Month: October 2015

15-Min Improv Blogging, the Halloween Edition

  • Clocks go back 1 hour tomorrow, supposedly we can all get 1 more hour of sleep. Yeah, right; tell that to my kids. Clocks, schmocks.
  • I will be blogging daily in November, as I did the last two years, starting new stuff November 2nd, after a grant deadline. A repost tomorrow.
  • The latest repost brought thoughts on work habits, collaborators, etc.  This is the reality, though: if you are a professor in a STEM field at an R1 university, you need to work more than the ~ 45 hours a week that kids can typically stay in daycare/schools+afterschool care. Many people (me included) work a split shift: some work gets done during normal business hours, but some gets done during the evening or weekends. My spouse and kids would not take kindly to me working till 9-10 pm (like I have been doing over the past few weeks on account of proposal writing, with an occasional past-midnight stint, like yesterday) for a prolonged period of time. Yet, the work has to get done, and there is only so much you can say ‘no’ to or delegate before you become the self-centered douche on account of whom somebody else now has an insurmountable work load. Anyway, my kids and spouse definitely and strongly prefer me at home in the evenings and on the weekends, but occasionally disappearing into the home office to do a few things, over me not being around. I am far from alone in this type of organization of my time, as I think it’s fairly typical for dual-career couples with kids, not just in academia (except that academics have more flexibility than most; people in corporate America often have much less control over what hours they work or whether they can disconnect during weekends or evenings).
  • Burnout and all that jazz. When you have a job and a family, both of which you love, there’s definitely burning the candle from both ends. In a way,  or perhaps in every way, and on more days than not, especially after I’ve had a nap like today, I prefer being stretched too thin to not being stretched enough. It’s good to have a busy life, that’s what being young(ish) and healthy is for. Being comfortable or relaxed, except intermittently, is overrated. Your (gas) mileage may vary.
  • Speaking of being busy… There have been so, so many of my kids’ friends at my house this weekend. The fact that they feel comfortable at our place makes me feel like I have done something right, that even though DH and I will always be “Other”, our kids belong here.
  • Happy Halloween! May all your witches come true.

Repost: Musings on Grad-School Work Ethic

I am very grouchy. Instead of wasting the time I don’t have on a new post, here’s a reasonably close approximation of my thoughts, a repost of this piece.

———————-

When you blog for a while, sooner or later you start revisiting the topics you discussed before. Some of them you visit multiple times. A few, ad nauseam.

One of these perennial conundrums is what the necessary skills are for someone to become a successful academic scientist or engineer. In particular, how much zeal, drive, motivation, whathaveyou, does a student have to have in order to get a PhD? I am not saying that they have to ever become a professor or even want to be one; just to finish a PhD, presumably funded on a research assistantship, teaching assistantship, or fellowship (i.e. not paying for the PhD out of pocket). (The usual disclaimer — I have experience with a physical science field at a major research university. This is a context in which I am interested.)

When I talk with my colleagues about students, there are two kinds of responses. On the one end, you have people who never say anything but the best about all their students; that usually means the colleagues choose not to talk with me honestly. In some cases, these colleagues appear to actually think all the best about their students, but it doesn’t mean that the colleagues are unusually fortunate to have exceptional advisees (I have met many of said advisees), but instead the colleagues have a combination of what I would call a low bar for student performance combined with a high belief in the good in people. I understand those who choose not to talk with me honestly, but I don’t understand the endlessly permissive and encouraging kind. I am simply too impatient, life is too short to wait for people forever to get their $hit together, plus I am responsible to funding agencies. Also, I don’t believe in people enough. Or, actually, I do; I do believe that most people would rather not work than work, and I believe there are few things that people who don’t want to work wouldn’t do in order to avoid doing work. What I don’t understand is why people who don’t want to do work elect to do a PhD, a degree that is arguably not mandatory to get. What I understand even less is why we in academia allow so many students who endured their PhDs with boredom and little effort to eventually graduate with a PhD. Getting a PhD could and should be a great time, a time when you do science and talk with other smart young people, go to conferences, and partake in pushing the cutting edge of human knowledge. Yet so many just… endure. The whole ordeal underwhelms them and they can’t wait to get out. Why? Why do the stupid PhD in the first place? They should have done something that doesn’t bore them instead; get some sort of job straight out of college, working regular hours, and spending their free time doing whatever they daydream about doing when they are not doing the research that they are supposed to be doing while in grad school.

