Wednesday, May 23, 2018


This was a rough semester--I had a higher than normal teaching load plus lots of turn over in my group. I am feeling much more relaxed now and happy that I can focus full time on research. I am going to list my summer goals here so I can look at them to remind myself of my sunny new start optimism as Fall comes closer:

  • Publish papers! My goal is to get 5 papers out that are in varying states from finishing the last experiments to polishing up the manuscript by the end of September. This is pretty ambitious, but I think do-able. I hope, anyway :-)
  • Write proposals! I have three planned to work on this summer.
  • Set up my new class! This is more of a re-vamping than a really new class, so I have a good starting point. Still, I hate it when I am less than a week ahead of the schedule. It is super stressful to me to be writing new material the night before I am supposed to deliver them. 
  • Decide on travel! I am trying to travel less often to more useful/meaningful meetings. When money is so tight, it is a shame to waste it at a useless meeting. Especially since registrations are so expensive these days. Plus, I'd rather be working in my office than furtively in the back of a lecture hall.
  • Buy equipment! We got the funding for it, now we need to spec it out and purchase it. My favorite kind of summer task, actually.
Happy summer everyone!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Coursework and the PhD

I find the varying attitudes towards coursework for PhD students really interesting. Some of my colleagues insist that their students MUST take specific classes right away, or they can't be productive students. Others think all coursework is a total waste of time, and students should spend all their time in the lab. A corollary to this is that as a result, some PIs think that classes should be as easy as possible to satisfy graduation requirements without requiring serious work (and who cares about the 3 hours per week of class time wasted).

Personally, I think that classes round out the PhD. My students tend to take some courses that provide methods, models, or background information that they will find useful in their work and/or in understanding the literature they will be reading and/or in placing our work in the broader field. These are the classes that most people in my group take, because they cover information that my students really need to know in order to become experts in our field. I want these classes to be rigorous so they 1) don't waste my students' time and 2) so that my students actually learn something from an expert who also gives them resources on where/how to start looking for more information.

The other sort of classes my students take are courses they are interested in, but don't seem obviously related to their research problem. We have a minimum number of courses required for the PhD, and not all are set by the department. I think students should get to take a class or two in something that interests them--it is their PhD after all. Not every class has to be directly relevant to research to be useful or worthwhile. Sometimes I get great ideas from seeing talk by people outside my field. Students actually do have the time to take a class in something "fun" so I don't see why I shouldn't let them. And sometimes these classes do end up relevant in the end.

As a PI, I don't mind if my students spend time on their coursework, particularly in their first year. Most of the first year is really about training and acclimating to grad school/our city/my group, so coursework fits in well with that theme. I do find it irritating if my students leave it until after their 3rd year to finish up their coursework, since by that point, they should be really productive in the lab, and classes break up the time and reduce productivity.

Some of my colleagues want to end course requirements, but I think that is really a bad idea. The good students will make sure they have a broad enough knowledge base no matter what, but weaker students need to be lead into it sometimes. A PhD student should not just be a set of hands in the lab--we are supposed to be training them with the skills they need to be successful in our areas of expertise, and classes are a pretty useful tool for that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Drowning in paperwork

Over my time at ProdigalU, the paperwork load has definitely increased. Things are not yet as bad as they were at National Lab, but they are clearly headed in that direction. We have to fill out more forms with more information each year, but the number of administrators in the department has dropped. We are entering Catch-22 land with some of these recent examples:

  • We now have to include "original programs" from conferences to demonstrate that we actually presented something to get reimbursed. This, at a time when most conferences have switched to electronic only/require payment for programs. This is particularly a problem for students, who don't have the money to cover their credit card bills on top of the time to waste on this merry-go-round with administration.
  • We also need to provide "original boarding passes" at a time when most people use their phones or print them out at home. I've taken to printing boarding passes from the self-check in booths, since these are never rejected. When I remember to do so. 
  • The number of people required to review expense reports (and the large number rejected for stupid things like the above) means that in its attempt to stop fraud, ProdigalU is paying out more than many requested reimbursements in salaries. This was also the case at National Lab.
  • We are having some orders rejected by the overseers for buying things like pens, notebooks, and tape, since those things are classified as stationary not research supplies. Because we don't need pens or notebooks in the lab or something.
When I first started, I had students tell me they didn't want to be academics because they didn't want to spend all day writing proposals. Now they tell me they don't want to be academics because they want to do science, not paperwork. Things are bad if even the students can see it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Modeling life in academia

A few of my students (both grad and undergrad) have told me that they really appreciate the way I don't hide my life from them. At first, I had no idea what they meant, but then I remembered that when I was a student, I didn't know any professors with young kids. As a result, I was pretty sure that family life was incompatible with academia, which is why I originally planned to leave academia when I finished my PhD. I also had no idea what my advisor did all day. We used to joke about it in the student office.

