--they are! I was so proud to see the practice talks this week, since they have grown and matured so much since joining my group. The data is exciting, the slides look great and the presentation is clear. I just never appreciated before how hard it can be to watch.

Friday, May 27, 2011

I'm famous--yay?

Several people have pointed out that I (and my commenters) are quoted in Senator Colburn's "report" on waste in government sponsored research. Given that the quoted text from the blog is taken so completely out of context gives me great confidence in my interpretation that much of the report consists of actual facts taken out of context so as to distort their original meaning. Prodigal Spouse thought my annoyed reaction (to the out of context quotation part anyway) was pretty funny, reminding me that the blessing and curse of blogging means that once the words are out in the world, they take on a life of their own. This is always a good lesson to remember! In fact, one of today's top traffic sources to the blog is a Google search on some of the quoted text from the report. (For those looking for the quoted post, it is here).

Having flipped through the report, it mostly consists of mocking different research projects as wastes of money. Given that most of the great industrial basic research labs are gone, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the last major funder of basic research in many fields in the US. It makes me very sad to see all this ink spilled on attacking the NSF, considering that the entire annual NSF budget is a rounding error on what the US spends annually in Iraq and Afghanistan for results much less likely to be relevant to US taxpayers. I totally agree with Dr. O here--if Senator Colburn has a problem with how NSF funds are being spent, he should have requested hearings or reports from the program managers at NSF, or called on eminent scientists in the field to determine why these projects were funded. It is pretty easy to pick apart many basic research projects based on just the title or abstract (which focus on the work to be done, not on where the work fits in the big picture of the field). It is much harder to predict which projects will be the ones that lead to key breakthroughs ahead of time, which is why they call it research.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Designing lab-based courses

As part of my teaching assignment last year, I supervised a lab class that was known to be in need of serious improvement. Last year, I ran it as is to get a feel for the issues, and this year (which means this summer, since I also teach a lecture course in the Fall) I am redesigning the course now that I've seen the problems with it. Now that I am teaching a full load, I've decided to front-load this one, and spend a lot of time on it now, pulling back on it after the course is set up with (hopefully) only minor fixes in the future (like redoing sections of the lab manual or grading rubric, which is easy vs selecting and testing new labs, which is hard).

Rather than wade through education journals, my strategy is to ask some friends what their departments do, and also use Google to see examples of labs run at other schools. I found it hard to decide if students could actually do the labs discussed in the education journals, and went with a more battle-tested approach. The labs are still a bit cookbookish, I think, but this is a low level class where the students need to learn lab safety and technique as much as seeing concepts from their lecture classes demonstrated in a hands on way. I am also incorporating more writing into the course (see writing rant here), since I think technical writing is an important skill too. I've also been thinking about why we run these labs in the first place, so I am focusing on labs that highlight concepts that I've seen students struggle to master in lecture courses.

I have to say that this is turning out way better than I thought. I am only picking new labs that sound fun to me--if I took this class now, I would LOVE it. We are doing labs with a higher fail rate where the trade-off is a more interesting experiment. Just doing the supervising of a lab course is most of the bad things about teaching (the whining, the problems, the paperwork) without the good things. At least now I get to have some fun!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Announcing the alternate science career information aggregation page

As promised, this is a page devoted to linking possibly useful information for scientists looking outside academia. I hope some of you looking for non-academic career information will find it useful. This is by no means a complete list, so if you know of other useful sites, let me know, and I will add them in!

Permalink available on the Prodigal Homepage.

Blog posts about non-academic careers:

CV vs resume:

Possibly interesting career guidance:

Interesting non-academic science online discussion:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Access to research courses for credit

I've been having an ongoing discussion with a colleague about access to research opportunities for undergraduates. The top undergrads have their pick--REU programs at lots of different universities and labs, research for credit at Prodigal U, research for pay anywhere (easiest at Prodigal U, though). Undergrads with weak track records (ie low GPA) have a much harder time. Our department has a GPA cutoff of 3.0 to enroll in our research for credit course. Students with a lower GPA can find someone to pay them, but that can be more of a challenge when competing with much stronger students.

Thus far, I have had really great undergrads in my lab. As a TT prof, I pretty much only take top students who are enthusiastic about joining the lab, since I don't have the time or resources to waste on reluctant or completely non-productive students. I don't expect publication-quality work from an undergrad (though it sure is nice when it happens!), but I do expect them not to waste my supplies and samples doing pointless or incorrectly implemented experiments after a reasonable amount of training.

My colleague feels strongly that students who want an opportunity to do research should be allowed to do so. This colleague says we should encourage those interested in science, and doesn't want to be a gatekeeper. (I should note that this person does NOT and never has supervised the research course for credit).

I tend to agree with Prodigal Department's policy--a weaker student is unlikely to get much out of an independent research experience if they can't learn concepts in a more structured class. I know that there are some professors who would take "free" labor in the lab, regardless of prior track record, so I am sure that opening up the research course to all comers probably would not be a capacity issue. I know that as a research supervisor, I would be unlikely to give a meaty project to a weak student.

I don't think it is good to set up a student in a situation where they cannot (or are unlikely to) succeed. I don't think just anyone can do research--in order to get anything out of it, students need prior preparation. A whole summer of repeating cookbook experiments or washing glassware might help out a labor crunch in the lab, but won't do much to develop an undergrad scientist (or give them a taste of real research). This is something better left for a paid lab worker, not an undergrad research experience for credit. Having some sort of entry standard in a for-credit experience protects both the student and the professor, in my opinion.

