Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tips for dragging your family along on a travel sabbatical

Everywhere I go, once people hear that I did a travel sabbatical with young (elementary school aged) kids, they ask me for more information/advice on how to do it. I've written more generally before about what I wish I knew before a travel sabbatical, but not specifically about kid stuff. So, I am collecting my thoughts about it here. The most important piece of advice: you have to be really committed to do this--you can't decide last minute, or be half hearted. So, here is Prodigal's list of what to do when you want to take a sabbatical abroad with your family.

1. Have a flexible partner
This one is tough, since not everyone has a flexible-type job. I have friends outside academia who have asked (and received!) leaves of absence from their jobs for various reasons (family, health, travel), but this is usually unpaid, and depends highly on the company as to whether or not it can happen. We were fortunate, and Prodigal Spouse is in a very flexible work situation right now. That was one of the reasons we pushed so hard to travel this time, since next time, we may not be so flexible. I would not have done a long-term travel sabbatical with young kids if Prodigal Spouse could not come along!

2. Plan ahead
Way ahead! We started planning for our trip almost as soon as my sabbatical was approved, which was 18+ months before we left (we did not spend the whole year abroad). In the early planning stage we had three main concerns: 1) what would Prodigal Spouse do? 2) where would our kids go to school and would they be able to come back with no issues? 3) how would we maintain 2 households for an extended period of time?

3. Pick a location
We needed to find someplace that would be a good opportunity for me and provide something engaging for Prodigal Spouse to do. At this point, we figured we'd arrange things for the adults and then confirm we could arrange schooling for the kids. My first choice location did not work out for a variety of reasons, so we ended up going with my second choice, which worked out great in the end. We went about selecting locations by me suggesting something, and the Prodigal Spouse looking for opportunities in the same place. Finding a good host is a key part of all of this, since my host was a good fit scientifically, where both my host and I would benefit. Even better, my host was able to help me out with logistics quite a bit. My sabbatical led to one published paper, one manuscript in prep, and currently ongoing experiments, so I would say it worked out for both of us!

4. Apply for funding if available!
This is huge help with expenses. Travel sabbaticals with kids are very expensive! Not only were we maintaining two households, but we had to buy a bunch of stuff locally after arrival that we would not have had we stayed home (school supplies, food staples, clothing the kids needed replaced, etc). With a minimalist packing approach (which I endorse!), you can count on having to replace some clothing and shoes from wear, even if the kids don't grow out of them. I applied for and received funding, which made a big difference.

5. Start arranging school
After looking in great detail, we decided to send our kids to the local public schools, rather than pay for an international school. The cost was just one issue here (though it was quite significant! International Schools are very, very expensive, since their prime target is ex-pats assigned abroad by companies that sometimes pay for or subsidize such schools). We also thought the kids would have a much better cultural experience attending school with locals rather than with ex-pats, even though they did not speak the local language. There was a great deal of paperwork involved here, and the International Office at my host University was a huge help in letting us know exactly what we needed to bring and in setting up required appointments for us in advance so we could get the kids into school as soon as possible. We had to make sure our kids would be able to return seamlessly to their home schools, and worked to get letters in hand to make this happen, plus instructions on how we should enroll early or from a distance for both school and the after school program. We also had to figure out what to do in the after school period (after instruction ends, but while we are still working). We were very happy to find out that most local schools in our host city had after school programs, which was a huge relief! If not, though, we would have had to figure out what to do with our kids.

6. Other paperwork
Figuring out exactly what visa/residence permits/study permits we needed was quite stressful and difficult. I found the local consulate for my host country to be supremely unhelpful, but YMMV. The International Office for my host University was a much better source of information. They helped me make appointments in advance with the appropriate local government agencies in my host country to make sure we would be in compliance with local law. We needed to buy a local insurance policy (this was a requirement for our residence permits), but luckily we found something at a reasonable price that was easy to do online. It was quite annoying to have to pay twice for insurance, and this was an unexpected cost that we found out about quite late in our process. We also needed to have our birth certificates and marriage license translated into the local language for processing to get the kids in to school with me and Prodigal Spouse listed as their parents (for pick up and permission purposes). This was one place the local consulate was helpful--they maintained a list of authorized translators.

7. Preparing the children
We told the children it was an adventure, and started preparing them as soon as we knew where we were going. At their ages, the kids were flexible enough to get into the adventurous spirit, though they were quite nervous as the trip got closer. We started them on Duolingo (a language learning app) and Pimsleur audio courses (often found at the library) 9ish months before we left so they would have at least some familiarity with the local language. We had the kids tell their friends they were traveling a few months before we left, and some of their friends set up email accounts so they could keep in touch while we were gone, which was really nice. Another friend gave us a few pre-addressed envelopes so the kids could exchange letters. The kids were very excited when we received letters or email from home, so I highly recommend something like this. We showed them where we were going and talked about all the things we might do there.

8. Find a flat/home near a public school
We were in a city, so this was not so hard. In my host country, kids usually go to the neighborhood elementary school. I looked at the city website, and found out where the schools are in our target neighborhoods. The kids walked to school every day, and made friends in the neighborhood, which was very helpful while we were there. We were looking for short term (less than a year) rentals, ideally furnished. Most of this sort of housing is aimed at traveling business folks, so it was not so easy to find a 2-bedroom place that was affordable. Since we were looking short term and furnished, it didn't make sense to do the wander with a cellphone approach to finding a place. I used a local real estate website to find possible apartments. Google translate does an adequate job at translation for descriptions, but I also spoke with some people from my host country about what certain terms meant in the context of renting an apartment to avoid surprises. Through this website, I was able to make several appointments to see apartments our first week in town, with the idea we'd sign a lease ASAP and move in right away. This was crucial to getting settled right away, which was important to the kids.

9. Keeping up with the home school
The kids' teachers were really gracious about telling us what would be covered the rest of the school year, and gave us some of the work they planned to assign. One teacher photocopied all of the worksheets for us, and lent us a textbook. We took this stuff with us. It took us about a month from landing until the kids got into their school (we needed various appointments to happen first), so we used this material to homeschool during that first month. Prodigal Spouse and I took turns staying with them. I had already planned to start in my host lab a month after arrival, and that was a good call.

10. Local accounts
When staying for this long, we needed a local bank account to pay certain expenses, since school fees (for lunch and after school) can't be paid by credit card or cash, and they don't use checks.  We asked around a few students/postdocs from host country for advice, and also used Google to figure out what bank we wanted to use and what we needed to get an account set up. Crazily enough, the best way to get money into this account from the US was to withdraw via ATM, then redeposit, due to the backward-ness of the US when it comes to moving money around. We also needed local cellphone numbers so people (like the school!) could actually call us. We used a local prepaid cell plan that was actually much cheaper than what we paid at home.

