Month: July 2014

Start Date ASAP

When I was last hiring a postdoc, I had no problem waiting several months for the candidate I really liked. Sure, we all want the person to start the second the grant starts, but it’s understandable that it would unlikely happen that a good candidate  would have his previous appointment end simultaneously with the grant money appearing in my account. The postdoc had been awesome and recently became a PI.

Now, I have a student who is getting ready to graduate, but we are waiting for him to find a postdoc. The student is excellent, one of the best I have ever had. We were able to get the student a very unique and valuable semester-long opportunity, but he had to commit to be here for the whole semester and he did.

Lo and behold, very recently there emerged a postdoc opportunity with a group that had previously said they would not have the money, but now they do and they basically want him to start ASAP.

A couple of years ago, another colleague also pressured one my students to finish ASAP and come do the postdoc; the colleague was relentless in checking “Is he done yet? When is he going to be done?”As a result, the student didn’t finish some work that he had promised to do, and the work will likely never be completed.

I am not even angry, I know people need to move on with their lives. And this student has been great and productive.

I just hate the situation.

I don’t expect the corporate world to give a fuck about what the institution where their soon-to-be employee got their PhD degree and I, the professor who trained said employee, want or need because we were the ones having in place contingencies so the student would be able to eat and pay the rent while looking for a job. Companies care about their own bottom line, and for the most part a student joining a company is leaving academia for good. It would be best if the student didn’t have to burn any bridges in the process, but to many a big paycheck is worth a bridge or two.

But it really pisses me off when fellow professors, who really should know better, don’t give a $hit about the things that the student promised to do in the next few months; all they care about is that the new postdoc materialize at their institution and start working on their stuff ASAP. The arrangements that were in place to take care of the student for the next few months in the event of no follow-up position are of no consequence. Where is fuckin’ professional courtesy? Why are you putting the screws on another person’s student, making the colleague a monster who won’t let the student move on with life if they don’t adhere to your schedule, and forcing  the student to be a no-good promise breaker?

If I really like the applicant, I will wait for him or her a reasonable amount of time. There is nothing worse than a bad postdoc (except perhaps two bad postdocs), but a good postdoc is worth his or her weight in gold and can energize the whole group. I will wait several months for such a candidate. Better to have  a good candidate for 2.5 years than a mediocre one for 3. And I understand that there is another colleague at the other end of that transaction, one who has trained my candidate so well,  and that I should be respectful of both the candidate and the colleague and try to accommodate their arrangements.

But apparently I am alone in this attitude and selfish is the way to go.  And I cannot really blame the student for wanting to grab onto the opportunity.


I wanted to call this post something like “A Post on Cost”, which would only be awesome if “post” and “cost” rhymed… Looking at their spelling you’d think they do, but one of the mind-boggling properties of the English language is that spelling and pronunciation are like two second cousins twice removed: sort of related, but few people can actually explain how exactly.

* DH and I got our parking assignments. We will be paying nearly $2k pre-tax for parking for our two cars, nearly $500 over last year’s cost. Seeing the number made my heart sink, but we have tried carpooling and it’s too much hassle. We have multiple kids with various schedules, someone always has to leave early or late, and the parking garage is adjacent to a building where major events take place so it is often full and you can’t get in unless you are a permit-holder.

* In an attack of boredom mixed with anxiety over my kids’ future, more specifically DH’s and my financial preparation for the college aspect of said future, I went online and looked at college costs for about 3 min. My entirely unsystematic search revealed the following pattern:

Private schools (tuition plus cost of living) are $55-65k. Harvard and MIT, total cost  is circa $60k (they hilariously differ by about $30). There are places that cost slightly more than Harvard, like Vandebilt (!), by about $850, or Northwestern, by upward of  $3k. Swarthmore is Harvard+$1.6k, Dartmouth equals Harvard+$4k. I wonder what it is that you get for $65k.

Large public schools are about $20-35k, total cost, for residents. Then they diverge in terms of how much they cost for nonresidents. One the one hand, you have places like UC Berkeley and UCLA, where the cost for residents is $32k but for non-residents it’s additional $23k in tuition, so it ends up costing just like a private school. On the other hand, you have places where the in- v. out-of-state tuition differential is not that huge, like the University of Minnesota at $26k for residents, plus $6.5k for nonresidents. UIUC is in between, with $30k for residents, plus $15k for nonresidents. Florida State university is $21k for residents, additional $15k for out-of-staters.

