Month: January 2014

This Bean-Devouring Leprechaun

Over the past few days, I have reviewed a small mountain of student conference abstracts, as the deadlines for two conferences where we usually have a strong showing are approaching. This exercise has reminded me of some of my favorite technical writing slips.

— Don’t start a sentence with an abbreviation, i.e., don’t write “Eq. (3) can be simplified…” or “Fig. 5 shows the dependence…”  At the beginning of a sentence, always write out the full word instead, i.e., “Equation (3) can be simplified…” or “Figure 5 shows the dependence…”  Abbreviations are fine elsewhere.

— Compound adjectives need hyphens. For instance, is should be “a well-deserved honor” as opposed to “a well deserved honor.” However, “the honor was well deserved.” In both cases, “well” qualifes “deserved”, but in the first example both “well” and “deserved” together form a compound adjective that further qualifies “honor.”

— If hyphens start making you dizzy, such as in “the 5-nm-wide ribbon,” consider rephrasing, such as “the width of the ribbon is 5 nm”

— Commas are your friend. Commas make the world a better place. Love them, use them. 

— Don’t use “this” or “that” as subject in technical writing (it’s OK if writing casually), i.e.,  don’t write “We report that the leprechaun fart rate increases cubically with their bean consumption rate. This implies that leprechauns should be kept on a bean-light diet.” What does “this” refer to? The fascinating bean-fart relationship? One of the many nouns in the previous sentence? Something like “This dependence implies…”  would work. Maybe I should start adding “bean-devouring leprechaun” after “this” or “that” every time I catch this type of mistake.

A pot of gold… or a pot of beans?

—  Statements should be kept emotion-neutral, especially if they refer to the work of others. For instance, you can say that your approach is more accurate or has a wider range of applicability than the approach of Schmoe et at. , but don’t say things like “Our approach is vastly superior to that of Schmoe et al. because they only relied on this lowly old-fashioned approximation. ” Also, while it is wonderful that you are excited about your research, you can’t say things such as “Amazingly, we found that Schmoe et al. had it all wrong.”

— Don’t say “To the best of our knowledge, this has never been done before.” It’s just silly — it’s your duty to do the most comprehensive literature survey that you possibly can and then stand behind what you consider to be the state of the art. “To the best of our knowledge” implies to me that you might have slacked on lit review and are preemptively apologizing in case you missed something and the referee gets upset.

— Always write with an audience in mind. The readers are not inside your head; they don’t think about this problem of yours all the time like you do. What you think are the most fascinating aspects of your work may not, in fact, be the most important ones to emphasize, either broadly or to a specific audience. Leading with the motivation and insights that your audience will connect with is key to creating enthusiasm about your work.

Moving Mid-Career

In the comments to yesterday’s post, Academic Job Search — Know Who Thy Friends Are, reader MidCareerTenured asked a question about upgrading institutions mid-career:

xykademiqz and other: What do you think the chances are for a midcareer tenured scientist to move from a very low ranking research institution to a quality R1? Assume a solid performance in publication and grants on par with an average/good R1 faculty, but nothing spectacular (no Nature/Science or $multimillion grants). Does anyone really sympathize that the effort to get things done in a low ranking institution might turn into much better results in a quality R1? Is it really much harder to move with tenure?

As I told MidCareerTenured, I have no personal experience with moving mid-career. I have had serious “feelers” from several places, including a few fairly formal ones, but I don’t believe in stringing people along when I have no intention of moving right now, so I didn’t accept the interview invitations. Luckily, my department is sensitive to people being courted with outside offers; there are retention funds that are used to  preemptively show appreciation to people who are at a high risk of being recruited away.

However, I can say a few things based on my observation of the people who have either moved from mine to another institution or whom we have recruited after they had become established elsewhere.

In my opinion, it is certainly possible to move laterally or somewhat upward without being a superstar; the question is always what you would bring to the new institution. If you are a respected name and have a niche, you will find a place that wants you, but it may take some time and you probably need to send out some feelers through trusted colleagues. Sometimes, it is about the fit — your expertise may be redundant at one place but sorely lacking at another.