11. Things to bring for the kids
We planned on traveling a bit at the end of our trip, so we packed light. We needed to be able to carry everything with us on trains. We took minimal clothing, in layers for multiple seasons. For the kids, we had 5 days of outfits plus 3 extra days of underwear and socks. We allowed each kid to bring 1 stuffed animal. We had tablets for the kids to read/play on while traveling. We downloaded books in English so my reading kid would still be able to read while learning the local language. Amazon does NOT do well when you change countries--any tablet or phone is assigned a country, and it gets very confused when you try to use Amazon in another country (in fact, check out the link for a description of other issues resulting from changing countries in the digital age). You can in fact only buy ebooks from your home country, which was an issue when we wanted to bring some ebooks in the local language for Little Prodigal 1 back to our home.

After some poking at it, I found that the US Amazon actually has quite a decent selection of foreign language ebooks, some of which are free (and which ones are free changes periodically, so it is possible to check back and get more later). This is something I never knew before. Little Prodigal 2 was just learning to read, and we used the material from school for reading. Planning ahead for reading was actually really good in retrospect, since the selection of kids books in English in the local city library was small, and mostly dedicated to kids learning English from the local language (which totally makes sense). Even without their toys from home, our kids made due. They were really creative with making their own toys from old boxes and paper, and we had lots to do in our host city, so they were rarely bored.

12. Right after we arrived
Our first week was nuts--we dragged the kids around looking at flats and neighborhoods, attending appointments for residence permits and school registration, and getting Prodigal Spouse set up for his stuff. We took an Airbnb so we would have a separate bedroom from the kids, someplace to sit and hang out, and a kitchen. The kids were a bit overwhelmed at times, and they were pretty jet lagged, so eating meals at home was pretty helpful.  We cooked a few of their favorites to help them feel less homesick. We moved into our flat after a week.

The first month, the kids were home from school. We spent a lot of time in local parks and exploring our neighborhood. The kids liked finding neighborhood stores, and we quickly found a local restaurant we all liked as our family place to go out. We set up a local Amazon account to buy things urgently needed--we had no idea where to buy some things locally, but Amazon had them at decent prices. This was actually really important when the kids brought home lists of school supplies and we had no idea what they were. A quick Amazon search let us figure out 90% of what we needed, and we in fact ordered some of it from Amazon rather than doing an extensive local search.

Once the kids were settled into a routine, the first month of school was still super hard on them. It was a good thing we have 2, since they could talk to each other in the after school program. Only 1 kid in the whole school spoke English, so they were pretty isolated until they learned some of the local language. After the first month, things were much easier. The kids started making friends in class, and they understood enough to play with other kids. Both kids were still young enough that they could rapidly pick up the basics through immersion. This would be a lot more of a challenge with an older child, although we would be more likely to have paid a tutor and/or allowed an older child to use more interactive learning methods (busuu, local language meetups, etc).

In the end, we are really lucky to speak English, since English is taught as a second language starting in grade 1 in our host country, and is a commonly known second language. Importantly, at places like the kids' school and local governmental offices, there were always some staff who could tell us what we needed to know in English. For the kids' school, we actually had an orientation a few days before the kids started where some teachers explained (in English) how lunch works, how after school works, and showed the kids their classrooms. By the time we did serious travel outside urban areas, the kids could translate for us.

There you have it--an outline of what we did to travel on sabbatical with kids. It was a lot of work, and sometimes very frustrating, but as a family, it was a great experience. The kids learned another language, were exposed to a new culture, made friends in a new place, and got to travel all around our location. I loved living in host city, and also liked traveling around a new place. Professionally, it was really great for me to take a break from ProdigalU, and reasonably productive too.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Burner laptops

The last two times I attended conferences outside the US, I spoke with several people who brought "burner laptops" with them. In one case, the people involved wanted to avoid issues surrounding intrusive border searches, and only put exactly what they needed on the hard drive just in case. In the other case, they were trying to avoid the uncertainty of the US security position on laptops. The main concern here is that the Trump administration will suddenly announce a rule change while they are abroad, leaving them with no choice but to risk checking their laptops (like the last time).

The complete craziness of putting a whole bunch of lithium battery containing "security threats" in one place in the cargo hold aside, there is no way I would be happy putting my expensive main work machine into checked luggage of any kind. These burner laptops are relatively cheap ($200-300), so if they are lost or stolen while in the cargo hold, it is not such a huge loss. Plus, it is possible to set them up with a limited set of data, so there are fewer security/privacy concerns with searches or lost hard drives. I imagine just the uncertainty of it all will push more people (especially those who work with sensitive data) towards cloud-based storage solutions.

If I didn't need to work while traveling, I'd probably consider just presenting off my phone. There have been a few folks doing that almost since the dawn of smart phones, so I know it is possible. I don't really want to spend grant money on a burner laptop (also the justification as not general purpose would be interesting). I definitely don't want to spend my own money on a mostly useless machine. Just another reason why I really hate flying these days.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Being an introvert in the age of social media

I've always been a very introverted person. Too much social interaction definitely tires me out, and I've never had a large group of friends (or been the life of the party). I am also a pretty anti-social person. I don't need that much daily social interaction to not feel lonely. These things used to be important career-wise for their impacts on networking. Modern life definitely rewards the extroverted (and especially the extrovert with social skills). Us introverts have had to learn to deal with our feelings of being overwhelmed in order to do things like make connections at conferences, meet potential program officers, and get through 2 day interviews.

I don't know it is just me and my particular combination of introversion, anti-social behavior, and paranoia about Internet companies (if you can't tell what they are selling, they are selling you!), but I find most social media uninteresting and at times overwhelming. For now, this is not a major problem. Most recruiting is done via more traditional networking rather than through Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. Like most modern academics, I have a website that interested folks can use to find out more about my research, my group, or my professional self. But I don't have a Twitter account. I have accounts on LinkedIn and Facebook that I don't actually use except to accept friend requests from people I know. I have a ResearchGate account that lists my publications, since a colleague mentioned it helps with citations, but I only log in to it when I have a new publication.

I see some colleagues (mostly, but not all younger) advertising their social media presences at the end of their talks. I've had conversations with people worried about the social media presence of their groups, and about how to raise their digital profile. And now I wonder if this is the future--if social media luddites will be seen as out of touch as the departmental dinosaurs who used to print out their emails.

I find this concerning on two levels. For me, introversion in real life follows me online. It would be yet another unpleasant thing I have to force myself to do in order to be successful, but this time it would be primarily on my downtime. I don't feel shut out by not having the information my friends and relatives post to Facebook. If it is important, I hear about it from them. If not, I don't miss it. I don't miss Twitter conversations, having never really been able to engage with Twitter in the first place. When I did try out Facebook, it was kind of fun to hear about the (mostly good things) going on in other people's lives (people do tend to keep the bad things to themselves or their REAL intimate circles), but I had to search hard for things to post myself. I was like an online eavesdropper, never really contributing to the conversation. It made me think of when I was learning social and networking skills in the first place, only with Facebook, any mistakes would be recorded for posterity.