Friday, May 6, 2011

More on non-academic jobs

I've been blogging now for a year (which I find hard to believe). I've found blogging to be both more fun and more work than I thought before I started. I have even more respect for FSP, who manages to be a successful full professor, a parent, and make high quality posts 5 days a week!

In terms of reader interests, my most popular posts have been about:

1. "Alternate" careers
2. How search committees work
3. TT interviewing

The thing that boggles my mind is the the first post on this list (on careers other than academia) has more hits than the rest of my top 5 posts combined. It sometimes gets more daily hits 8 months after I wrote it than new posts. I wonder what this really says about the availability of information about career options to young scientists? Most of information out there seems descriptive of career sectors, not actual jobs people do, and this still seems to be true (especially at university-run career workshops). This is something I just don't understand--I mean TT positions have ALWAYS been the minority option for graduating PhDs, even in the good old days of the fist GI bill and the Space Race. Surely every university has alumni doing interesting things with their degrees that they can call to participate in these things!

When I was a grad student, I knew a fair bit about the area of industry my advisor used to work in before becoming a professor, but not much about any other field. Even knowing that much seems to have been unusual for a PhD student in science. I suppose career information at the grad level is no worse than career information at the undergrad level (when I knew NOTHING about the jobs I could get with my degree), but it feels like there should be more information around in the age of the Internet.

In deciding to go back to academia, I read a lot of blogs about what it was like starting out in academia to get a feel for my decision. I don't really see many blogs out there by recent grads starting out their industry positions (or even many blogs by industrial scientists of the non-pharma persuasion, though there are a few good engineering blogs around). To be honest, I highly doubt I would have blogged about my National Lab position--I certainly would have worried about getting caught, and there are pretty much no protections for staff if their supervisors choose to block an employee for pretty much any reason other than outright discrimination. I imagine this is true for most people in non-academic positions, and I suspect contributes to the vast information asymmetry between the availability of information about academic other careers. One can also make the case that the work culture in academia is more uniform than the work culture in other sectors, so it is easier to come up with general tips.

Either way, I am thinking about setting up a page like Dr. Becca's TT job advice aggregator for non-academic jobs. My own students are getting more interested in planning their next step as they progress, so this has been more on my mind.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sometimes, it's the small things

After much badgering from Prodigal spouse, I recently traded in my beater bike for a newer, nicer one, and boy does this make my commute better!

I am the sort of person who is reluctant to "waste" money on something new, when I already have something that gets the job done. But sometimes, it makes sense to trade in the old and barely functional for something better. I ride my bike every day the weather permits. Moving from rickety, noisy and hard to use to quiet, comfortable, and fully functional is a joy (and safer to boot). I may still be really snowed under at work and home, but for half an hour each direction, I am enjoying life.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sneaking in at the end of the month (#scimom)

I am a scientist and I am a parent. Even more, I am a parent of more than one child, and I don't even have tenure yet! As a student, the received wisdom was that parenthood is incompatible with professorship (unless you are the absentee parent sort). People who wish to attempt otherwise should ONLY do it post-tenure, and of course more than one child shows you like commitment. The path of my life ended up violating all of this received wisdom, and yet I am satisfied and still here.

Being a parent and a scientist has been a great combo for me. My kids have a wonder about them that touches all aspects of my life. In parenting them, I have learned to be patient in explaining things, to expect off-the-wall questions, and to enjoy the awesomeness of our world. I think this has made me a better teacher in my classes.

In my career, being a parent forces me to be more efficient. I can't surf for hours a day, because I can't work between 5 and 8 or 9 pm every evening, so I need to make my work time count. At National Lab, I became much more productive after the arrival of Little Prodigal#1. Even more, having this enforced time away from my work helps me return to it with fresh eyes after the kids are asleep.

Yes, it can be hard to balance kids, work, marriage, and personal time, but how many things in life that are worthwhile are also easy?

Thanks to Gerty-Z for her post on this topic pointing me to the #scimom project started by David Wescott.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Publishing negative results

Recently, I found my way over to the All Results Journal (now available in Biology, Nanotechnology, Physics, and Chemistry flavors, though issues are only available for Chemistry and Biology). In their first editorial, the editors of All. Res. J. Chem. explain that:

We are pleased to introduce you to The All Results Journals: Chem (All Res. J. Chem.). A very particular journal, as it publishes fully indexed chemical articles and reviews that challenge current models, tenets and dogmas. This journal represents the first open access source for chemical research concerning negative results and will be a valuable resource for researchers all over the world, including those who are already experts and those entering the field.

The All Results Journals: Chem immediate goal is to provide scientists with responsible and balanced information in order to avoid unproductive synthetic routes, improve experimental designs and economical decisions. Many journals skew towards only publishing “positive” data; that is, data that successfully proves a hypothesis. The All Results Journals: Chem is the home for negative or “secondary” data: experimental documentation of hypotheses that turn out not to be true, or other experiments that do not lead to an advance of a specific hypothesis but are nevertheless a true rendering of that experiment. For example, if a researcher sets up an organic reaction and a variety of molecules do not react in exactly those conditions, it would be very useful for other researchers to know this (to avoid time and wasting money).

The journal editors are apparently targeting three types of difficult to publish data: experiments that fail, experiments that are incomplete or inconclusive, and experiments that disagree with current mainstream scientific understanding. I am not sure I really see a value here, though maybe I am just getting old and crotchety.

Experiments that fail. When I was a student, I thought publishing failed experiments would be a very valuable resource. With more scientific experience, I realize that many groups will wonder whether it was the experiment or the execution that failed, especially for negative (or inconclusive) results that go against scientific intuition or prior experience on related systems. Publishing this sort of failed experiment MAY help, but may not.