I am sure I am surprising no one who’s been through the US college system or has had kids in it with the fact that these are all huge amounts of money. There is no way DH and I can pay for private school for our kids, that would be like paying off another house per kid. And that’s not even counting that by the time the third is out of daycare, we will have paid about $250-300k in total daycare costs (about $20k per kid per year) . Kids cost a lot of fuckin’ money. There is no way we can pay three more times that for them to go to a private or even many out-of-state public universities.

If we can help it, we don’t want our kids to be saddled with debt before they even start their life. The system where I went to school was such that college admission was extremely selective, but those who got to attend did so for free, and I am in hindsight very grateful for that, even though I took it for granted at the time. The prices people are supposed to pay here are just ridiculous. Even a good state university requires $100-120k for 4 years, which I am sure if well beyond many people’s abilities. DH and I are not poverty-stricken, but we are definitely not rich enough for Dartmouth. Or its apparently lesser cousin Harvard.

Sure, you pay for the name brand and connections, and you pay for shiny gyms and residence halls, but do the kids really get so much more in terms of education at a $60k/yr versus $25k/yr school? Is freakin’ Vanderbilt worth $61k per year; do these overpriced schools give one so much of a leg up in the world? These are huge sums of money we are talking about for anyone from the middle class.

What do or did you do to pay for college, or your kids’ college? Did you/do you pay for the kids, combine loans with parental funding, have kids work along with loans? Pros and cons?


Ride It Like You Stole It

I have had a very productive summer so far. Also, two very long papers, where I was dreading protracted battles with referees, came back with glowing reviews and requests for minor revisions, so I am feeling very positive about my job these days. For a change, I thought it might write about work when I am actually upbeat about it, as opposed to in my usual grouchy mood.

In a comment to one of my earlier posts,  Anonymous PI discussed his/her battle with the impostor syndrome:

As a new PI, I’m feeling really sunk. I managed to land two grants this year but had only one pub, and I can’t get myself to move on my two really exciting projects because I’m paralyzed by fear that others are beating me to the results and that I’m not good enough to tackle the problems anyway. I don’t think I have the intellectual chops to be here. Where oh where can I get the courage? I’ve read Valerie Young, I’ve been trying in vain to get therapy, and meanwhile every day feels like an awkward performance where I pretend things are fine to my colleagues. I wish I could do research in a vacuum. Or be a confident guy.

My response, on which this post is based, is here.

Gasstationwithoutpumps also has a post on the same topic today, with links to some good posts from Medium and Slate, as well as some of my old posts (from Academic Jungle: Underachieving; Beer, Fries, and Impostors; The Sucky and Awesome of Academia; from Xykademiqz: Potential and Ambition; Tenure Denials; You Got Tenure, Now What?; The Tenure Track, Illustrated).

Briefly, the impostor syndrome refers to feeling like a fraud (despite objective evidence to the contrary), felling like you have no idea what you are doing and don’t deserve the job/award/promotion/congratulations/cookie, that you instead lucked out and stumbled/dropped/slipped on a banana peel then fell into the undeserved coveted “it”, that any minute now someone is going to discover your true “shouldn’t-be-there-anyway” colors and and take it all away.

The impostor syndrome seems to be quite common in highly competitive fields; in fields with drastic overrepresentation of a certain race and/or gender,  people from underrepresented groups suffer from it virtually by default. I believe (based largely on blogosphere anecdata) that the impostor syndrome it is quite common among academics, and you can pretty much count on women and minority academics in STEM fields to suffer from it. This is not to say that white dudes (and, in some fields, also Asian dudes) are not susceptible to it, it just means that if there’s anyone who does not suffer from the impostor syndrome, or suffers from the opposite Dunning-Kruger effect (grossly overestimating own competence largely due to actual incompetence), your chances of finding those specimens are highest in the dominant cohort.

The point of today’s post is: You have impostor syndrome. It may lessen but it’s probably never going away, so instead of wishing you didn’t have it, it’s best to focus on finding ways to be productive nonetheless. How to go about it differs with career stage.

I have been a professor for a decade now. I feel less like an impostor now than I did while I was on the tenure track. The feeling was initially sort of justified, in that I really didn’t know how to do the job; nobody really does when they first start out. But that’s not being an impostor, that’s just  being a baby academic. The tenure track at research institutions is brutal (I’m not saying it’s not at other types of institutions, I just have no first-hand experience) and the learning curve is pretty steep.

