Month: July 2016

Professorial Vignettes

Breaking news: Professors procrastinate!

There is a book chapter that I need to work on. I really don’t want to, but it’s one of those things that you do because you promised, and you promised because you want to do a favor to the person who asked, but in reality it’s a lot of work, it’s boring work, it has a deadline right when you have family visiting, and it has a very low impact-to-effort ratio.

On the upside, I suppose I know a lot of people, and I do favors for a lot of nice colleagues. On the downside, it’s still fuckin’ boring and I don’t really want to do it.

The first draft is not great. The student who wrote it is smart and competent, but far from producing wonderful first drafts, partly owing to poor command of the language. The deadline is in three days, and I have a ridiculous amount of work to still do on it.

I really, really don’t want to do the work. Obviously, I MUST blog. NOW.


That proposal that ticked me off a week or so ago.

The most infuriating comment that I got, which I sometimes/often do, is that the reviewer doesn’t believe that I can do what I say I can do, despite preliminary data and/or published papers demonstrating that I know how to use the technique, and clear pointers to these markers of my expertise under “Technical Approaches.” The critique is basically along the lines of — these are great, awesome ideas, and you are attacking this problem from several different directions. But I cannot believe that you are actually qualified to attack from all these different directions with all these different techniques, because most people use just one or two techniques. You cannot possibly be able to use all of them. I am unconvinced that you are an expert in all of them (I am), and it would be much better if you got yourself a really strong postdoc or better yet a collaborator to make sure you can use this very complicated technique (that’s not all that complicated, but I bet is the technique the reviewer is most familiar with).

So I need a freakin’ chaperone. I need to find a collaborator who does one of the techniques that the referee doesn’t believe I can do, and I likely have to give that person money (a subaward) to join the proposal and do the work that I know can be done in my group.

This is bias, and my gender is part of it. I have papers, I have preliminary data, I have a great proposal, and all the referees say that the questions posed are very exciting and important. But one doesn’t believe I can possibly know how to do all that I say I will do.

Sometimes I see this type of comment when reading reviews for a centers grant that I have been on for years. Sometimes people tell us that our ideas are literally too big for us, that if those same ideas came from MIT or a place like that they would be fine, but they don’t believe that here, at a state university, we have the chops to execute our vision.

Which reminds me of…


… A Young Whippersnapper with a great pedigree lamenting how everyone here seems defeated. How people are tempering their expectations, how people don’t believe that they are worthy of top students, or top journals, or top recognition. And how this affects our science, and how it is a disservice to our students because it instills in them that they are unworthy, too.

He is right. He is also wrong.

When you have been brought up in the creme-de-la-creme of academic environments, you see greatness, you are part of greatness, and you expect greatness of yourself and for yourself. It’s like being inoculated at academic birth against the curse of impostor syndrome.  (Being a dude helps. It seems that the vaccine is particularly effective in dudes, especially when surrounded by other dudes.)

But there are some real (i.e., not imagined) limits to achievement here. There are students who pass up this place for more highly ranked ones. There are faculty candidates that refuse our offer to go elsewhere. There are undergrads who work here, are happy to have your help in getting an NSF Grad Research Fellowship but then take that money with them to a better-ranked school. There are papers that don’t get accepted to the top journals from here. There are grants that you don’t get because reviewers don’t actually believe you can do on your own the things you say you want to do, as it’s just too cool for you.

It leaves a mark. I don’t know what happens to Young Whippersnappers after a decade or two here. Maybe their inoculation never expires, and they never stop believing that greatness and accolades and the highest of achievements are their academic birthright, because they are so damn awesome. Maybe they are indeed awesomer than the rest of us.

But I didn’t train in a top-echelon environment like the Young Whippersnapper did. There was definitely a level of journal where my well-known and well-respected advisor still thought it was a great achievement to publish. I too have journals where I think I am a shoo-in, but there are definitely others after which  I think I can go only rarely and only when I have really good stuff. In contrast, I know colleagues who think every turd-nugget they produce is gold, and shoot for the moon with every single submission. Ah, Dunning-Kruger, where are you when I need you?

The Young Whippersnapper thinks that the likes of me make students doubt themselves, so the students never rise to their full, partly megalomaniacal potential. He may have a point. You have to believe you are awesome to go for the big rewards.