One thing I really appreciated about my PhD advisor was that he never pretended that being a professor was anything other than an interesting job. He went on vacations (and told us about them) and left work early sometimes to do fun things. Sometimes, he would walk though the lab in the afternoon, tell us we needed a mental health day, and take us all out for drinks/snacks/coffee. Of course, he was late career, and had a stay at home wife, which was why I didn't think of him as a life role model.

I find that I do similar things sometimes. I don't treat my job like a calling. I tell my students when I am going on vacation vs. travel for work. I don't talk much about myself in general, but when I need to reschedule something because of a sick kid, I don't hide my reasons for doing so. Everyone in my group is aware that I have children, that I usually don't stay late at ProdigalU so I can spend time with them, and that I don't spend all of my free time working (nor do I expect them to do so).

I take my turn presenting in group meeting, and once a year or so, I talk to my group about finances and proposals (how to write them, how long I spend on it, what goes into one). My group has a general idea of how we are doing in terms of how freely we can spend on things. I go through my annual budget, so the group is aware of how much we spend on consumables, travel, and user fees. All of these things were mysteries to me before I joined the staff at National Lab. Few of my students come in interested in an academic career, but you never know where life will take you. I make sure my students leave my group with a good idea about what the academic life is like (good and bad).

Monday, December 18, 2017

How undergrads spend their time

The 2017 results from the National Survey of Student Engagement have been out for a little while. I tell my undergrad students the "3 hours outside of class per credit" rule of thumb, but we all know no one really spends that much time on average on classwork--I certainly didn't. But I did spend more than the current average of 17 hours per week on my classes! For a typical 4-5 course load, this averages to about 3-4 hours spent outside scheduled hours per course. This result is in line with the results from 5 year averages (2011-2015) found by the American Time Use Survey at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, where students said they spent 3.5 hours per day on educational activities on a typical weekday. My first year teaching a new class, I can spend about that much time per lecture!

This does explain a lot of my observations in my sophomore level undergrad class, though. A surprisingly large number of my students are convinced that attending class should be enough to teach them everything they need to know to get an A, no matter what I say about problem solving and practicing. Some of those appear to be attempting to learn by class osmosis, since they pay no attention to me while in class. Another cohort of students is convinced that there is no reason to attend class, since they can just cram from the textbook or the problem set answer keys the night before the exam like they did in high school. I'd say that about 40-50% of my students regularly attend class, and at least 20-30% of the students in class are doing something else instead of paying attention. I teach a required class that is a prerequisite for many later courses in the undergrad program, so I get that many of the students are not all that interested in the subject matter, but it is definitely material they will need to know in upper level courses. The lack of understanding about this is a bit concerning. It also makes me glad I don't teach the required upper level courses!

Since so many of my students are mailing it in, I sometimes have a hard time pitching the level of the class. Recently, I decided to focus on my more engaged students, and not worry so much about the ones who don't seem to be working, and that strategy seems to be working well. The separation between the top of the class (I have many really great, hard working students in my courses) and the bottom is getting larger, and the middle is emptying out.  My grade distributions have always been a bit bimodal, but now it is getting extremely so. I usually put one or more questions assigned on problem sets on my exams unmodified, and find that fewer than 60% of the students get them correct anyway, implying that many (most!?!) of my students are not doing the assigned work, or don't understand it and don't care enough to get help. Concentrating on those who are there to learn is less frustrating for me and I think for the students who care. My teaching evaluations are consistently good, so I am not getting feedback otherwise.

I actually think that a number of the students who seemingly don't care are just lacking study and/or time management skills. They don't know how to learn material on their own or how to prioritize, which are part of any University level course. I've started giving in class study tips on the first day, and exam taking tips right before my exams, but I feel like that is preaching to the choir in a lot of ways. Also, many of my students who need such help are convinced that they know better, and ignore me anyway.

