Friday, December 11, 2009

Take a deep breath... and jump

Today is the big day, i.e., the day I tell my advisor I'm expecting (more than just data). Some potential conversation starters....

~Talk about research. Hopefully goes well. Followed by...~
Me: "So... Guess what. I'm pregnant."
Advisor: "Uh. Okay."

~Talk about research. Hopefully goes well. Followed by...~
Me: "There is one more piece of data I thought you might find interesting... I'm having a baby!"
Advisor: "Get out."

~Talk about research. Hopefully goes well. Followed by...~
Me: "Did you know data suggests a well-rounded, happy worker is a more productive worker? Speaking of rounded workers, I will be pretty round in the coming months..."
Advisor: "Are we done? I've got a meeting in 5 minutes."

~Talk about research. Hopefully goes well. Followed by...~
Me: "There was one more thing I wanted to share with you. I'm pregnant."
Advisor: "That's wonderful! Congratulations!"

Expected outcome: Unknown

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pregnant Postdoc

The cat is out of the bag...

At least to you guys. Is it wrong to post this on a blog before you even announce it "in the real world?"

Things I am stressed about:

- Balance. Duh.

- The future. A postdoc is so temporary (possibly even more temporary once I tell my advisor I'm pregnant). The unknown is scary because it's just so... unknowable.

- The baby's health. (I assume this is a normal mom worry, coupled with my typical worry-worting.)

- Reactions of my boss. Reactions of my labmates, peers, potential employers. Reactions of my boss. Reactions of my childless friends. Reactions of my boss, my old bosses, and other academics.

Things I am excited about:

- The baby.

- A new exciting chapter in my life.

- Announcing it to lifelong friends.

Stay tuned for freak outs, other excitement, and how the conversations go with my postdoctoral advisor. Yikes!

(p.s. Any words of encouragement or advice are welcome. Words of warning are just too darn late!)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanks for the little things

As we come upon the Thanksgiving holiday, I find I have one additional little thing to give thanks for. My postdoc advisor.

My advisor said to me today: "I'm so glad you decided to join my lab." This was after a discussion of what I've been up to recently.

Nevermind that I'm not sure it's deserved. Nevermind that I don't have piles of publishable data yet. Nevermind that I sometimes wonder whether I'll get my postdoc contract renewed next year.

For today that was a wonderful thing to hear.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hypocrisy is an ugly beast

I was very angry yesterday because my Ph.D. advisor let me down yet again. We do this dance every time I need a letter of recommendation. He says he'll write it, then he goes into a phone and email black hole until the day of the deadline (or after). I don't understand what's so hard about responding to someone's email and saying "I did see your email, and I will get back to you by ---." Is it really more effective to completely ignore the person, thereby stressing them out?

I should add that I try to keep my emails to a minimum and I'm very courteous and grateful in them. The last thing I want to do is piss him off. But how can he be too busy to meet a deadline he agreed to... and then I find out he's off camping? Everyone needs a break, but shouldn't you finish up your obligations beforehand?

So with a recent deadline for a fellowship, he as usual stopped picking up his phone and answering his emails. Then an hour before the website stops accepting submissions, he finally picked up his phone. (I always know he's done with a letter when he finally stops avoiding calls.) He said he was done and had submitted it. Except I had just called the fellowship office (shamefacedly) to ask if he had submitted, and they hadn't received anything from him. It turns out he had submitted a letter for something else by accident... and the deadline for that something was still a month off! So we went back to our little game until he finally submitted just before the deadline.

The several days leading up to the deadline were so stressful for me. I had worked hard to submit all my materials on time, all my other recommenders had submitted on time, and all I had was this missing letter from my advisor who was ignoring me completely. I think one thing that finally helped nudge his hand was when I called on a few friends who are still in his lab to go to his office and bug him in person. (The in person reminders were the only way I used to be able to get him to do anything when I was his student.)

I should also add that he once sent me a letter one week after a deadline. Luckily in that case it was something I could mail in and I had accounted for his usual irresponsible quirk by giving him a deadline that was a bit earlier than the actual. So I still managed to get the application in by overnighting it.

I think the thing that bothers me most is that he used to complain so much when I was a graduate student about how his students always leave him with unfinished papers and then he never hears back and has to do all the work, or else it's like pulling teeth to get them to respond. I have always been prompt to respond to his emails when we were publishing together. I even respond promptly to his current students who still periodically email me with questions about the apparatus I built. Hypocrisy is an ugly beast.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The 1-minute girl scout

I have been having a lot of fun recently contacting people with things I thought they might find handy. Here are a few illustrative examples in no particular order:

1. Suggested to a friend of mine at another university that he consider a post doc with Prof Y whose invited talk I went to and thoroughly enjoyed. It seemed like a perfect fit for my friend's interests, and a potentially great fit personality wise.
2. Found an article right up the alley of a science writer friend of mine and asked him if he'd like to get a copy (he did).
3. Told an assistant prof I know at another university about a grant program I think she'd benefit from.
4. Told a post doc friend of mine at yet another university about a job website I thought he'd find handy.
5. Sent a lawyer friend of mine who's struggling with work-life balance and family issues an article on the best family-friendly law firms in the country.

I basically just shot someone an email when I thought of them in conjunction with something I came across. Fyi, I use the term 'friend' above loosely. The thing that made this all fun and unusual is that I did this for people I don't usually see or speak to, but who I know or met at different points in my life. (I've always done this for people I see more regularly, but that's not the point here.)

I think some people would call this savvy.
Some would call it networking.
I just did it because it made me feel darn nice and useful.

And now I have all these people feeling like I'm thoughtful. Maybe one day they'll even send me something handy that comes on their radar. Sounds win-win to me!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pick your poison / antidote

I have heard many academics lament / complain about the hours they work, the lack of compensation given the hours, the loneliness of a job spent mostly writing grants, the pressure to wow your academic peers with your ingenuity (ie, very few professors have name brand recognition in their relative fields, and these few have a lucky cascade effect where their success means easier funding and prime pick of postdocs / students, which leads to more success and funding, etc...). Sure there are perks like flexibility (you get to decide which specific 60-100 hours of the week you want to work) and relative freedom to choose projects that interest you (assuming you can get funding for them). And for some there's also a joy in teaching / motivating students.

But are the tradeoffs worth it? Most graduate students leaving a PhD program clearly don't get that impression, hence, the massive influx of people into industrial jobs. Jobs which also have their pluses (high pay, no fund-raising responsibility) and minuses (some inevitable drudgery and boredom, longer total time at a lab bench before you have management authority relative to academia, more bosses to answer to, and less control over what questions to pursue). Notice I did not list hours. In general, the idea that industry is a 40 hour per week job for PhDs is a complete fallacy in my experience and in the experience of those I know. But in general it probably is still fewer hours than academia. I've also been asked by a friend to include opportunities for mentorship as a plus. For those PhD students who enjoy teaching and think they can only get that type of mentoring interaction in academia, there is actually plenty of opportunity as you advance to teach and motivate a team of people (not to mention some smart summer interns that flood large companies each year).

