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.