Thursday, August 25, 2016

School supplies!

The best part about back to school is buying school supplies. I always used to love buying all the things on my list on the first day of school. The ProdigalKids get their lists before school starts (which makes a lot of sense!), but I still love gathering all the school stuff and getting it ready.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Recruiting students

When I first started at ProdigalU, I did a hard sell on my group and my research. I gave a flashy presentation, had handouts to give to students, and pushed pretty hard to recruit. Since then, I've kind of had a change of heart. After a few years of recruiting and mentoring, I came to realize a few things that made me change my approach:
  1.  Selling my research to someone not really interested is a bad idea. A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint, and if a student is lukewarm on their project at the beginning, they will either not finish, or do a half-assed job when what little shine there is comes off. Student enthusiasm is the most important thing, so now I discuss my research, showing off all the really cool things, but backing off a bit on the sales pitch, and allow the interested ones to select themselves. Relatedly, persistence is much more important than what is on the CV when they arrive at ProdigalU.
  2. Being able to work with someone is really, really important. Sometimes people just don't "click" for whatever reason. I do not become best buds with my students (more on socializing here), nor do I expect a personal connection with everyone in my group. It is human nature that some people are easier to get along with than others, and I try my best to be fair. I try to provide as equal opportunities as possible for things like fellowships, conferences, introductions to other scientists, and other professional development stuff. If when meeting someone, I don't think I can successfully do that (they rub me the wrong way, or I feel like our communication styles don't mesh well), I am better off not having them join my group.
  3.  My current students are the best recruitment tool. I try to do a good job as a mentor, and help my students be successful. If I am doing a decent job of it, my students are happy and excited about their work, and convey that to new students looking for a group. Many new grad students are not all that sure about what they want to work on, so having exciting research with good results paired with a happy and productive group is more effective at recruiting than any flashy presentation or web site. 
  4. Success builds on success. Probably true everywhere.
So my approach now is to try to have a good conversation with incoming students, show off my latest results, describe what my students actually do in terms of techniques and methods and then send them off to meet my current students if they are interested in hearing more.  After a few years on the job, I am hopefully better at selecting students I can work with (when it doesn't work out, it is very, very painful). I've developed this more laid back approach in the past couple of years, and so far, I am pleased with the results.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Students and vacation

I have had the same vacation policy since I started my group at ProdigalU. My students can take 3-4 weeks of vacation per year as they see fit, as long as they remain productive while they are supposed to be working. I do not formally track their vacation time, though I keep the emails with their requests so I have a record if needed. Since starting, I have never had to deny a vacation. When my students are not being as productive as they should, they know it, and don't ask me for much time off. I once had to tell a student that if they planned a long vacation for the holidays, they would need to start being more productive, but other than that, I have found that my students are quite responsible in taking care of it themselves. In fact, I have told my students that they should not work on manuscripts or literature searches while on vacation, since it is supposed to be vacation!

When I was a student, there was a group that was notorious for not being "allowed" to take vacation. The group policy was 2 weeks per year maximum, not during mid-summer or winter break, since grad students were supposed to be in the lab more when classes are not in session. This always struck me as ridiculously stingy and likely to lead to burnout and resentment.

One of my colleagues has a kind of unusual problem--one of his best students is traveling too much. Part of it is conference travel, which also takes time away from the lab. Part of it is the desire for vacations to visit family as well as vacations for time off (since not everyone finds family visits recharging). But it is an odd problem for an ambitious student to have, since slowing down on progress delays finishing the PhD, and ambitious students usually recognize this.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Prepping new classes

At the beginning of each semester,  I always have high hopes for what I will be able to do in my classes. I have ambitious plans about have I will make things better. Maybe add demos or videos, or perhaps integrate in some of the modern literature to basic courses. Once the reality of the semester hits, many of those plans go by the wayside, and I mostly stick with the tried and true, updated each year for clarity and with better examples.

