Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Conference Spam

What is up with all the conference spam? I think I get more of that now than predatory OA journal spam. Hitting the delete key is not that big a deal, but recently I spent a day with no email access and it struck me just much conference spam I get in a single day.

Does this actually work? Do people actually attend expensive random conferences in far away locations? I find I have more than enough conference travel attending well known meetings and/or workshops run by reputable societies or funding agencies. Certainly more than I can pay for with grants. Who attends these meetings? Someone must, or they wouldn't have proliferated so much...

Monday, May 23, 2016

The run up to tenure

ProdigalU is similar to most other research-intense universities in timing. So that means the contracts follow a 3 year/3year/final contract pattern. The final contract is tenure (if things go well), or a 1 year terminal contract (if things go poorly). I would have been a lot better off considering this from the start.

The intial Assistant Professor contract is for 3 years. After 2+ years, there is a brief but serious reappointment review. This reappointment review has some teeth, and I think ProdigalU is not that different from other universities here either. There definitely have been people at ProdigalU who were not renewed, since if the department decides you have no shot at tenure after seeing you in action for 2 years, they will not continue to invest in you. But for me, I had a long meeting where the Chair went over what was going well, what needed more work, and where I might have trouble when it was time to prepare the dossier. We also went over publication and grant submission plans, and then I was renewed for another 3 years.

The thing to keep in mind is that the tenure dossier is submitted in September of the final year of the contract. That means that the dossier goes in after 5 years on the TT, not 6! This is something I did not pay enough attention to until I was reminded of this fact at my reappointment. In my opinion, the final push to tenure begins at the reappointment. Two years is not much time to get everything done.

At this point, I was teaching a full load, and had a full service load too. The department hired someone else after me, so the newer newbie got the intro service stuff, so I had to do more than Admissions and Seminars. Since my department is fairly functional, my Chair told me exactly what I needed to do to fulfill the service expectations for tenure and gave me appropriate assignments. In retrospect, it is probably a good idea to think about what service is actually interesting to you at around year 2, so you can ask for it, but I didn't think of that ahead of time. Given that service wasn't going to get me tenure, I did exactly what I needed to do in the minimum amount of time I could. Since I try not to be a jerk, I did the best job I could do in the time I had to allocate to it, since service work has to be done by someone, and actually completing what you say you will complete is a good way to earn respect anywhere.

An unexpected service load came in the form of serving on supervisory committees and being a PhD examiner. Since you need folks to do this for your students, you need to do it for others. As a new prof, grad students seemed more interested in having me on their committees than other possibly tougher professors. Fortunately, I am a hard ass, so word didn't take TOO long to get around that I was not a rubber stamp supervisor or examiner. My first few PhD defenses took many, many hours to prep for (on top of the time spent at the actual defense). As an examiner, I had to read the whole thesis (duh!) and prepare questions for the defense. For defenses that were reasonably far from my area of expertise, the reading alone could take 3 hours. This is something I had no idea about before I started doing it. Unfortunately, this service obligation starts to really hit hard during the run up to tenure.

In terms of teaching, I was spending a lot less time prepping. I was lucky, and had the best sort of pre-tenure teaching assignment, which is the same thing (no matter what it is) for all 5 years. I was now spending about 30-45 minutes prepping per lecture. Also, after 3 years, I found a teaching style that was working for me so I felt more comfortable in the classroom. At ProdigalU, teaching evaluations are the main method of displaying teaching effectiveness, for better or for worse. By this point, I was above the departmental mean for all courses, and scoring highly in my grad course. Part of the improvement was my new comfort in the classroom, part was getting better with experience.

In addition, we also have to show some sort of curriculum development, which I did with my assigned labs. I started overhauling the labs I was assigned to, including developing some new lab exercises. I think this takes less time than developing a new course, even if the new course would be in my research focus area. Labs are actually a good place to put in some effort in course development. Most of the timesinks are right before the semester begins, the week classes start, and the end of the semester, especially after the first year (when all courses are a huge timesink). This is great, since I also had lecture courses I had to work on, but this way I could do a good job teaching while protecting time for research. It is also kind of fun to come up with new labs for the students. At ProdigalU, teaching will not save you if the research isn't there, but lack of teaching will kill your tenure chances.

The workload got insane in the run up to tenure. By now, I was out of startup funds, but had students that depended on my funding. I had to integrate new students into the group while pushing out as many proposals and manuscripts as possible. My first sets of students now needed support letters for various fellowships and awards, which take me an hour or more to write from scratch. In year 5, I also had to start planning for my first students to finish up and make sure no information was lost to graduation.  On top of all of that, I had to make sure that potential tenure file letter writers knew who I was. That meant lots of travel/networking. And now I had one less year than I thought, since I wasn't considering that it takes a whole academic year to process the tenure dossier. I'll admit I was completely overwhelmed.

