Month: July 2015

Notes from the Road 5

After this post, some commenters have been wondering about my origins. There are many countries in Europe that would fit the description of tiny and inconsequential (whether or not their citizens are willing to admit it). Knowing which one specifically I am from would probably not bring much excitement or illumination to most of my readership.

Now, finding out that I am secretly Martian, or royalty, or a 60-year-old truck driver named Big Mike who suffers from hypertension and enjoys ballroom dancing — now those would be fun revelations!

I can also vouch that even finding the identity of a pseudonymous academic blogger is essentially anticlimactic. I mean, who could the person possibly be? Unless they are a Houdini-like master of deception (which sounds quite exhausting and I can’t understand why anyone would want to impersonate a professor), the person turns out to be who they say they are: another faculty member at some school, working in a field likely different from yours.

I mean, it would be a revelation to find out that a colleague from down the hall, who I am willing to bet doesn’t even read blogs, is in fact FSP. Or it would be fun to find out that CPP worked as a male stripper to put himself through college, or that DM spent his youth smoking (and dealing!) pot. But other than that, they are just people doing the same job elsewhere and in a different field. I think we are generally fine not knowing one another in meat space; it doesn’t add anything to the online experience. Besides, as a few bloggy friends who know me can vouch, and to paraphrase nicoleandmaggie, I am probably cooler online than in real life.


I spent a lot of time with my former PhD advisor, and we had a great time and a lot of beer. The topics of inspiration and the passion for work and regretting the time spent or not spent on work or on family came up. He is still as passionate about his work as ever, in his mid-70s’, and he mentioned this quote from Steve McQueen’s movie “Le Mans” (I haven’t seen it):

Lisa Belgetti: When people risk their lives, shouldn’t it be for something very important? Michael Delaney: Well, it better be. Lisa Belgetti: But what is so important about driving faster than anyone else? Michael Delaney: Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.

Isn’t that a great quote? Science is important to the people who do it well. When you are immersed in the work, nothing else matters. It is hard for people who are not particularly good at much to understand it.

I am constantly guilt-ridden that I don’t enjoy homemaking or playing with my kids or other womanly pursuits very much; I simply enjoy working more. (Some people feel they should come to tell me that I shouldn’t have had kids in that case. If you feel the urge to say that, don’t; instead, ask yourself why you think only women with no professional ambition or drive are supposed to procreate, or worse, why you think women have to squash their professional lives in the service of family.) I crave the mental stimulation and, as much as I love my kids, family life doesn’t scratch that itch. Legos and plastic animals can get very boring very fast (especially by kid No 3); shopping for curtains or home decorating never even manages to rise beyond the level of tedious. Perhaps I am a horrible person, but somehow I don’t think the male version of me would ever obsess about this.


I just got a resubmission of a paper to review. The first time around, I requested extensive edits, while the other referee accepted with minor revisions. In the response letter, I am amused by how the other referee was thanked for “his/her comments,” while in my case “we thank the referee for his comments… In his point No xx, the referee says…” The authors sort of recognize the existence of women referees, but us ladies must be the softie referee, certainly never the hardliner. Tee-hee.


I am coming home soon, I can’t wait. En route, I came across this delicious overpriced latte with a gloriously firm head of foam: Latte

Notes from the Road 4

(I am unusually grouchy today, so calibrate accordingly.)

Many speakers are really not very good. Most, in fact.

No matter how cool your slides are, nothing helps if you are an anemic speaker, boring as hell and unable to make a point.

This one guy was speaking very, very slowly, ending every sentence with lowered intonation, even when asking a rhetorical question. And every time he’d open his mouth, there was this annoying “plyah” lip smacking sound.

I know people get colds and coughs, dry mouths, allergies, and whatnot. I don’t even understand why this ticks me off, but it does: why do people have to stop to drink water during a 20-30 min talk? Seriously, you have to take a sip 10 min into a talk? Don’t you ever teach? Do you stop to drink water throughout a lecture? Sheesh.

It’s interesting to note how former young rising stars have become considerably fatter and middle-aged. And perhaps not quite the stars they were rising to be.

The green laser pointer is a dangerous weapon of mass distraction. Many people have unsteady hands, owing to age or nervousness; pointing at something on the screen usually results in a crazy dance of a bright green dot. It’s good there are no cats in the audience.


