Month: April 2014

Potential and Ambition

A few weeks ago I chatted with a colleague. One issue that came up was this colleague’s frustration with a student whom the colleague recognized as very talented, someone with great potential in the colleague’s area of study, but also someone who had no interest in applying themselves towards achieving excellence. I understand where the colleague is coming from: when you are someone who works in the field that has always been your passion, it is indeed quite disheartening to see a person who has what it takes to succeed but who simply does not care.

It took me a while on the tenure track to accept that most students didn’t share my ambition. They just want to get a well-paying job, no matter how much potential for this or that they have. The colleague’s student simply isn’t interested in doing research for a living, irrespective of how good he could be at it. Research doesn’t float his boat. I am not sure what else does; perhaps nothing at all. There are, in fact, a great many people who go through lives without developing an overwhelming passion for any activity. This is a hard truth to fathom for the intense, perhaps obsessive overachievers, such as myself and my colleague; I cannot claim to have fully internalized it.

Last semester I taught a great undergraduate class. There were several kids in there who I think would do splendidly in grad school. I spoke with a couple of the best, and neither wanted  to do grad school. One is a wonderful, laid-back kid, who reminds me of my eldest offspring; this student appears to be paired up with a very intense young woman and is very happy to just go with the flow and follow her. Another feels very strongly that he has to get a job and start earning money right out of college, and he will do great wherever he lands. Of this cohort, the most intense kid, one with passion and focus, is an AB student; very good indeed, but not the absolute best technically. He really knows what he wants to do and is voracious about learning more. We could lament the fact that the best students won’t become career scientists, but so what? They are smart kids, they can do whatever they want with their lives. Besides, what does “the best” even mean? Potential and talent are very nebulous; they just mean you could do well in a certain broad field, but if you don’t actually apply yourself, talent doesn’t mean very much. However, the student who is very good and very focused can indeed get far, potentially as far as his passion carries him.

In the US, there is a prevalent “singular-focus” mindset. You have only one talent, only one outstanding thing about you, and you have to embrace it, have it define you, and hone the related skill with all your might, if necessary at the expense of everything else. This singular-focus mindset, which is quite foreign to most of Europe, is why there are also so many achievement-related stereotypes.  That’s why we have the dumb athlete stereotype — of course you can only be athletically blessed, you could not possibly have other ambitions or talents, because being able to throw a football somehow precludes being able to do math, sing, or paint. Then there is the stereotype of the socially-clueless, athletically-hopeless geek, as if one could not possibly be able to understand calculus, swim fast, and have a girlfriend. Based on my experiences, most smart kids have multiple talents; there are several things they could do quite well, even if not prodigiously. For instance, I know a number of kids who can write very well, sing, play an instrument, play a sport, and who also excel academically. Who’s to say which one of these avenues should the kid pursue? Some are very passionate about one of the things they can do, but many are lukewarm about all of them. In fact, based on a lot of time spent around geeks, and having taught at a high school for the gifted in math and physical sciences, I would say that most kids don’t have strong passions early on. I am sure someone somewhere has done research on this topic, but my gut feeling is that the following happens: when you have a very smart kid, things come easy to them, and everything being easy may be an obstacle to developing a keen interest in anything. I think to develop a passion for something there needs to be an equal mixture of awe and challenge;  but perhaps this is BS and it’s all about personality — you are either A-type or B-type personality. and however gifted you may be, you won’t drive yourself insane trying to overachieve if you are B-type and you will be irritated by the perceived ambivalence of others regarding their talents if you are A-type. [I am talking purely based on my own experience (a.k.a. out of my a$$), people who follow the literature on giftedness may have different views.]

Anyway, having been a professor and a professional scientist for a number of years, I can safely say that there are a many more kids with the potential to do science than there are those who actually elect to be scientists or even purse any career with a strong science component. Many of these kids have other talents and interests that they may prefer to focus on. Many have a number of talents and they never really decide what it is that they are pursing, and are rather satisfied just dabbling in variety. I think what the A-types among us professors have to realize is that we are talking about these kids’ lives, and that they are completely entitled to spend them however they like, even if that means not using their science potential or any other potential at all. To us it may seem like a waste, but to someone who never thought of science as cool or enticing, just something they can easily do if they have to, it probably doesn’t seem like a waste at all. Being free to make choices means you are free to excel at whatever you want or not excel at anything.