On a second level, I find it highly disturbing that a portion of professional success would be dependent on giving freebies to large rich companies like Facebook and Google. That other people are willing to do this is not surprising--in 2004 and again in 2014, a majority of people were willing to trade things like computer passwords or other personal indentifiers away for a candy bar or a cookie. I am not so eager to give away pieces of myself in order to see targeted ads (oh yeah, and connect with people online).

It is a whole level of ironic for me that many warriors for Open Access then go ahead and use privately held social media companies without a thought about giving away information for free that Facebook is willing to pay for to help them increase profits. And by using these platforms, they give away information about their social contacts as well that is used to make money for the companies. This information is only accessible from the privately held walled off garden run by each company. How is this all that different from the publishing company/society based publication model they wish to overthrow?

I understand that there are loads of people who love Facebook and Twitter. I have nothing against them and their enjoyment. I just hope that opting out will continue to remain an option.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Hoop jumping and success

There is a definite difference between tests/courses/other hoops to jump through that are required in order to do a particular job and the ability to do that job successfully. I am not sure that any of the standardized tests we encounter in life actually test something other than test taking skill + some base knowledge that can probably be looked up if needed outside the test setting. I mean, we definitely want doctors who can diagnose without looking every other symptom up and lawyers who can answer questions in less than an hour, and engineers who can give a back of the envelope answer without extended consultations, so base knowledge is important. Since it is easier to test in a multiple choice format for large cohorts, we prioritize this over other forms of testing for admissions to various programs.

Same with classes--doctors probably don't need to know so much organic chemistry, engineers might not all need a deep understanding of algorithms, and physicists can probably succeed without two semesters of biology. In all majors, students probably don't NEED as much depth in every sub-field as is required for a typical degree. BUT, the ability to at least pass a class in these things is required for graduation/admission to the next program. So therefore, someone who wants to be a doctor, for example, needs to pass organic chemistry and do well on the MCAT whether or not these things are indicators of later success as a doctor in and of themselves. 

This is true throughout the training and credentialing process. To get to my lofty position here at ProdigalU, I definitely had to take classes I didn't not enjoy to learn material I have never used since I completed the final exam. I had to take exams that have no real relationship to the things I did in grad school, let alone as a professor. It doesn't matter in the end. These things are required as hoops to jump through along my career path, so I did them. I actually do believe that these sorts of hoops have a kind of predictive value--they predict whether someone can buckle down and do them to a minimum level of competency. I would bet that doing what needs to be done competently is predictive of future success.

While I am sure that at least some of the students who do poorly in my class would probably be good doctors/engineers/scientists (the sort of people who are required take my classes), the truth is that most students who work hard can earn at least a B+ if not an A. Those that can't despite their hard work are unlikely to be able to jump all the hoops required between my class and their goal, and they may as well find this out sooner rather than later. Similarly, those that can't muster up the will to do the required work for my class may also have issues mustering up the required will for the unpleasant or difficult parts of their future career. Sure, people change over time, and that is why I know people who went to various professional schools later in life after not working hard in University, but the key word there is later. As in after they learned how to work hard when required, and how to do so effectively.

Most of the students who come to my office to complain about how my class ruined their life are students who never used the tools provided to help them succeed in class. Sometimes, I have never seen them before, even after a whole semester of lectures! While I definitely have sympathy for the (relatively rare) students who work very hard with little to show for it, I also am pretty sure that someone unable to master the material for my sophomore level problem solving-based course is unlikely to do well in higher level courses that build on this material (and by little to show for it, I mean C or lower despite loads of hard work). I've definitely had students go from F the first time to A the second, but that is fairly unusual. Most of those students either didn't work the first time, or worked ineffectively and learned better study skills the second time around.  One student told me that failing my class was the best thing that happened academically in the end, since the shock of it motivated the student to actually listen to advice on how to study effectively.

I don't think encouraging students who work very hard and follow advice (from me and/or study skills resources at ProdigalU) on effective studying to keep on the path they are on is a kindness to them. I don't offer students unsolicited advice unless I am in a supervisory role beyond course instructor, but if asked, I will say so. Hoops may not necessarily be predictive (or even fair), but they are required. It does no favors to pretend otherwise.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Overproduction of PhDs, revisited and with some data

There has been a really interesting discussion of the number of PhDs, the number of TT positions, and exploitation at potnia theron's blog. In thinking about the issues, I looked back at my thoughts on the subject from ages ago. I find that I agree with my younger self still: that making opportunity available to as many qualified applicants that can be supported with current resources is more important to me than the difficulty in finding a TT job. Let people roll the dice on a TT position if they want to. In my field, there are loads of non-academic opportunities, grad students don't make all that much less than a newly minted BA or BSc, and the grad stipend is livable if not luxurious, so the main cost of doing a PhD is opportunity cost.

I know that this is highly field specific, so there may very well be fields where the calculation is different based on the availability of employment, but I strongly feel that if we artificially limit the number of PhD seats, it will be the underrepresented and/or marginalized folks that will lose opportunity. I find that in my field few incoming students plan on an academic career, so I don't consider myself to be training future professors, just future scientists. I certainly do make sure my students know that many highly desirable  (TT either teaching or research, corporate research science, National Lab staff scientist) are very difficult to get without a bit of luck, and that if they want those things, their job is to get qualified and have a plan B just in case. In any case, a PhD is only worth it if the experience is valuable to someone in its own right. Getting a PhD for the gold star is a waste of time.

I believe there are fields for which these things seem to be more precarious. I believe that there are fields for which many (most?) PhDs are underemployed, forced to leave the field, or otherwise unable to use their degrees in a way they would like, even in STEM fields. I've heard that some biomed/life sciences fields are particularly afflicted as a side effect of the rise and fall in NIH funding. I am not sure how I would feel if I were in one of those fields--my students have (thus far!) all found positions they are happy with that require their degrees. At the same time, I also wonder how generalizable this doom and gloom about overproduction really is.

It's kind of like the extended media coverage and gnashing of teeth about the stress level of high school students who are applying to Ivy League-type schools, when the vast majority of higher ed students attend local schools that are not so competitive, making these articles mostly irrelevant. I do see loads of comments, blog posts, and articles about overproduction of PhDs in my field, which does not match my experience with my students or in my department. Do we see the unhappiness of PhDs unable to find desirable positions coming from "pedigree" schools, while the silent majority are happy enough with their outcomes (note that ProdigalU is not a pedigree school), or is the doom and gloom appropriate across the education landscape? How can we know?

