Month: May 2016

Fellow Travelers

There is a whole genre of books and movies that could be termed “deep and meaningful stuff coming out of random people’s lives intersecting by chance.” Sometimes they are well done, but as a concept they are not longer new. To me, the epitome of the genre is the movie “Crash” circa 2004. A cool IMDB list called “Multiple-Storyline Films” collects many examples, among them some excellent movies such as Short Cuts, Night on Earth, Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros, and Babel.

We all meet many people throughout our lives. A few we call family, some more we call friends or colleagues, but the vast majority are people whose lives cross but never really intertwine with ours. Sure, I can imagine a skilled movie director making something out of a mundane interaction between a grocery store clerk and a patron (or, say, between a department store clerk and a patron), but for most of us such interactions are barely noticeable and don’t really add color to the daily routine.

But there is a group of people with whom most of us interact a significant amount as adults; we intrude upon each other’s private lives, yet we are seldom friends.

They are the parents of our kids’ friends. They are the people whom we text when we need our kid picked up or dropped off someplace and we can’t make it. They are the people who have our precious babies in their care  for hours on end, sometimes even overnight. Then the kids grow up or their friendships fade, and the parents fade out of our lives, too. Sometimes we like them, sometimes we don’t really, but we trust them with the most valuable of all our riches.

They travel a really important part of our lives right alongside us and provide real, tangible support. They also share their wonderful kids with us, and their kids make our own family seem bigger and warmer. And then they part ways with us.

Happy trails, fellow parents. Thanks for the playdates and the sleepovers and the snacks and the chauffeuring. Thanks for your hospitality and your warmth. May your kids grow up to be all that they can be.


What always pisses me off amuses me is the use of the adjective “real” to indicate something that the person using it imagines they would prefer over whatever it is that you are trying to make them do instead.

Academia is not the real world and is not preparing the students for the real world.

That means “I don’t want to do class work, and even though I have no idea what I will need in order to get a job, I know it’s not this boring crap that I sooooo don’t want to do now.” Because becoming a corporate cog is infallibly riveting.

I wish academia weren’t the real world. I wish it were this world or that world. Alas, judging by the politics, budget cuts, and rampant corporatization, I am pretty darn sure it’s very much the real world.

We need less math and physics, we need more real-world applications!

This plea for more “real-world applications” really means “How about you hand-wave your explanations, and don’t make me use any math (even though it boggles the mind that someone who hates math would be in this major, but whatever) and don’t make me think deeply why certain phenomena occur or how they can be useful to us. Instead give me a whole bunch of shortcuts and mnemotechnic rules and software packages that I can cram how to apply without thinking why or how. ”

I am very sensitive to the fact that students need to get jobs, and the students in our major do. But I hate it when people are given a chance to think, to learn, to make high-level connections that could make them better at their jobs and give them the tools to appreciate the world around them just go through the motions instead. I know not everyone is suitable for college, and it’s a shame college now seems necessary for even low-level jobs, but still…. What a waste.


Crowdsourcing Linguistic Support

I am very excited. Like, embarrassingly, ridiculously excited.

Da book that I have been boring you all with is really 97.34% done. Obviously, I just made up that percentage, but we are really close to done. We have one more pass through the text and finalizing the cover and then it will be off to a print test!

Here’s a very nitpicky detail about the subtitle and I would appreciate your help. The four versions below (title: subtitle) differ only in a single word and therefore differ slightly in meaning.

Pick the one that you feel would be the most appealing to you. I am going for a subtitle that will invite someone to read. What I am offering the reader are the stories of my experiences, as well as advice on how they can find their own path through the academic maze.


In recent months, two papers by my group, on disparate topics, were editorially highlighted in two different reputable journals. Having your work selected by editors as particularly interesting to the community is a pretty cool recognition; it comes with additional exposure and eventual citations of your work. (One of the journals has very nice metrics tracking, and you could see a dramatic uptick in the number of downloads after the editorial highlight.)