I am amazed at some of the work my European colleagues do. It is technically good work, don’t get me wrong, but there is no way they would be able to keep working on such esoteric stuff for so long anywhere in the US; there simply would not be any funding for them. I know that in some (perhaps many) European countries the professors don’t have to pay for PhD students or any of their own salary, but can apply for grants to cover postdocs and travel. Having baseline institutional support for students without fearing you’d completely go studentless due to the boom-bust nature of funding in the US definitely has a bearing on the type of projects you can embark on. Whenever I have a new idea, something I would like to do, the first question is “How am going to get money to do that?” Often the answer is “There is no way I will ever get that funded,” which means I don’t pursue it despite interest.

As much as I hate the idea that I don’t get to work on some interesting topics because the current funding climate is not conducive to supporting them,  there is something to be said for the exercise of grant writing: having to pull your thought together, think longer term, and convince other people that what you do is correct, important, and novel (dare I say “transformative”?) is not necessarily a bad thing. Proposal writing definitely forces you to clarify your thinking. Some ideas are not very important and should not be pursued. If the funding rates were 30% or so, then I believe the fundability would have a strong correlation with importance. These days, the 10% or less funding rates at the NSF are simply too low and too much good science doesn’t get done.

I resent the fact that I continuously have to think about (read: scout for) new funding opportunities. There is no time to just think and do science, because you blink and the 3-year-grant has expired.


At the workshop last week, I made a comment on how next time I hope there would be at least another woman present. A student said “I thought you’d be used to it by now.” I didn’t want to tear him a new a$$hole or come off as an unhinged harpy, so I didn’t press on the ridiculousness of his claim: the fact that someone is used to something, i.e., no longer surprised by it, doesn’t make whatever they are used to right. Just because something is routine doesn’t mean that it should not be fixed.

I am definitely used to being the only or one of very few women around in technical meetings. Sure, people usually notice me, and I hear that getting noticed is important. However, they usually start by assuming I am someone’s significant other or someone’s student or postdoc (getting older helps with the latter). The fact that someone notices me doesn’t mean they think I am a worthwhile scientist, and there is a big jump from being noticed to being remembered for the right reasons and then to being extended an invitation to present your work.

Dudes, dudes, everywhere.



Notes from the Road 3

I am very, very happy with the local beer.

Note to long-haired Americans traveling to Europe: bring your own conditioner. Seriously. In the US, it’s common to expect shampoo, body wash, and conditioner in every hotel room, so I typically don’t pack them (I am not very high maintenance and like to pack light, so I will happily use what’s provided in the room). You cannot expect to find conditioner in hotels throughout Europe; in fact, you can expect not to find it. Packing a small container of conditioner is very high on my priority list ever since I spent a very painful conference week, years ago, trying to comb my hair in the shower without it.

Do pack band-aids. I have already had to use two. Bare elbows and bare feet, when combined with heat, result in scraped skin. Ouch!

On the plane yesterday afternoon, I was silently cracking up as one of the flight attendants kept talking about “ground stuff.” I am sure he meant ground staff, as in ground crew (it had to do with some teens flying solo and being very upset about their luggage being left behind), and I swear he must have said “ground stuff” 15 times. I kept envisioning hamburger meat handling people’s luggage, and it cheered me up to no end.

On the same flight, I stared reading “Running with Scissors.” It was hilarious and terrifying, I could not put it down. So I stayed up till 3 am to finish it and,  just like that, I screwed up my flimsy post-jet-lag quasi-equilibrium, and have been groggy all day today.

I met up with my former PhD advisor and we had a great dinner. Great beer, great food, and great conversation. He is getting quite old, so it’s nice to be able to hang out while he still travels (admittedly, he has the travel stamina of a much younger person).

I Skyped with two of my students, it was very productive.

I miss my kids.

Notes from the Road 2

* I am in one of the most famous and most beautiful cities in Europe. I have visited it before. It is a lovely European city. It is not unlike the city I was born in.

I find I have no desire to live here, ever. I find the buildings are old, the apartments small. Everything is very expensive.