The colleagues who talk with me honestly about their experiences with students all generally share the same sentiment: most students are “not very good;” it holds even at the very top places. That doesn’t mean that the students are not smart; there are plenty of intelligent people around. It generally means that the students are nowhere near as devoted to their work as we, their advisors, would like them to be. The thing is, I don’t think sane advisors expect complete and total devotion, or working 24/7; not even close. But we do expect sufficient work and sufficient devotion. I think if the students actually tried to work, but really work, 40 hours per week, a lot of work would get done. A. LOT. The problem is that most students in graduate school do not actually work even close to those hours. They sit and goof around more than they work. Those who put in the time for real are already ahead of the pack. They don’t have to kill themselves working, they don’t even have to work the hours of a grownup academic; they just have to work the hours of a normal grownup holding a secure and possibly somewhat mundane job (many admins at my uni come to mind).

Here are some examples of what irritates advisors:

1. Professor comes into their grad students’ office at something like 2 pm on a Wednesday or a Thursday. One of the students is playing a MMORPG. The student then proceeds to tell the advisor how he (the student) didn’t have enough time to do research because his teaching duties were taking too much of his time. Somehow, that plea would have been considerably more convincing if the advisor hadn’t just seen the student royally waste his time.  Also, this student rarely answers emails over the weekend. So he keeps his work strictly confined to the work week, making sure that work does not spill over into his free time. The fun, however, is apparently allowed to spill everywhere, such as into the middle of the work week.

2. Keeping regular hours at work is great, but they also have to be sufficient hours. A counter-example is a student who works regular hours, but they are 11-4 or 12-4. The output after nearly 5 years has been barely 2 papers (not enough for a PhD and well below typical group member output in that time). The student has of late been actively interviewing for jobs (as in, doing nothing but interviewing or cramming for the interviews); that’s all the student does these days, while being on a full research assistantship. The advisor has to remind the student that enough work for a PhD actually has to be done first. Before we say that the advisor is an awful human being and an even worse advisor, let’s just reflect for a second on how much time during regular work day one would be allowed to spend cramming for interviews anywhere in the fabled “real world” that academia is supposedly not a part of. Exactly none. So no,  it is not OK to drop research completely while interviewing, unless the student is entirely paying his or her way through grad school. No? Then  the student should actually keep working until done. But honestly, I am pretty sure the advisor would probably be much more understanding if this were a student who had previously shown strong or even sufficient productivity. By the way, this is another student who does not answer emails over the weekend.

Here is an example of a model (real) student. Note that nobody is talking about working 24/7.

The student is at the office at 9 and leaves at 5, and in the meantime actually works. In two years, the student has gone from one who was the youngest and the least prepared, to having a really impressive first-author paper already out, a couple of others in the pipeline, and generally now being the advisor’s go-to student for when something new and fun has to be tried quickly. In part, being in the office when the advisor is looking for someone to run crazy ideas by definitely helps with becoming the Golden Child. The advisor knew the student was smart from the get-go, but so are many others; the advisor is positive that the quick rise in competency and especially productivity has to do with the student having a strong work ethic. This student does answer the occasional email over the weekend.

By the way, I really hate people (students, colleagues, everyone) who don’t respond to emails during weekends. It doesn’t have to be instantaneous, but do check your goddamn email once a day over the weekend. Why is that so much to ask? Usually all I need is for a student to send me a file or clarify a  piece of data (if I send weekend emails to students, they are of the “Can you send me your PPT from last group meeting?” or “In Fig. 5 of the manuscript I am working on, what is the value of parameter alpha you used, it’s missing in the caption?”)

Another thing: in my view, one takes a vacation when one deserves a vacation, i.e., some work should be done between successive vacations. In my experience, the students who are most keen on having frequent out-of town long weekends and few-day vacations are also those who generally put in the fewest hours during the week. My honest gut reaction (don’t worry, I  keep it to myself) to that is “WTF are you so tired from that you constantly need to go on vacation?!”

I try to talk to my students, especially in group meetings, about the necessity of keeping regular hours and actually putting in enough hours. And I remind them that graduate school is not mandatory and it’s up to them to make it a successful experience and a good take-off ramp for the rest of their careers. I tell them that I am there to help if they are stuck or frustrated, but that they need to work hard and that how fast they finish and how many papers they have at the time is really up to them.

I am not sure what we as advisors can do to motivate people. I try to lead by example; I work a lot and I get a lot done. But for the most part all that my example has done is made people not want to do my job, which is fine. I think it boils down to whether or not the student is intrinsically motivated or not, wanting to adopt the practices that lead to growth and improvement. I think we as advisors can do little but encourage, talk, and at a certain point, if some threshold hasn’t been met, sever the relationship… Then the question becomes at which point is having an anemic performance during a PhD enough to tell a person “You really should not be doing a PhD in this group. For both our sakes.”