Maybe the people who are not tightly-wound overachievers have a point. One day, we’ll all be dead and most of us will prove to be completely inconsequential in every way imaginable, except for perhaps having left a little bit of DNA. Instead of focusing on achievement, which for most of us appears to be just smoke and mirrors, why not enjoy the people around us,  the connections for which we are apparently wired, the sunsets and good books and the giggles of our kids and grandkids?  I can answer for the likes of me: because there is an internal engine that does not allow us to sit idle and just take in the world and the people we love, because the awesomeness of life and people does not scratch the perennial brain itch. But we should also learn to live and let live, and find ways to work productively with our smart and happy but itchless students, and not consider their lack of ambition to be anybody’s failure.

April Showers Bring May Semester End and Thoughts on Learning New Things

For faculty on the semester system, there are only a couple of weeks of teaching left. This is probably the busiest time of the year, due to the sinister convergence of the semester ending and the conference season approaching. Program committees of many conferences are working hard these days to evaluate the abstracts; I am on three. On top of it, I am about to go to DC, again, for the third time in the last six months. This year has, so far, been very busy for me.

With perpetual busyness, how does one find the time to learn new things? I mean, where does the time come from to learn new techniques or the tenets of new fields of inquiry, but learn them really, really well?

I am working on topics that are somewhat but not far removed from my core expertise. You pick up related stuff along the way, as you work with students and postdocs, listen to talks by others, read up on papers in order to write proposals. But I feel I am not really an expert in any of these topics, as what I know about them has been acquired in a non-systematic fashion, by assembling the bits and pieces from various sources over time. I always worry that there are things I am overlooking, the literature I am missing.

There is something to be said for being introduced to a topic through taking a class or reading a textbook. Yet, the only way I have the time to read a textbook is if I teach a class based on it, and even so I may not get to read the whole thing. There are several topics that I find interesting and where I could potentially have something new and nontrivial to say, but the time to properly learn about any of them is just not there. I am itching to venture further out, to learn more and seek challenges and connections with fields that are more foreign to me.

I have been asking people how they find the time to learn new things, and the answer they often give me is “sabbatical.” I don’t see that happening with me; having small and school-aged kids and a working husband, I don’t see us leaving this place for a real sabbatical any time soon. During my previous sabbatical, I had a kid and also organized a major conference; I wrote several proposals, of which a major one got funded; I worked with students and wrote papers, and I think I did quite well keeping my head above water on all fronts, considering that my brain was mush due to no sleep and out-of-whack hormones. My next sabbatical is years away, and I need/want to learn and do some new things sooner than that. But there is just never enough time to pick up a book and work through it, for real. On top of teaching, I continually have students to work with, papers to edit, grants to write, service, travel. Summers are prime-time for conference travel, writing papers, and preparing fall proposals (this fall is really important for me grant-wise, I really need to do a good job with the NSF). There always seems to be something more urgent. Yet learning new things that can support your long-term research vision is important, like investing in education and infrastructure is important for long-term economic growth.

Now, I have a pretty good system for getting uninterrupted blocks of time. There is one day of the week when everyone knows I am MIA, and I have been successfully blocking out a second day in recent years; this also means that the other three days are chock full of teaching and meetings and I feel positively drained after them. My 1-2 blocked-out days are spent on writing papers or grants or whatever else needs tending to urgently; for instance, I spent a whole day grading last week, because that was the most urgent thing to do.

Being a working parent means that your time is always maximally obligated. Becoming older, I find that I can’t keep the pace of little sleep and burning the candle on both ends, which I used to be able to pull off when I was younger to squeeze some extra time for work out of the stubbornly 24-hour-long days. For instance, after a day of wrangling the Littles, like today, I can barely blog, let alone read something technically challenging.