I don’t know how I can teach that to my students when I don’t believe it myself. I think that being able to eat comes first, then lofty goals, such as publishing in N@!ure. My students are smart, very smart; some are extraordinarily smart. But, as I often tell them, this is not MIT and I am not famous. My name does not magically open doors. (Well, it opens some, a fair number it seems, but there’s no magic there and not all of them are the doors to the Kingdom of Awesomeness). I can promise them we will do good, rigorous science, we will write good and interesting papers, I will teach them how to write, present, review, and generally do everything that a professional scientist has to do, I will give them opportunities to network and develop skills beyond their major so they can increase employability… I will basically help them get ready for Plan A, whatever their Plan A is, but also for Plan B, so they can actually get a well-paying job if Plan A falls through.

But pragmatism, being ready to fail, is the antithesis of greatness! You must never suspect you could ever possibly fail!

I think that type of self-delusion is not accessible to (most) women in science. I have been smacked down so often and so hard when I have tried to do work that is too cool, or submit it to journals “above my station,” that I would be really, really stupid if I didn’t learn to correct my course for how people perceive me.

Rule #1. Published in a lower-tier journal is better than unpublished (or delayed due to battle with referees for months or years). Because once you are published, people can read the work, and cite it, and build upon it.

Rule #2. Funded is better than not funded. Even if you have to tack on a collaborator that you don’t necessarily need to do the work, just so you can placate the biased reviewer and show that you understand and accept the account of your own incapability, and have brought a real expert on board. Because once you are funded, you can actually do the work, and bring your really cool ideas to the light of day.

Maybe we should give all the faculty posts everywhere to pedigreed Young Whippersnappers. Oh, wait. We already do.
Never mind.


I keep telling myself that grants are not a measure of a scientist. Grants are a means to do science.

It would take some serious delusion to believe this in my college, where perceived merit strongly correlated with funding.


What replenishes your scientific well? Especially when all you have been doing is putting yourself out there (grants and papers) with zeal, but fatigue and constant criticism are wearing you down?


I need a serious vacation. After a student graduates, and mom leaves, and another paper goes in, and I spend a few days working non-stop in Washington, DC, I will take a week, maybe two, to just stay at home and watch Netflix.

Which brings us to this classic, which is yet again oh-so-appropriate:


Now is the summer of our discontent


When I first moved here with Eldest in 2004, he was 4. We rented an apartment for a couple of years, and Eldest started going to the local public school. We bought a house near the end of his Kindergarten; the house is in the neighborhood associated with another elementary school, but is still geographically closer to the school Eldest was already attending, and it is on our way to work. Technically, we had to request that Eldest be formally transferred to the school he was already in, because once we moved, he was no longer automatically allowed to go there.

Years later, when Middle Boy was about to start Kindergarten, we requested transfer to place him in the same elementary school that Eldest had attended. With a 7-year age difference, Eldest was already in middle school, but him having attended our target elementary school was enough of a justification to grant Middle Boy transfer without a glitch, and we knew in May where he’d be going in the fall.

Now Smurf is supposed to start Kindergarten in the fall. We requested transfer for Smurf to place him in the same school as Middle Boy, a rising 4th grader. The rationale for transfer is stronger than before — we have another kid who is currently enrolled. Yet, the transfer was denied in May and Smurf was placed on a waiting list. I will know on August 26th (note: 5 freakin’ days before the school starts) if we will have to deal with the ridiculous situation of having two elementary-school children in two different elementary schools. And don’t even get me started on the fact that the afterschool program requires all paperwork to be processed more than 2 weeks before school starts; at their recommendation, I now have Smurf enrolled in afterschool programs at both schools, and as soon as I know where he’ll end up enrolling, I am supposed to drop one spot.

I have spent the whole summer trying to get someone to help with this issue. I have sent numerous emails and have spoken with several people on the phone, but no dice. Apparently, they did not grant transfer to that school to any Kindergartners, and there are half a dozen (last I checked) who, like us, already have a sibling attending. Why? Because they have projected just enough kids for 3 classes and they don’t want to start a 4th classrooms unless they have to; either another 10 kids or so request transfer into the school and a new classroom opens up, or enough kids move out of the neighborhood to let mine and some of the other waitlisted kids in there.

This issue has been causing me anguish for months.


DH had been coughing for over a month. At some point, he went to a doctor, got a chest X-ray and some antibiotics. After our formerly great insurance kicked in, he still has to pay over a $140 for that one visit + X-rays. We used to have no copay at all when I first started. Then it was some co-insurance. Now it’s copay plus deductibles. That’s what happens when you have state government that doesn’t give half a $hit for the state university.

I have been jokingly (or not so jokingly) saying I want to move to Australia.  How’s Perth? It seems to be really far from everything, which may be what I need right now.

Too Much Togetherness

Once you’ve become a mom, whenever you try to say that you are tired or overwhelmed by the demands of your kids, someone will rush to inform you, “Be grateful and enjoy it! One day they will be all grown up, and you will wish for this time to be back!”