The time management is a much bigger problem. Some of my students are convinced that they have an exam conflict when they have more than one exam on the same day. Some of my students ask me to change exam dates due to an exam the day before, or a major assignment due that day. Some of my students tell me about exam conflicts the week of the exam, rather than at the beginning of the course when it is easier for me to do something about it. For almost every course at ProdigalU, exam dates are given on the syllabus, which is available on the first day of class, as are the due dates for major assignments. It boggles my mind that some students don't think to use a calendar to help them plan their study time. A really large number of my students lurch from deadline to deadline, working on whatever is due in the next day or so, rather than using any sort of schedule to reduce the pressure on themselves. Even stranger, many of my unsuccessful students seem to have no idea what they need to do to pass the classes they are in danger of failing.

When I was a student, I wasted a lot of time during the day to do most of my work at night, I started a lot of assignments much later than I should have (sometimes the night before), and I didn't always do problem sets that weren't graded, all of which are pretty typical student behaviors. I also didn't "discover" office hours until junior year. So I do get where my students are coming from. But I also attended lectures and tried to concentrate on class when I was there, I focused on work when I was working (no multitasking), and I made sure I did enough to get at least a C+, even in required classes I hated.

I don't want this to be a "kids today" post, because current students also spend a lot of time on average working for pay (13 hours), volunteering (2 hours), doing extracurricular activities (4.5 hours), and caring for dependents (3.5 hours), all of which are also important. The standard deviations on all of these values are quite large (50-140%), because the range of experience is so large. It is still concerning that 1) there is a huge disconnect for many students between desired outcome and what is required to get there, and that 2) each generation of students has more and more background knowledge they need to know and tries to learn it in less and less time. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Academic jobs and the Survey of Earned Doctorates

The Survey of Earned Doctorates for 2016 (SED) is out (at least in data form). I was just playing around the numbers a little bit (I am in physical science), and I am finding the results quite interesting. The percentage of doctorates earned by temporary visa holders remains below 30%, which is a lot fewer than I would have expected. The percentage of women earning degrees in my field has not changed much since I got mine.

The really interesting thing is in the employment plans (at least in my field). For all we hear about the pyramid scheme that is academia, in my field, the "mismatch" between the number of qualified potential academic job seekers and the number of openings is not all that large. This is, of course, a very simple analysis, since it ignores the presence of people with other sorts of degrees that apply for positions in my field, as well as people with degrees in my field that go to other departments. It also assumes that all TT positions are equal, which is clearly not the case, since University type and location also make a huge difference.  So, what do I mean by a small "mismatch"? The ratio between the number of postdocs going in (defined for this scenario as "definite postgraduate study" plus the same percentage of those with definite plans applied to "seeking employment or study") is 3. Basically, according to the SED, there are 3 new postdocs produced per TT position available at US institutions in my field.

Now, I've talked about issues with the SED and other surveys before, when I looked at PhD overproduction 6 months ago. Those issues remain, and this is 1) only a rough estimate from questionable numbers and 2) ignores PhDs granted by foreign institutions who presumably make up a decent percentage of American postdocs. A survey of current postdocs and their plans would be much better. That said, given my previous discussions of search committees and their sorting of applicants, where at least half of the applicant pool is not qualified, 3 to 1 is not far from the minimum required to produce an adequate pool. This is especially true since many postdocs in my field plan on industrial positions, but want additional training (or the paid chance to live abroad for 2 years). This last bit is from anecdote and personal observation, since I don't know of any good surveys of just postdocs in my field on this issue.

Once we add in the postdocs with PhDs from non-US institutions, of course, the number of potential applicants for TT positions is much higher. And of course, applicants self-sort, since most people are looking for a specific TT job type (primarily undergrad, research intensive, etc) not just a random TT position, and most people have location preferences that determine which positions they apply to. Thus, colleagues at less well known universities in rural locations have problems filling out their pools sometimes, while colleagues in highly desirable locations have many hundreds of applicants.

Personally, my students are still finding jobs that they enjoy, so I don't feel any job-market induced pressure to decrease the size of my group below that which I can comfortably support. For better or worse, the recent numbers suggest that not much has changed in my field over the last 10 years or so.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Observations on searches

One of my most popular posts ever was from 2010 on how our search committees deal with applications for TT positions based on my early experience at ProdigalU. The process certainly is very opaque until you are on the other side, so I can understand this. It is now 7.5 years later, and I have some more thoughts on academic searches.