It is worse for a new course. Before I start prepping, I have all these goals about what I want to do. But then the reality of just how much work prepping a new course is hits, and I just try to make it as good as I can and still stay on top of things. For my first class, I had a whole bunch of lectures prepped ahead of time, and I still barely managed to be two lectures ahead of the class (so I could post notes in advance of lecture).

I am better about time management now, but it is still a struggle to prep lectures efficiently, especially because the first time through, I have no idea how quickly the class will move through the material. With a year in a course under my belt, it is easier to make timing adjustments on the fly, depending on how the class goes.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Socializing with group members

This issue came up a bit at Portrait of the scientist as a young woman a few weeks ago. I am not really one to socialize with my group and never have been. Research is hard enough without personal issues getting in the way. I am not really all that social to begin with, and I like to keep the personal separate from the professional. I think it can be hard to maintain an appropriate degree of professionalism when personal relationships get involved (this is human nature). It gets worse when this leads to "Golden Child Syndrome", where the more social/better connected group members get more resources or professional opportunities than everyone else.

Although I never socialized much with my own research group, I can see the temptation for a new Assistant Professor. This has played out in our department a few times. A new professor is probably in a new city where they may not know anyone. They spend a lot of time with their research group, and may be fairly close in age if they got a TT position after a two year postdoc (2-3 year postdocs are the norm in my field, but I was older after my time at National Lab). As students and postdocs, our life experience is that we find friends in the groups we spend a lot of time with. It is a new experience to be suddenly in a position where making friends this way also involves a power differential. In my experience, this seems to be much more of an issue with new Assistant Professors, and seems to fade as the age gap between professor and student increases and the new professor makes local friends outside their research group.  I've also seen it lead to powerful resentments between the first cohort of students, who helped set up the lab and were friends with their advisor, and the next cohort, who came into a working lab and a situation where the PI was not actively searching for friends. Even so, some of my colleagues remain pretty social with their research groups.

My own students don't seem to socialize with each other as a group (I can't be certain, because I don't discuss personal lives with my students unless they bring it up). I wonder if my anti-social nature has caused this, but I don't have a problem with it. Some students seem to prefer a more social group (I say "seem", because I haven't discussed this with any students, and the power differential makes it unlikely to ever have such a conversation), but others don't, so recruitment-wise, I think it all balances out in the end.

One of the reasons I am kind of happy to not have a very social group is that I am not sure that the decision to attend group social events is ever really truly voluntary. In particular, someone from a different culture may not experience this as a choice at all. I think it is particularly problematic when the invitations come from/are issued on behalf of the PI, which can make the social event feel like a group obligation. Even absent the PI's direct involvement, if someone regularly chooses not to attend group social events, it may have a negative impact on their working relationships with group members, since people naturally gravitate towards helping people they are close to at the expense of people they know less well.

Worse when group social events perpetuate inequalities or send the message that only certain types of people are welcome in the group. At conferences, I've been in a group of attendees who decided to continue discussions at Hooters (yes, really). I've seen people at meetings organizing mixed professional/social outings to strip clubs and other non-inclusive venues. Such outings would really be problematic in the context of research group social events. Even things like research group contests can be exclusionary. It is one thing to set up an NCAA basketball bracket pool, where anyone can fill out a bracket just for fun even if they don't follow college basketball (or want to bet for money). It is another to organize a research group fantasy sports league which requires a large time commitment to following a specific sport for a long time.

I am not sure students consider the social atmosphere of the group when selecting a group to join. I wasn't very social as a student, so a group that met up every weekend would not have been a good fit for me. As a student, I spent a lot of time in the lab, and enjoyed time away from my group, though we all had pretty good working relationships. I had some friends in my group, but we did not socialize as a research group much outside of work. As a PI, I am probably too much in the non-social direction. We don't do much more than an annual group lunch, but so far it has worked for me.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What would you tell your kids about a career in science?

The ProdigalKids are too young for career plans, but would you discourage your kids from pursuing a career in science? In academia? What about a BSc/BSE with no plans for academia?