It’s interesting how a place — the US, for me — can start to feel more like home by way of every other place becoming less and less appealing by comparison.
When I first moved to the US, I longed for home. Then for a while I imagined I could live in a more prosperous version of home, somewhere in the first-world countries of Europe.
Now I don’t long for my ancestral home, and I don’t envision myself anywhere in Europe.  I have been irreversibly and thoroughly Americanized.

But I admit, I would not mind coming here or elsewhere for a sabbatical, mostly to improve my German, which has become quite rusty. I used to be able to carry a conversation or watch TV in German; now I fear my limit is ordering food or getting transportation.

* It is very hot outside. As I seem to keep forgetting, air-conditioning is far from ubiquitous in Europe. My hotel had it, but the seminar room where I spent most of the two days didn’t and neither did the restaurants we went to. I have felt sticky non-stop. The airport is judiciously cooled — e.g. not in the toilet stalls, but yes around the sinks (because we really want that $hit to stink, don’t we?). The check-in and gate areas are air-conditioned, but still pretty warm by most US-airport standards.

* I had forgotten how numerous the immigrants from the Middle East are in Europe. I look at those poor fully draped and veiled women roasting in this heat and humidity, and then look at their male “guardians” in shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts… Inhumane.

* Having lived in the American Midwest for over a decade, I have access to very good and varied local beer; I am very particular about my beer. Yesterday’s trip to a Biergarten (in case it’s not obvious, it’s a beer garden, basically the restaurant part of a brewery) was disappointing beer-wise, but very fun company-wise.

* I gave a talk and spent two pretty intense days at a technical workshop with several people who work with a very niche technique, one that I also work with (among others). I really enjoy this aspect of science, where we really get together and openly share what we think the problems are, and we brainstorm ideas and talk about real solutions. We actually managed to tease out a few technical nitty-gritty details over food and drinks. I love when that happens. There may be some collaborative papers emerging from the workshop, which is what I would consider travel money well spent.

* The older I am, the more I enjoy talking about science. I think it has to do with me knowing more and, perhaps more importantly, with me believing I know a lot, having very specific opinions, and being confident about articulating and defending them.

* Whenever I think I am hot stuff, or when I think I am a worthless piece of turd, I should make myself fly somewhere, preferably far away and with a long layover. As much as I hate the hassle of travel and generally being on planes, I love airports and engaging in a favorite sport: people watching. So many folks, all different, all so important and yet so unimportant. It reminds me that I am just one puny human. I could vanish this instant and the world would keep spinning; no one except my immediate family would give a $hit. I personally spend too much time in my head, taking myself too seriously. Being reminded of my own irrelevance is strangely liberating.

* As has always been my experience, even when I was a student, graduate students magically become more productive when the PhD advisor leaves town. Sadly, this phenomenon does not take place when I am in town but ignore them. Thus far, I have received 2 revised drafts to look at while traveling and I will be Skyping with two students today and tomorrow evening.

* Off to board a flight to another European metropolis, where I am to give another talk and attend another conference. And I am very much looking forward to the excellent beer!

Notes from the Road 1

I have landed in a beautiful European metropolis, which is not in my country of birth. I have about 30 min before I have to rush to some talks.

After getting a cab at the airport, the cabby and I first spoke in German, then in English; eventually he asked where in the US I was from, to which I responded, but he didn’t have the slightest idea where that was, so I told him where I was originally from, and — lo and behold — we are from the same country.

We switched to our native tongue, at which point the cabby proceeded to teach me how Americans really are, because obviously I have no idea, having lived in the US for 15+ years. Of course, he does, because he drives Americans to and from the airport all the time (his words). *eyeroll*

I heard how he could never live in the US, because Americans are stupid and uneducated and gullible (they are likely exceedingly polite listening to him ramble during the ride). But then he also had some choice words for the natives of the country I’m currently in — cold, distant, and apparently “too gay” (?!) — so he seems to be a broad-spectrum basher.

There is a bit of a sport in Europe and elsewhere, and I am ashamed to admit I used to engage in that sport once upon a time, which is “Let’s all talk about how  stupid Americans are.” There is a variant reserved for meeting an American in person, which goes like “Let me tell you how your people are stupid, uneducated, how your history is only a few centuries long; how your educational system produces only idiots.” I have seen many of my American friends endure this self-righteous badgering with surprisingly good humor.