It is still the case that about 2/3 of the applicants are removed from consideration from the CV alone. Those who have the minimum qualifications (like a PhD in the right field) are usually eliminated by lack of productivity. Someone who can't publish reasonably regularly at the level of good society journals in an already established and funded lab is unlikely to be able to do so when starting from scratch no matter how wonderful their ideas are. Also, there MUST be non-review first author publications. There is no minimum number really, since productive means different things in different fields and sub-fields.  In my area (a physical science), 3-5 publications from grad school is typical (usually 2-3 first author, the rest as a contributor). Postdocs typically are 1-2 years, so 1-2 first author publications is pretty normal, also usually with some mid-author contributions as well. In my field, one Science/Nature publication does not make up for having nothing else, so trainees who plan to stay in academia that are currently in glam hunting research groups should make sure to look out for other publishing opportunities (like find a collaborator). 

For the remaining 1/3, the research plan/proposal is the main difference maker. For a TT hire, we are looking for someone who can both teach our classes and set up a successful research group, where success is ultimately determined by the ability to get funding. This means TT applicants need to demonstrate that they can write clearly and communicate the excitement and novelty of their ideas effectively. In addition, they must have SOME idea about research practicalities (like how much things cost, how much time things take, and what sorts of instrumentation they might have access to). This really comes out more in the interview, but I have seen some application research plans that require access to some unique instrument found at the PhD or postdoc institution, or that rely on unreasonably large amounts of synchrotron time/user facility time.  Fit is also important--we already have people at ProdigalU, so we want to hire someone who brings something new, but not so new that they can't find students in our applicant pool.

Reference letters are also important, but usually not the clincher. A good letter will address the specific contributions the applicant made in research as well any other important relevant ways the applicant contributed (mentoring, writing proposals, teaching assistance, etc). This is so useful in evaluation! I find it is often helpful to letter writers to respectfully suggest specific things to address in a letter, because the letter writers are busy people who may not remember to put in something important to the applicant. Letter writers can also help address specific issues that are hard or inappropriate for an applicant to bring up, which can be important as well. Red flags in a letter are taken very seriously (also true for grad student applications), and can definitely sink an application.

The teaching statement matters. Honestly, we don't usually look at the teaching statement until the long list point, but at that point, it is part of the decision. We are a University looking for people to teach our students, so we want someone who takes teaching seriously.

The perceptions of job seekers and search committee members are far apart, but also strangely both correct. When I was looking for a job, all I heard were horror stories about 500 applicants for one opening, and about how people spend years searching and never get a position. Now that I am on search committees myself, I hear about searches where there are hundreds of applications, but practically none are good enough/have the right qualifications to be brought in (this is usually caused by a bad ad, in my opinion), and I hear horror stories of searches taking 3 or 4 years to make a hire.

The funny thing is that both things are true, in my experience. There are searches with 30-40 people under consideration for the interview list (usually 4 or 5 people at ProdigalU), all of whom look really good, but only one of which can be hired. There are also searches where the committee didn't end up finding anyone the department wanted to make an offer to.

The prior experience/training time is getting longer. When I first started, it was pretty typical that most of our pool consisted of applicants in their first postdoc. While postdoc length remains 1-2 years in my field, more and more of our applicants are applying from a second postdoc or from a non-permanent, semi-independent position (like group leader, other sorts of fellowships, or contract positions). So the time between finishing the PhD and starting on the TT is rising. Not as dramatically as in the life sciences, but the experience level of our new hires is also creeping up.

In talking to potential applicants at conferences and/or our own interviewees, some of this is voluntary (commonly this is from people who wanted experience abroad and then wanted to apply from a position in the country), but some is not (people who couldn't get a permanent job and/or perceive themselves as not competitive without a second postdoc). I am not sure what to do about this, but it came up for discussion in our last search as issue in evaluating productivity.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

CVs and padding

Your CV is a crucial document in your professional career. You will use it to apply for fellowships, jobs, awards, and funding. Your department may use it for merit/bonus determination. They certainly will for promotion/retention purposes. Especially when starting out, when your CV is short, the temptation to pad it is very strong. Today I am telling you to avoid the temptation and just don't do it!

1. Standing out for the wrong reasons
It is often obvious when someone is trying to pad their CV. People reading your CV don't use the "stair method" to find the longest CV--for whatever evaluation purpose, the point is to look for quality, not quantity. When on a committee where people are evaluating dossiers together, you don't want to the one people read out loud for a laugh because your padding attempt is so obvious (and, unfortunately, this does happen).