At some point I realized that I would never be rid of feeling like an impostor, but along  the way I have learned to muffle the nagging voice and not let it block me, not let it prevent me from doing what I wanted to do for extended periods of time; I still have very down-in-the-dumps days, which are best dealt with by going home early. The impostor syndrome likely impedes my achievement somewhat; without it I’d likely do more or do better work or whatever, but the point is I don’t think it will ever go away, and I have accepted that. I think we spend a lot of time online discussing how it’s unfair that some people feel it and all the ways in which it hinders them. But I realized there is no point in lamenting what would happen if I didn’t feel like an impostor. I do feel like one, and that’s that, but with experience I have found ways to work around it and just get stuff done. We get hung up on this romantic ideal that a person should feel free and unencumbered by doubts while doing their academic work, otherwise they are doing it all wrong and should be doing something else instead. Yet, most adults do boring and uninspiring jobs for a living, and I would take my academic job, with big dollops of self-doubt, over pretty much any other job in the world any day of the week. So I just focus on getting stuff done, really hard. Feeling happy about myself is not a requirement for getting stuff done. I know how to do this job, so I can do it  even when doubting myself. Doing leads to accomplishments, and then I feel good for a millisecond, or three. Then it’s on to the next thing anyway.

For me, working with students really helps with the impostor syndrome. Sometimes I get a really nasty paper or proposal review, then feel down and ask what the point is and who cares and whether I am really stupid or uninspired. And I feel like shit for a few days. But then I have students and I cannot be too down for them. They expect me to have my shit together and to know what we will do next and to tell them that we will revise and resubmit and that things will work out really well. And for them I act as if I have my shit together, I go through the motions, imitating someone who does have their shit together, and in going through the motions, in faking it, I actually do get things done and things do eventually work out.

However, this is me after years of experience. How do you fight feeling like a fraud while you are still new and relatively inexperienced, while you are on the tenure track?

So you fear you don’t have what it takes, that you shouldn’t be in your tenure-track position, that you have somehow managed to fool numerous astute people over many years about your abilities. (Of course, in reality, all the people who have been writing recommendation letters for you, and all the people who interviewed and hired you are not stupid. Nobody is into charitable hiring. If you don’t believe yourself, believe in their judgement. They would not have hired you if they didn’t think you had what it took.) But let’s say you did fool everyone, what’s the worst that could happen? What is it that you fear? That somebody, everybody, will discover you are a fraud? Well then, since you are headed for certain ruin and disrepute, you could curl up into a ball and not do any work and ensure that the doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or you could make the time before they inevitably find you out count, right?

Let’s say you don’t really deserve to be here. So what? That’s life, people get things they don’t deserve, good and bad, all the time. Are you going to give your job back? Of course not, don’t be stupid. You don’t actually owe it to anybody supposedly more meritorious to give up your position, no matter how many schmucks on the internet say that women or minorities have is soooo easy because they only have jobs owing to quotas and affirmative action. Even if what the schmucks are saying were true,  that still doesn’t mean that any of them are in fact entitled to or even worthy of your job, no matter what they think and what they want you to think. This is your tenure track job now, you got it, end of story.

You have this amazing opportunity to be your own boss and do science with smart young people, pursuing any direction you like (for the definition of “like” being “can get extramural funding for”). Yet you feel unworthy, apparently believing that the job belongs to someone else, someone more worthy? So then ride that tenure track job like you stole it, because you sure feel like you did;  hold onto it with both hands, scream loudly so everyone can hear you about how fuckin’ ecstatic you are to have it, and work as hard as you possibly can because it is such an amazing gift. Work with wild abandon, because if it’s true that you are not meant to be there, they will come and kick you out, so you might as well make what little time you have count.

And in working like there’s no tomorrow, you will accomplish things, and the accomplishments will slowly but surely loosen the grip that the little voice has on you, even if it never goes away.



People Who Are Soooooooo Much Busier Than You

A colleague once told me this great Chinese proverb:

“Time is like water in a sponge; if you try really hard, you can always squeeze out some more.”

So very true. People will always find the time for the things they want to do, end of story. If you can’t find the time for something, that just means you don’t actually want to do it. At least, I am like that and I assume others are as well; after all, it wouldn’t be a proverb for nothing.

In professional communication, saying “I’m too busy” is often a perfectly fine euphemism for “I don’t really want to do this thing right now (or possibly ever), sorry.” After all, a lot of academic work is work for free (refereeing papers, partaking on conference program committees) or for absolutely minimal compensation (e.g. serving on NSF panels, proposal review), and just because I ask for something doesn’t mean that you have to care enough to try to find the time.