I am sure I will wish my kids were small once they are all grown-up and gone, but I hate this implication that I must crave to be all but glued to them, cheerfully catering to their every need 24/7, for decades; that any desire on my part for bodily autonomy or sleep should be greeted with reproach, because it is a grave sin to enjoy any less than 100% of all the moments that my kids are young and living in my house.

As cute as they are and as completely as I adore them, I am an introvert. I need the time where I am completely alone and where nobody, no matter how cute, wants things from me, even if all they want is to nuzzle their adorable little faces against my neck.

As magical, precious, and elusive as the childhoods of my kids are, I cannot be in there with them non-stop, even if we were to forget (as grownups often do) that kids are people and don’t necessarily want a parent perpetually hovering either.  Perhaps humans are only ever meant to be exposed to a certain amount of cuteness in a lifetime, and my need for alone time keeps me from exploding. There is such a thing as too much preciousness.


My mom has been here a little over three weeks, and it’s been going well. She’s been nice and unobtrusive, and I feel like I should be spending as much time as I can with her, because who knows when I will get to see her again. The exposure to an aging parent is quite sad, and I must admit that I am on some level grateful to be away and not have to witness the decline. My mom is still quite healthy and vital, so I hope she’ll still be around for many years. But the truth is, her future now feels finite, rather than being so just on an intellectual level.

It’s all the more reason to want to spend every moment of her visit together, right? Except that it’s really hard. There is such a thing as too much togetherness. She and I were out of town last week with Middle Boy and Smurf, and while it was fun, I was completely spent by the time we came back. I was in a really foul mood and would have killed for some free time.  I desperately needed to go to work yesterday, where I could finally be alone and in peace. This introvert felt much better by the afternoon, as it was time to pick up the kids. Man, I love my office. I have the best office.

House guests are hard. Long-term house guests are even harder, because you can’t or won’t put your life on hold for very long. I can take time off work for a few days or a week, and I can put up with another person in my space for that long, but this protracted perturbation is really taxing. I feel guilty over wanting to avoid her, because I just cannot interact that much, yet I know that she won’t be around forever, in my house or on the blue ball that’s on an elliptical orbit around the Sun. Having a limited time together puts a lot of pressure to make all the moments count, to make them all special… But I don’t think it’s possible to have a continuum of special moments.

The best I can do is take some more time off work, talk to her for a few hours or take her out shopping, then run and hide in my home-office cave to recuperate. And maybe blog.

Embrace the Leapfrog

Another day, another NSF grant rejection.

Scores were E, V, V, V (E=excellent, V=very good). I haven’t seen the report yet, they probably won’t show up till next week.

The scores are only a little better than last year, although I thought the proposal itself was MUCH better than last year.

(Update: Did get the reviews, really very positive. Still no dice.)

Oh, well. Off to lick wounds and edit a student’s paper.

To that end, some levity.


(Middle Boy says he came up with these on his own, but he might be fibbing.)

Joke 1: Germanium, nickel, uranium, and sulfur worked together on a science project. It was GeNiUS!

Joke 2: I was going to work on my science homework, but then I thought, “NaH…”

(He drew a box around each symbol, like in the periodic table, with Na saying sodium and H saying hydrogen).

By the way, Middle Boy is 9. The Nerd Force is strong with the young one!


$hit my students recently wrote in drafts of technical manuscripts:

Point 1 is no secret

One of the first orders of business  was to determine…

This is surely the handiwork of [a physical phenomenon, i.e., something decidedly without hands or the ability to come up with evil plots]

It is possible to judge… using the squint test, squinting at thousands of plots is tiring on the eyes…

and my favorite

[B]y embracing the leapfrog nature [of an explicit algorithm for solving partial differential equations]…

Clearly, this (rough, pen only) drawing had to happen:


Embrace the (giant) leapfrog!



Whimsical Wonky Workaholic Whispers, Wonders, and Whines

This has been a good year in terms of scientific output. Five papers already published or accepted this year; by the end of the summer,  anticipate the submission of three more. Several in the pipeline. In the immortal words  of a colleague who’s normally a big globetrotter but who was temporarily grounded due to offspring arrival, “I am getting so much work done now that I am not traveling! Who would have thought?”


I completely, completely, forgot that I had committed to write a book chapter. It left no trace in my mind whatsoever. Am I getting absentminded or is it that I really, really don’t give 14/28 a $hit about said chapter?