Things I did that ended up working out for me:
  • Sent my students to higher profile conferences so I didn't have to go to as many. Not as good as me going to network, but at least got the work seen live by more people.
  • Scheduled one research day per week where I did no teaching, had no office hours, did no service (including meetings if possible), and scheduled no meetings that were not directly research relevant (and even those were kept to a minimum)
  • Stopped regularly scheduled one on one meetings with students (unless they requested to continue) and went to a daily drop in schedule, where I visited the lab at set times every day to speak with my students and had them drop in to my office if they needed to speak with me outside those times or at group meeting.
  • Set up one late night a week (the night of our departmental seminar in case I wanted to go out to dinner with the speaker) so I could work without distraction at home.
  • Met with every departmental speaker in my broad research area, and most outside of it to increase the low effort networking. I am actually surprised by how few people in my department do this. It is easy, and takes at most 30 minutes of the day (90 minutes if you attend the seminar, which I do try to do when I meet the speaker). 
  • Set my office hours for my courses for my convenience rather than worrying about the typical schedule for my undergrads. It didn't change office hour attendance or my teaching evaluations at all.
  • Sent my teaching related emails to a separate inbox. This made it easier to stick to a once or twice daily scheme for responding.
  • Forced the students in my courses to use the online message boards instead of mailing me for content-related questions. I posted questions sent to me along with their answers so I didn't have to re-answer the same question over and over again. I set up a pre-prepped response in my email client so I could refer students to the message boards with one key combo, which saved more time.
  • Got more picky with undergrad researchers. More hands in the lab is not necessarily better. ProdigalU values undergrad research, so we are expected to take some undergrads above and beyond honors students. I started being more selective based on interviews with potential students (I don't care much about GPA as long as it is reasonable. Like say above 3ish). A bad undergrad is a huge timesink.
  • Started keeping a file of parts of figures I often use for making cartoons in proposals and presentations. This was surprisingly helpful, since I could now cut and paste new figures quickly, rather than spending time searching for where I used various parts.
  • Set up a bookmark file of places to look for funding calls and set aside one day a week to look at it. No money = no results = no tenure.
  • Stopped blogging. No time to tend the blog. Barely enough time to read anything for fun, even things tangentially work related. :-( 
  • Continued to reserve the time from 5-8 pm on 4 of 5 work days and at least one day of the weekend (if not both) for family. In truth, tenure is not more important to me than my family. I don't care if that makes me not a "true scientist".
  • Protected some time for decompression. While I stopped blogging and reading much of the blogosphere, I saved some time every day for reading fiction for pleasure. I find this relaxes and de-stresses me in a way little else does, so it helped me keep my sanity.
Things I wish I did:
  • Pushed more on manuscripts starting in year 4. I did my paper push in year 5 right before I had to start prepping my dossier. It can take a long time to get a paper accepted, so waiting until 6-8 months before the dossier is due is a mistake. Submitted papers with manuscript numbers are better that nothing, though.
  • Gave more thought to project timelines when planning could be adjusted to generate results that can become a manuscript rather than have projects sit with several experimental stories at 80-90% completion. That does no good. Also leads to problems when students are finishing, but can't/haven't written up their results yet. It really sucks having to write up something AFTER the student has left. They don't care much, so you have to do more.
  • Had a shorter leash on the student who didn't work out. This was a large time and money sink, and I started having doubts after 2 years. It would have been better for both of us to deal with this more quickly.
  • Said no more often. I only started saying no the way I should have when I was panicking at the end of year 4.
  • Looked at other people's dossiers BEFORE I needed to start mine. I did look at some while I was doing mine, but it would have been useful to see what a tenure dossier looks like a lot earlier!
  • Invited myself to more talks. I didn't realize how easy it is to get invited to give a talk when traveling. During my sabbatical, I cold emailed some people I wanted to meet, and just said "Hi I am in the area. Want to meet for coffee or lunch?", and they responded with a seminar invite.
  • Paid more attention to the "this is the direction things are moving in long term" sort of departmental/University politics. In retrospect, I feel like I was so focused on making sure I would get tenure that I ignored things that might impact me and my future now that I have it.
Okay, this is a super-long post. It took a long time to recover from the final push. I did feel like I had to be working all the time, and the stress of that on top of the stress of the actual job situation was not sustainable. I definitely understand why professor blogs tend to be written by newbies and people with tenure already. :-)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

5 years later

It is hard for me to believe that is has been nearly 5 years since I last posted on this blog. Since my last post, I have been granted tenure and promotion (yay!), graduated my first set of students (yay!), fired my first student (boo!), and taken a sabbatical (yay!). Mostly good things, happily.

I strongly admire those who can continue regular blogging in the late stages before submitting a tenure dossier. I know that I couldn't. Now that I am in a more stable position, I am re-evaluating how I allocate my time. I find I miss blogging--the venting was fun, as was the pontificating. I miss the conversations with my commenters (alas, scattered to the wind now). But mostly blogging is for me, really. It helps me organize my thoughts a bit, and lets me write in a low pressure, low stakes setting.

So I guess I am back for now. I'll be sending off my 2 cents into the void again. Thoughts on the final run-up to tenure to come.

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!