Experiments that are incomplete or inconclusive. Personally, I don't think incomplete or inconclusive experiments really should be published. Yes, there is lots of data languishing in notebooks, but that is at least in part due to lack of motivation and/or time to write the (probably minor impact) results up. Incomplete experiments can be misleading, and inconclusive experiments either need rethinking, better design, better instrumentation, or more data. Both of these situations are likely caused by funding running out or someone who was working on the problem leaving the lab. This leads straight back into lack of time/motivation to write.

Experiments that disagree with current mainstream scientific understanding. I am not sure we need a new journal for this. Shouldn't current journals be eager to publish results that conflict with current understanding (and therefore advance science)? I know that truly new, truly innovative stuff sometimes has a hard time getting published, but still extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence, shouldn't they?

I totally agree that the literature is biased towards positive results. But many negative results are currently available (and more and more frequently searchable) in Masters and PhD theses. It will be a real shame when dissertations become introductory and concluding chapters wrapped around published papers (as is happening more and more). So maybe we do need something new? With the barrier to Web publication low, I certainly admire the editors for giving it a try!

Now the All Results journals may end up being an excellent resource for scientists moving into new areas or pushing the edges, but I have my doubts. The cynic in me thinks that it will mostly be a CV-padding tool for future academics.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Following your bliss vs. getting paid

In a comment, Xombi asked about research you care about vs. putting food on the table. GMP recently also had a post on this topic. As GMP said in her comments, Dr. Sneetch pretty much summed up this issue in a comment--it is a lucky few that can spend most of their time on following their own interests. Everyone else has to spend most of their time on what funding agencies think is important.

Most of the time, I can find interesting aspects to fundable research that I enjoy. This is what keeps the job fun. One thing to keep in mind is that startup funds can seem like freedom to follow your research bliss. I think this is a big mistake. You need to use your startup funds to get evidence that your lab works on RELEVANT and interesting research. The data you generate is the preliminary data for your proposals, and has to show that you are fundable! My strategy was to select target funding agencies/program officers, and shape my starting research to show what I can do in their areas of interest. I picked areas that I am interested in, of course, but fundability has to be a bigger concern than personal interest if I want to keep my lab going.

In a National Lab setting, I found that I could carve out some time to work on my own research interests, especially before I became a PI. As a postdoc, you should have minimal responsibilities in supervision and proposal writing (although if you want to get hired, you need to be somewhat involved in this so you can see how things work). If you work efficiently, you can get your own work done, and then work on side projects. No one will really care if you use National Lab resources as long as it leads to papers/patents/funding. My side projects as a postdoc became the core of proposals (both mine and my PIs--you do need to show your sponsor that you add value after all!).

I don't think that fundable work is in opposition to good work. It is possible to do good, important work that is of interest to funding agencies, and I think this is what most researchers try to do. There is some room to shape the scope of the work after the project is funded, but of course the goals of the program officers need to be kept in mind if you ever want to be renewed/funded by the same agency again! But this shouldn't impact the quality of the science in the end. Just the excitement of the PI.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

More on recruiting: grades and research

Recruiting season is winding down, and I have been thinking about GMP's post on the topic from a week or so ago. As I said in my comment, I find prior research experience to be the most important consideration for me. Students with no exposure to research have no real idea what it is like, and can therefore easily not understand what they are getting into in grad school. Also, sometimes people just have really bad hands in the lab, and would be better served with a less hands on group than mine.

In my experience, grades are actually a poor predictor of success (once above a certain minimum threshold of competence). I need to know my students can pass our grad level courses required for their program, and grades are a good predictor for this. I've found that many students with high GPAs are not necessarily good at research. Some of them are profoundly disturbed that there may not be a "correct" answer to their research problem (happened to a friend of mine). Others are good at schoolwork, but not so good at applying that knowledge to the real world. Some are brilliant at everything including research, and these are the ones I want! High GPA does make it easier to get fellowships, so I am happy to attract 4.0 students, of course, but I don't accept students on GPA alone, nor do I use GPA as a filter. My best students right now were closer to 3.0 then 4.0 as undergrads.

I do look for a GPA trending up with time if the GPA is on the low end of our admitted pool. This is often a sign that a student has put it together in terms of figuring out how to work/learn/understand some key concept that eluded them the first time around, but may disqualify them from "better" programs. I don't consider students with a significantly downward trending GPA unless they are super excited about my research and have kick ass research experience and letters. I don't look at GRE scores that much either, other than to make sure they are adequate. I prefer students with good verbal scores, since writing is a big part of what we do, and this is harder to probe in a meeting.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Safety in the lab

We had our first safety inspection, and had only minor violations (yay!). I am a big fan of surprise inspections, since I am much more worried that someone else's stupidity will hurt me than that I/my lab is in violation of the rules. I share lab space with another group, and the difference in attitudes towards safety has created more friction than anything else. I sometime envy my theoretician colleagues who don't need to worry about these issues.

Safety has always been an important lab issue for me, even though neither National Labs nor academia really seem to take it very seriously. In my own labs, I emphasize the importance of reading MSDSs, not working alone, using proper protection, and labeling everything (which are the absolute minimum required to maintain a safe workplace). Having witnessed a number of potentially horrific lab accidents (my worst four: HF spill to the hand, vacuum line explosion, 600 V across the chest while standing on a ladder, CO gas inhalation), I am ready and willing to pull students from the lab if they are a danger to themselves and others.