Notice I also left out "politicking" from both sets of lists. Though many students run from academia for precisely this reason, I think any job that involves human beings involves politicking. (I hold to this belief even more firmly after speaking with people in other fields such as ministry and non-profit orgs who have had similar experiences.) I will say that the brand of politics changes in industry. Many academics get away with more blunt statements than would generally be considered acceptable in a professional environment.

So what is the point of this post? Mainly it's just a haphazardly organized, mini-summary of some recent conversations I've had with students and faculty. I'd also be curious if anyone has any additional major points to add to the above mentioned pluses / minuses of industry versus academia.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What women can do to get ahead

There's an article called "Ten Things Companies - and Women - Can Do To Get Ahead" that I came across, and there's one particular item I found interesting that made #3 on the top 10 list for women. (If you're curious, the other 9 items were somewhat typical advice such as network, articulate your skills, have an elevator speech, etc.)

Item 3:
Dare to Apply: McKinsey, citing internal research from HP, found that "women apply for open jobs only if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed, whereas men respond to the posting if they feel they meet 60 percent of the requirements." That by itself, if it holds true across the corporate world, could be holding back a lot of talented women.

First it makes you wonder how the data was gathered (eg, an objective assessment of candidates' experience compared to the requirements for the job, versus a subjective self-assessment in which case some interesting gender self-perceptions affect the results).

But assuming for a moment we can believe these numbers, what does it tell us about women in general? (Yes, let us allow ourselves a little room for generalizations and stereotypes here.) A couple possibilities:

1. Women are less willing to face rejection / failure, ie, "I will only apply for a job I'm very likely to obtain."
2. Women take metrics much more literally and do not leave as much room for the nuances of what actually goes into hiring decisions, eg, "My background is in 'limes' not 'lemons' so I don't qualify."

It also makes me wonder if women would hold others to those same standards. For example, if a female hiring manager and a male hiring manager were both given the same candidate to interview who met 60% of the job requirements - would men be more likely to consider this adequate? Would women hold the candidate to a higher standard? Hmmm.....

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What women (don't) wear

A CNN article today reported on a declaration by an Egyptian cleric that women will NOT be allowed to wear an all-covering veil (niqab) anymore in areas of universities frequented only by women, eg, female dorms or all-female classes.

There is no specific reason given for this other than the speculation that it's meant to counter extremism. Also, the article mentions that there have been protests by women who choose to wear the niqab and are now being denied this right.

I for one don't understand why anyone has to dictate what a woman should or shouldn't wear. Although, you might play devil's advocate and ask if it would bother me if at the opposite extreme some women (or men) chose to attend university in the nude. I would personally find this distracting, though I don't think it would offend me as long as no one lingered in my "personal space" (which I assume would be of a much larger radius in this situation).

For now we will just satisfy ourselves with this quote from a cleaning lady who was apparently interviewed for this article:

"The niqab should be worn under two circumstances... A very beautiful woman should wear it to prevent men from fighting over her, and an ugly woman should wear it to hide her face."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Parenting pickle

Some graduate students were telling me about a student in their lab who attends conferences with her small child. They spoke of it with a slightly disparaging tone (only insomuch that they could still walk the fine line of being PC), and I couldn't help but feel sad that there was no sense of empathy for what it must be like to be that mom. Although it's possible she takes her child along because she wants more QT, I think it's more likely that she does it because there aren't too many alternatives. This made me think of other moms I'd heard of who take their children to conferences (a brave few I think given that I have yet to notice the presence of children at any conference I've attended). These are the reasons I've heard people give for doing so:

1. The child is small enough that it is still nursing
2. The cost of childcare is too high for students / post docs to leave the child with someone
3. The spouse works full-time and there is no nearby network of family / close friends who can watch the child

These are the reasons I've heard people give for why this is a terrible idea:

1. It makes it difficult for the mom to concentrate on the talks
2. It makes it difficult for anyone else in the same room to concentrate on the talks (I assume this mainly applies to louder children, or to people who are easily distracted because they hate/love babies)
3. It's unprofessional (I'm not sure what this means unless it means 'different than what's typically done by those in the profession,' in which case this is certainly true.)

I've also heard that some people will book an extra room for a grandparent / spouse who can watch the child during parts of the conference. (Some women have also been known to try this solution if they're nursing while going on job interviews.) This sounds like a great solution although it's somewhat cost prohibitive.

Long story short, I think people need to get over it when someone tries to live their life and balance their job in a way that isn't "the norm." The face of academia and the job market in general has been changing (slowly but surely) over the last few decades. I for one am excited about what this world will look like in another few decades. (Who knows, maybe they'll have temporary daycare available at conferences.)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ebb and Flow

I decided it would be interesting to quantitatively track my perspective on "desirability of an academic job" this week. First an intro as to why...

A graduate student I spoke with recently was surprised / disappointed when I told her that being a postdoc didn't automatically make you any more certain of your future and that many postdocs still wonder whether they really will end up in academia.

She said "darn! I was hoping to have the answers by then." But I had to tell her that, alas, just being 1 year (or N years) "wiser" doesn't mean you actually have all the answers. (In fact, many of the faculty I've spoken with echo the same sentiment of "still trying to figure it all out.")

And now to the plot! At the beginning and end of each day I recorded my desire to go into academia on a scale from 1 to 5 (Monday was retroactively averaged since I started this Tuesday).

1 = No way, Jose
5 = Academia, here I come!

A few observations:
~ Though my desire does fluctuate, the average is definitely a significant shift upwards relative to my theoretical plot from graduate school
~ In most cases I gave higher ratings at the end of the day. Apparently I enjoy working in my postdoc enough that it makes me want to stay in academia. (Or maybe I'm just not a morning person.)
~ I was surprised that specific events didn't always catalyze the ebbs and flows of my desire for an academic job. Rather a lot of the fluctuations were related to whether I was over-analyzing the future (as usual), was tired / cranky, was optimistic for no particular reason, etc.
~ I wonder what it would take for me to feel a "5" on any given day...

All in all, this was a rather fun and interesting self-reflection game, so I may play it again next week.

