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)