How does one find the time to learn new things for work? I suppose this somewhat extends to — how does one find the time to exercise or have a hobby? People will offer answers that I have always found irritating: “You just have to make it (or yourself) a priority.” When you have kids, that means (1) you take the time from your work, (2) you take the time from your sleep, or (3) you take the time from your family time, which means your partner or additional caregivers bear the brunt of you taking the time for yourself or your new endeavors. I want to learn new things to do my job better, so I don’t think I should be sacrificing too much from (2) or (3), because I don’t have the stamina to skimp on sleep any more and the kids are only little once and my DH is entitled to weekends too. I want to find the time during my work day to accommodate more learning.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you find the time to learn new things for work, and learn them well?

ZZ Ward

Some time ago DH and I went to see ZZ Ward live. It was the best concert I have been to in a long time.

She and the musicians who work with her are absolutely SENSATIONAL live. The live performance is even better than the already excellent studio album (“Til the Casket Drops“).

ZZ Ward is still touring and, if you get a chance to go see her, do take the opportunity. You will not regret it.

Pics from the show DH and I saw.


And a few  YouTube clips in case you haven’t heard ZZ before. Have a happy Thursday!



I have been a professor for nearly 10 years. I am good at what I do and respected within my community, as small as it is. I am well-funded, although that’s always a temporarily accurate statement. As I do theory and computation, I don’t bring in oodles of money, but I have always been able to support a viable research group of between 6 and 10 people. I publish in well-respected society journals, interspersed with some high-profile papers. My students are good and have been able to get good jobs after graduation. We look at interesting problems and publish papers that I would like to think are original, insightful, and well-written. I am successful, but I don’t think I am wildly successful. I would not classify myself as a hot commodity. Perhaps only a hot-as-a-hot-shower commodity, say 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Yet, over the past few years I have been getting “feelers” from other institutions with increasing frequency. Usually it goes along the lines of me going to give a talk and then several people asking me if I am happy where I am and what my husband does and if I would consider moving/leaving my university. I used to think people were just making conservation; I was very naive. Nobody ask you about your happiness and well-being unless they are your mother, a close personal friend, or they have a very good and far-from-selfless reason to ask.

So far the feelers have been from places that would present a lateral or even a slightly downward professional move, but with potentially a lot of money. A few came from places that are in a growth mode. In contrast, my current place is good, but uncomfortably stagnant. Declining state support has everyone tightening their belts, wondering what comes next. The college has lost a number of successful mid-career faculty.

For me, the biggest reason for not considering moving at this time is my family.  If it were up to me alone, I would move. I hate the freakin’ weather where I am now, the endless winters, and I would honestly move for the sunshine alone (several recent feeler places are in very warm locales, such as the one I am visiting at present). Another reason is that, as much as I have been willing myself to love the city I live in, I just don’t. We don’t really have good friends here like we do, for instance, where my PhD alma mater is (yes, I got a feeler from them, too). Have I mentioned the endless cold weather where I am now? I know, it sounds very shallow even considering moving for the climate, but I will ask you how you feel about it after you have been snowed in for 6 fuckin’ months. We had a new snow fall snow earlier this week. (Note: DH greatly prefers cold to hot; DH may be crazy.) As for friends, we have several couples whom we see on occasion, but I doubt any of them would be shattered if we left. We are situational friends — friends only because life threw us together, not because we are particularly compatible or drawn to one another — and, after 10 years here, it’s likely that situational friends are all we will have. They are basically someone to kill a bit of time with, but nothing deep by any stretch. We are too foreign, too accented, and too godless for the locals, so we are not even bothering any more with anyone whom we don’t know from work.

But with crappy cold weather come good public schools for my children. And my children have their friends and their memories tied to this place; they have real childhood friends here. I have a colleague who’s from a fairly traditional culture who says that his kids get no say in what he does professionally; if he gets a good offer and decides to move, they move, end of story; he says he doesn’t care what the kids think or feel about the ordeal. With my eldest starting high-school, I could not bear to destroy the comfortable life he has now by moving; he is such a happy, well-adjusted  kid, and I think moving him cross-country would hurt him.

