Dis the Diss

What is the size/scope/style/length of PhD dissertations in your field? Do they have a lot of background material or focus on the student’s original contributions? Are they comprehensive (everything the student has done, even if fairly disjointed) or a coherent body of work?

A typical dissertation in my group is between 100 and 150 pages, with most 120-130, and this appears to be pretty common in my department. I like to keep them very lean, focusing only on what the student has done and published as first author or as the lead theory student within a collaboration with experimentalists; basically, a dissertation is very close to papers “stapled” together. There is a common introduction and a common conclusion/outlook, but the actual chapters inside are the students’ original work. If a student has published well, writing the dissertation should be quick and painless IMHO.

Also, I like the dissertation to be coherent, i.e., basically the largest interconnected body of work that the student has done and that can be placed under a common umbrella.  On occasion, I have a very productive student who has taken part in several very different projects and published well on all; in that case, we pick the project of which they feel the most ownership as the one to write the dissertation on, and while the satellite work doesn’t make it into the dissertation, the student definitely mentions it in the defense and even very briefly discusses the highlights before diving into the dissertation project.

Why do I ask?

A colleague from another department who will be on one of my student’s dissertation committee came to ask what the norms in my department were in terms of dissertation length. If it were me, I would have left it at that and waited to hear what the norms were, but the colleague had to add “because this wouldn’t pass muster in my department.” (Do dudes ever get told condescending stuff like that, seriously?) I got very ticked off, because this is one of my best and most versatile students, and is worth a PhD twice over. His dissertation work was extremely complicated and he did a great job, which he published in several papers, and then wrote up for his dissertation. He also did work on three completely different side projects, all with papers published, which did not make it into the dissertation.

The implication of “not passing muster” based on document length was really irritating. So I went and looked at some of the colleague’s group dissertations, and they were in the 300-400 page range. Maybe it’s the colleague’s subfield norms (e.g., dump all from lab notebook in dissertation) or there is a lot of filler text (since we are being condescending here), because I have been on committees for other folks in the colleague’s department and the dissertations look about the same as in mine.

So what say you, blogosphere? What is the size/scope/length of PhD dissertations in your field? Do they have a lot of background material or focus on the student’s original contributions? Are they comprehensive (everything the student has done, even if fairly disjointed) or a coherent body of work? (Please state your field.)

 

 

 

Dispatches from an Academic Search

When you apply for faculty jobs, a standard set of required documents is:

a) Cover letter

b) CV [“Curriculum vitae” or simply “Vita”; please, I beg you, do not use “Vitae” as the title or refer to your CV as Vitae; vitae in curriculum vitae is the genitive case of the noun vita (life) and as such has no place being a title. If you want to be an obnoxious Latin nerd such as yours truly, instead of saying “Send me your CV” you could say “Send me your vitam,” because vitam is the accusative case appropriate for a direct object (yes, my native tongue is big on the declension of nouns). Kidding aside, English doesn’t admit these inflections, so I believe it’s fine to say, “Send me your vita.”)  A more important point is that your CV should contain a list of references in the back, and not the annoying and pointless statement “References available upon request.”]

c) Research statement

d) Teaching statement

Many searches will ask for the first two, but I recommend to send all four anyway, because some people always do, so you might as well be one of those people.

I have been on a number of search committees, and am currently on one that is fairly labor-intensive.

Here are some (grumpy) thoughts:

As will surprise absolutely no one, the CV is the most important part of your application. You don’t have to put a title “Curriculum Vitae” on it; it’s pretty self-evident what it is. Please don’t go nuts with formatting, colors, shaded text boxes… Keep it clean and not annoying. I want to see your contact info (get a webpage! if you can’t write HTML/CSS, create a free webpage with easy-to-use templates on WordPress, Blogspot, or Google Sites), then 1) education, 2) positions held, 3) honors and awards, and then straight to 4) published papers (for a research school like mine). Publications in archival journals are key in most fields, but for CS and some fields in applied math/statistics selective conferences are the main dissemination venues. After these come 5) conference papers and presentations for those for whom conferences are not the primary communication mode. Afterwards, if you have teaching experience,  some info about 6) which courses you taught etc., and 7) on the last page should be a list of your references. [There are many differences between a resume for a corporate job and an academic CV; one is that I don’t necessarily need to see a list of skills and tools that can use, but a corporate employer likely does. If seeking an industry job, check out this great resource from a veteran biotech hiring manager.] If you have written and received grants, that should come after publications, and some like CAREER or NSF GRFP show up early, among honors and awards.