But I would say moving mid-career generally requires that you have an “in,” someone who will champion your case. This is considerably more common than getting interviewed after just applying cold. One reason is that you would have to be brought in with tenure, so colleagues have to commit to spending decades by your side without the acclimating probationary period of the tenure track. That is why it is very important to have someone with a strong interest in bringing you in. For example, there is a person who is being strongly advocated for these days in my department. That person is very good, but I would not say a superstar, yet they have already moved several times in their career (at least 4 or 5), with most of the moves lateral-ish. This person has a whole collective of long-time collaborators in several departments at my university, and these people are jointly putting a lot of pressure on the department and college to make things happen.

If you have been very active at a lower-tier institution, people will be impressed, but I don’t think you can count on them imagining all the wonderful things that you could have done if only you had had more resources.  Instead, I thing I would go for the following mindset: forget that you are at a lower-tier institution. Tell yourself that you are as good as anyone else and these are your technical strengths and this is what you are known and respected for; you deserve to be at  a strong R1. Now, what is it that you bring to institutions that they already don’t have? Often the answer means that you are joining an exisiting strength and are filling a need within that strength. Namely, many strong R1 departments pick several  areas that they want to be leaders in, and then hire to develop those areas to be as strong as possible. Sometimes, a department may have just decided (after some “strategic planning” *shudder*) to start developing a new area, one they previously didn’t have. Usually, such development starts by bringing in someone who’s mid- or even late-career, and ideally someone who has great name recognition. However, not all places are able to afford a superstar. I am not sure what type of place you are at, if you are at a lower-ranked R2, maybe first jump to a top-ranked R2/lower-ranked R1, and there are many very good schools in this group. You could be that productive person who helps them start a program in an area they haven’t had before and really revive their program. Then a few years later upgrade further to a better R1. If you are at a lower-ranked R1, perhaps go for a mid-range R1 first, then even higher after a few years?

Based on what I have observed, ultimately it is about what you bring to the table and where the places are  that have someone who recognizes the importance of what you could bring, and if those colleagues are willing and able (i.e. they have enough gravitas in department) to really go to bat for you.

What say you, blogosphere? Do you have advice for MidCareerTenured on how to move to a better institution mid-career? 

Academic Job Search — Know Who Thy Friends Are

Professors are frequently asked to write letters of reference: recommendation letters for undergrads applying to grad school, graduate students and postdocs seeking postdocs or jobs; evaluation letters for tenure-track faculty who are being considered for tenure, as well as for faculty at various career stages who are being nominated for honors or awards. If I agree to write a letter for someone, I will not write a negative one. If I cannot in good conscience write one that is positive, then I will refuse to write a letter entirely. 

If someone gets a PhD degree in my group, I endorse that person and I vouch for them. Hey, PhD is thicker than water, right? It’s not without reason that a PhD advisor-advisee relationship constitutes a lifetime conflict of interest in the context of the NSF proposal review. I will write letters for students and postdocs as often and for as long as they need them, until one of us drops dead. I would never have a problem with any of my former students or postdocs seeing the letters that I have written for them.

In the context of evaluating tenure-track applications, the issue of the letters of reference comes up for candidates who have survived at least the first and often even the second cut.

For most faculty candidates, the PhD and postdoc advisors are at the top of the reference list, which indicates that the candidate considers them someone on whose enthusiastic support he or she counts. In the vast majority of cases, this trust is warranted: the PhD and postdoc advisors usually promptly respond to the requests for letters and send recommendations that are detailed, informative, and usually glowing. This expediency holds even for the busiest and most famous among former advisors, which goes to show that if something is important to a person, they will find the time to do it.

But then there are others…

For instance, I know a successful mid-career colleague who did not put the PhD advisor on the list of references at all back when he was first applying for tenure-track jobs. I don’t even think the two of them got along that poorly, I mean the colleague published a lot and well as a grad student, but I can imagine he might have been a handful on account of having a very strong personality. I really don’t think the advisor would have written a bad letter, but I suppose you never know. The colleague had decided he had stronger and more enthusiastic references elsewhere and, while he knows this conspicuous absence of the PhD advisor’s letter raised red flags with some hiring committees, he was ultimately able to land a good tenure-track position and is now very successful.