Stats from the professional societies I belong to suggest that PhD unemployment is very low. That said, many of the articles complaining about overproduction in my field say that many of these young employed PhDs are in temporary or underemployed situations. I know that my department only really looks at the first post-degree position, so it is hard to say what happens to those who take postdocs or internships. I do know what happens to my students and to others I've worked with at ProdigalU, but I am one PI and not statistically significant. The NSF data I played around with in 2010 is way out of date. People complain about the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), 2015 data published in 2017, but it is pretty much all we have for newly minted PhDs. I can say that I received a doctorate in the US, and I never saw the survey, so at least some of the questions about the reach of the survey are definitely valid. There is also the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), which follows some people from doctorate to age 76. The SDR is due for an update in May 2017, but the last posted data is from 2013 (published in 2014).

The SED there suggests that a high percentage of those with definite post-grad plans in physical or life sciences at the time of survey plan on a postdoc. Something like 40% of new PhDs are visa-holders, which likely influences their post-grad plans and choices. Postdocs are normal in my field for those who want a research-heavy position, even outside academia, so this is not too surprising. Looking at the trends over time, the percentage of new PhD holders in physical science with definite employment commitments is within the historical norm (65-70%) since 1994. The trend in life sciences is a decrease over time, from a plateau at ~70% to ~57%. There was a sharp 5% drop in 2007, which held steady until 2010, when a slow decline began that continues to 2014. I didn't have a position set when I finished my degree, but I wasn't looking all that hard and found one soon after, so I don't know how strong a statement this is, but it does suggest that things are changing in the life sciences for new PhDs. The percentage of those with definite commitments who are doing a postdoc is more or less unchanged for both physical science (~50%) and life science (~70%) over the period 1994-2015, suggesting that there are fewer life sciences postdocs available, leading to a decrease in those with firm plans at graduation. But is this the result of taking longer to find something, or a sign that new life sciences PhDs are unemployed?

We can check of the SDR for a better idea, at least until 2013. The SDR suggests that as of 2013, unemployment was ~2% across a wide range of fields, and about 3% of surveyed science PhDs have involuntarily left the field (average, highest was 7.4% for physics). I don't have time for a detailed review of the data, but a brief look at the main tables does not suggest a calamity of unemployment for PhDs across all fields, and especially in STEM fields. The percentage of employed PhD holders 5 years or fewer post-degree has held steady from 2010 to 2013, so the trend in postdoc commitments in life sciences from the SED does not show up in the SDR. It remains to be seen if there was a huge change in the upcoming data release.

Anecdotally, it does seem harder for people to find positions, which is backed somewhat by the data in the SED for life sciences, but PhD-holders do seem to be finding them. This is consistent with my experience at ProdigalU, where students are taking a bit longer to find something, but are still finding good jobs in our field. There is a general rise in employment uncertainty in the US right now, with contract and part time labor gaining on full time employment as the new norm, and the adjunctification of some sectors of higher ed is certainly a symptom of that. Coupled with the normalization of full or partial soft money TT positions in medical schools (and really, WTF! I don't understand how a position can be TT soft money!) and the overall reduction in support for basic research, many people are in a precarious situation. But this doesn't appear to reflect the majority of PhD-holders, and I don't think makes a strong case for a reduction in the number of PhDs.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How I spend my summer "vacation"

My family members are pretty much the only people who don't assume that I have the whole summer off, like a K-12 teacher. I actually like the ebb and flow of the academic calendar--except for when I was at National Lab, I lived this way my whole conscious life! I do remember when I was a grad student, sitting in the office with my groupmates, and wondering what our advisor did over the summer. So here's how I plan to spend my summer this year:

1. Academic travel: I have plans to meet with a couple of my collaborators face to face. I am also attending a major conference in my field. I like summer conferences, because I can focus on the conference without the nagging feeling of the teaching I am missing/falling behind on.

2. Research push: Several of my students are sitting on projects that are 70-80% of a story. I am planning on doing a major push to get these manuscript ready (if not written in a first draft) by the end of the summer. Towards this end, I have several undergraduate researchers in the lab this summer, half of whom will be running control or repeat experiments to validate our results. I actually have time to interact with my undergrad researchers over the summer other than hello/goodbye and group meeting.

3. Paper push: I have two or three manuscripts sitting on my desk that need polishing/editing to get ready for submission. I want to get these done over the summer when I (sometimes) have uninterrupted blocks of time to write.

4. Proposal writing: I want to get proposals roughed out and drafted for the fall proposal season so I am not teaching and frantically writing at the last minute this year. I have 2 planned for summer submission and 4 planned for fall submission. It is better to spread the writing out so the proposals stay fresh.

5.  Cleaning up my courses: I am actually mostly done with this--I do it in the first weeks of the summer while I still remember well what worked and didn't. I am teaching the same courses next year, so I spent some time cleaning up my lectures, marking up assignments for editing, and writing notes to myself on what I should improve for next time. I'll pick this back up again a week or two before classes start to get ready.

6. Catch up on literature in my field: I really miss just reading papers that are interesting. I got to do a fair amount of this when I was on sabbatical, and I would like to carve out time for it in my normal work life. This year, I was unsuccessful, so I will try to restart the habit this summer.
 
7. Vacation! I hope to spend at least a week without working. We'll see if I can do it!

Most of my summer plans involve tasks that are best done in largish blocks of time. In the absence of teaching and service obligations, I am hopeful that I can be really productive. We'll see how much of this extremely optimistic list I actually get done.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Recruiting in a time of uncertainty

How are you handling it? Funding my students keeps me awake at night. I dropped my target steady state group size, which actually works better with my management style anyway. While I always want to recruit quality, a mistake in smaller group and with less funding cushion is much, much more painful. I am being VERY careful with who I am taking. In this case, I am attempting to select for enthusiasm, work ethic, and scientific curiosity (better predictors of success than GPA or pedigree, in my experience). Unfortunately, this also means I am only taking students with research experience, because I can't afford for someone to try it out for the first time in my lab and decide it isn't for them.

I am fortunate, because in my field it is possible to do research without lab techs and postdocs (I have exclusively students right now). Postdocs in my field last 1-2 years, so a one year contract with a possibility to renew is the norm, which is helpful in the current funding climate. At ProdigalU, postdocs are still more expensive than students, but students come with a 5-6 year time commitment. This compares poorly to the usual 3 year timeline on grants in my field. It is definitely possible to start a student on a project and then run out of money part-way through the PhD. I worry deeply about this, but so far, I have been able to string together related projects in such a way that my students don't get disrupted.