I don’t play that game any more and I feel quite offended when people try to engage me. First of all, the US is my country now; my kids are Americans, they don’t have any other identity. Second, Americans are far from stupid and they work insanely hard. They are at a disadvantage because of poor funding for education and the rampant unregulated capitalism that makes everyone constantly $hit their pants with anxiety over where the next paycheck is coming from.

But this little incident also reminded me of one of my least favorite traits of my people: a tiny country of no consequence but with an outsize national ego, with every citizen thinking they are an intellectual giant and a god’s gift to mankind, not realizing that people view them as ridiculous petulant children.

I tipped the cabby well nonetheless. ‘Cause that’s what we stupid Americans do.

Question from Reader: Managing the First 1-2 Years As an Assistant Professor

A New Assistant Professor (NAP) has a question:

I have worked at an industrial research lab for five years and have finally received an offer from a well-known US public research school as an assistant professor in engineering.

I am so excited but at the same time I am a bit anxious about setting up a new research lab, recruiting graduate students, getting grants, and teaching.

Would you please give me some advice about how I can successfully manage the first one or two years as assistant professor? What would be my
priority in the first two years; writing papers or writing proposals, or teaching, or mentoring graduate students? Probably, all of them….

I would appreciate any of your advice in advance.

First of all, congratulations to NAP on landing a tenure-track position at a major research university! It will be quite a ride.

I responded briefly to NAP via email, and will expand on that a little bit. (All my advice is for a physical science field at a major research university in the US, so if you are reading and your field or institution type or country is different, obviously some or even all of the advice will not hold.)

1) Teaching: Try to make sure you teach grad courses in your specialty (rather than large enrollment undergrad courses) in the first 2-3 years. Teaching well takes a lot of time, especially initially. Teach the same 2 courses a few times during your fist few years, until you get your research program going. Ideally, you will have senior faculty mentors (often formally) who should be there to advise you and to also be your advocates when it comes to shielding you from some of the unnecessary burdens. Many universities have formal mentoring programs, make sure you take advantage of that.

2) Startup: You probably received a startup package that covers equipment, stipend and tuition for a couple of research assistants (RAs) for 2-3 years, and some travel and summer salary money.

2a) Summer salary: In the US it is common for physical-science faculty to have 9-month contracts, i.e., they are not paid over the summer, unless you teach the summer courses or more commonly have money from grants to cover summer salary. Indeed, at research universities it is expected that the salary will be eventually brought in from grants. However, it is typical that a startup will include funds to cover a couple of months of summer salary for a couple of years, until you land your first grant (or five).

2b) Personnel: Try to recruit 1-2 grad students who will start during your first year, or bring in a postdoc whose quality you trust, to help you build up your lab. You need people right away, but you don’t have to bring everyone you think you will ever need right away. There is a learning curve when it comes to recruiting people, so your first few may be awesome but they may be duds too. Fingers crossed.

2c) Equipment and building a lab: Lots of money, lots of time. Start shopping right away. However long you think it will take, it will be even longer.

3) Funding: Since you are in the College of Engineering, the requirements to bring money will be high for tenure. At least some of your grants should be peer reviewed (NSF or DOE or NIH, depending on what you do), others can be DoD (AFOSR, DARPA, ONR) or industry. Getting funding is probably the highest priority at the start. For DoD you need to make personal connections with program managers so you will have to travel to DC to meet them and see where their interests lie.
Map out all the early career/young investigator awards you are eligible for (some have limitation of years post PhD), see how many tries you have for each one, and what you need for each. Hit as many of them as you can, potentially staggering them, but generally hit them hard. A few are due in the summer so you have a full year of practicing with regular NSF proposals and collaborative proposals etc. before the first wave of young investigator awards.