Then there is my favorite from a few years back, where the PhD advisor wrote a paragraph-long email basically saying the candidate was good and productive. Nothing bad, but a freakin’ paragraph. It raised all sorts of questions about the candidate and I think ultimately contributed to them not getting an offer.

I have seen cases where the PhD advisor or the postdoc advisor is near the bottom of  a lengthy list of references. Usually, from the CV, you can see a clear correlation  with the person not having published very well during the PhD/postdoc. In a few cases, the advisor had a reputation as being very difficult to work with. Unfortunately, all this does cast a shadow of doubt on the applicant, but it does also reveal that the applicant knew what was going on, knew that this advisor was not to be counted on. In my experience from the search committees, I am going to say that having a so-so relationship with the PhD advisor can be remedied by great postdoc experiences. I have, unfortunately, seen candidates with a great PhD but a ho-hum postdoc, or a good first but not a great second postdoc, and they usually don’t fare well on the market. It is a sad truth that a bad postdoc can totally tank your academic career, especially if it’s the most recent one.The unnerving part is that who you land with is luck to a great degree, so you may be in deep doodoo through very little fault of your own.

I also remember the case of an applicant from a few years ago, who looked great on paper, had a great record from his PhD,  and listed PhD advisor as first reference. The reference letter from the advisor never came, even after reminders. Before you wonder whether the advisor had died, became incapacitated, or was otherwise indisposed, I should tell you that the advisor did submit letters for other candidates in the same search. So the absence of a letter was definitely meant to convey a lack of endorsement. Whether or not this was a petty or a real issue, it hurt the candidate. What is most surprising to me is that the candidate was not aware that there was an issue, that the advisor would not be supportive. Maybe the advisor was sneaky and passive-aggressive, or even openly deceptive — all sweet on the outside but seething with rage and disappointment on the inside. Could it simply be delusion on the part of the candidate, refusing to believe that the advisor  would not provide support? Could it be that everyone’s egos were just a little too big for the candidate’s good?

But, there is no need to sink into the depths of despair at these unfortunate anecdotes. Most PhD and postdoc advisors are really, really supportive of their group alumni. However, some professors are not nice people. Some students are not nice people either. Sometimes there is just too much of a mismatch between what the two parties expect from one another. In an ideal world, the advising relationship would be dissolved in these cases and the junior person would go work for someone more supportive. In an ideal world, people would also talk openly, and the advisor, who holds considerable power over the student/postdoc, would be able to convey what they are unhappy about and what needs to change. But, this is not an ideal world, so you, the candidate, had better rely on your gut and common sense and try to be honest with yourself as to how much support you can realistically expect and from whom during the application process, because the competition is so fierce that committees will readily relegate you to the “do not interview” list if there are doubts cast upon your merit by the people who are supposed to know you best.  

Unprepared

The semester started last week. I am again teaching a junior/senior elective for majors and it looks like it might be a rough semester.

The course I am teaching follows a basic, required course in the major. I find the students are poorly prepared, more poorly than the class I had last semester. The students  are quiet and look positively terrified. I know it takes a little while for people to warm up and start answering my in-class questions, so that will come with time. But I am being quite alarmed by all the things that they say they have never seen before, because, if that’s true, then I have to significantly rethink the class. Sure, I suppose they might be fibbing, but I do believe think most of them have simply never seen  the material or, if they have, then it really didn’t stick at all and they genuinely don’t remember it.

Last week and this week, we are reviewing the material from the previous course, and it’s going very slowly. I may have to take more time simply to get them up to where they would actually need to be, which means cutting out some of the new stuff.

Also, the lack of facility with math always rears its ugly head, but at least that’s not particularly surprising. Any physical science field that requires a lot of physics has to be taught math really rigorously, and the math department does a very good job. The problem is that, owing to a recent idiotic progressive change in the curriculum for our major,  which is supposed to give the students more flexibility to  freely choose easy courses outside of the major customize their program of study,  some important formerly required math courses have now become electives (e.g. how can linear algebra and differential equations not be required just fuckin’ blows my mind) and now many students elect not to take them. Also, many of the required math courses are mismatched in timing with the relevant courses in the major.