As a professor, I am ultimately responsible for anything that happens in my lab. This makes me nervous at times, since my students are trained adults who make their own decisions (even if they are dangerous ones). I would be really upset if something happened in my lab, of course, but I would also be really upset if my lab were not in compliance with University rules and I was fined. I try to get my group to make good safety decisions. We have a lab safety officer who checks for rules compliance periodically. We discuss any new safety issues at least once a month in group meeting. I have augmented the standard (inadequate in my opinion) University safety training with additional material on my own. I tell my students to keep in mind that they hold the safety of anyone walking in the lab in their hands. I don't let undergrads work in the lab alone (they have no keys). I also talk about each of the lab accidents I witnessed to emphasize the importance of personal responsibility in maintaining safety.

When the HF accident occurred, there was no calcium gluconate available in the lab, even though anyone working with HF should have it. The medics had no idea what to do, and the accident victim was shuttled around local hospitals until someone finally took responsibility for treatment because none of the ERs knew what to do for HF exposure. Fortunately, the exposed student immediately ran for a sink and jammed their hand under the flowing water until the medics arrived. Luckily, there were "only" surface burns going down the arm (in the direction of the rinse water), because it could have been much worse. When the vacuum line blew, everyone in the vicinity had safety glasses on. Even though there were cuts to the face, no one got glass in the eye. When the high voltage incident and CO inhalation occurred, the accident victims were not working alone--someone heard the noise/saw the accident and was able to help right away. I think adding a personal touch helps make lab accidents real, but I do wish I didn't have so many personal experiences.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The ultimate lab-killer: repair costs

Inspired by an unfortunate colleague, I am contemplating repairs and how to pay for them. One of the problems associated with our current project-centered approach to funding lab research is in repair costs. It is often not-cost effective (or practical) for an individual group to have the money to pay maintenance contracts. The really expensive equipment is often found in a user facility with user fees that theoretically cover maintenance, even if there are individual groups that would be capable of and willing to run the equipment alone due to this reason. Simple maintenance is actually not that terrible--most of the parts can be covered out the the budget for supplies. The problem comes in when there is an accident or major equipment failure in the lab. There are mechanisms for funding new equipment--wouldn't it be nice if some repair money came along with the instrument grant that was designed to be saved for a rainy day?

Repairs are CERTAINLY cheaper than buying a new machine (most of the time). However, in our project-based funding model, there is no way to really save up for a rainy day, when that rainy day is $15k or more in one shot with no advance notice. We had the same problem at National Lab, and mostly solved it in the the same ways people do at Universities--borrow from the department, borrow from other PIs who are unexpectedly flush, or go in the red (if possible), and pay it out of the supply budget from several projects in the next fiscal year.

At National Lab, it was actually fairly common to "carry over" money by helping out a fellow PI in the final year of your project, and having that PI pay for your salaries or supplies in a future year to pay back the debt (thus moving the money "forward" in time). This was especially common when a postdoc leaves in the last year of a project towards the end of the fiscal year, so there aren't many cost sinks in the ending project to soak up the extra cash (which gets pulled back if unspent in the final year).

Sometimes, I think it might be better to fund research programs and not projects. Then, it might be possible to have a lab savings account where extra cash can be saved for future repairs. That opens up a whole other can of worms (like how to avoid it being even less meritocratic/more "old boy" than the current system is a big one), but it might be better in terms of reducing waste in research spending, since less money would be spent on hoarding supplies that end up useless or on useless equipment just to spend down the budget instead of losing the money.

Research money is so tight these days, with labs unable to support existing personnel, let alone save something on the side for repair costs. It just seems so penny-wise and pound-foolish to keep ignoring this reality. It is in fact, something that keeps me up at night--that my really expensive workhorse instrument will break, effectively shutting my group down until I can scrape up the money to fix it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

My new course prep strategy: limit prep time

This semester, I am teaching a grad level course on a topic with overlaps in my research specialty that I have taught before. I have an insane amount of work to do right now, including lots and lots of writing. To help out on time management, I have decided to limit my course prep time to 90 minutes or less for an hour long class.

So far, this seems to be making my course run much better, actually. I selected the papers I am covering last time, so I just need to refamiliarize myself with the details rather than start out digesting new material. I am finding that my course feels less stiff and rehearsed, since I am spending more time on how to convey the content, and less time obsessing over slides and lectures. The students are responding well, and I feel like I am doing a better job this semester of imparting the key ideas. I would never do this with material I didn't know this well, but I am also having a lot more fun, since I feel less constrained in class to stick to a preprepped lecture if the class seems more interested in something else on topic. Who knew that too much time prepping can be as bad as not enough?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Have we come a long way, baby?

The NYT had an article up a few days ago about the progress towards equality of female faculty at MIT. As cackleofrad points out, DrDrA has an amazing response over at her blog.

I don't really have much to add, other than to say 1) I am really tired of women's career issues automatically defaulting to family issues and 2) it is really annoying when the NYT takes a story (in this case, progress in advancing female faculty at MIT) and doesn't point out that this is specific to MIT only. In fact, reading the article quickly, it is possible to come away with the idea that MIT's changes are far more universal than they really are. I am glad things are working out so well for women at MIT. Now that we have our example case, where is the discussion of what things are like everywhere (or even ANYWHERE) else?

I would LOVE to have institutional help for childcare during business-related travel (for a nice discussion of the importance of travel in academic, see GMP's post here). It would warm my heart to know that parents everywhere (outside academia too) had access to paid parental leave. It would be awesome if men were invited to speak about work-life balance.

One thing I did like about the article is the mention of this:

But the primary issue in the report is the perception that correcting bias means lowering standards for women. In fact, administrators say they have increased the number of women by broadening their searches.