I would love for the place where I am now to become a place I am content with both professionally and personally. It’s a very good place professionally, but it could be better. For instance, after I had visited my alma mater, I was reminded how nice it was to have several faculty in the same area, who could collaborate and go for bigger grants and even take care of each other’s students. I remember loving the fact that I was part of a large, probably 30-student group of all these different professors together when I was in graduate school. In contrast, my students are somewhat isolated, in that there is no one else at my current place of employment who does work similar to mine. While I can have my pick of experimental collaborators, being the only one is quite limiting — I don’t have the bandwidth to do all the things I could potentially do. It’s also quite taxing on me that I am the only source of technical knowledge in my subarea. Where I went to school, there were several professors and a much wider variety of courses was offered between the 3-4 of them; here, it’s just me. And being that I am a well-liked teacher, I end up teaching undergrads a lot. Which does actually shaft my grad students, as the graduate courses they need just don’t get offered if I don’t teach them, and these days I rarely do.

On the other hand, there are many good experimentalists where I work now, and they bring in money, and the money raises the profile of the place, which in turn brings in good students. Indeed, the students here are pretty good, both undergrads and grads. Or, I should perhaps rephrase — one can hand-pick very good students here, those who have a good background in math and physics, and are motivated — and these students come for the school’s name.

If I didn’t have a family, I would move someplace warmer, where there are other people doing what I do and where they would pay me a lot. Actually, if it were just me, I would probably move every 4-5 years, as I tend to get very restless. But I have a husband who is very happy with his job, kids who are very happy with their schools and friends and one of whom would be devastated to move. I could potentially move in 3-4 years, as the eldest starts college and the middle one (who is currently very much on board with moving to someplace with hot weather) starts middle school. But even so, I feel heartbroken — even if just in theory — for my eldest to not be able to see his childhood friends when he comes back home during college.

This whole feeler business and the possibilities of going someplace are making me restless; they are enticing, and possibly even more enticing since I can’t really act on any of them. I don’t want to make the people interview me formally and give me offers when I know I am tied down (although plenty of people do precisely this, make the other institution interview and make a formal offer just to get leverage with their home institution; I think it’s douchey to do unless you are seriously considering moving). I am not unhappy or unproductive where I am; the feelers don’t come from the places that would be a blatantly obvious step up (do you hear it, MIT and Stanford? I am still waiting), i.e. they are not something nobody in their right mind would miss. There is no pressing reason to move, except my restlessness, dislike of cold, and a lack of good friends. There are reasons to not move, such as uprooting my family from a good situation, which includes good public schools and a solved two-body problem, for essentially no reason.

Yet, I wonder…

What say you, blogosphere? Is it hopelessly shallow to want to move for the weather and because you just don’t feel love for your place of employment? Should I just target to move in 3-4 years and let people know that’s when I will be available for wooing, and in the meantime just work my butt off? Should I just take a chill pill and bury my head deep into work and not concern myself with foolishness, waiting for the global warming to bring tropical heat to my cold cold place?

Ah, possibilities. And at the same time, impossibilities.

Guest Post: Interviewing for a Job at an Undergrad-Oriented School

By psykadamnit

I want to follow up on xykademiqz’s posts on job search strangeness. I’m in a STEM discipline at an undergrad-oriented school. My department has no graduate program, and those departments that do have graduate programs usually only have small MS programs. The focus is on undergrads.

For some reason, most of our candidates in our current search showed the same missteps in their interview presentations. Being an undergrad-oriented institution, one certainly does have to aim a research seminar in our department a bit differently than a seminar at an R1.The audience won’t include many direct competitors who can pick apart your research proposal, and it will include many undergraduates who know nothing about your topic (or, worse, have a bunch of misconceptions about your research area). So you certainly need to spend more time than usual on background. This is the standard advice, and all of our candidates followed it. The problem is that most of them followed that advice a bit too well. They spent so much time on background that it was really hard for faculty to figure out what they actually do and what they actually want to do. Some of them showed at least a few results, others showed literally nothing of what they do. Only a couple actually got very specific about what they themselves do and why their approaches and results are so exciting.