One may say that there are too many PhDs, and that reducing the number of PhDs is a feature, not a bug of the current funding situation. I don't doubt that this is true in some field and specialties. That said, my students are finding jobs that use their degrees (though it has taken up to a year for some). As is the norm in my area, most of my students are interested in industrial positions, not academia. While I of course think my students are really good, I would think that if there were too many PhDs in my field that some of my students (even if very good) would be unable to find good jobs and would move on to other things. This has not been my experience so far. I actually don't think there is much of a connection between the demand for highly trained workers and support for their training. Aside from the long lag time due to the time to degree, companies can always import trained people from other places if they have unmet needs. And universities will always be able to fill paid student positions as long as the money is there, regardless of whether the students are employable at the end. If there is an actual interest in reducing the overall number of PhDs, I would think that a strategically planned reduction (that targets overpopulated areas) would be much better than random chance, which is what we are getting with the current system.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Electronic gadgets in class

As I move into the curmudgeon stage of my life, I find that I can articulate what annoys me more (maybe because more things do?). One thing that really annoys me is when students use their phones in class. There are three main ways I see students interact with their phones in class, ranked here from most annoying to least:

1. Forget to turn their ringers off
A cardinal sin! This annoys everyone in the class. Worse when using an obnoxious ringtone. Even worse when during an exam (when cellphones are forbidden, and stored in the back/off to the side so the ringtone can't be turned off).

2. Constantly check their phone
I find this really distracting when I am teaching. The motion draws my eyes, and then I find myself wondering what is so important. It also annoys me that the student is obviously not paying any attention to the lecture. Why bother coming, then? It is just like coming to the lecture and then reading the newspaper, and just as obvious. Students forget that from the front of the room, I get a pretty good view of every seat, so it is pretty noticeable when someone keeps checking their phone. It is hugely distracting to neighbors as well, whose eyes are also drawn by the motion and the screen. 

3. Students texting/Facebooking/whatever on their phone
Somewhat less distracting than #2 because their is less to draw attention, but seriously why come to class if you aren't going to pay attention. I know lots of people think they can multitask,and both text and pay attention to the lecture, but loads of studies have demonstrated that this is BS, and the constant attention swapping makes effective learning impossible. Students may think that their professors don't care about teaching, but I do, and I put a lot of effort in. Texting in class feels like a slap in the face, and I find it extremely rude and distracting.

4. Students keeping their phones in their laps for the whole class
This is at least an attempt at subtlety. Students doing this may not realize this, but from the front of the room, this looks like the person is staring at their crotch for the whole class, which looks very bizarre.

Strangely enough, students using laptops in class is a lot less annoying (to me anyway--I suspect someone browsing in class is probably pretty distracting to their neighbors!). I have seen many students who take notes on their laptops, so there is at least the plausibility that the student is working and paying attention. I distribute my notes electronically, and so it isn't that odd that someone might prefer to use them that way as well. That said, I am well aware that some of the laptop using students are probably doing something else. If they are, it is less disruptive than a phone. There is less motion involved, and I can't see the glow of the screen, so it is less attention grabbing.

I was talking about this issue with a colleague, who is considering banning cellphones entirely in class. Have any of you tried it or thought about it?
 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Student demands

I am not sure if students are feeling more entitled, feeling less intimidated by authority, have less tolerance for BS, or are just plain ruder, but the number of unreasonable demands I am getting via email seems to be going up each year. It is not all of my students. In fact, I think the demanding students have just gotten more demanding, not that more and more students are being demanding, if that makes sense.

For example, grade grubbing is probably as old as grading. That said, this is the first year I received outright demands for higher course grades without an accompanying sob story or other justification, just the statement that they really want/feel like they deserve a better grade. Most of the sob stories were probably BS, or at least not a justification for a higher grade, but still, there is something much more off-putting and self-centered about "please raise my grade because I want a higher one."

More and more students (in fairly large courses) have been asking for individual meetings to discuss course material rather than attending office hours (which are often sparsely attended anyway, especially when far from exams). I always ask what other class they have during my office hours so I can consider the timing for my future scheduling, and many of them don't have a conflict, they just want to meet me one-on-one, and don't see why I shouldn't be able to accommodate them. If I press them, they just want to meet me alone, again with no justification other than that they want to. 

Many students ask if my classes are recorded (which I really don't like doing), and get upset if the answer is no. I really dislike recording classes--attendance ends up much lower, people get very upset when there is a technical glitch that ruins the recording (often out of my hands), and a decent number of students end up binge watching the lectures a night or two before the exam, which does their education no service. But I've been hit in course evaluations about not caring about my students for not recording lectures, and I fear that this will be the new norm.

Students also don't seem to understand that prerequisites are required not just as hoops to jump through for a degree, but are in fact a guide to what knowledge they are expected to have before coming to a class. I teach a physical science (at the sophomore level right now), and I have had many students surprised that I expect some skill with math, even though calculus is a prereq for my course. I had a student tell me they don't integrate, and another tell me that it was so unfair that they lost points on an exam for not remembering how to manipulate exponents, since this is a class in science not in math. I've had many students tell me that expecting them to remember things from freshman science courses is unfair or unrealistic, never mind that my course builds on that material.

In addition to being demanding, I find that more students are falling on the disrespectful side of informal. I've been addressed as "Hey Prof", as "Yo!" and by my first name, all of which I find fairly disrespectful for an undergrad taking a class with me. I generally like the relationships I have had with students in my courses. The students who attend class, and come to office hours generally do well, and I have had good interactions and conversations with them. I am not super-formal with my students, but I am also clearly not their friend or peer. I am not the kind of person who demands respect for my authority, but quite frankly, disrespect like this won't translate well into the wider working world. This is one aspect I struggle with, since I also don't want to spend my teaching time teaching email and professional etiquette.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Conference travel

Conference travel is really important for getting your name and your work out there, for networking, and for keeping up with what is really going on in the field that either is unpublishable or not published yet. As a lifelong introvert, I've really had to work at effective networking. It took me a while to figure out how to make the most of conferences. As I've gotten older, I find that I like the big society meetings less and less. A big meeting is huge, which means it is hard to just run into people, so key meetings have to be planned. Everyone is always running somewhere. The talk quality is highly uneven, especially since giving a quality 15-20 minute talk is really hard for an inexperienced person. Conferences always exhaust me, since I find spending so much time with people tiring, and the always on nature of a meeting is very draining. The endless busy-ness of a big meeting makes this worse for me.

As a student, I loved the wide range of topics, the exhibitions (with their swag) and the opportunity to put faces to the names on papers. Now that I am more established, I find that I am much happier to send my students to the big meetings, and attend smaller, more focused meetings myself. I still get energized from a good topical conference, and I love the opportunity to get up to speed quickly in a new direction by listening to expert talks rather than reading a lot of papers. That said, I find when I get back from a big society meeting, I am more likely to just be tired than to be excited by science. I do attend one big one per year, since it is a good idea to be seen, but I don't really miss it when I don't go for some reason. I guess there is no avoiding turning into a curmudgeon with age!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

On service

I've written about service before in pieces of various posts. Service keeps the University running, and is essential to a functional department. However, the service load is distributed incredibly unevenly, which is a source of angst and frustration. I am the kind of person who likes to do a good job at the things I do, so I do put in quite a bit of effort in my service. This means I get asked for "favors" a lot. At this point, I've spent enough years at ProdigalU that I actually have (and can articulate) a service strategy that works for me.