Our egos get smacked around a lot in this job. Grant rejections are more common than not. Publishing in a very good journal is no cakewalk, either; getting a paper finally accepted brings relief first, joy second.

So it feels really good to get a veritable pat on the back in recognition of the importance of one’s work.


Prof. Xykademiqz (light grey shirt) is grateful for the pat on the back. (Source)




Final finally finalized


Finished grading the final for my giant class and just submitted final grades!!!


Now the summer of leisure catching up on paper writing and submitting commences, but not before the great May cleansing of backlogged editorial and refereeing work ends.

My graduate students have been very patient as the end of semester kicked my butt, but are now eager to pounce.


Who’ll Make It and Who Won’t, Math Edition (As Perceived by a Non-mathematician)

In the comments to last post, reader math gradstudent asked, “I would be very interested in reading a professional mathematician’s (a math professor’s, to be precise) version of this post!”

No math profs have chimed in thus far, so this question is still open. Math profs among readers, please tell us your thoughts!

I am not a mathematician, but I think I am reasonably well acquainted with the field and some other closely related ones.

I think a key question is how different the type of work done as PI is from that done by a grad student and postdoc. In most physical and biological science fields, the PI is really the manager of the group and doesn’t do the technical work themselves any more. Students and postdocs are supported by grants, so they have less freedom to choose what they work on; that their labor is expected to be in the service of the project that pays them. They are also constrained in terms of available funds, equipment, and expertise in the group. Of course, grad students and postdocs are expected to be creative and innovative, but they don’t have absolute freedom to do whatever they like  because there is always the question “and who’s going to pay for that?”The PI  is the group’s manager, who organizes the work of junior folks, and provides direction and advising, as well as the resources for the work to be done.

Most of math operates differently. The work is not done by groups of trainees overseen by a senior person, a professor, but by individuals or small, deeply enmeshed teams.  (Applied math is much closer to computer science, statistics, and some fields of engineering in that people have groups of students whom they advise, more grant money is expected and possible to raise, etc.) In pure math, it seems to me that young mathematicians are meant to be independent since a very early age. This independence is much more absolute than the in other sciences, where independence is “within the constraints of the grant and the equipment we have and the techniques we are experts in.” Young mathematicians are expected to develop their own ideas and execute them since graduate school. If there is advising from senior faculty, it’s much less intrusive than in other sciences and engineering. In part, it’s because young mathematicians are largely paid as teaching assistants, so there isn’t the aspect of “I pay you as RA, so you have to do this project that the grant is for” that we have with group science in STEM. But mostly, it’s the culture of the field.

It seems to me that a young, creative, original mathematician who is able to both come up with ideas and execute them on his or her own is a desired professorial profile. There are collaborations, but they seem much closer and deeper, with intellectual contributions inextricably interwoven, than what is typical for collaborations in other STEM fields, which are based on complementary expertise.  Therefore, the research work is done by the mathematician largely alone both before and after taking a professorship.

In contrast, the skills necessary to be successful as a professor in the sciences are not necessarily the same ones that bring success during grad school and postdoc. For instance, someone could have mediocre lab skills as a grad student and postdoc, but turn out to be a great visionary, grant writer, and mentor; this person will be very successful as a PI if he or she knows how to pick technically strong students. Conversely, we all know people who were excellent “doers” in the lab and had “great hands”, but always had to be told what to do, and were not capable or  interested in developing the big-picture skills needed to be a PI.

Where am I going with this? Some of the great PIs in STEM could have conceivably not been great in grad school or during postdoc, but they have other skills more important for the PI job, which may not have been obvious to their advisors during training if they weren’t given much freedom. Some people find they are superb teachers, enjoy lecturing, and have really great rapport with students, whereas they didn’t teach very much in grad school, so that aspect would not have been on their advisor’s radar. Thus, I can see how even well-meaning advisors in most STEM fields can honestly think that a student or postdoc is nothing special because he or she was not a super productive group member, yet these junior folks fluorish when given the chance. That’s why I advocate for leading with the facts and then lending as much support as needed rather than trying to dissuade the student from pursuing a chosen career path in STEM fields.