This came up in a conversation with some colleagues, and I was surprised at the split. About half said they would strongly discourage their child from getting a science degree, because they think future prospects for such careers are poor, and the other half saying they thought it was a good idea. After reading all the nay-saying online, I was actually surprised to see that so many of my colleagues are supportive of the idea. What shocked me the most actually was that a couple of my male colleagues said they would discourage a daughter but not a son because sexism. I really wanted to say "Newsflash--your daughters will experience sexism no matter what degree they get", but I didn't.

Most of the nay-sayers are worried about future job prospects, but I am not sure what other career paths they think would be better. I totally get that there are many more PhDs who want to do research/development/something very science-y than there are positions for them, but the overall unemployment rate for PhDs remains lower than the general unemployment rate (even if some/many(?) of those PhDs are in jobs that really don't require one). I believe people try to do what is best for themselves, so I am all for people (even my own kids) taking known risks for desired rewards. The keyword is 'known' here--I think it is really important to make sure people have access to information about career prospects and paths BEFORE they make long term decisions.

The science nay-sayers would discourage even a BSc or BSE, and that I don't really understand at all. Does it really matter a few years after graduation what you majored in as an undergrad? What does it say about someone if they would try to prevent their children from earning a degree they are encouraging their own students to continue? A few people said they would not discourage a science degree, just an academic career. I can kind of understand that, but I don't think pursuing an academic career and ending up somewhere else is a great tragedy. Life is long, and there are many chances to start over or try something different.

Personally, I actually think a science degree is good prep for a wide variety of possible career paths, and would be happy if the ProdigalKids wanted to pursue one. I would even encourage my kids to go into academia, if they had the ability and the inclination (while giving them all the caveats and downsides, and making sure there is a strong plan B). I don't think it is a bad thing to desire a research career, since there are many options if it doesn't work out. If the job market is poor for scientists, it is likely poor for most other choices as well. I don't want to discourage a dream just because the odds are long, as long as my kids are aware of the long odds, and have a reasonable plan if it doesn't work out.

For the most part, I love my job. The downsides would either be present in pretty much any career I chose (sexism, old boy's network, bureaucracy, politics) or are outweighed by the positives (the proposal chase is tedious, but I like being able to work on whatever I can get funding for, the long hours can be draining, but the flexibility is hard to beat). I completely understand why so many people try for TT jobs--it is a great life if you can get it. My own parents encouraged me and my siblings to have a goal and work towards it. They offered their opinion on whether that goal was a good idea or not, but once we were out of high school, they wanted us to make our own decisions about our futures (even if they thought it was a bad idea). They had faith that we would be able to figure out how to make a living. True, one of my siblings changed career tracks a few times, but we all evolved into independent adults capable of supporting our families. I think this is a good idea, and hope I have the stamina to implement it myself. It is really hard to watch your kids make mistakes!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Repairs

They are the bane of my existence. As hard as it is to get funding for new equipment into the lab, it is even harder to get funding to maintain what I've already got. At least there are some mechanisms for bringing in new equipment.

At current funding levels, the vast majority of my grants are spent on paying personnel costs. What doesn't go to pay the people in my lab barely covers the materials and supplies they use. A $5000 repair bill means a choice between starving my lab of consumables, or living without an important piece of equipment. It keeps me up at night.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Requests for a postdoc

Do you respond to them all? Like most PIs, I receive many requests for postdocs, especially from India and China, but also from other places. Most of these looks like mass mailed form letters, but I suppose some of them might not be. I actually respond to every postdoc request I get. I've only met one other person who says they also respond to them all. I figure it can't hurt, and I would like to be respectful to job seekers, since I know how much it sucks to be blown off. In truth, I am not actually looking for a postdoc right now, so I am declining all such requests, but I think "no" is better than no response.

To be honest, though, I actually have two sets of responses. I have my email client set up so that I can send a response with 3 clicks. This is the reply the letters that look like mass mailings get. One form letter deserves another, I suppose. Things that trigger this response are:
  • "Dear Sir" (really, there is a photo of me on the dept website, and my name is pretty much only used by women in English)
  • research interests in a completely different field or sub-field
  • different fonts/colors/sizes between my name and the rest of the letter
  • huge list of recipients on the email (hello bcc!)
  • nothing about me or ProdigalU in the letter body
I realize that I may consign some non-form letters to the trash, but at least I send something. I get many, many more form letter requests than personalized requests, and while I think it is a good thing to respond, I don't want to waste my time. Thus, if it looks like a form letter, it gets the canned response and a delete.