Anyhoo… I look at your CV for less than a minute during the initial screening, and if I can’t find where you’ve been, where you are now, and what you’ve published thus far, you are not helping your case. Make bold or underline your name in the author list of your publications; I want to see how many you have as first or other significant author versus just some person in the middle of a twenty-author list (this for fields where author position actually communicates degree of involvement — in many physical science fields (of course, not all, so YMMV) lead junior author is first, lead senior author is last, and the contribution decreases as you move towards the middle of the author list. Regardless of what the conventions of your field are, chances are people will want to see quickly what your contribution is based on established field norms.

But I am guessing there are many resources for writing an academic CV.

What I want to talk about are the research and teaching statements.

These are usually also skimmed during the initial screening, unless they are not. We definitely look at them in detail in you have survived the first cut.

Teaching statement

I remain puzzled by the necessity to include the teaching statements for research universities. Don’t get me wrong — teaching is important and being able to teach well is important, I just don’t believe these documents, the way they are commonly written, are useful at all in discerning whether someone will be good in the classroom or not. Teaching statements are nearly always a collection of boring, generic fluff and cliches. Everyone writes the same thing about their teaching philosophy (everyone wants their students to be engaged, everyone knows that the close interaction with students helps student learning outcomes, blahblahblah); most of these people were never really in charge of a class, so they cannot really have much in the way of a true teaching philosophy (or a clue how much work it really is); they are also not stupid and if they get a job at a research school, they will shun “close interaction with students” when grant deadlines loom large. Honestly, other than writing a brown-nosing love letter to an abstraction of an undergrad class, which makes this search committee member roll her eyes, please be honest about your experiences or lack thereof, how you yourself learn and what you have enjoyed or not in the classroom, and I want to see a list of courses you could teach, whether you bothered to check out our course website and have an idea what the course numbers are, and if you have an idea for new courses that we do not actually already offer. Showing you bothered to do some research about us goes a long way. I am generally very impressed if people get specific, such as when they write — in nongeneric, non-vomit-inducingly-saccharine ways — about their experiences as a TA and their enjoyment thereof. Occasionally I see a teaching statement that just brims with real warmth and real enthusiasm for teaching based on actual experiences, and you know you have a winner (but only if their research is even more kick-ass, otherwise it’s a no-go).

Research statement

When I applied for jobs back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, both my statements were 2 pages of text, with only a handful of references. I have always been of the mind that a research statement should not be over 3 pages (okay, you can use page 4 for references if you must), but in this search I’ve been seeing really long research statements that make me think “Pages straight from advisor’s proposal!” I wonder what the blogosphere says, but to me, if you can convey excitement about your plans in 3 pages (with visually appealing figures that are not content-free bullshit schematics) I will be very impressed. Aim for no fewer than 3 and no more than 5 specific topics (topic = something that is several papers worth of work or a sizable grant worth of money) that are all connected into a coherent theme of what you will make a name in.

A common mistake is that people propose too little (basically, what their next couple papers in the postdoc advisor’s group will be) or too similar to what they are already doing (if the same thing is to be proposed by you and your advisor, I am funding your advisor and not you). Writing a good research prospectus is not trivial and if you do it well you will have the seeds for the first several proposals once you get the job.

In my field, the research seminar is followed by a closed-session equivalent of what the biomed kids call “the chalk talk.” Whatever it’s called, when you interview, be prepared to talk about the work you used to do and the work you plan on doing. Pick a name for your niche and for the 3–5 aforementioned topics and stick with those names: in the talk and in the research statement, call them the exact same thing everywhere; it makes it easier for people to follow what you are about once you are at the interview stage.

But one first has to get to the interview stage.

Blogosphere, thoughts on the research statement? Length, content, level of detail? Figs or no figs? Figs or Figs Newton? (Sorry. I had to. And I am not even really sorry.)

Other thoughts/comments/questions?