In the words of a sage someone whom CathXYZ quoted once upon a time (and I am paraphrasing from memory, ’cause there is no way I am going to dig through her archives now):

“Book chapters and review papers are for people who don’t have data — never say yes!”

Words to live by!

Except when a friend asks you to contribute to their book, or to write a review paper for the special issue they are editing… Or when it’s also a good idea to get your grad student who will graduate in 2 years to take this time to write a good literature survey, which will be the chapter/review paper’s introduction and double as 21/28 of the intro to their eventual dissertation.


I pulled down the last three posts, one personal about my mom coming to visit (ugh — that’s not going badly, btw, after the initial rough start) and two about the woes with a graduate student about to defend his PhD (ugh squared — also mostly abated).

I pulled them down because I was uncomfortable putting them up in the first place, and I am not even sure why I was so uncomfortable. These are the posts I wanted to write (as in, I felt the urge to write, which really is how the best posts are written — they need to come out), but they felt wrong to write, like they aren’t mine to share, even though they are and even though no one else who’s involved has been identified.

Anyway, I have been thinking about what we can and cannot discuss on an anonymous blog. I have been called out in the past on the fact that it’s uncool to discuss the anecdotes from my professorial life, especially when they involve underlings, such as students, and that I was pretty awful for writing what I did. I don’t  think I am particularly awful (does anyone?), so when someone implies that I am, it makes me think hard about my potential awfulness.

Obviously, I should not do or say anything that would actually hurt anyone in real life. What’s the definition of hurt? Obviously, I should not say anything that would actually hurt, for instance, the employment prospects of anyone I know, which I am definitely not doing. But is it necessary or even possible to aim for not even accidentally hurting the feelings of anyone who might maybe potentially recognize themselves in the anecdotes?

For example, I sometimes read about mommy wars [stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) vs work-outside-of-home moms (WOHMs) with work-at-home moms (WAHMs) somewhere in between and siding with either, but on average more often with SAHMs]. I have very strong feeling about the issue, being that I am an ambitious WOHM  who likes to work and is not just doing it to make ends meet (which seems to be the patriarchally approved reason for a mom to work). Let me tell you, us WOHMs get a lot of crap from other moms, much more so than the other way around, as well as from many female and male non-moms. It’s crap along the lines of “I could never leave my babies with strangers, it would break my heart (hint: WOHMs are cold and heartless)” or “Why even have children when you are going to have them raised by strangers” (hint: WOHMs are cold and heartless, also selfish) and “Everybody knows that it’s best for the kids if one parent stays at home with them” (hint: WOHMs are cold and heartless, also selfish, and just plain evil incarnate to do what everybody knows is not the best for babies). I have a strong opinion on the whole issue, but the fact that all the many SAHMs and some WAHMs write what they write, I can roll my eyes at what they write, but I can’t change what they think and I can’t affect what they write. All I can do is to not read it if I don’t like it, and then go about my business. And I can hope that anyone who has a hand in giving me a raise or an award or any accolade doesn’t have a wife who’s a SAHM and thus discriminates against me for not being a real woman or a real mom or whatever.

But, as cathartic as writing the above paragraph has been (I stumbled across a mommy-warish piece by accident the other day), to me making blanket statements about all WOHMs or all SAHMs or whatever seems actually worse than sharing one’s own anonymized anecdotes involving specific people. First of all, I participated in the events of my anecdotes, so they are actually mine to share, as long as I am not actually doing harm to anyone involved by sharing them. Is there harm in sharing an anecdote that happened between me (whom you don’t know) and an unspecified student or colleague (whom you also don’t know)? Is it invariably tacky or awful or bad along some other direction to write about being annoyed by my student simply because they are my student? We are talking about people over the age of 18 in what is a master/apprentice relationship and everyone is anonymous.

Some people say that these anecdotes should not be shared because then other students may think they are about them and feel bad. Well, I don’t think that there is any guarantee in life, and especially on the web, against ever being made to feel bad by someone random writing about someone else equally random.

On the other hand, there is the concern that the people actually involved in the anecdotes would find them, and recognize themselves, and then again be made to feel bad. I suppose that’s possible, but… I have found my own experiences from different facets of my life mirrored so often in the writings of various people on the web, that it’s safe to say that none of us are as special as we think we are and all our experiences are incredibly common or at least not unusual. I would say that the fact that someone might recognize themselves in someone’s writing is actually a reason for said piece of writing to exist. Second, I am pretty open with the members of my group. If there is a problem, something I don’t like, they know about it. The language I use in person vs here on the web is different, but if I am annoyed enough to bring up something here, I guarantee that I have brought it up with the student, too, as per my principle that I try not to let things fester when the problem is with someone I care about or care about continuing to have a professional relationship with. If I have a problem and I don’t address it, that usually means: a) it’s really minor and I can just get over it,  or b) it’s not minor but I have other things on my plate, so I don’t have the energy to deal with it now, or c) I am in the process of checking out from my relationship with that person, i.e., I have decided I no longer care to invest emotional energy in them or in our joint work; basically they are on their way to my “I don’t care” list.