But when you are too busy to look at a paper on which you are a coauthor, to which you contributed infinitesimally yet don’t have the courtesy to take self off the author list?
That’s just being a pub-blocking douche. Know that I hate your guts for it. Either $hit or get off the can — comment promptly or say it’s fine to go as is.

I hate the people who go around bolstering about how busy they are and who generally busy themselves with the business of out-busying everyone. For some, it’s a way to show that they are superior and more in demand than you. Maybe for some it’s a way to hide the fact that they are not actually all that busy. And I am sure for many that means they don’t have their priorities straight and/or are inefficient; working with them drives me bonkers.

There is a guy I know from graduate school who has for years now been going progressively more and more on my fuckin’ nerves about his busyness.
A few weeks ago he sent me an email devoted entirely to how unbelievably busy he was; it was a full paragraph, multiple-sentences long,
but without a single punctuation mark. Apparently, when you get to be really truly busy, punctuation has to go. Before you think he had some unusual crunch at work, he didn’t. The email content was the same as ever. He works for a company, as do many other people, but he works from home, has no kids, and is part of a dual career couple; when he’s not whining about how much busier than everyone else on Earth he is, he takes long vacations in exotic places. So waaaaah, waaaah, cry me a fuckin’ river.

When I was in grad school, my PhD advisor had a big group. He and a few other faculty had an administrative assistant, C, who was the most efficient and organized person I had ever met in my life: Whatever any of the students or faculty needed, she did impeccably, never needed to be asked twice, and she never actually looked busy. In contrast, the department chair’s secretary was ironically one of the worst assistants in the department (so said everyone), and was constantly dying under the piles of paperwork; you routinely had to ask her twice or three times to get anything done, and things were often wrong. This was a perfect example of busyness being anti-correlated with doing anything useful.

I have some collaborators who are very difficult when it comes to scheduling anything, nominally willing, but each meeting requires me to endlessly wait to hear back from them and people exchanging numerous emails. If I say what everyone is thinking “You know, you don’t actually want to schedule this, why don’t I do it without you as I see fit, and you do whatever it is that you prefer doing,” then I am too impatient, too emotional, and generally not academic-politics-savvy. Some friends are like that too; it takes many weeks so schedule a dinner. WTF? Why is it such a big deal? Just pick a night and come over, why does it have to be so complicated? Or should I again assume you don’t actually want to do this, ever?

The thing is, the proverb above definitely works for me. When something is important, I will make the time. I have a small number of very high, ironclad priorities, and I will make time for them at the expense of a whole bunch of other $hit, probably more so now than before tenure. I have colleagues who have some sort of priority-insensitive pipeline; things just get into the pipeline and then get tended to when they get tended to. Nope, not here. Submitting grant applications is an intermittent but very important and time-sensitive priority, it bumps everything else. Not so time sensitive, but no less important, is editing papers to submit sooner rather than later; it bumps a whole bunch of other stuff down or off the pipeline. Seeing my students when they need to talk to me is a very high priority. In general, anything that’s instrumental to the careers of junior people whom I support is a high priority [e.g. promptly writing letters of recommendation for my trainees; promptly responding with my availability (or lack thereof) when someone else’s student needs to schedule PhD defense]. During the semester, teaching is a very high priority (emails, homework assignment and solutions postings, exam grading).

Also, I don’t procrastinate with the stupid $hit that is key to getting the important things done and off the table, like returning proof corrections. It drives me crazy when people sit on them for a week — just read through the damn thing and send it in! In general, our job offers plenty of busy work that is necessary to complete in order for the harder, intellectually demanding work to get done. A good example is doing the proposal boilerplate (biosketch, budget and budget justification, data management statement, equipment description, etc.); I kinda enjoy working on the boilerplate, as it’s like foreplay before getting to the hard stuff  (see what I did there?).

The tl;dr version of this post is — I kind of hate you if you constantly complain that you are busy. I think you are either not busy but lying, seeking to get the upper hand/admiration, or just don’t have the guts to tell me that you don’t want to do what I asked. In the off chance it’s none of the three, you need to get shit together and get your priorities straight and get organized. Especially if other people’s education and careers depend on you.


Funding Acknowledgements

Here’s a pretty common scenario in regards to coauthorship on papers from my group. Student A works on a certain project for which I have funding from a federal agency, grant GR1. I, Prof X, also draw some salary support from that grant, so you can say that I am funded for my work on said project by that salary on GR1. But, in addition to Student A and myself, there’s also Student B who does something else and is funded by grant GR2, but has given some code to Student A and has spent a fair bit of time training and troubleshooting with Student A by virtue of having related expertise and broad interests. Also, we have Postdoc, who again has his own projects, but has on many occasions shot the breeze with Student A and has contributed some key insights, again because they have related expertise. Postdoc is funded by GR3.