The other sort of response is a non-canned personal response. I send these to people who look like they are legitimately interested in my research/my group, and I keep these emails in a folder in case my situation changes (read: I get a currently pending grant funded), and I need to find a postdoc relatively quickly. Sometimes I have had nice conversations via email with these jobseekers, and sometimes I have been able to steer them in the direction of someone who is actually looking for a postdoc. It is definitely easier to network your way into a position, since if you come recommended by someone known to the PI, it is better, but I know many people who have cold emailed their way into a postdoc.

So I guess when it comes down to it, if you are looking for a postdoc and want to be taken seriously, Google is your friend. You should be able to use the correct gender when referring to me (or stick to the gender neutral Dr. or Prof. as an address). You should articulate quickly and clearly WHY you are interested in a postdoc with me. Even better if you can articulate HOW you think you will benefit from and/or provide benefit to my group. If you are coming from a different sub-field, you should acknowledge this and explain why you want experience in mine. Your letter should be clear and concise--it is by far the most important thing when cold emailing for a postdoc. More important than your CV, which I won't even open if my interest is not caught by your email. I like helping people out, and dispensing advice (hence the blog), but it is only worth it if I think the request is legit.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

How do you sabbatical?

This was the most common question I heard from junior faculty. At first, I thought that they, like my colleagues, were interested in the mechanics (what arrangements I made, how I planned a sabbatical abroad with a family, etc). For thoughts on planning a sabbatical, see here. But what they actually meant was "what exactly do you do on a sabbatical?" After a few seconds of thought, I realized I had no idea either (before I went and did one), so without further ado, here is "What Prodigal Did on Sabbatical":

ProdigalU more or less doesn't care what we specifically do on sabbatical, as long as it is professional development (especially for the first one). We do have to apply, and there do need to be plans, but the application is a year before the sabbatical starts, so no one will hold you to what you write. I got an old application from one of my colleagues, and used it as a model. When we're back from sabbatical, we have to write a sabbatical report, but I am not sure anyone actually reads it.

I decided I wanted to go abroad, and then worked from that premise when planning. So what did I actually do?

1. Wrote
A lot. Really. It was really nice to be away from my office and all of its distractions. I had long uninterrupted blocks of time for the first time in a long time. When all was said and done, I submitted 6 manuscripts and 3 proposals, and wrote detailed outlines for 2 more.

2. Email/paperwork
There is no escape. Being in a different timezone from ProdigalU meant that I had many work hours free from emails, though.

3. Traveled
Both personal travel around Sabbatical Location, as well as professional travel. I went to meetings I would normally skip due to the expense (far from ProdigalU) and I invited myself to give a few seminars so I could meet with some people in my field I only knew as names on papers due to the distances involved. This is surprisingly easy, btw. A simple email with "Hello, I am Prodigal, and I work on ProdigalResearch. I admire your work. I am at location X for the next Y months, and would love to meet up with you in person. Are you available?" often results in a seminar invite.

4. Read
I actually had time to read literature for pleasure, rather than as a targeted search for a manuscript or proposal. Before I got overwhelmed, this was a great way to spark new ideas and research directions. I found this so beneficial while on sabbatical, that I am trying to keep going with this, and at least actually use my RSS feed ToCs again.

5. Interacted with my host group
It was actually really interesting to see how a different group works (dynamics and all) after setting up my own. This was fun--the stakes are lower, since I am not actually responsible for these students, so I just had fun discussion things (science, professional stuff, whatever) with the members of my host group. I attended groups meetings and other group events as well. One of the goals of my sabbatical was to deepen my collaboration with host group, and this was successful.