This is something that I and others have been advocating to increase diversity of all kinds in science. I am happy to see acknowledgement that this strategy works without changing the yardstick. Amazing scientists who happen to be from underrepresented groups are out there--the trick is in getting them to apply.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The importance of writing

Why is it that no one ever clearly articulates to young scientists that being able to write clearly and quickly is a key skill? I spend probably half of my time now writing (sometimes more!) and I have never been more grateful for a liberal arts background that included lots of writing (scientific and otherwise).

Of course, like anything else, you only get better with practice. My own first drafts tend to be full of long, difficult to parse sentences that need to be shortened and simplified in subsequent revisions. After years of experience, I know this about myself and can set up my workflow to accomodate. I am trying to get my students to write more so they can figure out their own writing habits BEFORE they have major time pressure on their writing. I am surprised by how much resistance there is to simply getting words on the page. All of them would much, much rather set up Powerpoint summaries than write things up more formally, and don't see why they should change this.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The agony and the ecstacy of traveling

Now that I actually have some results from my new lab to talk about, I have been planning more academic and conference travel. I have a love/hate relationship to traveling. I always come back bursting with research ideas and excited about my work, but as an introvert, I find it HUGELY draining to network and socialize with strangers. The work piles up while I am gone, but I also find out about the things that no one publishes (like all the things that didn't work in a recent publication). It is both really fun and really exhausting to talk science all day long. I actually find small meetings much less initimidating than large ones, even though they can sometimes be cliquish. Now that I am starting up my own lab, I am attending meetings that are new to me, and I don't know many people there. This is a blessing and a curse, because I can't hide out with friends and colleagues.

I was talking to a grad student recently (not one of mine), and I mentioned that I needed to go out and spread the word. The student was really surprised, and said "Can't you just publish it and only go if you really want to?" I was like "No, I need to actually talk to other people who are potential collaborators and more importantly, get people to see how cool my stuff is so they have context when they review my proposals and they think of me when it comes time to invite speakers." I understand where that student was coming from, though, because I used to think the same way. It never occurred to me until I had to recommend seminar speakers myself that people make these lists out of who comes to mind when they are preparing the speaker list, not from looking at journal tables of content.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Happy TT moment!

So I am completely buried in work now, and feeling kind of overwhelmed. Today, I had one of those moments that makes me remember why I wanted to make the move to academia! One of my students came to me a few days ago to tell me that a procedure we did lots of times in the past is no longer working. We tried a few things, but no luck--it wasn't a quick fix or a technique problem.

The student spent a little time looking up some more detailed background information, and then came to me with a plan. The student implemented the plan (which still didn't work), but made a crucial observation of the mode of failure. On the student's own initiative, they implemented a new improved plan which not only solves the problem, it gives us new insight into the process (and makes our soon to be written paper about it that much stronger!) On the first day of the failed process, my student came to me for a fix. Just a few days later, this same student was coming to me to discuss the science behind what we were seeing in the lab, and the implications for our future work. Amazing!

It is so awesome to see my inexperienced students becoming scientists. It is just awesome to see when it all suddenly clicks together for them.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Teaching on the TT

Prof-like Substance had an interesting post on teaching while on the TT at a research university. I am late to the discussion, since life has been kicking my ass lately, but I left a lengthy comment there that I decided should be a post on its own.

My first time teaching a large undergrad course was pretty demoralizing. The second time through was much better, and not just because I did a better job with more experience. The first time through, I had to spend a lot of time on prep and course mechanics. The second time through, I spent a lot less total time on the course, and a lot more of the time I did spend on stuff I found more interesting (how to convey my enthusiasm for science, how to incorporate modern research into a course on fundamentals discovered a long time ago, finding relevant short demo videos, etc). My students really enjoyed the videos a lot, and I was really happy to discover that there were a core group of students who got really excited that this required course turned out to be somewhat interesting, and let that 5-10% or so give me energy to deal with the 90+% who don't care at all about the material.

I want to be a good teacher for myself, and to fulfill my obligations to my students. I do what I can in the time I can allot to it, just as I budget my time in the other aspects of my job. I agree that as a TT prof, I can’t afford to spend the time to become truly outstanding in the classroom. To be honest, I am not that interested in being truly outstanding, otherwise I would be at a different type of institution. Students who want a truly outstanding classroom experience don’t (or at least shouldn’t) come to research universities in the first place. My undergrad course has 200 students in it for me and one TA to work with. There is no way to have a meaningful interaction with that many people.

I do the best I can to inspire the students I have, and I cheer for the small victories (the student who switches majors to my subject after my course, the students who come looking for research opportunities, the students who I have great conversations with about the implications of the material we cover in class). I try to let the demoralizing parts and the “is this on the exam” kids roll off of me. Good luck–it is a hard thing to balance, and you are not alone in struggling with it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Strategic publishing

I am entering a phase in my career that I always dreaded on the outside looking in at the TT. This is the phase of strategic publishing. At this point in my career, I need to think about how, when, and where to publish in terms of the impact to my tenure file. So now, in addition to the science, the target audience for the work, and the impact factor of the target journal, I also need to think about the time to publication, my rate of publications (will there be big gaps? a feast or famine pattern?), and the possibility of someone either scooping us or publishing very similar experiments before we can (much more likely).

I was largely shielded from this reality at National Lab--we needed to have 2 papers a year, but that isn't too hard with appropriate levels of collaboration. Merit increases were definitely tied to having high impact publications, but since the timeframe was year to year, I just published when I was ready in the "best" journals that would publish the results.