Notes on points A and B
A: Met with my advisor who was feeling overwhelmed. This was not for any reason related to me, but it still made me question my sanity in wanting an academic job.
Submitted a grant application for money I was unlikely to get, but it still felt good to get it off my plate!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Save the cheerleader, Save the nerd

An assistant professor said to me recently that there are two things that make his job particularly difficult, in ways he hadn't imagined before becoming a faculty member:

1. It's a lonely job, meaning he spends a lot of time sitting alone in his office and writing grants
2. There is no one cheerleading for him and telling him he's doing a great job. Most of the cheerleading comes from other assistant profs he knows, in the form of group commiseration.

I've heard before that writing is a fairly lonely event, but I picture myself getting up from my desk every few hours and doing something like speaking with a colleague down the hall, or visiting my students in the lab. I also figure there will be a somewhat large number of interruptions from students and visitors knocking on my door, which is something I will have to learn to manage.

What surprised me is that this faculty member felt like not having a cheerleader was one of the unexpected aspects of academia. Did he have a cheerleader during his graduate and postdoctoral work? If so, what planet is he from, and when can I visit?

I do find that most of the cheerleading that occurs in graduate school (and in the postdoctoral community) comes from friends and peers. It would be nice if more positive reinforcement trickled down from the faculty ranks, and I wonder if the lack is due to any of the following:

> Faculty don't have the time to spend on leadership tasks such as how to motivate and manage their team given their fundraising/ networking/ service obligations
> Faculty don't realize how helpful and motivational this type of support is
> Faculty don't care how helpful or motivational it is
> Faculty don't know how to motivate students in this way

I suppose the answer varies from faculty member to faculty member. I've seen very caring people who want to engage their students but lack the people skills to do so. I've seen faculty who couldn't care less about students. And I've also seen the rarer species of faculty who both care and are good at motivating students.

I think the moral of the story is don't rely on finding a cheerleader, but do keep close to you any friends / advisors / colleagues / family who fulfill this role. And most of all, work on becoming your own cheerleader, because we all have those days where we need a boost.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Can't talk the talk...

I heard an invited talk recently by a young professor from a MRU, and I was surprised by how poorly it went. A few characteristics of a poorly prepared / delivered talk:

  • The talk has no central theme / unclear introduction and motivation of the overarching scientific problem.
  • The speaker is unable to explain the data he/she is showing, not because it's at the frontier of what's known, but because they didn't think twice before including any and every bit of data their students emailed them.
  • The speaker's research area is in "X-Y engineering," but whenever they're talking about X and are asked a question they say "well, I'm not an expert in X" and regarding Y "I'm not an expert in Y." This makes me as an audience member wonder what exactly their expertise is.
  • There are many interruptions from the audience, not because they're excited, but because they're confused or just don't believe what's being presented.
  • The talk is going so poorly, that the speaker her/himself offers to stop before it's finished.

This particular talk fulfilled all of the above criteria. What surprised me most is that this person survived academia long enough to become a faculty member at a top MRU. How?!

And for those of you wondering if this person was just having an "off day," the professor's graduate students commented that this was fairly representative. Again, how is this possible?

On a broader note, many people comment on the lack of presentation skills possessed by people in the scientific community (think back to conferences you've attended where slides were too jam-packed or where half the audience was asleep or had their eyes glazed over). Content is of the utmost importance, but I wonder if we could all stand to learn a little more about how to effectively present that content, eg, by borrowing from disciplines (such as advertising) where presentation is king.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Diddle me this

Observations of a recent "budding romance" in the lab have led me to the conclusion that there is something fundamentally different between wooing in academia and other professional settings such as industry. There is much more overt sex talk in labs between graduate students. Though some of this may be a direct function of the age of the workers (and their lack of familiarity with sexual harassment training and lawsuits), I think there is something intrinsically casual about the academic workplace. Despite being paid to work, graduate students (and many postdocs) are essentially just continuing their already very long stint "in school." This means a lot of the casual aspects of school - dress, mannerisms, conversation topics - carry over.

My husband tells me that the same is true of topics other than sex, eg, religion and politics. There isn't nearly as much talk of anything contentious in typical workplaces.

Clearly, academia is not your typical workplace.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The grass is chartreuse on the other side?

Another postdoc told me that he can't wait to be done with academia. He's decided to go into industry instead. His reasons? He is tired of taking orders from someone (we'll come back to this). And he'd like to make more money (this one is obvious, so we won't come back to this, though a future blog with salary numbers may be in the works).

Tired of taking orders?

I happen to know his advisor and this is one of the most lenient, easy going faculty members you could hope to meet.

One of the biggest draws of the academy is that you can run your own show however you like (assuming you're able to procure funding). From what I've seen of industry, there is no end to the amount of middle management you have to answer to. This includes reasonable, smart people, but also many petty, political, possibly insane people. If anything, he will be taking many more orders from many more people.

So I told this postdoc that he's nuts. And I told him why. We'll see where he ends up...

A Ph.D. friend of mine who's in industry told me recently that the only reason academics complain about academia is because they've never been outside of it. I heartily agree.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Roll over, roll over...

...and they all rolled over?

My advisor wants us to bring a new undergrad in the lab for a project that is completely unrelated to anything any of the grad students or postdocs are working on. The idea is that I would do the hands-on mentoring, and an emeritus professor would get a chance to have some fun in his retirement by "overseeing" the project. Apparently I was chosen based on my potential to be a great mentor to this student.

My worries:

1. That I won't have time to add this to my growing list of projects. I doubt the emeritus professor will be very involved in the training that is required in teaching even basic lab skills to an inexperienced freshman/sophomore. Though I enjoy working with undergrads, I wish this student would at least be able to work on something that would be helpful for my project, thereby making it a more synergistic research relationship.

2. My advisor wants to give this undergrad his/her own lab space. I'm worried this is going to cause a huge stir in our lab since we're over capacity as is. I recently heard two grad students in a heated quarrel about chemical hood space, and I worry that there will neither be space nor tolerance of an undergrad taking up prime real estate.

We shall see how this goes! I plan to bring up these concerns with my advisor, but still oblige and mentor the student (I'm not sure I have the option to really say no anway).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Learnin' by doin'

"...they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end..." -Thoreau

This quote comes from Walden (which I'm currently reading), in a section where HD advocates students building their own [simple] school by hand rather than relying on expensive contractors, builders, etc. which only drives up the cost of education for future generations. More broadly, he's advocating for learning by doing. Another example is a student digging and smelting his own ore to make a jack-knife (and reading however much is required to accomplish this) rather than spending that same month attending lectures on metallurgy and getting a store-bought knife from Papa. He poses the question of which student has learned more by the end of that 1 month period.

This reminded me of the general structure of most engineering curriculums I've come across. Students spend a lot of time in the first 2-3 years learning book concepts, equations, and drawing simplified systems and solving them. It isn't until the final year or so that hands-on lab courses or group projects for engineering come into play. I think the argument is generally: You have to learn the basics to understand those hands-on projects. But I would argue that the high attrition rates in engineering come from the "dry" mode we adhere to in teaching concepts. For people who learn experientially (which is the majority of people), those connections would be make that much more concrete if they saw the actual physical representations of what those models and equations apply to.