Oh Hund

Readers who are chemists or in related fields:

I have a question where I appear to disagree with Eldest’s chemistry honors teacher.

It’s about the (ground state) electronic configurations of atoms. It’s not a problem as to which orbitals get filled first; it’s slightly more subtle. Namely, once you start filling a degenerate set of orbitals (the set of orbitals with the same n and l, having the same energy), our good buddy Hund helpfully pointed out (the maximum multiplicity rule) that first you put one electron with spin up in each orbital; only after all the orbitals with a given n,l have one spin up electron do you start putting  the second electron (now with spin down) in each orbital. For a given l, there are 2l+1 orbitals, with magnetic quantum numbers ml going from -l to l, in unit increments.

Now the question is: when you start filling the orbitals with a given l and different ml, which ml’s get filled first?

I say from highest to lowest (it has to do with maximizing the orbital angular momentum, similar to what is done with spin). Eldest’s teacher says from lowest to highest. Eldest’s book and most online resources don’t discuss this, but those that do confirm what I remember. Chemists, what say you?

Eldest came the other day with an assignment where the question was what the n, l, ml, and ms (spin up or down) of the last electron added for a given atom is. They did an example in class where they started filling up a three degenerate p orbitals (l=1) from ml=-1 and up. I said I thought it was wrong, checked online, and though he might have copied it wrong in class.  I told him to go explicitly ask his teacher today; he did, and yes, she says from lowest to highest. I am pretty sure I am right and she is wrong, but I don’t have any undergrad chem textbooks lying around to check and my trust in Wikipedia is vast but not unlimited.

Another question is what to do if the teacher is wrong. It’s easy enough to tell my kid “I am pretty sure she is wrong, but keep your head down and be prepared to learn differently in college.” The thing is that the order of filling ml’s is a relatively minor point at this level (he’s a high school sophomore); virtually nothing in his upcoming few years depends on knowing the order of filling orbitals in the right ml sequence one way or another. I also don’t want to be a douche professor parent, throwing my academic weight around and appearing to bully a high school chemistry teacher; after all, she can take it out on my kid. But if bugs me that hordes of students might learn something wrong. I will likely just let it go, though.

Brief and Random

Breaking news: Detaching from work helps one re-energize for work. Who knew?

I always thought that I needed more time to veg out. It turns out I detach from work best when I am very busy all weekend, but with non-work stuff. This weekend I spent five hours timing at a swim meet, we had friends over for dinner, I went shopping for groceries and then spent about 4 hours cooking for the week, I had the usual amount of chauffeuring of kids to playdates and birthday parties, and then DH and I went to a great concert. It was glorious.

This was also my first time timing at a meet and it was great fun. Much more interesting when you are in the thick of things, and you interact with the kids, and your brain (and body!) is engaged the whole time. One could totally tell who the experienced times were by their attire: they wore rolled-up pants and flip-flops. The noob me was soaking wet by the end of the meet.

—————–

Three medically inspired lyrics that I wish hadn’t been inflicted upon the world:

You’re gonna catch a cold from the ice inside your soul… (horror bonus for title “Jar of Hearts” and the soul-snatcher video)

I keep bleeding, I keep keep bleeding love… (after he had “cut her open”)

Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes  (also don’t work when one is bleeding love)

—————–

Let’s say you received an internal award and were given the options to use it as flexible funds over several years or use it to augment your salary. Given how hard it is to get flexible funds (so you can send more students to conferences, or pay for your own travel to schmooze with program managers, or invite some speakers when there is no more money in the department seminar funds), I have always thought that everyone would just go for the flexible funds, because that’s what I would do. I would like to make more money, but I am far from poverty stricken and I think the money would go a longer way towards research-related expenses (e.g., towards students and their travel) than as a bump of my salary. I really thought it was a no-brainer, but I was recently informed that there are definitely well-compensated people who would use that money for salary.

What say you, blogosphere? If you had the option to use, say, a few (5-ish) tens of thousands of dollars over a few years for research or for salary, what would you do?  Would you use the money as unrestricted funds to help your research endeavors or would you use it to supplement your paycheck? And how does the answer relate to your current funding situation and/or the support from your institution?

Preferred Reviewer

Yesterday I received requests to review not one but two papers co-authored by the same person; the papers are from different journals and on different topics, but that makes 3 papers from the same guy within a month.

Obviously, I am on his preferred reviewer list, which is fine. He works in my field and I am happy to review.

But I am getting a little irritated by some of this colleague’s practices.