2. What is "obvious padding"?
Please DON'T list more than one or maybe two manuscripts in preparation. Anything can be in preparation, and it looks like padding. If you do list anything in preparation, don't bother putting a journal name. It is meaningless until submission. Only list submitted manuscripts that are actually submitted (including a  manuscript number is helpful). True story: when I had a phone interview for an industrial position, my interviewer was using the CV I had originally submitted 3-4 months before the interview. I was asked for updates on everything not listed as published, including manuscripts listed as in prep, submitted, and in press. Since I had only listed things that were actually in the state I listed them, I was able to tell my interviewer that my "in preps" were submitted and update on the status of my submitted and in press manuscripts.
Please DON'T list random local talks (group meetings, practice talks, talks required for your program, etc) as presentations. This does not make you look in demand, it makes you look like you think your CV is not impressive enough. Talks will come as you get more experience. DO list poster presentations at conferences--these count. Subbing for a lecture in class belongs in teaching, not presentations. Some people list interview talks. I didn't, but I can see the argument either way.

Too much random stuff obscures the real meat. One CV I saw recently had a peer reviewed publication in a fairly well-known journal buried under a whole bunch of things written for things like the local school paper and random newsletters. Also, time marches on. In my opinion, as you age, you need to remove things from previous stages. If you have a Bachelor's degree, remove everything pre-high school. If you have a PhD, remove everything pre-University. For academics, everything from University on usually stays. For non-academic positions, space is at a premium, since page limits are a thing. Keep details on the most recent, then just list previous experiences with place and date to save space.

3. Keep fluff to a minimum
In the American context, people don't usually put hobbies and family status on CVs. If you do list hobbies, don't lie about them to sound cool (yes, this happens--you don't want to go into an interview listing martial arts as a hobby and then be unable to name one). You do need to be prepared to discuss anything you put on your CV, since interviewers will often pick something that sounds interesting as a conversation starter.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Transferring money from students to billionaires

While the new tax bill covers many things, Inside Higher Ed has a look at how this might impact students (more discussion here). There are two main concerns here, from my perspective. The first worrisome part is that the tax plan will end student loan interest deductions, greatly increasing the costs of higher education, especially given how rapidly education debt has been rising. This, of course, will disproportionately impact lower income students who need to take on more debt. Furthermore, adding to the cost of loans will make important but low paying jobs (that mean no rapid loan repayment) requiring high education such as teacher, social worker, or librarian that much less attractive.

Even more relevant to most readers of this blog, the new tax bill proposes to make tuition wavers taxable. According to the Inside Higher Ed article:

The proposal would also eliminate a provision of the tax code used by many universities to waive the cost of tuition for graduate students filling positions like teaching assistantships. If the proposal were to go through, those institutions wouldn't be able to waive tuition costs without imposing new taxable income on grad students, said Steven Bloom, director of government relations at the American Council on Education.

OK. So we will take students making stipends of $25-30k and then tax them as if they were making $60-75k. That would bump people up from the 15% bracket to the 25% bracket on money they don't even see,. Given that many US students already have debt from undergrad, it is hard to see how this wouldn't greatly reduce the number of students able to attend grad school, especially when combined with removing the tax deduction on student loan interest. Now, I know that there are people who think we should reduce the number of grad students in STEM fields, but do we really want to cull the numbers with an economic means test?

This seems like a really strange proposal. For one thing, how much money can taxing grad school tuition wavers actually bring in? For another, why wouldn't grad schools drastically lower tuition in the programs that routinely provide such wavers, since it seems mostly like a bookkeeping fiction anyways? Its not like some programs don't have higher tuition than others already, and plenty of programs already have different tuition rates for students before and after they pass to PhD candidates.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

True professor confession: I don't like hosting seminar speakers

I know we are supposed to be happy about hosting. We get to invite someone we really want to bring in, we get to spend extra time with them, and enjoy a meal with them on ProdigalU. But the truth is, I really don't like hosting. I can do all those things (except pick the speaker) when someone else hosts, and then I don't have to harangue my colleagues into signing up to fill the schedule, make sure all the proper arrangements have been made, do the introduction (which I find awkward), or deal with any random logistical nightmares that occur. I realize this makes me a freeloader, and that I should do my share for the department. But I definitely don't enjoy it.

Anyone else have something to confess?