In my opinion, there is no doubt that everyone here should be a coauthor, and usually the author list will be: Student A, Postdoc, Student B, and Prof. X (or Postdoc and Student B change places, depending on who was actually more instrumental in the paper coming together).

Now comes the tricky part. How do you acknowledge the funding?

The reason I am asking is that there seems to be quite a tightening in the federal oversight to ensure there is no duplication of work, and several program managers have communicated that people have recently gotten into legal trouble for seemingly (or actually) getting money for the same work twice. As a result, program managers are being very specific in terms of how the acknolwedgements on grants are supposed to be written in order to avoid ambiguity.

In the case of the paper above, this is what I would write. “This work was primarily supported by Agency 1, grant GR1 (Student A and Prof. X). Partial support was provided by Agency 2, grant GR2 (Postdoc) and Agency 3, grant GR3 (Student B).” Apparently, this way of acknowledging funding is borderline OK, so I hear, so I am legally likely fine, but instead of separating by who is funded by what, they would much prefer it if we delineated by the work done under each funding string rather than the persons funded.

This is what really bothers me in regards to the type of the work I do. Maybe it’s not quite so dire in lab work, or I could be imagining, but in experimental work people can actually perform parts of complicated experiments for one another, so you could say “transmission-electron microscopy was funded by grant 11, crystal growth was funded by grant 22,” because the student who’s an expert in crystal growth of that particular compound grows materials for everyone and is funded by 22, while the transmission-electron microscopy whiz is funded by grant 11. But when you do theory and computation, all the actual work is done by you. It’s not like anyone will sit down and write a thousand lines of code just for you. They may give you chunks of their code if appropriate, but how do you acknowledge that? Maybe I should write “the work on adaptive meshing for Complicated Partial Differential Equation was funded by grant 33,” when all that means is that Student B gave his routine to Student A and spent some time discussing how it would be implemented for Student A’s project. Also, we talk and draw on the board and look at figures a lot. When you do theory and especially computation, literally nothing can happen unless you really, really know what you are doing — there is no simulation unless you actually write the code; there is no physical system to probe, you first have to (reliably!) create it on a computer, only then can you play with it — so it is absolutely critical to read and talk and scrutinize and brainstorm and test and test and test… And finally build some intuition. If talking with someone has helped you dramatically to build your intuition, and they have contributed key insights into your project, how do you acknowledge that? “Coming up with the explanation following Figs. 2-4 was funded in part by grant GR2?” “The work that led to us all finally understanding why that curve had a crossover was funded by 44?”
(And don’t even get me started on having short papers and having to devote a whole paragraph to elaborate acknowledgements.)

Now, you could ask — why aren’t your postdoc and Student B actually compensated for their time spent on this project from the grant that funds it, GR1?
Because I have better things to do than track every second of every group member’s mental activity. Also, it’s completely insane and at odds with how science is done. My group members each have their own projects to which they devote most of their time, and those projects have funds associate with them, which are acknowledged as primary support on papers where the appropriate group member is first author. But they should be able to talk to whomever they like, and they should definitely be able to talk as much as they want about work with their fellow group members. That’s what team science is all about — we are smarter and more productive when we work together.

I don’t know, maybe there are people who double- or triple-dip. I certainly don’t and I think most people don’t. I really don’t see how I would even get funded for work with too much overlap anyway, there are multiple points during peer review to make sure that doesn’t happen; we certainly scrutinize overlap during NSF panels. It really irks me that now I have to think about creative ways to convince some new layers of federal bureaucracy that we are not abusing their funds, lest we get into legal trouble.

What I Do All Summer


I absent-mindedly sketched this with a marker, with the intention of doing a clean version later (pencil first, then ink). But I actually like the rough version; it captures the frenzy.

For nonacademic readers: NSF, DOE, AFOSR, and ONR are federal funding agencies that fund research in the physical sciences (NSF also funds biological and social sciences).  SPO stands for Sponsored Programs Office, the university staff that work on grant administration. The F&A rate is the so-called overhead rate and is anywhere between 40 and 70%, depending on the institution. It means that on top of every dollar  you request for research, you need to request an additional 40 to 70 cents, which go directly to the university in order for it to help you do research (at least in theory). PRL, PRB, APL are reputable journals in the physical sciences (PRL is very prestigious and publishes papers across all physics). Nature is a high-profile magazine that publishes research across all fields of science.