I am finding this kind of depressing. I was always the type of researcher who mocked the "least publishable unit/slicing the salami" style of publication, but now I can really see the temptation. I can see the changes in my own work already--there is some data we have now that we are writing up as a communication. If I were still at National Lab, I would probably hold it back for some additional experiments, but I am too worried about other groups working in this area publishing first to let it go longer. It is too risky to me to hold on for more data, since we have a full story already. I really wish this weren't the case, but there it is.

I need to have a good publication year this year, and that is starting to trump other considerations. This is one of the realities of the TT that I knew was coming, but is still upsetting. I am still in a good place, after all, I have data that is good for publication in excellent speciality journals, but it is harder than I thought it would be to make the call.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Surviving the TT

This exchange about a month with someone starting out on the TT at Dr. Becca's, continued at DrugMonkey got me thinking about how much difference a year makes. This truly inspired post by Prof-like Substance got me writing.

There are many things that are much easier the second time around (and yes, teaching tops that list). It is also easier to write talks, abstracts, and parts of papers/proposals now that I have some already worked material to draw from for background. Doing slides for talks takes half the time, since I have my cartoons done (for the most part), and can just tweak and update the data. I am much, much faster at reviewing stuff, since I have less time to do it in. I am much better about declining to review the truly crappy papers (now that I am better at spotting them from the abstract alone). This is more thanks having to grade students' written work, than to more experience with reviewing, since I did that too at National Lab.

There are also many things that are harder. I am teaching a full load now, and have more service obligations, so time management is an issue. I am finding it really hard to balance being a good mentor to my four students with all the other demands on my time. There is a HUGE difference between two students and four students. I know I need to take one more next year (especially if one of my proposals in a new area for me comes through), but I don't know where the time to mentor them will come from. Happily, my "senior" students are really strong, and can take on much of the nitty gritty training stuff, but that only buys so much time... I am freaking out about money, since I need more and it is hard to get. I worry about what happens when my "starter" grants run out, since it is even harder to compete with the full pool (rather than the newbies).

Things that ended up working better than expected:

1. Taking undergrads over the summer. Not only were they very productive in the lab, but they let my grad students get their feet wet with training and mentoring in a low stakes, controlled way.

2. The burn the ships strategy with my startup funds. We have all our essential equipment up and running, and I have enough money to cover (barely) operating with four students for next year. My students are looking quite productive lately, so it looks like sprinting will pay off in publications. I don't have much of a monetary safety net, so perhaps the jury is still out on whether this was good long term.

3. Serving on a review panel. This really, really helped my proposal writing, in ways I never expected. I always knew, but never really appreciated fully, how important clarity is in grant writing. Clarity beats everything else (except for good ideas).

Things that didn't work out as well as I'd have liked:

1. Taking undergraduates during the academic year. I am not sure that the effort we put in is worth the productivity we got back. It takes a lot of time to train and mentor someone, and students taking courses have a LOT more pulling on their time than summer students do. It is really hard for them to balance time in the lab vs. their academic work, especially since the academic work comes with deadlines, while the research does not.

2. Relying on collaborators to provide essential materials. Some of these collaborations had been ongoing for years, so it certainly wasn't malicious or deliberate. It is just that no one else cares as I do about making sure we have materials in a timely manner. A minor glitch in a collaborator's lab might lead to a 3-6 month delay for them. Not a big deal (or at least it wasn't when I was at National Lab, with lots of resources). In a limited resource situation (like when starting up a lab), this could have been fatal. My students sit idle, no work gets done, and that means no publications!

3. Being an accessible professor. Ate up a bunch of my time, didn't improve student outcomes OR my teaching evaluations. Next year, I will stick strictly to my scheduled office hours for helping students outside of class, and I will limit the time I spend on emails for the class.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More on interviewing: student vs. colleague

In my last post on interviewing, I suggested that candidates should "act like a colleague, not like a student". There have been a couple of requests for clarifying what I meant, so here are some thoughts on the subject.

1. Address people by what they call themselves when they introduce themselves. Nothing says "student" to me like someone who calls me Dr. Academic after I introduce myself as Prodigal. My colleagues (and research group for that matter) call me Prodigal. My students call me Dr. Academic. If someone says "Hello, I am Dr. Pretentious", by all means call them Dr Pretentious. And definitely DON'T do the starstruck thing, even if you are meeting a personal hero or Nobel laureate.

2. When you talk about your research, own it. It is YOURS. Not your advisor's, not your program officer's, and not your university's. Also, don't refer to your advisor all the time. The interview is about you not her/him, and talking about him/her all the time will reinforce that you are a student/postdoc.

3. When you do talk about your advisor (and it will come up), don't act deferential. Be respectful, but it seems strange to me when interview candidates call their advisors "Dr. Advisor". Don't call your advisor "my boss" either.

4. When you meet with your potential colleagues one on one, and the topic turns to research, they want to have a discussion with you. Even if the person you are meeting with is a giant in your field, they do not want you to just accept their suggestions as the "word from on high". When a candidate does that instead of engaging in the conversation, it makes me feel like I am having a one on one with one of my own trainees, not discussing science with a colleague. Bonus points if you can offer something constructive about their own research!

5. When meeting with students and/or postdocs, remember that you are interviewing to be a faculty member. No matter how tempting it is to talk about stuff you got away with in grad school, or how annoying your advisor is, don't.

6. While "I don't know" is a perfectly valid response to a question (and certainly better than trying to fake it), another response is to try to think things through, or offer your thoughts about the topic (obviously, this isn't true of questions about factual things!). People who can pull this off definitely seem more scientifically mature.