In pure math, it seems that the skills needed to be a successful grownup mathematician are much the same skills that are needed to be a successful grad student or postdoc: individual creativity and technical prowess. That’s why I would say the correlation between grad school success and professorial success is probably higher in math than in other STEM fields, and as such the recommendation of future success based on traineeship days is probably a better idea in math than in other areas. However, I don’t think mathematicians are any less biased toward women and minorities than other scientists, so they are just as much in danger of erroneously dismissing worthy candidates as anybody else. Long story short, math is different, but is populated by people, and people are biased. So, yeah.

Who’ll Make It and Who Won’t

During a decade or so in academia, I have seen many, many faculty applications. A typical broad search in my field will have several hundred candidates, of which there are probably 20-30 who are highly qualified. The rest are eliminated after a quick scan of the CV and don’t get much of a second look. We faculty usually agree to a surprisingly high degree as to who the noncompetitive applicants are; yet, I think we generally overestimate our ability to predict who will be successful and who won’t.

Most of the noncompetitive applicants will never get a faculty position at any university, so it’s perhaps tempting to advocate tough love towards your own advisees who think about going on the academic job market. Say, you have a student who has a weak publication record and isn’t very driven, it’s probably a good idea to tell them that you don’t just stumble upon a faculty position and that they have to be deliberate about this career path. But I think there are many truly driven individuals who don’t seem like they are to their advisors, perhaps because they are minorities or come from different cultures, so discouraging people from applying is too rife with potential bias. Instead, a) matter-of-factly tell the candidate what their record would need to be competitive or refer them to example CVs of others, b) write them the strongest letters of recommendation you can, c) help improve their application package to bring out the best aspects of their record, and d) help prepare them for interviews. If you have given your advisee the information that they need, they will position themselves correctly with respect to competition. You don’t need to dissuade them explicitly if their record is noncompetitive; with any analytical skills, they will quickly figure it out on their own. If they decide they want to go for it anyway, then support them the whole way, 100%.

I think we need to unconditionally support the people we advise in their career paths even if we think they won’t be successful in whatever they are choosing. First, we faculty have huge egos; we don’t really know everything, not even about our own jobs, as much as we like to tell ourselves that we do. (If we knew everything, nobody would never write a grant without getting it funded; 10% funding rates tell you we don’t know squat.) Other people’s careers are really where we should stick to facts and then follow up with unconditional support for whatever the advisee decides. Second, I have real examples of people who I didn’t think would ever be faculty, yet they are and they are quite successful. I know of a phenomenally productive faculty member at an R1 who got his PhD at a so-so school and thus had a really rough time getting a faculty position because of his lack of pedigree; many told him not to bother, that no one gets a faculty position at an R1 from that school, yet he did eventually, and he’s superb. I can also think of at least two of my peers, who I really didn’t think were particularly promising when we were going through undergrad or grad school together, but who come out on top. They are faculty teaching at R2 or teaching-focused schools and doing very well, publishing, advising students, getting grants. In contrast, some of the most promising people didn’t get faculty positions even though they attempted to; often, the issue was that they never actually wanted to be professors, other than in the abstract; many were really great at doing the work in the trenches but were disinterested in  becoming the boss; some wanted an R1 position or bust. Some didn’t put forth very strong applications because they didn’t ask for feedback on them. Most were simply unlucky in their searches.

I don’t think for a second that not being a professor is a failure of any kind. This post is about how we in the position of power over someone’s future really should act primarily as sources of information and encouragement, rather than as some sort of weed-out stage. Even if you think you know better, maybe you do, but maybe you don’t. None of us ever really know what potential another person has in them.