I'd love to have the opportunity to introduce more hands-on learning into the courses I'll be teaching. Something to ponder for now...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Premature abstracts

I have been working on a conference abstract recently.

Background for those who are unfamiliar with how presenting at conferences works:
1) You find a scientific conference you're interested in attending
2) You typically present either a poster or at an oral session, so you find a session that best matches your research area
3) You submit an abstract (and sometimes a short paper) to your session's chair(s) online
4) When your abstract gets accepted (there's no strict entry guidelines for giant national conferences, so likely it will get accepted), you book your plane tix and go

The problem:
Abstract/paper submission is done many many months in advance of the actual conference, especially for the huge conferences.

Why this makes sense:
There would be no time for session chairs to review abstracts at large conferences otherwise. There would be no time to publish and bind conference programs listing presenters either.

Why this doesn't make sense:
No one has their data pre-packaged and ready to go half a year in advance. The general consensus is that you write vague, related stuff, or package up your old stuff and sprinkle in some predictions and findings. Then you make the science happen.

I think most would agree this is sub-optimal as far as proper scientific approach.

The other general consensus is that no one reads your abstract anyway, so no one will ever hold you to the fact that you said you'd present on "Monkey interactions with banana-shaped robots" when in actuality you end up presenting on "Robot-monkey love: evolving interface programming." Hey, at least they both involve robots and monkeys. (The crowd might be angrier if they showed up to hear about robots and monkeys and then you surprise them with a talk on "Groundhog habitats in space")

So why can't we come up with anything better than this system?

Here's one idea: Let's submit a short abstract half a year in advance to make the program coordinators and printers happy. Then we submit a real short paper/poster one week in advance of the conference- to be submitted and available only electronically. And we shall ponder whether or not this piece is optional...

Incidentally, when I said no one reads your abstract, I should add that the 2 biggest things people look at when choosing talks:
1) Who's giving it? (Famous professors win. You don't have to be one- it counts if they're a co-author)
2) What's the title? (Relevance and sex-appeal, ie, a currently trendy topic wins)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A little experiment on goal progress

Ever wonder where the time goes? Ever wonder how you're going to reach all your publishing/ research goals?

I sure do.

Something I tried for a while in grad school, and am now planning on resurrecting:
Goal Progress file

I will update this document daily with what I achieved, where I made progress, and generally which of my projects received my time. That is for my professional goals. I will also have a personal goals section to highlight the things I think are really important - Did I help build the confidence of any grad students, eg, encouraging them? Did I make someone smile or feel less stress that day? Did I have any positive beneficial impact on a fellow living being? (I think these latter goals can be harder to reach, but they make life worthwhile.)

I used to keep this file (minus the personal goals section) in my last couple years of grad school, and I found it kept me motivated. Instead of thinking "I accomplished nothing!" I was able to look back and see how my time was spent. It also kept me more accountable to myself, so that I didn't waste as much time or procrastinate as often.

I'll do this for a couple weeks then post on whether it helped keep me positive and productive.

Academia -> Industry -> Academia

A recent question from muddled grad:
"How difficult/easy is it to go back to academia if you do an industry stint? Does it make a difference on what type of job it was."

I think this depends on your industry stint. If it's research-based and you publish while you are there, it's significantly easier. Otherwise, the sooner you return the better. I know another woman who worked in industry and decided to return to an academic post doc after 2 years. It's definitely doable if you:
(a) maintain your academic network
(b) don't wait too long

The latter comment is due to the notion that your area of expertise (and possibly your lab skills) will be rusty if you leave for a decade. I've heard 1-2 years is not an unreasonable leave period. Also realize that you can always take a "step down" if the openings are hard to find. Eg, if you're at a rank 2 university, it may be easier to secure a post doc at a rank 25 university, even if you've been out of academia for a few years. Still, don't wait til you're 65 to make the switch. (Personally I found leaving for a bit made it easier for me to realize what I wanted to do. When I came back to academia, it was with renewed energy and insight.)

I think the harder thing is women who leave academia to raise a family and then would like a way back in once their children are old enough. This is a significant problem, and one I think deserves more attention.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The flip side of the coin

Variable substitution:
Jean Luc Picard = post doc
Diana Troy = young grad student

By chance today I happened to hear the other side of the "young grad student versus post doc" argument I posted about yesterday. Jean Luc (unsolicited mind you) told me that Diana had been very possessive of a certain piece of equipment (Enterprise's food replicator?) she has just taken over from a graduating Ph.D. student. This posed a problem for Jean Luc, who had trained his undergrad to use the replicator. Now Diana wanted Jean Luc's undergrad to minimize her time on the replicator (in Jean Luc's words "stop using it").

My guess is Jean Luc's snide remark to Diana about her work hours was meant to say, "Hey, be more flexible. My undergrad needs to replicate food too." But he was annoyed so it came out as "Hey, if you actually worked longer hours, this wouldn't be a problem. As a grad student you should be putting in 14-hour days."

Moral of the story for me: Both Jean Luc and Diana seem like nice, reasonable people. Wires get crossed and people misspeak, leading to hurt feelings (the main cause for spaceship tension). I for one regret the feeling of annoyance I had towards Jean Luc when I heard only Diana's side of the story yesterday. Just goes to show there's no point in jumping to conclusions and judging people negatively!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

This ain't no 40 hr/wk job

One of the youngest women in our lab came to me recently with a question about work hours in graduate school. She said that one of the postdocs in our lab had told her that as a graduate student she should be working 14-hour days. She said that he had said this to her on more than one occasion, and it made her feel bad about herself. (Note: I have no idea how many hours this young woman actually works.)

I told her that she should set her own metric and make sure she was proud of herself (this works well for driven, smart people, which she seems to be), but that didn't mean there was a certain number of hours that she needed to meet to be "good enough." I also told her a story that a faculty member had shared with me about how in grad school she was in lab less than some of the men in her group, but then again those guys liked to "shoot the breeze" and play cards while in lab, so she ended up being significantly more productive even though she was in lab less. I also told her I thought that the postdoc's advice would be better suited for those grad students who never show up in lab (the unfortunate, lazy few).

I think what annoyed me most about this whole situation is that I know postdoc X who had tried to guilt trip this young woman had felt rather unhappy through most of his graduate school experience. He had confessed on a separate occasion to me that he felt that he missed out on a lot. So why would he then encourage this same compulsion in someone else?