I'm sure there are other things, but this is what comes to mind from my (admittedly) brief experience on the other side of the interview.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reading the literature

Since January, I have been making a stronger effort to keep up with the literature. Since joining the TT, I've had less and less time to just sit and think about research. One of the easiest things to do is to let reading new publications slide, since there are no deadlines and no immediate rewards. In the past, I've used emailed Table of Content, which I would skim over when they came in. I now find that email is way too easy to ignore these days, especially in the volumes I now receive.

I have three proposals in preparation right now, and I am starting to plan a fourth. I've noticed that it is harder for me to think of new and interesting projects lately, but not all the time. After attending a meeting, I am bursting with ideas. I just need that exposure to new ideas and new experiments to get my own creativity flowing. I know some people rely on their students and seminar attendance to keep themselves current, but that just hasn't been working for me. I clearly needed to make a change, and I think I found a solution (for now).

Using an RSS reader to read journals has been a revelation. It is much, much easier to skim through and click on what I want to look at in small time blocks, since I don't need to get through the whole contents in one sitting. Now that I am "caught up" in the feeds, I mostly see the ASAPs, which come in a few at a time instead of with a firehose of new stuff all at once. To anyone else who is struggling with this problem and hasn't tried RSS yet, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quick tips for TT interviews

It is interview season in my fields, and we have a few searches going on here at ProdigalU (and keeping me out of trouble). I know I've blathered on about interviews here, here, and here before, but more tips can't hurt, right? Here are a few things I've been noticing this time around:

  • You MUST be able to answer questions/think on your feet. If this is a weakness, practice! When you give a practice talk, ask your colleagues, friends, or labmates to grill you. Even the best prepared talk will not erase that "deer in the headlights" look.
  • You should be able to articulate the central problem(s) your lab will working on and how many people you need to do this.
  • Both your job talk AND your chalk talk need to be accessible to people outside your sub-field. Everyone gets a say on the candidates (even if only the committee votes).
  • Your research plans should look like they will last more than then next 3-5 years.
  • Be ready to answer questions about your competitor labs--who are they? What will be special/different/better about your lab or approach? What is your edge? Do not position yourself in competition with your advisor(s) if you can avoid it.
  • You should be able to articulate clearly why you need anything on your startup list (especially the really expensive stuff and/or stuff you could potentially share) AND talk about the research significance of the resulting data.
  • You don't need to propose formal collaborations, nor do you need to know what everyone in the department is doing before you arrive. However, if after meeting with someone one-on-one, you see a new overlap possibility, it is a great idea to mention it in your chalk talk! We had someone do this to nice effect.
  • Try to behave like a colleague (but not an arrogant ass). If you feel and act like a student or postdoc, the faculty will respond to you like one. If you feel and act like a colleague, the faculty will see you as one.
  • Be nice to the students! We listen to them.
Good luck to all those on the TT job hunt this year!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Quickie Mendeley review update

For anyone following my Mendeley experiences, I just updated to the latest version, and the integration with MS Word is much, much nicer. There is now a hotkey to use (instead of just the toolbar), you can search in a toolbar that pops up within Word, and it is even easier to add multiple citations at once. I am revising a paper this week, and I am much happier with this new version.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Choosing a journal when writing a paper

We are about to start writing a manuscript in an area that represents a change in direction from all of my prior work. My usual journals are not really a good fit for this work, so I am thinking hard about where to send it. Even in the age of Google Scholar and Web of Science, I think journal selection is important (especially for those who are TT and earlier in their careers).

At National Lab, where bean counting was becoming more and more important, the impact factor trumped all. All raises and promotions had to be justified to non-scientists and/or former researchers in a wide array of fields. To make things easy, they would rank papers by impact factor, regardless of field. This is hugely distorting, since a great specialty journal in physics can have a smaller impact factor than a decent specialty journal in biomedical research (just due to the number of researchers in the sub-field). To get ahead, many people would find the journal with the highest impact factor that would publish the research.

My preferred style is to find a journal where my target audience is likely to read it. So if I am doing physics-type measurements on a protein, I would prefer to put it in a physics-type journal (where others might pick up on it and find it useful) rather than a protein-type journal where most readers could care less about this physics-type measurement, even if the impact factor is lower. Even though my bean-counting impact might be lower, I am counting on the actual impact being higher. What is the point of a high-impact publication if no one reads it? That said, when DrugMonkeyasked people about their citation practices, many commenters said they prefer to cite papers from higher impact journals, so clearly impact factor must be balanced with target audience.

This type of selection is much easier when I am intimately familiar with the sub-field. In that case, I know well which journals I read and cite, and can select accordingly. In this particular case, I don't have any knowledgeable colleagues or collaborators I can talk to, but that is generally my first stop in deciding where. How do you all pick where to submit your work (especially work in a new area for you)?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The kerfuffle about UC Davis

I've been thinking a lot lately about the public shaming of a pregnant vet student at UC Davis, the response of the administration, other academic scientists, and related situations. First of all, I really appreciate the extensive coverage by Dr. Isis on this issue. This is something she was able to do because of her track record in issues of women and science, and her approachability such that fellow vet students at UC Davis felt comfortable in mailing her.

I am totally horrified and yet (unfortunately) unsurprised that a professor decided to treat a student's personal and academic lives as something to be commented on by her fellow students. I have a really hard time believing that Dr. Feldman would have conducted a poll to deal with how to evaluate a student who got hit by a car. I also find it hard to believe that something like this (an extended absence from class due to outside issues) has never happened to him before, given that it has already happened to me twice!

To be honest, though, I am more upset by the comments from current students. It is depressing beyond words to see the sexism (conscious or unconscious) displayed by many of the student commenters. I get that some students felt defensive when they saw their University being talked about in an unflattering way. But seriously, if UC Davis didn't want this to be news, Dr. Feldman should not have polled his class. In the age of the Internet, there is NO WAY this would have stayed a secret forever.