No web

I had a lengthy post ready to go and the web went down. Transferring a text file onto an iPhone turned out to be sisyphean task, as iTunes on the desktop went stupid in the absence of a web connection, so I can’t transfer the text to the phone to post (my new phone is soooo not going to be an iPhone).

Anyway, just this brief one for today, and hopefully the web is back up later tonight or tomorrow morning.

Home with Kids Craziness, Too Much Service, and Generally Get Off My Lawn

This holiday, like most holidays, was not relaxing at all.

I spent it trying to balance tending to the kids, doing chores, cooking, and doing some work. The work load was “light”: reviewing papers and proposals (did some, declined some after having initially accepted, still not done); creating and posting a final project assignment for my graduate class (done, days after I was supposed to); screening faculty applications for an interdisciplinary cluster search (I didn’t finish that). I spent the whole day on Friday correcting a student’s dissertation draft (thankfully that’s done, as he’s defending soon).

I haven’t finished all I was supposed to, my home office and whole house are a mess, and I most certainly didn’t relax. I was supposed to cook a belated favorite dish for DH’s birthday, didn’t get to.

It’s hard to describe to the people who don’t have multiple kids (or whose kids are well behaved or not particularly energetic) just how completely crazy my days at home really are. I do not get 5 min of uninterrupted time until they are asleep. Somebody constantly needs to eat or drink or eat again or is being badgered by his brother or is crying or wants to play a video game at the exact same time as his brother even though he could have done it for hours before said brother got up or someone has lost a toy/shoe/chapstick(?) or has peed on self and needs to be changed or has spilled food/drink on self for no reason or doesn’t want these socks but wants those other socks that happen to be dirty/have holes/are too small… And don’t get me started on having to think of what to feed them all, multiple times a day, and they all eat a lot and often and are picky and just drive me nuts.

We went to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Since having our own 3 boys is apparently not enough trouble, DH and I brought along two more (MB’s friend and Eldest’s friend), so for those of you keeping count that’s a total of 5 boys that we took to the movies. Smurf got bored within 3 minutes but was amused for another 27 by sharing popcorn with MB’s friend, after which he spent the whole movie complaining of thirst and generally being a pest… a super cute one, but still a pest. The movie is okay, probably would’ve been even more okay if I hadn’t been constantly watching a small fidgety human. We had two cars, of which Eldest drove one home, I took the other and wanted to go grocery shopping, while DH took the younger two and MB’s friend for a walk and some Pokemon Go… Until about 20 min later, when they were all cold and it had started raining, so I had to go get them.

Phew. I got that out, so I feel better.

***

I have also been thinking a lot about professional service. My salary comes from the department budget during the 9 months of the academic year. That salary is for teaching, for supervising graduate students, and for institutional service. One can say that, in return for bringing in research dollars to the university, the university assumes that I will do research and is happy to pay part of my salary to cover my academic-year research time.

But there are professional-service aspects on which it’s really hard to justify spending my academically funded time. For instance, peer review, especially for for-profit publishers. Why does any of my university-paid time go to providing reviews (free of charge) to for-profit publishers (Springer, Elsevier, etc)? Or acting as an editor for a for-profit publisher? People say, “Well, peer review is important, if you don’t do it, who will?” Well, then pay me for my time if it’s so valuable. Offer to give universities significant discounts based on how much their faculty review.

***

I feel like I am getting worse at fending off service requests. I have to be like an addict in recovery and completely reject all requests (no such thing as moderation), because otherwise I will accept one or two (and I am particularly vulnerable when I’ve cleared my load) and, before you know it, I have completely fallen off the wagon and I have my “Pending” folder full of papers whose review does nothing for me and takes a ton of my already heavily obligated time.

***

I generally wish it weren’t so goddamn easy to ask people for stuff. It  puts the onus on the one asked to have to refuse, and just the act of evaluating, however briefly, a request before refusing or, due to fatigue or guilt, accepting even though you shouldn’t, depletes your daily quota for making good decisions. And I need the energy to actually keep my brain running, and to work with students, and to take care of my kids.

Since we switched to Office 356 at work, spam has become relentless. I am blocking it every way imaginable and still get way too much. In unrelated news, I will have to get a new cell phone, a new phone number, and a new provider, because I get way too many spam calls, so many that I have to keep my phone on “do not disturb” which defeats the purpose of having a cell phone.