My feeling on the matter is that some (competitive) people are overly concerned about hours worked (I remember a guy in grad school who only ever seemed interested in reporting to me the number of hours he had spent in lab last week). Young grad students are very interested in proving that they're working hard, which is great. But if you are hoping that someone (even your advisor) will take notice and praise you for your long hours, you will likely be disappointed. People are impressed by output which, as I have seen time and time again, does not always correlate with hours spent in lab. That being said, fundamental research is time-consuming, and I have yet to meet anyone who can do it successfully in 40 hours a week. But as with anything else, if you're enjoying it, and if you allow yourself to be driven by excitement instead of stress, this will not be a significant issue. Part of maintaining excitement is realizing that there is more to life, and that you're allowed to (and should!) pursue things that matter to you outside of lab.

So set your goals high, but realize that you are allowed to enjoy the rest of your life (friends, hobbies, etc.) too! Science and academia can and should be part of a balanced, happy, interesting life.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

My path after grad school

Muddled grad asked about my grad school experiences, which I think is a cornucopia of blog topics. I think for tonight I'll comment a little on my path at the end of grad school, and how I ended up being a postdoc. In my 2nd to last year of grad school, it became obvious to me that I had no idea what I wanted to do. Academia can be a very disillusioning experience (at least it was for me and 90% of the grad students I knew at MRU 2), but there was part of me that was still very interested. So I half-heartedly started pursuing both industry and academic jobs, getting to the point where I started securing interviews for industry positions, and where I had contacts at a variety of teaching-oriented colleges in academia. (I enjoyed teaching during graduate school and figured I could focus on that positive aspect of an experience I was otherwise eager to wind up. Most everyone is ready for that light at the end of the dissertation tunnel!)

And then I got offered a very very well paid job. A real job. Not in academia, but so tempting nonetheless, especially based on its geographic location.

So I took it.

It didn't take me long to realize that I wanted back in academia. This was no clear cut decision, but rather one I arrived at after much anxiety and hardship. So I quit my job and found a postdoc (a topic for later discussion).

Now here I am at MRU 3. With my tiny postdoc salary. I would have been shocked if you told me I would be here back when I was in grad school. I left academia partially because I was so tired of bench science. I still am, but I realize it's a very short-term tradeoff for a career that has nothing to do with being at the bench, but more about dreaming up exciting new scientific ideas, getting others enthused about them (both students and funders), and then communicating that to the world. Academia, at its core, is truly beautiful. (Nevermind that some people pervert the system for their own selfish gains, or forget that our institutions are about people and knowledge, not mundane papers that lack creativity.) And I'm fairly confident in my desire to have a research academic position rather than a teaching one (see my earlier post "To teach or not to teach").

I think my decision to leave academia and then come back may have been one of the best decisions I made. I feel more invigorated about my research plans than I did coming straight out of grad school. In fact, a friend of mine who has stayed the "true path" from undergrad through obtaining his assistant professorship is just about burnt out. As I've heard a few faculty say, "make sure you don't peak early." So I hope I have enough reserve fuels to peak in the next few years instead. :) This does not mean I have rid myself of self-doubt or that every day is sunshine and rainbows (and I think it would be helpful if I posted about some of those not-so-sunny days too).

Bottom line: Life is a journey with unexpected turns, and I've found that patience, dogged persistence, and humor (not taking ourselves too seriously) go a long way.

Academic star accused of gender cheating...

I just read a CNN news article about South African running star Caster Semenya, who had an astounding victory in the women's world 800 meters. Apparently the sport's governing body is now asking for her gender to be verified. I'm assuming there must be something to this other than her masculine build, but the article sparked a "what if..." thought for me.

What if a female academic who was a rising superstar had to be gender tested to make sure she's not a man? You could hear some fogey saying "Hmmm, she's far too good to be a woman."

This gender cheating idea just struck me as (sad but) funny.

I'm guessing the gender testing involves a lot more than simple physical evidence, eg hormonal tests. And they can always just ask our parents...

In the case of Semenya, they turned to her father who said, "She is my little girl. I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times."

I have never doubted her gender. It must be so odd as a parent to have to answer this question.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The boy who cried sex

It's a bit unusual for me to blog twice in one day, but I thought this was worth commenting on. There have been various experiences in my tenure as a femgineer where a man/boy made strange and uncomfortable sexual comments or sexist comments to me. I am differentiating between the two because in case (a), sexual comments, the intent is generally solicitous. And in case (b), sexist comments, the intent is generally to put me "in my place." Of course there are many examples of sexual comments where the intent is also to put someone in their place and make them feel weak.

I may blog at another time about some of the other situations I've been in, but a couple recent examples come to mind. These occurred at a professional networking event.

Scenario 1. A senior male professor telling me about the raunchy sexual exploits of faculty he knows, and on a separate occasion asking me my age and saying that it was sexy (I think his point just being that I was younger than him).

Scenario 2. A post doc sidling up next to me and addressing me with a tone and body language I didn't much care for. Sometimes these things can be quite subtle. There was a recent Forbes article about "The 'New' Sexual Harassment" (8/6/09) that discusses some of the new workplace power plays. Generally, if your instinct says something is wrong, then I think it's probably a good idea to distance yourself from the person.

Now for my reactions in the above situations (note, this is not meant to be advice on dealing with these situations, but rather me documenting my response in both scenarios):

Response 1. Began with nervous laughter and trying to play the conversation off. At some point his story got a bit too far for my sensibilities and my expression and body language conveyed complete shock. That sent him the message and he stopped immediately. Thank goodness, because I think there are scenarios where the person never gets the message. The worst part for me is that this professor is a key figure at a university I'm quite interested in, which may be the reason I didn't just pour cold water on his head.

Response 2. I was much less patient with this young fellow even though he did nothing overtly sexual. I steered the conversation to research and began questioning him about his topic. He went from being hesitant to engage me, to being shocked that my questions where intelligent, to being eager to get my ideas and saying "you seem very knowledgeable about this." That was a pretty successful conclusion for me. He not only got the "buzz off" vibe but also hopefully has a sense that women are worth taking seriously on academic topics.

Some women I know are more confrontational in these types of situations. I always think of the phrase "Would you rather be right, or would you rather be effective?" And I try to behave accordingly, even if it means trying to reason with someone who does something unreasonable.

Does anyone else have examples of sexist / sexual comments from their peers?

Put your money where your math is

There was a CNN Money article today about engineers topping the salary charts. For the sake of brevity, I will only list the top 3 salaries, as well as the last one in the list of 15 top-earning degrees. This should give you an idea of the spread.

1. Petroleum Engineering - $83k
2. Chemical Engineering - $65k
3. Mining Engineering - $64k
15. Construction Management - $53k

First thing that hit me - sticker shock. Wow, it sure pays to be in oil recovery.