Perhaps more importantly, on top of pure math, the next  layer is often missing, and that is the layer where the students are taught physics while using the math tools. This is where they should simultaneously be taught how to build their intuition about the physics with the help of math (math is your friend, people!!!)  and how to better understand the ability of math to capture the physical world. What  we need are slower-paced calculus-based physics courses and less jam-packed syllabi  in the lower-level courses for our major. The way physics for non-physicists courses are taught right now is woefully inefficient: there is too much material in each one of these courses, everything is only touched upon, and the kids retain absolutely nothing. It’s a complete waste of time. Considering that many students haven’t had physics as a standalone subject until college, maybe I shouldn’t lament but should be in awe that the kids have as much proficiency as they do.

People say that we discourage our physical science majors by throwing so much math and physics and chemistry at them when they join the university. That it’s boring and kills their natural creativity and that we should get them more chances to design right away and whatnot. First, if you are going to be a professional scientist or engineer, you need to know that stuff. There is no way around it. You cannot do/create/design anything new and have it work without being able to recognize whether or not it violates the basic laws of nature. So there is no doubt in my mind that a solid foundation in basic math, physics, and chemistry is the core of physical science education. I don’t know how we make it less boring and more appealing — I thought all of it was fascinating to begin with. There are freshman design courses sprouting all around the country, many with a humanistic component, where kids are taught to interface with the communities and solve actual existing problems.  I think that is great and helps motivate a lot of kids, but we can’t forget that in order to be independent scientists and engineers we have to give them a lot of basic science tools — sure, it’s cool to make a product for someone in the community as a freshman, but don’t forget that there was an instructor there to catch the (often obvious) fallacies in the many iterations of the design. For most kids, we are not stifling their unique unadultarated genius with these basic courses; we are giving them the tools so they would be able to work independently to express their creative ideas once they have their diploma in hand.

But perhaps what would help more than anything is somehow magically undoing the years of programming in middle and high school that tell kids math is stupid and boring and useless, and that only hopeless nerds like science and engineering…

Academoneya

Over the past few weeks, I have read or heard several times that there are some academics who don’t consider those among their colleagues who run large groups and are prolific in experimental research to be worthwhile academic scholars. I am no experimentalist and some experimental collaborators have annoyed the hell out of me on one occasion or another, but I most definitely appreciate that they work hard and that there are many difficult challenges that they face, many of which are drastically under-appreciated by the people whose work costs considerably less to perform.

I work in an applied field among the physical sciences at an R1 institution. My department comprises people of vastly differing work styles in the different subfields; in that sense the department is actually quite typical for the field and this diversity of styles around me has helped me learn about and appreciate the challenges faced by colleagues who do work very different from mine. 

For instance, there are colleagues who have very small groups, 0-2 people besides themselves. These colleagues operate very much like the people in pure math/theoretical physics/some areas of computer science and, perhaps surprisingly, quite similarly to many of our colleagues in the humanities: they do the technical work themselves, publish mostly as the sole author or with another coauthor on occasion. They have modest needs for extramural funds (mostly to cover summer salary and travel) and because they work with only 1-2 students, they are able to give each student a lot of attention without the cumulative face-time outside of teaching being very high. The students also publish on their own, without the advisor, and are generally funded as TAs.

I do theoretical and computational research and have between 6-10 group members at any given time. This is a midsize group for my general discipline — larger than what many theorists or mathematicians have, but on par with many experimental groups in the physical sciences. For me, 10 is probably the maximum size that I can take in terms of being able to keep track of what everyone is doing technically, making sure the papers are edited and submitted in a timely fashion, and that everyone progresses as they should towards graduation. I usually have about 4-6 active grants, some by myself where I can support 1-3  students on each, and some where I am a co-PI with other PIs and where I can have a student.  Experimental colleagues in my field with groups of the same size have more expensive research and go for larger and more numerous grants, but are also generally eligible for grants with some agencies that don’t usually fund theory alone. So they must raise more money than me in order to support the same number of group members, because facilities and user fees, as well as materials and supplies, carry a considerable cost.