1. Ignore the service slackers as best as you can
It is a truism that some people blow off service without any penalty, thus carving out more research time for themselves. This is incredibly and maddeningly frustrating to those of us who try to do a good job on service and STILL have the same sorts of research and teaching time pressures. This is exactly the same thing as those who blow off teaching (though we have very few of those in my department, to be honest), and I try my very best to ignore these facts as much as possible in my day to day life.

It is worth talking up your service contributions when merit raises are being considered. It is also worth bringing up service contributions when being asked for yet another "favor" from the Chair/Dean/whoever. Otherwise, I find that getting worked up about the unfairness of the service load is like getting worked up about the unfairness of life--yes, it is true, but getting frustrated and unhappy about it just hurts me and makes me more stressed out.

2. Try to pick up service obligations that you at least find interesting
No one really enjoys committee work, but it is much easier and more enjoyable to do committee work that 1) leads somewhere and 2) is at least somewhat interesting. I have enough years here to know which committees at the department level meet and do nothing vs. those that don't meet and do nothing vs. those that meet and get something done. I try to make all of my service tasks fall into categories 2 and 3.

Currently, my main service task does require a fair amount of effort, but it is vital to the department, and I can see the fruits of my labors pretty easily. I also enjoy the topic, and find it an interesting exercise. I don't really mind doing this sort of task, because it doesn't feel like wasting time. After my sabbatical, I asked to return to this position, because I would rather do service like this than many other possible options.

3. Since most people care about the department, but don't want to do the work themselves, they will follow your lead if you have a strong vision and can articulate it reasonably well
This is related to my point 2. One of the reasons I like my main service task is because it has a real impact on the department. In the course of doing my service tasks, I found that if I had an idea I wanted to implement, it was pretty easy to get people on board if I could explain the details clearly, concisely, and enthusiastically. Most people are aware when something is not working well, but don't necessarily want to solve the problem themselves. If you can give them a potential solution to back, most people are willing to give it a shot. This makes my work more enjoyable, since I know that my effort will go somewhere, and even better, that it is in the direction I think is best. As a result of my service position now (which concerns a topic I care about), I have an outsize say in some aspects of how our department works.

4. Saying yes to easy and/or interesting tasks helps you say no later to onerous or crazy-making ones
You have to say yes some of the time. You may as well say yes (or even volunteer) for some easy stuff, so that you can say with all honesty that you have a pretty full service load when future unpleasant tasks crop up. The last minute assignments are usually to difficult or frustrating things. May as well agree earlier to easier stuff.

5. People (even service slackers) do notice when you do service, so make sure they don't take advantage of you!
This may not be to your benefit (since it means people know who to ask for "favors"), but it is true. Everyone knows who the slackers are, even if there is no real penalty for being one. Having a reputation for doing the things you commit to and for getting things done is a good thing, even if there are no immediate rewards. That said, it is definitely possible to be taken advantage of. It is definitely possible to overdo it, and it took me a while to figure out when and how to say no. I think I am at a reasonable balance now, where I do enough useful service to keep things going (and feel like I am doing my part) without it being a major drain on my time. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Active learning in the classroom, flipped or otherwise

This started as a comment, but became a post when it started looking like a novel! There is a really interesting discussion going on at xykademiqz's blog in the comments section (starting here, where commenter idm asked about active learning). Xyk's comments about flipped classrooms sync with my experiences, namely that in a flipped classroom, the class covers less material AND that it is easy to screw it up so that the students learn nothing. While it is certainly possible to do a bad job in a lecture based class, I think it is harder to do it so badly that students may as well have not taken the course. In my field, less material per class means that even if done perfectly, flipping all the classes would mean that students either take much longer to a degree, or start out well behind colleagues coming from unflipped programs.

Like Xyk, I find it really irritating that active learning now means no lecturing. I find that I can get students to ask (and answer!) questions in class, even in a room of 200 students. In my lectures, I often stop and poll the students/get them to ask questions/have them set up or solve a problem/demo something or show them a video showing a concept in action, etc. Even an audience of researchers really excited about a topic loses focus if a seminar goes on too long. A lecture-based class does not necessarily mean the professor drones on for the full class time every time. (Also like Xyk, I was an extreme introvert as a student, and would have hated flipped classes and found it difficult to learn if I were forced to interact with others the whole time).

Another commenter (Alex) points out a really interesting study in physics, which suggests that students learn concepts better in a flipped classroom (consistent with most studies), but learn problem solving better in a lecture-based classroom. This is not too surprising to me. Students learn problem solving by wrestling with problems, and they do more of that as assigned homework in a traditional class than in the 150 minutes of problem solving in a flipped class. Plus, watching someone problem solve in a video is not the same thing as doing it live, where you can interrupt if you get lost or confused.

Back in the olden days when I was a student (which was well before flipped classes became a thing), some of my smaller, focused, upper level courses were taught in a hybrid style, where at least some of the class time was used for interactive problem solving (usually one student at the board working a previously assigned problem, with the class discussing the strategy and/or comparing strategies). This was really effective--I still remember some of those classes many years later, especially ones where I was at the board! This mania for flipping things also forces people for whom that style doesn't work well to go against their strengths, just as forcing everyone to lecture would hurt those for whom a more active/flipped learning teaching method is better. As with anything, there is a time and place for everything, and perhaps entry level STEM is not that time or place (at least for folks expected to have problem solving skills like scientists or engineers).

Monday, February 27, 2017

Can we return to funding stability?

In the olden days (i.e. for my PhD advisor) in the physical sciences, the funding strategy was simple--get in with a program officer at one of the major funding agencies for your bread and butter grant. Then supplement that with additional proposals. For ProdigalAdvisor, his core grant was DOE. As long as he was productive, the renewal of this grant was more or less guaranteed. It was enough money to support 2-3 students, or a student and a postdoc if budgeted carefully. He knew his PO well, and had regular contacts.

The upsides to this, compared to our current situation are obvious. First, having semi-permanent funding enables risk taking in other proposals, since they aren't make or break for the lab. It also means less time spent proposal writing and more time on other things. Next, it makes the disconnect between PhD time (5-6 years in my field) and grant time (usually 3 years) less painful, since it is unlikely that funding will end mid-PhD causing a shift in research topics midway through. Finally, the reduced mental overhead of near constant worry about funding improves pretty much everything. Because funding was not guaranteed without productivity (and POs do come and go), there was still pressure to produce, but not as acute, and not to the exclusion of all else. 