And the stuff I write about is largely the stuff of annoyance, mismatched expectation, and miscommunication. I don’t think anything I write about really warrants a trigger warning.

But let me digress even further!

There is a junior colleague with whom I have been interacting a lot, and I am fascinated by how certain he is of everything he does. He’s probably no more than 30, and he’s already much more confident than I will ever be. As in, I could get 2 Nobel Prizes, and I still would probably not be as confident as this colleague is now. It must be awesome to never have doubts about anything you want to do or plan to do; you want to do something, you think it’s a good idea, you never doubt that it’s a good idea or that someone may object or that you might upset/hurt someone, you just do it. Of course, there is always the option that I am just really stupid and come up with only stupid ideas, and he is really brilliant and only comes up with brilliant ideas, so of course he never has doubts and I always do, as I should. (I can name at least five people who would say the former statement is undoubtedly correct.) Anyway, I don’t want to discuss male vs female upbringing or biology (apparently, some transmen report considerably higher decisiveness on all sorts of issues after starting testosterone).

My junior colleague, who is decidedly less experienced when it comes to advising students, has no doubt that it’s totally okay for us to bitch and moan about our students to one another, if that releases the pressure and enables us to be more patient with the students in person. By extension, I can release the tension here where it doesn’t hurt the students (such as in last weekend’s post about my PhD student acting jerky) in order to release the pressure, which enables me to produce calm and expletive-free email correspondence suitable for transmission via the university server.

But I know people who would come to tell me that the fact I get annoyed means something is wrong with me as advisor, because good advisors are all chips of the ol’ Zen Buddhism block and never get upset, or don’t get upset enough to have to bitch on the web. And there are others who would come to tell me why I care what anyone else thinks and so on… Aaaargh!

What’s the point of all this rambling?

I guess this is it: I fail to see why it is awful when I discuss my own thoughts and feelings about the interactions I have with my colleagues and collaborators, some of whom are my graduate students, and I do so without naming anyone. What exactly is bad and damaging about it?

Is it that I make it seem like professors actually are human beings and get annoyed and angry and sad and worried and anxious? I make it seem like professors don’t always know what they are doing in personnel matters and aren’t always 100% rational in the interactions? Does that hurt advisor authority in the abstract, erode student confidence in the fearless lab leaders?

Is it that I make a generic graduate student feel like their own advisor is not an infallible deity who has the student’s best interest at heart 100% of the time? Is it that I make a generic graduate student feel bad about making mistakes or just behaving in ways they never knew were objectionable?

Is it that my actual student might hypothetically come across these written accounts and recognize themselves and feel bad?

Is it that grad students are like our children and we are supposed to protect and cherish and never think a bad thought or say/write a bad thing about them? (Which is weird, because there are plenty of sites where people complain about their own flesh and blood and how annoying the kids can be.)

Grad students, do you feel scarred when I complain about the woes with my grad students or do you find it useful/helpful on some level? Other profs, do you think these posts resonate or help, or do you think “Here comes the whaaaambulance again… Why does anyone let this idiot advise grad students again?” 

The thing is I feel vaguely uncomfortable about writing online as I have, and I can’t decide why it is.

There are many things I used to write about that I feel like I should not have written about. With more blogging, I have become less bold. Maybe that’s inescapable? Maybe I am just ridiculously thin-skinned? Maybe I am just getting old?

I am a fairly conservative web presence (e.g., I am not on “chirper” or similar). Engagements with social media only ever make me want to say less about everything, rather than more. It seems like every word is too much, too revelatory, too fraught with the possibility to result in some blowup somewhere and drain the limited energy that I can afford to spend on whimsy.

Anyway, this post was apropos nothing in particular. Mostly, due to all the hullabaloo regarding Da Book, I started feeling again exceedingly “out there,” too much into people’s faces, too present online (even though I really am not). Suddenly, meaningful posts with emotion and related to stuff that actually happens and matters to me were too personal and too inappropriate and just… too everything.

Dear readers, please bear with me posting stuff and then pulling it down a couple of days later, as my sense of online propriety recalibrates itself and gets me to a place where my need to write is balanced with my level of comfort with my writing actually being out there in the world.