Then there are colleagues in my discipline who do experimental research and have groups of 20-30 people. (There are a few, not in my department, with 20-30 postdocs alone, and the numbers well over 100 when you count all the graduate students and undergrads. ) The management portion of these colleagues’ work is substantial. It is not a small feat being able to organize the work done by so many, and I know this because I know how much work it is to lead the work of my group that is by a factor of 3-4 smaller. It is an even greater feat keeping such a large operation continuously funded. These people easily have 15+ grants active at any given point in time. Considering that grants in our field last 3 years, that’s 5+ new or renewed grants that have to be received every year. It is extremely stressful. Just raising the needed amount of money requires a talent that not many academics possess (unfortunately, one that I hear many eschew as something trivial, as not real merit). Being successful with this type of work requires a pretty grand technical vision, excellent managerial skills, and excellent networking and people skills in general in order to garner enough support for the  many projects in order to get them funded. These skills are not the same as good lab skills; one person with good lab skills can do 1-2 projects at a time,a person with a great vision and great management skills can help make dozens of amazing projects happen. The face time requirements of this job are often daunting and are definitely not for  the deeply introverted.

In many sciences, you simply don’t get to do any research without money. We can argue about who’s supposed to fund the research and we can all lament over small federal budgets,  but the simple truth is that, whether we like it or not, doing stuff costs money. Nobody bats an eyelash when people in industry say the same thing — you want something done, it costs manpower and materials. In academia, money is a dirty word; it seems to disqualify people as real academics, it implies that somehow people who need it to do research and are actually able to raise it not real academics, but rather some sort of sellouts. There seems to even be a bit of distrust attached to them, like they are a kind of monied wolf in a real academic’s clothing. But the truth is that without money, an experimentalist is simply over and done with and has very little chance of ramping back up because there is no manpower to produce the preliminary data.

Someone with a midsize group, like mine, already operates a lot like someone running a small business. You are responsible for the vision, raising money for the projects, supervision of every aspect of the project execution, and the dissemination (“the selling”) of your products; the benefit of being at a university and working with students is that you don’t think about their retirement and health benefits (the latter generally come with the assistantships). Having an even larger group brings you into the realm of a mid-sized business: you start having administrative assistants and techs, a hierarchy or middle managers, and may not interact frequently with every one of your business employees. You also have many more obligations in terms of schmoozing with donors.

There are fields of academia and subfields in STEM where it is possible and even desirable to operate in the traditional academic mold, where a single scholar can make a substantial intellectual contribution. I do theory and I am lucky that, if I ever completely ran out of money, I could still actually produce some work on my own and ramp back up with new grants. But as long as the scale of what I want to do is greater than 1-2 projects per year, I need other people to work with me, so I need a group and the funding for that group.

But experimental research always costs money. In a number of STEM disciplines the work requires a lot hands in the lab.  Many small parts need to be done, over a long period of time, in order to make even a minor breakthrough. This has always been the case; it’s just that we no longer have large, well-funded R&D industrial labs (at least not in the physical sciences, I cannot speak of the biomedical world) in the sense in which they used to push the boundaries of knowledge through fundamental research. It is now all done at universities.

The rest of us academics need to appreciate all the qualities that someone capable of running these non-traditionally large operations has. Running a large group is immensely stressful and, on top of technical prowess and vision, requires the level of people skills that grace successful managers and politicians and are somewhat rare among traditional academics. These qualities are unapologetically recognized as important in industry, the “real world” if you will, so I don’t understand why many academics reach for the smelling salts at the mention of people skills, salesmanship, granstmanship, or networking.

I know much of the divide is fabricated by the administration; the big grant-raisers in STEM are lauded and rewarded, whereas whole disciplines are derided as a waste of money. The public is eating it all up, thinking of some fields as more or less worthy of existing based on the perceived earning potential in the real world.  The whole ordeal is quite insidious: trying to follow where the money from tuition and overhead goes, especially in public schools, can make your head explode. I think at least us academics don’t have to fall for the BS and can easily get educated about what each of us does and how, and appreciate that different fields need different styles,  that it’s how it should be, and that academia needs to have a place for all of us.