Second thing that hit me - article said that people studying English, Communications, Social Work, or other similar social science and liberal arts disciples can expect an average offer of $29-35k. Wow, this is similar to what engineering grad students and post docs get paid.

The general idea of the article was that math skills are still in high demand and in short supply ("engineering and computer science each make up about 4% of all college graduates"). So score 1 for you engineers out there! (If you're reading this blog you might be interested in academia... Not the best get-rich-quick plan, fyi. Though I still think it's worth the trade-off.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Rewinding the years

Let's rewind to a time when Femgineer, Ph.D. was a hopeful but unsure young engineering student. Unsure about what to do with an engineering degree, unsure about whether she could "make it" in this tough major, unsure of whether it was fair that she was always working on HUGE problem sets, while her friends in the social sciences and humanities seemed to have a lot more play time in the evenings and weekends.

Top 5 things Femgineer, Ph.D.-to-be found useful at this earliest stage of her engineering career:

5. Sit in the front of the lecture room to maximize your cerebral intake. Take detailed notes of what the prof says as well as writes. Go to office hours for both the teaching assistants and professors. Talk to people. Your letters of recommendation will sound a lot more convincing if the people writing them spoke to you about your interests.

4. Spend your summers productively, for example, taking internships as early as possible. Even an unpaid lab stint can give you significant experience that you can leverage to get the next opportunity.

3. Try to incorporate research units into your school year experience. This will help you decide if you want to pursue a research path, and help you figure out what interests you.

2. Talk to as many people as possible about your potential career interests. Listen to all the advice, don't stress too much about the factors involved in making the decision, then move forward.

1. You absolutely can make it. Engineering only seems hard before you understand it. In actuality, it is a rigorously logical, beautiful, versatile training.

Maybe next time we can discuss what's useful to think about in the junior and senior years of an undergraduate education, eg, how to decide grad school versus industry, how to pick graduate programs, fellowships, etc....

Hope this was helpful Possible Scientist! If you have any specific questions that arise as you start your undergraduate education, feel free to ask them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Research proposal for faculty interviews

I find myself very motivated to blog about something (hopefully) useful now that I have an additional non-anonymous blog follower. (Hello Possible Scientist- are you "possible" because you are trying to choose an academic major or a career?) After some contention, I decided to write about something I'm currently working on - my research proposal for faculty interviews. (Other contenders for today's topic were "What draws me to academia" and "Why I chose to come back to academia," which I think are still worth musing about another day.) This is one of the components (in addition to your teaching statement, CV, and letters of rec) of a faculty job application. From my experience, grad students don't receive much training from their MRU/advisor on how to construct one, so I've been learning about it on the fly.

I am still a novice trying to hack out my ideas, but I'll share what I've learned so far about the process (primarily via a conversation with a recent assistant prof, and my wonderfully helpful postdoctoral advisor - not being sarcastic here):

1. Keep it short
Somewhere between 5-15 pages (sorry for the range, but people have had very different opinions of this). 5 pages is the most anyone is likely to read. Some people do a more extensive review of the current body of knowledge in their proposed field- hence, the 15 pages. In general, people will read your intro and then skip to your pictures. (Because unfortunately they have many other candidates to consider too!)

2. Make it (visually) edible
Specifically, this means lots of headings that make things easier to read, and a picture on either every or every other page (again people's tastes differ)

3. Name names
Your audience will want to know that you've done your homework and can reference every major player in your field or related to your field. God forbid one of those players be in the department you're applying to, and then gets to your list of references only to find their work has been omitted. Kiss of death!

4. Don't be diffuse
It's great to be excited. It's not great to be excited about 50 different directions. Show that you have a vision and a plan, and that your specific background is perfect for this research.

My experience with writing my proposal has been a bit of a RolLeR cOaStEr. It was so choppy and horrible at first. Then I went back and filled in some gaps and included some much needed linkages and structure. I reread the next day and was quite happy with this early draft. (It was more like - "wait, who wrote this? it doesn't sound horrible!" - surprise followed by pat on the back.)

Current status: Much work to be done, especially since I only addressed 1 out of 3 of my proposed research areas. My advisor says I need to emphasize why I think this field is going to keep growing (see earlier post about over-crowded field), and highlight my specific place in it. To be continued!

Friday, July 31, 2009

And I'm supposed to do this for a living?

I am taking a mid-work break to vent (and procrastinate). I have been working on a proposal now for some time, and have come across the following problems (some perceived, some real). For the sake of being specifically vague (can you be vaguely specific?), let's create a variable x and make an assumption that x = my current research. Let's further make an interesting (entirely fantastical) substitution and say x = animal hybrid breeding.

Now back to my proposal problems:

1. My research area is chock full of over-zealous scientists.
Lab A is working on monkey-rabbit breeding, Lab B is trying to get the same genetics down but maybe with hamster instead of rabbit ears grafted on, Lab C is trying to weld bananas to rabbits and call them "monkey-esque".

You get the picture.

My research interests are in dog-monkey hybrids because, let's face it, dogs could only become cooler as pets if they have prehensile tails.

My worry: That the general field of animal hybrid breeding is too crowded for a new player, especially one who isn't willing to sharpen her elbows.

2. I have brain block.
I wrote one paragraph, was super proud of myself, and then sat there for another hour, just staring at my screen and piles of data.

My worry: Being a professor is 90% about writing, especially proposals. How am I supposed to do this for a living if I can't even do it when there's not the added pressure of needing to support my graduate students

So with all of this worrying, and thoughts of failure, what do you think happened?

Fate interceded. Or rather I chose to interpret it that way.

I passed a doodle on a wall (no kidding) that had the following words, boldly but simply inscribed in awkward handwriting, and underlined twice:

"Work hard today."

Gods of academia, thy will be done. I won't give up, no matter how poorly phrased and ill-constructed this current first draft is!
I will think hard,
dream hard,
and maybe even write.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

To you - my biggest fan

I was informed today that I actually have a non-anonymous follower of my blog. (Surprising someone would have to tell me this. Not so web savvy are we?) This instantly lit up my day after hours of poring over journal articles to the point of mind-numbing exhaustion. Funny how little things get us going. For all I know 'muddled grad' clicked on 'follow' by accident and will never again visit my blog to hear how my postdoctoral travails are going. For all I know 'muddled grad' is one of my labmates, intent on posting clever retorts to my flailing attempts at societal commentary.

But I digress.

The real point here is thank you. Yes, YOU, muddled grad, for being muddled enough to care to follow a muddled postdoc. For you, I include tonight's tidbit:

According to recent statistics from the NSF, women make up two-thirds of psychologists, less than half of biological and life scientists, a quarter of mathematical and computer scientists, and just one-tenth of engineers.