“Wait, isn’t the point of the seminar just to give undergrads an idea of what you do and why you do it?” Yes, that is a big part of it, but it isn’t all of it. We are not looking to hire somebody who will publish in Glamour on a regular basis, but we are looking for somebody who has exciting research projects that are intellectually significant, sustainable, and amenable to undergraduate involvement. In order for us to figure out if you meet that criterion, you have to use your seminar talk to tell us what it is that you actually do. You can’t spend 43 minutes on background and then spend 2 minutes saying “So, I work on stuff related to what I just showed you. Any questions?” Um, yeah, I have a question. What the **** do you actually do?

“But I wrote a research plan! Didn’t you read that?” First, I’m not on the committee. Second, there’s nothing more adorable than a n00b. Tenured professors reading? Really? Most of us are too busy napping! But, seriously, we did read about your research, but we aren’t in your field, so we’d like you to summarize your key approaches and findings thus far, and then follow it with something like “So here’s what I want to do next…” Then we can have a Q&A.

“But won’t that go over the heads of undergrads?” Well, yes, they are kind of stupid. That’s why we really only expect you to spend about 50% of the talk at their level before taking it up a notch. Second, are you saying that you are unable to take what you do and bring some of the essentials to undergrads? Are you sure you should be working here?

Anyway, having been harsh on candidates, I’ll say this much for them: I think they’ve been hit over the head a bit too much with good advice. They were told again and again and again (and then some) that they need to take it down a notch for students. And when we look for people who have a lot of teaching and mentoring experience and want to go to an undergrad-focused school, we probably select for overly-conscientious types. It also doesn’t help that we are doing a search in one of the more abstract corners of our discipline, and people in that sub-field are especially likely to be told “Remember, most undergrads do not appreciate the abstraction the way you do. Take it to their level. You need to take this weird stuff and make it accessible.” Still, at the end of the day, you need to tell us what you do, and tell us why it is exciting and show us how smart you are. Yeah, yeah, the earnest progressive types will say that you shouldn’t be a sage on the stage, but we want to hire a smart scientist who does stuff. Show us what you do, you smart scientist! I mean, otherwise, why would we hire you?

Hello Hirsch

Humbug, Hirsch’s h-index! The humbling yet heartwarming hooligan, happily hopping homeward.

Many people have issues with the widespread use of the h-index in determining one’s scientific worth. But the h-index is not inherently bad; it simply needs to be considered in the context of one’s field and seniority. Even in a given field, the h-index is higher for the hot, fast-moving topics than for the slower ones. Also, it tends to be high in larger fields and, more generally,  in fields in which the number of papers published per unit time is high. For instance, brilliant mathematicians will have much, much smaller h-indices than brilliant biomedical engineers or chemists. While some people like to compare the h-indices too broadly, between fields with vastly different dynamics, as it makes them feel superior or something, that’s just silly; I think (hope?) that most reasonable people understand this fallacy in the use of the h-index.

However, I want to discuss the use of the h-index for very junior folks. The h-index can certainly emphasize that an individual is unusually creative or high-impact, but let’s face it: unless we are dealing with math or theoretical physics or another endeavor where the intellectual labor of a single individual  spawns a paper, it’s the teams, and sometimes very large ones, that are behind each paper in the physical and biological sciences. If you are in a productive, successful group, where people are not particularly stingy about co-authorship, you can achieve a pretty high h-index largely by association.

A couple of years ago, we were selecting from among several candidates for the department best-dissertation awards. The award went, against my protests, to a young person who had the highest h-index. Mind you, the h-index was high because this person did research in a great group as an undergrad, and had a number of papers where they were author number 7 or 8 among about 15; then they were a member of a team in grad school, where again there were many papers with the person author number 4 or 5. Now compare this with the work of someone who had 5 or 6 first-author publication in the last two years of their PhD. These papers were fewer in number and likely not highly cited at the point of graduation, owing to the short time (most just got out when we considered the award nominees). In contrast, the well-plugged-in first person had a fairly high h-index, as they were part of strong and prolific groups for a long time, making a minor contribution to each paper, but the papers were more numerous and out for longer and had the time to get cited (in case you are wondering, that person only had one first-author paper).

