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!