(A bit of parenthetical info: People in the physical sciences tend to be in the College of Letters and Science or the College of Engineering (computer science and materials science, for instance, could be in either, depending on whether they are standalone or associated with an engineering department). The funding requirements in the College of Engineering are generally different as a whole than in the Letters and Science. There are fewer TA-ship available in Eng because the departments do not teach service courses, and everyone is expected to bring in lots of grants. Among the departments in the L&S, there are differences. For instance, chemistry and biochemistry will typically have high requirements on grants, similar to chemical engineering, but with often larger groups because of the supply of TAs. People in statistics and computer science and some branches of engineering and applied math have very similar requirements as to how much money should be raised and the publication pace. In the physics departments, condensed matter experimentalists will raise money and publish at a pace similar to chemists or chemical engineers or materials scientists, while theorists in general and the people in particle physics or astrophysics may not be facing very high grant raising requirements, and grants may not be an important part of the tenure review in those fields. In my math department, it is specified at tenure time that they do not expect grants or evaluate grants as a component of excellence. In general, departments that teach large service courses will have lots of TAs, and I know people in physics and chemistry who have had multiple students on TAs throughout their PhDs.

In general, in the College of Engineering, grants will be a significant component based on which you are evaluated. In you are in College of Letters and Science, depending on the field, they may or may not be considered as a metric of accomplishment.)

4) Papers: If you have data from your industry position or previous postdoc or some collaborative work that you can write up for publication, write those up during the first year. Alternatively, write a review paper or two. Backlogged, collaborative, or review papers are a good way to bridge the gap between starting a new position and having papers out from your own lab (which realistically won’t happen right away). Depending on what you do, you could have single author papers (I did during the first few years on the TT, while my first students were being trained).

5) Service: Keep institutional service minimal, and professional service in the capacity that will enhance your exposure, visibility, and/or potential for getting funds. Travel to see program managers, travel to give invited talks and lectures. Do not organize a major conference as early assistant professor, but do participate on the program committee if invited. Definitely volunteer to sit on review panels and generally review proposals for relevant agencies, it will drastically help improve your grant writing abilities.

6) The first few years are crazy, but it does get less so by the end of year 3. Try to be nice, but avoid unnecessary obligations in terms of teaching and service. Your primary duty is to get your research program up and running — which means grants and papers — and anyone who is is not helping you focus and is trying to divert your time is not your friend early on the tenure track. Once you have gotten your first couple of grants, you have papers coming out, and you have several students staggered in seniority, it’s OK to diversify your teaching (show you can teach undergrads, try novel techniques) and service (ideally something you care about, like curriculum or facilities or new faculty recruitment).

Good luck!

What say you, blogosphere? What did I miss as critical advice during the first 1-2 years on the tenure track? 

Reviewing Proposals for Foreign Funding Agencies

I spent the first half of this week on travel (fun, exhausting, “the uzhe,” as Eldest would say), followed by a full day of taking kids to various physical exams and dental cleanings, and another day full of meeting my graduate students. Now I have 2.5 weeks before the next trip.

I want to take this opportunity to celebrate a great yet fleeting victory over my work load. As of today, I (temporarily) have no more stuff written by other people (specifically, people who are not my students) in my To-Do folder. In my capacity as an associate editor, I read and then made referrals for the review of a manuscript; I read and then desk-rejected another. I also completed two paper reviews as a referee and submitted a proposal review to a foreign funding agency.

I try to review as much as possible for the journals where I publish often, and I definitely review proposals for the agencies that give me money. The exception is that will generally review stuff where the author is someone whose work I know well, even if it’s in journals or funding agencies I don’t consider.

But, over the last few months, I have been inundated with review requests for proposals to foreign funding agencies: the UK, Swiss, Austrian, and Canadian versions of the NSF. The UK folks alone [Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)] have sent me 5 or 6 proposals since February, and they are relentless in sending reminders.

I have to admit I am a little irritated. Reviewing anything takes a lot of time and is generally not a paid activity. It takes away from the time I could be spending on my own work and on my own students. So when expecting people to review stuff, I think there should be at least some theoretical tit-for-tat: I review for journals where I too have my own papers reviewed, I review for agencies where I too have my own proposals reviewed. However, I really find it hard to justify spending my limited time to review proposals for agencies to which I will never be eligible to submit.

Someone might say, “Well, perhaps they don’t have enough experts in their own country to review?” but I would say the EU is probably plenty large to find experts, and I know many solicitations are open to all EU citizens. Furthermore, most US government agencies (in the physical sciences) rarely use reviewers who are not based in the US. So European agencies bugging me in the US to do proposal review for free, and so often, really makes little sense.

As DH says, it’s my fault – I should have never agreed to review for them even once.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you decide when to accept to review papers and proposals?