6. Learned a new technique
One of the reasons I picked my sabbatical location was because I would have access to an instrument I would like to set up in my own lab. It was great to see how it actually works in practice, and to see how the experts do sample prep and data analysis.

7. Electronic meetings with my group
Very important--email works pretty well, but checking in and discussing things in real time is important too. I had meeting with each student once a week, for 10-90 minutes, as needed.

8. Thought big thoughts
I spent quite a bit of time just thinking about my field, where it is going, and what I think my group should be doing in the next 10 years or so. Also thoughts about science in general. Very important, I think, but one of the first things to drop when pressed for time.

9. Relaxed
I worked fewer hours than normal, for sure. Part of what I needed to do was recover and recharge after the push for tenure. Being away from my "normal" life and routine was really helpful for that.

Things I didn't do:
  • Work in the lab (ha! I had big plans for that one--I do miss labwork sometimes)
  • Attend any regular meetings other than my host group meeting
  • Service at ProdigalU (I still did some reviewing, but said no more often)
  • Visit ProdigalU for the whole time I planned to be away (and I didn't even feel bad about it either)
So that is what I did on sabbatical. I enjoyed my sabbatical immensely, and have no regrets about going abroad.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Interdisciplinary science

This study in Nature looking at grant success rates for the Australian Research Council's Discovery Programme over a 5 year period confirms with data what has long been suspected--interdisciplinary projects are less likely to be funded, and the effect is stronger the more interdisciplinary the proposal is. This is an issue not only for those of us who do a lot of interdisciplinary science (who of course want to be funded), but also for science in general, since more and more modern science is at the interface between disciplines.

Anecdotally, what is true for proposal evaluation also appears to be true (for me at least) in getting manuscripts published. My more interdisciplinary work needs to be shopped around a bit at different journals, sometimes 3 or 4 times before even going out for review. In contrast, my work that fits into a "traditional" discipline is apparently easier to match to a journal, since it tends to go out for review straight away (even if it isn't accepted at the first journal).

It is much harder to find appropriate reviewers for interdisciplinary work--I often end up recommending a list half in one field, half in another. Even so, referee reports often come back with serious misconceptions about the parts of the manuscript that are obvious out of the referee's area of expertise. The system of using 2 referees means that if I am lucky, I will get referees with 2 different areas of expertise. Alas, more often both reports are from reviewers in the same general "traditional" area, who then either ignore out of area issues, or don't appreciate the novelty, difficulty, or significance of the out of discipline results. It is hard to know how much of this is caused by my issues (writing style, not a strong enough introduction, lack of clarity, too much in love with the data, etc) and how much is lack of core knowledge in the referee at times.

If this is the case for manuscripts, it is almost certainly also the case for proposal evaluation. Moreover, I suspect that interdisciplinary proposals have a harder time attracting a strong advocate who can sell the research to the rest of the panel. Having served on panels myself, if a proposal does not attract a champion, it can be easily overlooked even if the science is top notch and the writing is clear.

Unfortunately for me, the problems I am interested in and the methods I use to solve them are highly interdisciplinary in nature. I often collaborate with colleagues in other subfields and departments. A long time ago, I realized that many people would be extremely skeptical of some aspects of my work. I am confident that the research I do is exciting and important--the problem is in getting others to see it, of course. To counter out of hand rejection of some of our admittedly very unusual research combinations, a good cover letter is crucial. I also find that it is extremely important to attend conferences and have student attend conferences so that potential reviewers see the work presented BEFORE they get a manuscript or proposal to review. Hopefully, that little bit of familiarity helps establish enough benefit of the doubt for people to read the work with an open mind, rather than dismissing it out of hand. With the increasing number of manuscripts and proposals submitted, there is less and less time to consider a manuscript/proposal, so snap judgements are important. As an aside, a side benefit of doing unusual research is that we don't worry much about being scooped on our very interdisciplinary stuff no matter how much we talk about it prior to publication.

I am not sure what to do about the problem of evaluating interdisciplinary work, but this will be an ongoing problem for the scientific community. Anyone else have strategies for helping others appreciate the novelty/beauty/significance of their work?