First of all, he has a systematic mechanical deficiency in his manuscripts that I think is really just sloppy (he routinely fails to separate units from numbers). In the last review, I explicitly told them to fix it; I figured, if someone had told me that, I would not have just fixed it that one time but I would have also adopted it for the future. Not here. The two new manuscripts I received both have the same stupid typos over and over again, and it really pisses me off. I am not your goddamn maid; if my grad student got back with this sloppy mistake after I had told them to fix it, I would be royally upset.

Another issue is that the colleague, still somewhat junior, spends too much time submitting  MPUs — minimal publishable units. While he writes well, I find myself often struggling to identify what is novel. For instance, much of what he submits is technically sort-of new but I, for instance, wouldn’t publish it. I just don’t think it is important or interesting enough to be communicated to the world when something is a straightforward or trivial extension of what we already know. But then again, I have my own taste in problems, so I try to focus on evaluating what’s in front of me and not the paper I wish he had written. Still, I can’t help but think that all that time and effort could have been better spent

And the last thing is — when you routinely list someone as a preferred reviewer, maybe you should brush up on what they are up to, especially on the topics that are unbelievably closely aligned with what you are currently doing. I am not going to fish for citations in the report, but I will communicate that the list of references on specific problems is woefully incomplete and that they need to do a better job of putting their work in proper context.

If my own student or former student displayed some or all of the tendencies, I would tell them so. But this is a peer, I can’t just give him a stern talking-to, so what does one do? I suppose one lets the colleague make crappy mistakes and then eventually one stops accepting requests to review his work.

Collaborators

Usually you hear “People, not projects” in discussions on how grant dollars should be distributed. Yesterday I came to think how the syntagma holds for collaborations.

I have long-term collaborators with whom I really enjoy working. Our collaborations may not be continuous, but they are frequent as we often apply or funds together. I like how they think, how they work with students and postdocs, how they work in general, their attitude towards science and towards publishing. Yes, I also like them as people. However, there are a number of colleagues whom I like as people but with whom I think (or I tried, so I know) I wouldn’t enjoy working.

When I like collaborating with someone, I will work with them on pretty much any topic where my expertise makes sense to employ. From the good interpersonal chemistry comes good science, because good collaborators amplify each other’s contribution. The back-and-forths are constructive, the insights build upon one another, and the whole result is really much more than a sum of parts.

I also have this perhaps unusual quality that I get along fairly well with several people who are considered difficult by some other colleagues. Probably that means I am difficult myself. For instance, I worked very well with my PhD advisor, who was notorious as a difficult person. After I had become a professor, for years people would ask me how I survived working with him, to which I said it was no problem and that we worked very well together. The point was to understand what it was that brought about an over-reaction from him (the prospect of losing face, in class or in front of colleagues, all based on insecurity) and working around him (not pressing an issue when he got agitated, following up with an email after he’d wound down and had a chance to think about it). At my current place of employment, I work very well with several people who are considered volatile. I have no problem with them, either. I have found that my cultural background helps in that I don’t expect people to behave as infallible smiling robots. I consider them to be humans, which means they do have a right to not always be gregarious, they can be tired or anxious or pissy or happy, as long as they are engaged with the work. It seems to me that difficult people relax and don’t freak out around you when you don’t freak out around them. Note that there is a difference between “professional but grumpy/sad/angry” and “unhinged or abusive or petulant.” Nobody should have to tolerate the latter, while the former I consider a normal part of close interactions such as collaborations. I find the ability to relax and just be yourself around someone to be absolutely key for long-term collaborations, especially for the free flow of ideas.

In contrast, I could not work effectively with a person who is considered one of the nicest and most polite persons in the department. While always pleasant and upbeat, this colleague was hard for me to work with because they were unwilling to prioritize our work, did not actually engage with the technical problems very much so I did all the technical heavy lifting with the junior researcher, and they had exceedingly long turnover time for any type of feedback on collaborative work while expecting to have the last word. We wrapped up the collaboration under a grant we had together and I will unlikely seek to work together again. I am guessing they found me irritating and demanding, but I will never know because they won’t ever  break the nicety facade.

My favorite collaborators have similar work schedules as me — work a lot, often crazy hours, and are generally always available to talk science. Email conversations often happen 10 pm – 12 am. We both make joint work a priority. When I have an idea, I am not afraid to run it by them. They respect my theory work and seek my input, and are willing to try experiments if I have an interesting hypothesis to try. They treat their students and postdocs with respect and a lot of autonomy, and they show respect by prioritizing their students’s and postdocs’ success — publishing a lot and well, engaging junior people with writing proposals, sending them to give invited talks. A favorite local collaborator of mine is probably in his late 60’s or early 70’s and has one of the coolest groups I know. They are all unbelievably loyal to him, and he treats them with warmth and humor. I hope to be like him when I grow up.