Honestly, I think that the older I am, the worse I am at managing my work and my life.  And that sucks.

***

A final bit of wisdom. When an administrator calls you on the phone or emails to ask if they can call you on the phone, be very afraid. They want to talk in order to butter you up using their admin wiles and then lure you into accepting “… just do this small service task that you’d be perfect for and it won’t be too much work at all…” DO. NOT. ACCEPT! Run like hell. Trust me on this. They are lying, it will be a ton — A TON! — of thankless work and will use up way too much of your time. Let them dupe another sucker.

Student Hearts Project, Prof Not So Much

(This post was drafted back in July, but never published; I think I just forgot about it. It’s an amalgam of several emails and stories I heard IRL.)

Working with graduate students comes with seemingly innumerable challenges. Sometimes I think it’s a continuum; a conundrum continuum, if you will.

Here are some scenarios.

A professor starts working with a graduate student and the student is funded on a grant on which the professor is the principal investigator (PI). The grant was received for a specific project, but there is considerable flexibility as to what gets done with the money; this flexibility doesn’t necessarily hold for the agencies that require strict gadget-producing quarterly milestones, but federal agencies that support discovery-driven science do give the PIs leeway.

Variant 1: The student comes in ready to work and full of ideas. The student has very specific ideas as to what they want to work on and they do work hard. They produce some  results and the work is not bad, but the student thinks it’s great and the advisor doesn’t share the enthusiasm; the student writes a paper and pushes for publication but the paper is far from ready and has serious shortcomings; it’s simply not a paper yet at all. The student is starting to get frustrated by the “delay” and worries that they will get scooped, but the delay really stems from the paper being nowhere near publication ready (we are not talking about waiting for high-profile journals; we are talking publication in a society-level journal). The student thinks the paper is ready to go and feels abused by the advisor’s delays. The advisor thinks the work is okay but not as great as the student thinks, and the paper is far from acceptable. Also, it’s really getting hard to justify doing that work with the funds that pay the student.

Variant 2: The PI takes on a particular student who had experience in the PI’s research area. The student worked with one particular technique doing some research after his Bachelor’s. The student was even a coauthor on a paper or two, using the technique, before coming to the group. The student basically wants to keep using that technique in the exact same way as before, and is not even attempting to learn anything else. The technique, like any technique, has limitations, and the topics the student wants to work on with the technique are not of particular interest to the advisor. In fact, the advisor thinks the way the student is employing the technique and the problems chosen lead to cookie-cutter and essentially boring work that the PI doesn’t want to be a part of. The PI thinks the work is not particularly worthwhile and does not wish to have it pursued in the group at all. The student feels misunderstood and stifled. (Being enamored of a project is often depicted in popular culture as the stuff of dreams: the protagonist perseveres against the advice of the “establishment” to eventual triumph. In reality, if the PI thinks your project is misguided, it sometimes isn’t but often is; if the PI thinks the project is boring, it very, very likely really is.)

What is to be done?

You need to give your students freedom, but it’s not absolute freedom. They cannot spend arbitrarily long on topics that have very little to do with the projects that fund them. People who do expensive experiments know that all farting around costs real money for reagents, equipment user fees, animal care costs. There’s freedom, ability to be explore and be creative, and then there’s just frittering away time and money.

I occasionally come across this problem, where the student basically wants to have free rein and do whatever they please, but somehow expects to be paid as research assistant yet not have to check with me if I think the direction is a good use of time and money. I understand the impetus — free money to do whatever tickles your fancy! — but it really doesn’t work like that. You have to spend some time making progress on what the funds are for, even if you itch to devote much of your effort to something you like better.

What happens if a student is really enamored of a project and doesn’t want to do anything else? Best-case scenario: I think the problem is well conceived and interesting, and can either justify doing it on the grant that pays the student or I can move the student to another grant where the justification will be less tenuous. Medium-bad-case scenario: the student can do whatever they want, the project is well conceived and interesting, I have interest and expertise to advise them, but can’t financially support them to do so and they have to TA, and TA-ships are available.  Worst-case scenario: I can’t advise them (e.g., I don’t have interest or expertise in what they want to do or I think the project is misguided) and they really should switch groups.

What say you, blogosphere?