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.