However, there were also significant downsides to this system. The main one is that it HEAVILY favored people hooked into the Old Boy Network, who could be introduced to the POs they need to network with to get into this kind of favorable funding situation. POs tended to stick to people who reminded them of themselves when younger, which suppressed diversity big time. It also heavily favored older established scientists (who were hooked up with semi-permanent renewals) over younger, upcoming scientists (who had to fight tooth and nail for funding until they could hook up with a PO willing to fund their careers). POs tended to stick with "their" stable of researchers, even past the point of when they were producing good science. Finally, it reduced the "nimbleness" of the funding agencies to change research directions and priorities as situations changed.

Is it possible to get the good of stability in funding without the bad of locking in the status quo for years and years? I don't really know. It seems that both systems were about equally likely to favor famous, established groups and also about equally meritocratic (though the optics now MIGHT look a little better now). Diversity is better now--the Old Boy Network is still present, but not quite as dominant. Risk taking in research is probably less common than before, due to the danger of being unfunded. There always were people who wanted to push the envelope/got bored with their current areas/were creative scientists of any age, but these people could get to stable situations in the past that are much more difficult to reach now. My PhD supervisor, with his semi-guaranteed DOE grant, was not a superstar with a megagroup. He was just a "normal" PI.

I am much, much more worried about funding than my advisor ever was. All of my colleagues are also worried. I spend a huge fraction of my time writing proposals, and I know I write many, many more than my advisor ever did (not just conjecture--we've discussed it since I moved to the TT). Both systems favor flashy science that can be packaged up and sold, and extroverted people with good networking skills, which doesn't necessarily correlate with important science and research talent, respectively. The modern funding schemes favor trend following, and rapidly move funding into and out of areas when they become hot and cold, which is not necessarily a good thing in basic research if we want to develop a deep understanding of something, which takes time. It sometimes seems to me like we moved the deck chairs around to generate at least the appearance of a more meritocratic, inclusive approach and called it progress, while forgetting that the quality of the experience for those in the system is also important.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Teaching a new class

The first time I taught a class, it took me (on average) 6-8 hours per hour of class time to prep, not including exam writing, homework assigning, or grading, which is obviously unsustainable. As I got more experienced with the material (and with teaching), I could drop this down to 30-45 minute per hour of class time. The first time I taught a new class, I was panicked to think I'd be back to 6-8 hours, but teaching itself is a learned skill, and I find it takes a lot less time to prep even new material.

Less time, that is, than 6-8 hours. It still takes me a long time to prep new material. I like to do a good job, so I try not to skimp on the class prep. Before I start a new course, I dread the extra work. It seems like a huge mountain of additional stuff I don't have time for. That said, I find that once I am into it, it goes faster than I fear, and I enjoy it. I like learning new things, and I find that having to explain things to students helps me deepen my understanding, even of material that I know fairly well. When the course includes things I haven't really used since I was a student, I find that my much deeper knowledge base now makes me appreciate things I glossed over as a student. It is still a ton of work, though.

My department here at ProdigalU does a good job protecting TT folks pre-tenure. Most people get to keep the courses they start with for their whole run to tenure. Post tenure, our department tries to give people a minimum of 3 years with a new course. However, since life happens (with emergencies and sabbaticals and family leaves and everything else), sometimes people have to shift more often.

I think it is important to rotate instructors. Not just from a fairness perspective (since we all know that some courses are more work than others), but from a teaching perspective as well. I find that 5-6 years is the ideal time for me to have a course before swapping. The first 2 years, I am still getting a feel for the material and how the students respond to it. I'd say I am at peak teaching performance (for me, anyway) in years 3 and 4. By year 5, I find that I am getting a bit stale in the class. Definitely by year 6, I am ready to move on.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Summer undergraduate research

'Tis the season for making summer plans, and undergrads are looking for research opportunities. I love having summer undergrads in the lab--they are usually super excited to be there, and I enjoy interacting with them. We've had great undergrad students in the lab so far. About a third of them end up co-authors on publications, which is win-win for everyone. I always ask my grad students if they want to mentor someone before signing them up for it, and many of my grad students ask for summer students even before I get to ask them about it first.

This year, for the first time, I am relying exclusively on interviews to decide on whether I will take a student or not. I have never been a huge believer that GPA is a good way to award these kinds of opportunities, so I thought I would put my money where my mouth is. With one caveat: I want students to be fairly compensated for the work they do in the lab, so low GPA students may need to figure out how they can do this (with my help, of course).

I strongly believe that students should receive cash or credit for research, which is after all, work. Since the coffers are a bit bare right now, I am telling all potential students that they must do one of the following: 1) meet the requirements to take research for credit (3.0 minimum GPA at ProdigalU) and sign up, or 2) apply for and receive a research award to cover at least half of their summer stipend, or 3) qualify for work-study so they can be partially paid through that program over the summer. This is something that actively troubles me, since while I don't WANT to have to consider GPA, with my funding situation the way it is, I have no choice. So far, half of the students I've interviewed are specifically looking for research for credit opportunities, since they are taking other classes anyway and would like to get some research experience as well. The other half plan on applying for summer fellowships.

We are fortunate because ProdigalU has loads of summer research fellowships students can apply for, but that usually doesn't help low GPA students. I haven't had any approach me yet about research this year, but if they don't qualify for work-study (and a large fraction of our students do), I will have to turn them away. I am not sure what to do about that--I literally don't have the money to pay full freight on an undergrad. At the same time, it is unfair to limit research opportunities to students wealthy enough to be able to volunteer. Summer research is a really different experience than undergrad research during the academic year when students are pulled in many directions by their classes. It is very sad that these possibly life-changing opportunities are pretty much the first thing to go when research money gets tight.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Scientists march on Washington

Just in case you haven't heard about it elsewhere. Please check out their website.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Tenure, job security, and academic freedom

Recently, loads of people inside and outside of academia have been calling for an end to tenure, saying essentially that is it outmoded job security that no one else has, so why should professors? The common counters to that include that tenure is part of the compensation package (true), that it keeps academic salaries down compared to scientists elsewhere (maybe, but I don't think so), that it is needed for shared governance to function via preventing administrative retaliation (probably). Many people ignore or downplay the academic freedom part, or associate it with teaching or with research in social science, arts, or the humanities rather than science or engineering.

I never bought this argument, especially in light of what happened with climate research. In the late 80's and early 90's, climate science was not controversial. Scientists did their thing, and no one got really upset (or even noticed much) about the results. But then climate change became news (and more obvious as lived experience), climate change denial became a thing, and more importantly, a thing associated with one of the parties in our two party system. Suddenly, people like Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli were investigating climate scientists like Michael Mann for fraud. And suddenly tenure meant something, at least for climate scientists.