Anyway, h-index is not evil, it’s a just number.  It’s the people who can be misinformed, lazy, or simply self-serving and manipulative in how they utilize it.  Then again, people would abuse any other available metric as well; at least this one is transparent and easy to calculate.

(Btw, everyone should make a Google Scholar profile. It’s very pretty. And people google your citation count anyway, you might as well have some control over what they see.)

Notes from the Search

We have been interviewing and it’s been quite exhausting. But, the process reveals more about the colleagues with whom I interact in regards to the search than it does about the candidates.

My school is a large and reputable public school and the department ranks about 15th in the discipline. We are no MIT or Stanford, but we are nothing to sneeze at, so I think it makes sense to look for a candidate who actually wants to come here, as opposed to someone who is settling for us. No one knows what tomorrow brings, but I want a candidate who, at the time of signing the contract with us, is genuinely excited about joining the department and enthusiastic about all the years of hard work and collaborations ahead.

I don’t want a candidate who is taking this offer because we were the safety school and they didn’t get any offers from any of the several schools where they also interviewed, all located in a specific, widely desirable part of the country far from here. This candidate will likely be out of here before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” because they never actually wanted to be here anyway.

One straw-man counter-argument that was raised is why would you want someone who can’t leave? You want someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want.

I don’t want someone who can’t leave. I want someone who can but doesn’t want to leave, at least not before the ink dries on the contract. Yes, I want us to hire someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want, and who has multiple offers, but who actually chooses to be here. I don’t want us to hire someone whom no one else wants; however, I also don’t want someone (no matter how good they seem) who feels that we are beneath their level and who will be looking for the first chance to upgrade.

Signing that tenure-track contract is like getting married — you better be enthusiastic about it on your wedding day, otherwise what’s the point? Sure, people “get divorced” from their institutions and move on, but if you don’t actually want to be doing it from the get-go, better not do it at all.  Start-ups cost money, searches require energy and time. I know that the loss of each faculty member due to moving or retirement disrupts the department. I don’t like the attitude that we should be grateful to get the “best possible person” if even for a few years. That argument is based on a fallacy that there is such a thing as “The One Best Possible Person”; there are plenty of very good and excellent people who would do great if given the chance.  I don’t want someone who will be entirely focused on getting out of here from day 1, I cannot imagine such a person would be a very good colleague or collaborator or contributor to the department.


Another interesting issue came up. We have a candidate who is fairly polished, but the past work is not particularly original. However, the candidate does give off the same vibe as one of our best-funded people, so I am confident the candidate will be  be successful in the game of schmoozing with program managers. Another candidate is less polished but much more creative and intellectually unique. Some people have raised concerns that the latter candidate might not be successful in talking to grant managers.

Look, I am not deluded, I fully understand that you cannot do science without money. But I really don’t understand when the ability to sell, and sell hard, became the most important criterion in recruitment. I would like to think that a person who has interesting and varied ideas and is not a douche could be trained to write grants, alone and with collaborators. I don’t know that you can actually train someone to become original or creative. Are we supposed to do the best science, and raise the money to support it, or are we supposed to raise the money, regardless of what it’s for?


Bias rears its ugly head. People are really, really drawn to the candidates to whom they are very similar.

  • For several searches in a row, a colleague always favors a candidate from the same country of origin, even when others in-area unanimously favor someone else. (That same colleague also collaborates only with compatriots and only brings in students from the same country. This cannot be a good thing.)
  • Some colleagues will penalize a candidate for having a presentation style and general demeanor different from their own; we have a subarea that is starting to look like it’s populated by clones or, at the very least, siblings.
  • Chubby candidates seem to fare worse than thin ones; I wish it weren’t true, but it is. No matter how well they present, they are never perceived to be quite as polished as the very thin ones, especially by the very thin and polished members of the faculty. This makes me want to eat a cookie.