Bottom line: hang in there and we may just be able to scooch those numbers up.

The ultimate mediator

There was a CNN article today called "Obama, professor, officer sit down over brews". (If you don't know that this involves a potentially racial incident between a cop and a black Harvard professor... well, kindly remove your head from the sand.)

Where was Obama when I needed a sit-down with my advisor? Ah, so many troubles could be averted if the President of the US would just have a beer and mediate.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Not In my Head

I am applying for my first NIH grant soon, and am quite nervous about it. From what I've heard, it's a bit like trying to get into an exclusive club, except I don't think I'm wearing the right club attire, and I'm not cool enough to know the bouncer at the door. We shall see if this impression is all in my head. Wish me luck!

This also reminds me that "grant writing" is a seriously under-addressed topic in graduate school. I think more faculty members should make a concerted effort to include their students in the process, especially those students who express an interest in academic careers.

Friday, June 5, 2009

My middle school teacher drives a porsche

Interesting NY Times article (Elissa Gootman, "Value of $125,000-a-year teachers") today about a charter school experiment in which engaging, outstanding teachers were hand-picked to be part of an 8-teacher "dream team", working with students who were lottery-chosen with a preference towards underachieving students. The idea of the experiment is to address questions about the role of a good teacher in the classroom, and whether massive salary increases will encourage recruitment and retention of these individuals.

What makes an "engaging, outstanding" teacher? Well, engagement is measured by the ability to command student respect and also entice their immersion in the learning process (there are other formal pedagogical definitions out there if you're interested). The teachers are also stand-out in terms of their backgrounds... a Harvard graduate, a previous coach of the LA Lakers, etc. I believe they're also all current educators and were observed in the classroom as part of the hiring process.

My only remark is that, while I realize how difficult such a program would be to implement on a national scale, I think it's a terrific idea. We need innovative approaches to get us out of our over-burdened, bureaucratic ways. It reminds me of an Obama call to reward innovative solutions to pressing social problems ( If we did pay a little more attention to improving something as key to our social foundation as education, we would stand to benefit significantly. You've heard it before- lower crime, more innovation leading to more and better jobs, more civil engagement. There's even a study called "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools" (McKinsey) that found if the US were to close the gap between our educational achievement levels and those of the top-performers (Finland, Korea), our 2008 GDP could have been $1.3-2.3 trillion higher. Yes, trillion. That's a 9-16% increase.

Reading about this topic (an oldie, but a goodie), you see that one (of the many) factors involved in our wealthy nation's lack of K-12 excellence is the "social status" attributed to teaching. Teaching is not considered a prestigious position the way law or medicine is. Studies have found that beyond the lack of financial incentive, people who have a natural gift and inclination towards teaching will pass this up for more socially prestigious roles. I know many people personally who have PhDs from top schools, love teaching, but would consider it just a "fall back" profession. I even remember my high school English teacher specifically saying - "never go into teaching! It should be a fall-back profession." This coming from a man who was very successful and innovative in the classroom.

Who knows what would happen if we starting treating professions with respect merited by their long-term contribution to society (what could be more impactful than shaping future generations?). For example, a teacher being considered a profession of great honor as opposed to, say, a lawyer or investment banker (no offense to my friends in those professions!). We would also need more training and investment in teaching so that it really would be seen as a highly skilled job.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

None for you

An ambitious, talented, narrowly focused postdoc I work with, let's call him High-horse (HH), recently took it upon himself to give me some generous advice. Knowing I was interested in applying for postdoctoral fellowships to support my work next year, HH told me not to bother. He said they're very hard to get, and I shouldn't count on it. I wanted to point out that HH had managed to acquire just such a fellowship. But I suppose all these fellowships must be limited to postdocs named HH who are brimming with condescending advice.

Yes, I still plan on applying.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Oscillation and Deprecation

FAEP (see my blog list) recently posted about oscillating between feeling on top of the world and overwhelmed in her assistant professorship. I remember feeling the same swings in graduate school, and I used to tell myself that it meant I was exactly in the right place. I think being in a stimulating environment is worth the trade-off in self-confidence from time to time (or else maybe I'm just a sucker for punishment). Otherwise why would I keep running back to just such an environment despite the lack of $$? This is in contrast to my experiences in industry where at times I felt so bored I would literally start counting down the days until my internship was over (this was after I had already bugged every manager into giving me extra projects to keep me busy). [In general, it seemed that the size of the company scales proportionally with the time workers spend just browsing the web and their personal email. I suppose that's what happens when you have so many levels of bureaucracy that everything slows to an over-engineered trickle of progress.]

On another note, I'm not sure I've heard any men (even incompetent ones) express the lack of self-confidence that seems to plague so many of the talented women I know. A friend of mine told me about a woman she admires who has an MD from Harvard Med School, a PhD from MIT, successfully leads an amazing research program, and still is self-deprecating. Another accomplished woman I know, a full professor at a top MRU, called herself a loser once for what she considered a publication rate that wasn't good enough. I was thinking, man, if you're a loser, the rest of us might as well quit and go home!! Humility is a wonderful trait but it has limits. I wonder if there's something to be said for women needing to be able to show confidence more often, even if they're just faking it for the sake of all of those who look up to them.

That being said, I often share my past insecurities with young students when they seem to need it. I think it helps them relate to me, and builds them up. Maybe the moral here is to be more aware of how we present our insecurities to the world (eg, yes when it helps students, no when it's presenting your research to a room full of faculty).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Assumptions make an arse out of you and some guy named Mptions

  1. To strengthen with new evidence or facts
  2. To declare solemnly as true
  3. To support or encourage

I had no intention of posting today until I read several opinion pieces on Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Rather than rehash everything in detail, I'll just say some people see the issue as:
  • "It's about time we had Latino representation on the Court. Sotomayor is an accomplished woman and will help set the stage for a fairer, more representative government."
  • "This is clearly an affirmative action hire, ie, reverse racism. If you look at her records and lawyers who have been in court with her, she does not have the same level of brilliance or ability as other Supreme Court judges. We are watering down our ideals of justice by making decisions rooted in the color of someone's skin."

I want to for a moment step back and look at similar comments about women in academia. Some men believe that anything good that comes a woman's way is because of her gender. I was told by a labmate of mine that Woman Y received an NSF grad fellowship "probably because she's black and female." I asked him whether he knew how well she did in school and whether her fellowship MIGHT be because of her academic performance, and he confessed that he didn't know about her background. Sooo... why the hell would he make such a stupid assumption?