There have always been political attempts to control research (I was even mentioned in one!) And now as per DrugMonkey we are here on day 4 of the Trump administration, which has now gagged EPA scientists and frozen EPA research grants, stopped USDA researchers from communicating with the public, and told HHS staff to stop external communications. The Trump administration is neither the first nor the last to actively interfere in the research enterprise, which makes the academic freedom guaranteed by tenure all the more important. We got complacent. Now we need to be vigilant.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What does it mean to be not cut out for PhD research?

Inspired by a comment from SEBASTIAN RAMIREZ on a previous post here, I started thinking about people I've met who have not been cut out for PhD research in various ways. Before joining the TT, I would have though this was an easy thing to determine. However, experience has shown that there are many things that can make a person not cut out for PhD research, some of which are harder to see than others (for both the student and the mentor). The stereotype is that people not cut out for a PhD either lack technical/intellectual skills or are lazy, and therefore this can be determined right away. However, I find that this is not usually why people leave our PhD program without a PhD (though it does happen, usually in the first year).

Lack of desire: This is the most common reason people leave our PhD program. I've seen plenty of people who like the idea of research but not the reality--some don't like the uncertainty (is there even an answer? will I ever find it?), some don't like the repetitiveness required to ensure reliable data, some don't like the large problem solving component, some don't like the required background reading/lit review and just want to do experiments. Some people think they like doing science, but actually just like reading about discoveries. Some people did well in their science classes and apply to grad school because they don't know what else to do (and at least they can get paid). Some people apply to grad school due to family pressure. Some people apply to grad school because it provides a way out of their country. Some of the people who start a PhD program without a direct desire to do research discover they enjoy it. Some don't.

People can fool themselves for quite a while about what they actually want, so students can be pretty far along when it becomes clear that they don't really want a PhD and/or dislike research. Sometimes they attempt to tough it out anyway to try to not "waste" time sunk into a degree or because they don't know what they want to do instead/family pressure/need the paycheck/don't want to leave the country. This doesn't always go well because it is difficult to keep working hard for something you don't really want when you also have no interest in the work.

Inability to mature as a researcher: Many of the students who leave our program with an MSc instead of a PhD have good lab and data analysis skills, but just cannot make the leap to doing PhD level work. This can be hard to spot until 2-3 years in, when students in the PhD program typically are driving their own projects. These students can design and complete experiments, but have difficulty deciding what experiments should be designed. The cliche way to put this is that these students can't see the forest for the trees, but this is not exactly it--they are not overwhelmed by details, or overly detail oriented, but they cannot see how their work fits into a big picture in a way that lets them run a project themselves. Sometimes PIs push these students through the PhD program, but that really isn't in their best interest, since future employers will expect PhD-holders to be capable of driving a project.

Need structure: This can be a huge issue. Students starting out get lots of help with planning and carrying out their research, plus they often start out doing some coursework. As students go further into a PhD program, students are expected to take on more and more of the planning and scheduling themselves. Classes (if any) are completed. Most of the days are wide open to get work done. Some people cannot be productive in an unstructured/unscheduled workday. Some people need deadlines--for these people, even the weekly deadline of group meeting or a progress meeting is not enough pressure to help them focus. Most PIs are not interested in having daily scheduled meetings with senior students (which can help people who need deadlines), but some will do frequent meetings. The lack of structured days needs to be solved by each person though. Sometimes, they just can't do it.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Common mistakes at the on campus interview

In honor of academic interview season, I thought I'd discuss a few common pitfalls I see candidates fall into on campus. Way back when I was interviewing, I made some of these mistakes myself, so I know how common a trap it can be. For those job hunting, xykademiqz has a great post on advice for Skype interviews, some of which carries over to on campus interviews as well.

The research talk: A good research talk will engage both experts and non-experts for at least a portion of the talk. It will also demonstrate your technical and research skills to the experts. Thus, it must have both breadth and depth. This is where I fell down in my first year interviewing. The most common mistake is to focus too much on depth (I did this), but it is equally problematic to focus too much on breadth (I've seen this) and not come across as an expert in anything.

The chalk talk: The chalk talk is hard, because it is unlike anything else most people have done in the past. One major issue is in presenting a bunch of projects that look like just a bunch of projects. From years of experience, most postdocs are used to thinking about their research in a project by project way. However, in the chalk talk, we want to see an outline of what the candidate's research program will look like over time. Pretty much all of the candidates invited to campus had some long term research plans in their research statements, but this needs to come out in the chalk talk as well. Our department wants to hire someone who will have a successful career, and that means making sure that the planned research leads somewhere beyond the immediate 3-5 year project horizon. What will your lab specialize in? When we discuss our new hire, what is the one sentence summary about your work that we will lead with?

Related to this issue is candidates who position themselves in competition with their previous groups. It is great that you love your current (or previous work). It is great that you can take it with you. HOWEVER, unless you can clearly articulate the differences between your approach and your supervisor's approach to non-experts, some in the audience will wonder if you will be successful in funding your work. Towards that end, a really common question is "why would a funding agency give you this money instead of your more established adviser?".  You need to have an answer.

The opposite problem (moving to a brand new area) can also be problematic. Without a track record, some will be reluctant to take a risk on a candidate. Also, proposals into a new area can come across as naive or not fully formed. Realistically, at ProdigalU we do consider the experience level of our applicants, so if one of three proposed projects in a new area comes across as naive or unrealistic for an inexperienced candidate, we are usually pretty forgiving if the other proposed projects are well done. This is particularly an issue for candidates trying to force their research to fit into a targeted job search, and it becomes obvious in the chalk talk unless the candidate is really interested in moving in that direction for the research's sake rather than just to get a job.

A final chalk talk issue is particularly common with those from large and well-funded groups. Really innovative research is a great attention grabber, but as a PI, you will have real students who really want a degree and therefore need to have some research success. You need to be able to articulate not just Plan A, but also Plans B and C for your projects, and also discuss what important (i.e. publishable) work will come out of your planned research directions even if the project is ultimately unsuccessful. There are no great rewards without risk, but you need to show some awareness of the other requirements of your research program (like that you will be training students, not just doing cutting edge research).

Personal interactions: Do not make flip or ironic remarks that could be misinterpreted (I did that when answering questions after my research talk my first year interviewing, and it was a mistake). Personal experience aside, every aspect of the visit is part of the interview, including the meals, the walks between offices, the interactions with non-academics, and the transportation to/from different locations! Be polite to everyone (including all staff members and students). Do not drink more than you can handle and remain in good control of yourself, regardless of how much your meal companions indulge. Do not make disparaging comments about pretty much any person, group, or place. Do not bring up politics as a topic of meal time conversation. I have seen candidates do all of these things, and it did not make a favorable impression.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Happy new year!

Happy new year to my readers! My science resolutions this year:

1.  Set aside regular time to just browse through the literature and read what is interesting, rather than directly useful.

2.  Spend more time with my undergraduate researchers. 

3.  Try to blog regularly.