It is really frustrating to see the number of young scientists defending the status quo. How can this possibly ever have been appropriate? Why should students get to 1) know the personal situation of a fellow students and 2) get to comment on it? Does anyone really think that if the pregnant vet student had been a male student in a car accident that Dr. Feldman would have polled the class on what to do? Anyone who has EVER entertained the notion that for real equality, we just need to wait for the racists, sexists, and homophobes to die is seriously delusional, and this is just the latest evidence.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tenure clocks, stopped and otherwise

FSP has a really interesting discussion of tenure clocks and women in science over the last two days. Basically, she is responding to yet another call for allowing women to stop their tenure clock if/when they have kids on the TT, this time from a NYT article discussing recommendations released last year by researchers at Berkeley.

On day one, FSP notes:
What North American universities do not yet have this policy?

Can anyone name names? Can we make a list? I think there should be a list, easily accessible by an internet search, of universities that donot provide for tenure clock-stoppage for the birth or adoption of a child. Does such a list exist? If not, let's start one here.

As I would have expected not a single commenter listed a university where stopping the clock was not an option. As many commenters noted, there is a huge difference between what is technically "available" and what is culturally acceptable. I think that tenure clock stoppage is easy for universities to offer to look "family friendly" and not effective in retaining more women for a few reasons.

1. It's the culture, not the policies! Putting lipstick on the women-unfriendly academic culture pig won't change the pig. If people (not just women, although that might be more noticeable due to their relative underrepresentation) are leaving the TT because their daily lives are unpleasant, a stopped clock means nothing.

2. Many women in science don't want kids, so this policy has no impact on them and why they leave the TT.

3. No paid parental leave means tenure policies have little chance to help parents who can't afford to go without pay. And not just without pay--workers out on FMLA have to continue to pay their share of health insurance costs, and sometimes their employers' share too. Real (paid!) parental leave is far more helpful and "family friendly" (and also more costly to implement than tenure clock stoppage).

4. Many people are not convinced (and possibly rightly so, considering the comments here, here, and here) that their stopped tenure clock will not count against them.

As I've said before, I think many of the "pipeline" problems for underrepresented groups in science are symptomatic of professional work culture in the US in general. Discussing things like tenure clocks is easier than trying to change an ingrained academic culture where work is given priority over nearly everything else in life. I am lucky to work in a truly family friendly department, but that is local culture. I certainly am well aware that many people are not nearly so lucky.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Long delayed Mendeley review

Way back in August, I started playing around with Mendeley after getting annoyed with Endnote. I said that I would write up a review after I had been using it a while, and I think I have enough experience with it to compare it to Endnote.

There are many things I really like about Mendeley. I really like reading papers in it, since I can save notes about the paper that I can search and share if so desired. Searching inside pdf files also works very well, and it is much, much easier for me to use Mendeley than to try to remember which paper I was thinking of and then open it in Adobe Reader. I never really got into Endnote's pdf features--the pdf search and import features were buggy and irritating when first introduced, so I never got into the habit of using them.

The pdf import feature in Mendeley works very well for me. I was able to convert over most of my library directly from my pdf files. This also works well with my new literature review system. Now that I am trying to use RSS to keep up, it is very easy for me to download pdfs into a directory that Mendeley watches. I also use Web of Science for searches and download pdfs through there. This is a huge improvement from my old system of exporting Endnote data, then importing the reference, since bibliographic imports happen automagically. Correcting errors in imported files is really easy, and can be done manually or via Google Scholar search. I spent a bunch of time initially correcting entries, but now I don't really have to. There is a pretty decent time investment in importing hundreds of pdf files at once, especially if you want to be able to properly search by author (since the author names MUST be imported properly for this to work). I did not try importing my Endnote library, but that is another option.

There are a few downsides I've found to Mendeley. I find the cite while you write interface a little clunky. It is not unusably so, and it is really easy to find the paper I want to cite using Mendeley's search functions. I thought the same about Endnote's interface, so this wasn't a major downgrade for me. One minor quibble--it is not possible to do unrestricted edits in the bibliography generated by Mendeley. This is something I have only just started playing with, so I am not sure what exactly I did to cause Mendeley to complain about it.

One big issue I discovered is that Mendeley and Endnote DID NOT play well together in one document I was working with. The references got corrupted and I had to strip out all the references and redo it all using just Endnote (since that is what my collaborator uses), which was really annoying. This is hopefully just a minor glitch for me, but may become a problem when I am writing with collaborators who still use Endnote. I haven't had this problem in some of my own documents (updating old proposals, for example). I plan to avoid on using two reference management systems in the same document as much as possible, but be careful if you do!

Mendeley was very disappointing in one area, and that is in keeping a library synced between two computers. I used to use a laptop and a desktop, and I tried to use Mendeley to sync my library between them, but this caused me lots of grief. I had lots of duplicates in my library, and Mendeley sometimes lost track of where the pdf files were on my laptop. I have solved this problem for myself by switching to using one computer (a laptop with a dock), but this seems like a feature in Mendeley that needs a lot of work, but could be very useful.

I don't really use the online features of Mendeley much, but in theory, you can grab citations while surfing and also have access to pdfs through the Web interface. I am not sure how well this works, since I always download pdfs when I want to cite and/or read something, but this is something that might be useful to people who use Google Scholar for searching and/or don't always work on the computer where their pdf library resides.

In short, I am keeping Mendeley. That it is free is only icing on the cake!

UPDATE: Thoughts on the latest update here.