Drafts and Guts

jls asks: 

I would really love to hear your (further) thoughts about writing drafts with students and in particular how you go about teaching students to write. I know this is a subject you’ve touched on often, but right now the work I need to get done is almost 100% editing student drafts, and let’s just say I can’t help feeling that there must be some ways to improve this process.

Writing with graduate students is a perennial challenge. I have written extensively (and I mean EXTENSIVELY) about it, probably more often than about anything else, yet it never ceases to be a problem. (Check out Academaze, where a whole chapter was devoted to this particular circle of hell.)

Dear readers, there are no static solutions for anything in life, at least not for anything that means anything. Or at least no solutions that guarantee you will always be at peace and not, you know, blow your lid with some regularity at the hopelessness of your predicament.

I spend a lot of time editing students’ writing. And I know the only way for them to improve is to practice.

But, holy $hit, if it isn’t annoying as all f*ck!

I feel that working with students on their writing is the canary in the coalmine for my general grumpiness about work (can’t wait for sabbatical next year, honestly). When I am grumpy about work, editing the messes that I am usually given becomes completely unbearable.

There’s a book chapter that a postdoc and several of my students (one a native speaker) have drafted together. I have been sitting on this draft for months. I have picked it up and put it down dozens of times. I hate this goddamn document with a passion usually reserved for my flesh-and-blood nemeses. My hatred toward this document stems from a combination of: a) not wanting to look at that bloody material ever again; I’ve written so many papers and proposals on it, and if I have to now write this stupid intro for the millionth time, someone will lose their head; b) the fact that it really should look better than it does, considering I have a postdoc on it and I provided them with a ton of raw material they could work with (papers and proposals).

Today I talked with a colleague who says he and his collaborator write most of their papers; they don’t really have students draft them. I understand why they do it, but it still constitutes a failure of an aspect of graduate education.

On the other hand, so many students don’t want to write or don’t improve fast enough or don’t particularly care to improve (just do it to appease advisor and get out of here) or maybe they have limitations or for other reasons find it hard to write to the standard that I expect, that I worry the whole process of teaching them how to write (read: forcing them to write and me to edit) is not very helpful andand instead just extremely frustrating for everyone involved.

Still, teach them how to write I must.

This is what I have always done: A student  drafts a paper on the work where they’re the lead junior researcher. I pull hair over it for days or weeks until I manage to get through the whole thing. The student and I will go back-and-forth several times (I mark up a hard copy, we discuss edits, the student enters them) but eventually I take over and clean up. This ensures the paper gets out in a reasonable time and the student gets writing practice.

People have suggested hiring external editing help; that’s not for me. First, I have been unimpressed with the input from the university editing resources and I am too cheap and untrusting to pay for anything external. Second, I want the papers from my group to look a certain way; I would just end up rewriting everything anyway.


I find that probably my biggest issue with people (some of them in my family) is that most aren’t as intense as me. I feel like they move slowly through the stress-free molasses of their lives and I wonder how they don’t just explode with pressure and boredom. In turn, they probably think I am downright nuts; I know many in my family do.

Same with work. I will never understand how someone just doesn’t want to LEARN EVERYTHING JUST EAT EVERYTHING UP JUST GIMME MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE TO LEARN!

I mean, obviously I understand all this intellectually, but my gut rolls its gut eyes and rejects — as guts do — that there is any other way to be than how it itself is.

Guts, man. Guts.


In far awesomer news, lyra211 just had a baby! Go say congrats!

15-Minute Stream-of-Consciousness Post

12 min to write, 3 to edit, then post:

  1. Going with Middle Boy and another family (mom and twins who are MB’s friends) to watch a monster-truck show. I’m so excited! I am trying to embrace all my interests, no matter how lowbrow they seem. In fact, the more lowbrow, the happier they seem to make me. I will take burgers and beer in a sports bar over fancy cuisine any time. Next: flannel shirts and a pickup truck. (I’m only half joking. I think.)
  2. I will be taking Middle Boy to two NBA basketball games in nearby cities over the coming few months! Again, I’m really excited! It will be great bonding and I love watching basketball. The tickets are really expensive, though. Even the not-so-great, relatively inexpensive ones.
  3. I have decided to reconnect with people who are important to me. I contacted my sister and dad, a good friend from graduate school with whom I’d lost touch (will see her in a few weeks!), and I invited a local mom on a girl date.
  4. I found a speculative-fiction discussion group that I plan on joining. They meet monthly, and I will see them all for the first time in a few weeks!
  5. I have also decided to embrace “Forget those who forget you.” A few people to whom I’ve maintained an ever-so-slight connection mainly by pinging them and wishing them happy birthdays will be out completely.
  6. I’ve been walking 5k+ nearly daily for the past few weeks. The fresh, crisp air does wonders. The plan is to gradually include more running and maybe even run some 5k races in the spring.
  7. I tried joining a nearby kickboxing-focused gym. I enjoyed a couple of workouts, but I cannot take the constant intrusion of the trainers — boy, do young fit men enjoy patronizing flabby middle-aged women! Everyone in the gym is so damn fit, I feel like an ogre. Us out-of-shape people need our own spaces to pant and sweat in peace. The point is, I went twice and I already feel anxious about going again and it’s not exactly cheap or easy to get out of the membership. I don’t want to waste time or money on stuff that stresses me out so I decided to terminate while I am still within the three-day grace period after enrollment. I might try the YMCA for some classes where I can be reasonably incognito and surrounded by schlubby brethren.
  8. Last but not least, I just got nominated for the Pushcart Prize for one of my short stories. The award is a big deal and it’s an honor just to be nominated. So I’ve been in pretty good spirits and celebrated as I’ve been doing the last few months —  spreading the joy by paying it forward: I pay the bill of the person behind me in the Starbucks drive-thru line.