Men I've worked with have made similar assumptions about me. Luckily I've never had to wonder whether I or the talented women I know were granted awards because we're women... we were too busy kicking butt in courses and intellectual ideas. It's amazing to me that a man who has a significantly lower GPA in undergrad can still think the reason a woman received the fellowship he didn't is because of her gender, rather than the fact that she graduated at the top of her class. (And people claim women are the illogical ones?)

There are awards out there geared towards encouraging women and minorities in underrepresented fields like science and engineering. Would I accept such an award / fellowship if it were offered me? For example to help with my lab start-up costs when I become a faculty member? Yes! Just as any man would. But I do sometimes wonder whether setting up these enablers will just lead to "those on the outside" assuming we couldn't have made it without the added help, or that somehow we're just not innately "good enough". I've heard African Americans voice similar concerns about affirmative action repercussions (and then take cover as every liberal minded academic accuses them of treason for voicing any such concerns). Thoughts?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

To teach or not to teach

During my time at illustrious (major research university) MRU 2, I began to think that I would love a teaching career at one of the top teaching colleges in the nation. This is not to say I don't enjoy and excel in research. But there is something about having the product of my labor being illuminated young minds that is many times more rewarding than simply seeing my name on yet another journal publication. I love that "ah hah!" moment students studying science get when their eyes light up and a subject they once feared is now exciting and rewarding-- and I love helping them get there.

A recent conversation with a young assistant professor in the physical sciences at a top liberal arts college put this to question. I asked him what aspects of his job he would change and his answer was "I would teach less, and I would want more resources to do my research." Needless to say, this made me think "That sounds a lot like an MRU faculty position... why did you come here?" The truth is, Professor X is not the first to make comments like these. Many colleges that were once teaching oriented now have significant research requirements for tenure (poorly communicated requirements I should add on the suggestion of Professor X). Without the financial support or the reduced teaching load of an MRU (eg, 3 courses versus 1 taught per semester... anyone who has taught knows how incredibly time-consuming a 3 course load would be), faculty scramble to teach, grade, meet with students, apply for grants, run research (more hands-on at teaching colleges), and do the various service activities required of them. Having spoken to several faculty members at top liberal arts colleges, I'm convinced this is a more time-consuming position with worse work-life balance than that at any MRU I've experienced. Thoughts?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Paula Cole and Pay Day

There is a lot of buzz about the stimulus funding and what it's going to mean for grant organizations like NSF and NIH. I can't tell you the number of eager scientists I've seen drooling over this rainfall after a recent, painful drought. One of the positive ramifications of increased scientific investment by the federal government is that universities will be able to once again open their doors and begin hiring (thank God! and Congress?). It's also a nice "change of pace" for orgs like NIH who haven't seen a budget increase since 2002 (AACR Cancer Policy Monitor - March 2009).

What I want to focus on is the buzz about tripling the number of prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowships granted. This is huge. Having a big fellowship opens a lot of doors. You can essentially work for whoever and on whatever project you want (assuming you also have an ounce of drive and another ounce of smooth-talking to go with your fellowship). Lovely stuff free labor is. So. More cheap graduate students means the potential for a department to accept more students in the first place. Which means more PhDs potentially graduating in ~5+ years. Which means more PhDs on the labor market.

Hmmm.... where will all the PhDs go? Academic jobs are getting increasingly competitive and hard to come by. As faculty at top tier places retire (and are replaced by overzealous, freakily energetic assistant professors), more and more of the talent is getting pushed into the lower ranked universities. Somewhere along the line all the top tier grads will fill these positions too, funding will be easier to come by as a result of the even distribution of talent, and we'll all equalize so that the same 5 universities aren't the only ones who play musical chairs for the top ranked spots. (My high school english teacher just rolled over in her grave because of that sentence.) Okay, this is all waaaay down the line. Regardless, outside of academia, industry isn't hiring PhDs at the same rate they were a couple decades ago. R&D is too big of an investment and everyone is cutting back (the relationship is inversely proportional to the change in America's average waistline... someone should investigate. NIH Challenge Grant anyone?). So again I'm left to wonder... where will all the PhDs gooooo? (cue Paula Cole music)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Stalled academic

I'm reading a book right now called "Challenges of the Faculty Career for Women" by Philipsen (I was just thinking how interesting it would be if the author was a man instead of a woman... would that be perceived as kosher? Do you have to be part of a minority / underrepresented group to "safely" make comments?)

The author interviewed female faculty at various stages of their careers across various academic settings (from community college to major research universities). One particular late-career academic, speaking on the topic of attaining "balance," said 'I have accepted, although it still hurts, that I will not be promoted, and that I will retire as an associate professor.' I guess something had to give and she decided to sacrifice some career aspirations for fulfillment in other aspects of her life.

This reminded me of a recent conversation I had on this same topic with an assistant professor. She said that a faculty member in her department had decided, after receiving tenure, to focus on teaching and give up research altogether. This "ensured that she will never advance beyond associate professor." Unlike another professor I know, whose department ostracized him after a similar decision (yes, he's at an MRU), this woman's department was happy to have someone take on more of the "unwanted teaching burden."

I don't want to open a whole can of worms here, but I do remember at my previous MRU that there was a lot of (inconclusive) talk about starting 2 separate tenure tracks in each department - teaching and research. The idea is everone gets to do what they love, and you don't have bad teachers teaching or bad researchers researching. A topic worth revisiting later...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Intro to femgineering

So I recently came across Female Science Professor's blog, and as a mentor-starved femgineer, I sat there for a couple hours reading about the wonders that (hopefully) lie ahead of me in academic life (yes, I started reading at the 1st blog entry). I then thought to myself, hey, maybe someone would care about the early career travails and successes of a female scientist. I know I question other women every chance I get about their choices and paths. And even if no one ends up reading my blog other than my husband, at least it'll encourage me to keep journaling (which is a surprisingly useful tool for staying sane in stressful times).

Then came the question of anonymity. My new electronic mentor, FSP's blog, is anonymous. That makes sense considering some of the departmental politics she posts about (plus it would be weird to have all your students have instant access to your personal life / thoughts). But I thought, why should I be? Hmmm.... maybe because I'd actually like to be hired by a university some day? Maybe because some engineering departments would hesitate to have their 1st female hire (yes, many departments are still 100% mengineering) be an outspoken, opinionated, blog-happy assistant professor?

My partial bio:
  • B.S. in Engineering from Major Research University 1 (MRU 1)
  • Ph.D. in Engineering from MRU 2
  • Postdoctoral studies (in progress) from MRU 3
  • Faculty member at MRU 4 (this one is the dream)
<removed>. (The language is borrowed from Mason & Ekman's book "Mothers on the Fast Track". <removed>) Suffice it to say that money is not everything, and that is one of >20 reasons I think academia is the perfect fit for many femgineers. This is a crazy statement and I'll have to defend it, but that will wait for another post.