What have you been up to, blogosphere?

In Which I Feel Sorry for My Former Self

We have had a wave of new hires, so we now have well over a dozen assistant professors. This is great for the department.

When I was hired, I was alone. No one for two years ahead of me and for several years after me. There were two people hired at the same time as me, but one was an awful person whose contract wasn’t extended after year three, and the other left after a year to take a job at a university in Europe.

I had two senior people assigned as department mentors, but they were both clear about not wanting to be bothered, so I didn’t bother them. One was a senior man I was afraid of, being that he struck me as someone who’d vote against my tenure if I ever showed any weakness. The other was a superstar woman who was in principle friendly and available, but in practice it would take her weeks to respond to my emails (by which time I had already acted on whatever the problem was) and she always treated me with a veneer of pleasantness over a clear undercurrent of annoyance, so I quickly stopped asking her for stuff. I did receive most advice from a couple of collaborators outside the department.

As for commiseration, there was no one. I met two people from a related department during orientation and initially hung out with them, but they were both single yet immediately became strangely attached to one another in a way they insisted was platonic but that seemed weirdly codependent to me (they eventually married and remain), so I was a third wheel there, and, again, didn’t feel I was really needed.

I honestly felt, most of the time, that nobody gave a shit what I did and how and that I was most definitely on my own.

These days, I am a mentor to one junior faculty who I believe comes and talks to me whenever he likes (I see him multiple times per week, as he’s across the hall from me). He’s doing great, going up for early tenure. I don’t think I have much of a role in his success other than to generally try and provide a welcoming environment and be a sounding board. I’ve recently received my second mentoring assignment.

Other than mentoring, there is so much more that we as a department collectively do for these junior folks that didn’t happen when I was on the tenure track. For example, they have teaching relief built into their tenure track — not just a lower load, but an option to have a semester without any teaching; that would have come in handy when I had kid No 2 on the tenure track. Moreover, there are so many assistant professors that they can find a friendly cohort and do some peer mentoring. There is much more and much better mentoring than I had as an assistant professor (I never had a meeting with department chair and both my mentors, which we now do once every semester).

I am happy that the new folks are having an easier time than I did, but I must admit that I have other feelings mixed in:

a) I feel sad for my tenure-track self. It felt so lonely.  I wonder if it would have been easier if someone had given a little bit of help or a pat on the back.

b) I don’t know that I can offer the mentoring that they need to these junior folks. They are all much more ballsy than I ever was, seem like they have their shit together, and command much greater resources from the outset.

I feel like a dinosaur, like my experiences are from another era. The era with no help and nobody giving a shit. What a difference a decade-and-a-half makes! Also none of the junior faculty have children. My experience on the tenure track was colored in every way imaginable by having kids (one in grad school, one midway through the tenure track, one post tenure)—the inability to go to the social gatherings and orientations and whatnot after work and on weekends; the never-ending exhaustion.

I feel like I ended up being depleted by everything — work, life — before I ever really reached my full potential. Even when I worked my hardest, there were weights around my ankles that prevented takeoff.

I believe DrugMonkey writes about this sometimes, that Gen X scientists haven’t reached their full potential. I can definitely see my tiny cohort being completely outnumbered into irrelevance by  the junior people.

Repost: On Boundaries in Research Groups

Originally posted here.


This is a posts that I kept remembering to sit down and write, only to forget yet again. I was reminded of it as I read this post by mathbionerd, to which I arrived somehow by tracking the good news that Dr Becca of Scientopia and Twitter fame had indeed been approved for tenure — congrats to Dr Becca!

The post is about boundaries between the PI and the graduate students/postdocs in a research group.

I have junior colleagues who meet with students at all hours, so 6-11 pm or weekends are not off limits.
Many PIs seem to have their group over for barbecue or holiday celebrations. Some PI take their groups to camping trips. Recently, I found out that the members of one research group are all expected to participate in certain 5k races, which really didn’t sit well with me.

In my view, any activity that is organized by the PI is not truly voluntary for students. There is always a power differential, and a student may feel like they have to attend even though they rather wouldn’t. For instance, late afternoon/evening/weekend meetings with the PI would have been a deal breaker for me in grad school as I had a kid in daycare; mandatory participation in activities like running 5k races isn’t everyone’s cup of tea or withing everyone’s physical abilities, and seems unfair to expect people to do.

Therefore, my students know (we have a document on the group website delineating what I expect and what they can expect from me) that I will not require their presence outside of 9-5 M-F. No late meetings or weekend meetings. When someone is about to leave the group, we go out to lunch during the week, somewhere close to work and I pay for everyone. I occasionally order pizza for the group for minor celebrations (again, during the week, and I pay). No one from my group has ever been to my house and I don’t see why that would be necessary. I don’t want to put the students in a situation where they have to do something they don’t want to because they think I might be upset if they refuse, even if I most definitely wouldn’t be. Our relationship is professional and as such benefits from solid boundaries between personal time and work time.

I would be delighted if my students all hung out without me, and I think there are some nice friendships in the group, but it’s all student-led and I have nothing to do with it. Maybe bonding experiences, like group barbecues and hikes and races, do really contribute to bonding, but this potential benefit is overshadowed (for me) by not wanting to impose on the group member’s personal time. Also, I certainly don’t expect them to spend their own money on the activities I require and they aren’t 100% free to refuse, such as the aforementioned lunches to say farewell to a group member.

I know that, once people join the “real world” they will likely have company retreats and perhaps intrusive managers who won’t respect personal time, which I think is all the more reason for me to be nonintrusive.

Dear readers, what is your attitude on group activities or other meetings requiring one’s presence outside of regular work hours?