Month: December 2016

A Pop of Pop Culture, The New Year’s Eve Edition

Happy holidays!

Here are some bits of (mostly) pop culture that I enjoyed or that made me think over the past few weeks.


Arrival is wonderful. It moves slowly and Amy Adams is luminous. The movie explores the importance of language in how we view the world. I highly recommend it.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — I liked it. It’s more hard sci-fi than fantasy in space. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the acting in Rogue One is much better than what is typical of Lucas’s Star Wars movies.

TV Shows

I binge-watched all three seasons of the SyFy show “Defiance“. You can find all of it on Amazon Prime. Essentially, an alien star system (the Voltanis System) collapsed and multiple alien species came to Earth… The show brings us to a new Earth, years after aggressive terraforming and the Pale Wars. The show starts when two main characters, human Joshua Nolan and his adopted alien daughter Irisa, come to Defiance, a Wild West town built on top of what used to be St. Louis, in which humans live alongside aliens. If you enjoyed Firefly, I think you will like this show.

I am looking forward to the return of The Expanse (season 2 starts in February), Killjoys and Dark Matter (both coming back for season 3 sometime in 2017).

In the meantime, I will watch Star Trek: Enterprise (4 seasons) on Amazon Prime, since I never saw the whole show.

DH and I have been watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and I highly recommend it. It’s musical comedy and it’s hilarious — the musical bits are really smart and funny, and might be the best part of the show! DH is not one to binge on TV, so we are not watching this show nearly as intensely as I would if it were just me. We just started season 2.


By way of Dame Eleanor Hull‘s comment on Clarissa’s blog, a few weeks ago I came across a classic bit of feminist writing: the short story “To Room Nineteen,” written by the Nobel laureate Doris Lessing. There is a stifling banality to everyday life that is felt acutely by those who had to give up their individuality to become solely a caretaker. Many women will feel a chill of recognition as the story unfolds.

Skyping Your Way Into (or Out of) a Faculty Job

I have been on a cross-departmental search committee, and it’s been a ton of work. Over the last few weeks, I have taken part in a number of Skype interviews, and it blows my mind how poorly the people who look really good on paper perform on these interviews. While my department alone hasn’t done Skype interviews in the past, I am going to strongly advocate that we start. The main reason is that Skype enables us to see in person many more candidates than we otherwise would, which is really important, since so far the best ones have been those you would not necessarily put in the top 3-5, but would in the top 20-30. Being able to access a broader pool before doing the more expensive campus interviews has the potential to do wonders for obliterating the pedigree bias.

The interviews we do last about 15-20 min, but can go up to 30 min, and I think that’s a very good duration.

Here are some common pitfalls.

1. I know some people don’t like it when I mention this, but it’s important for all non-native speakers of English out there trying to get a faculty job in the US (or any other job that requires specialization and/or an advanced degree, especially if it pays well):

You have to work on your English. I know it may be hard and it’s much easier to converse in the native language, especially if you are in one of the labs where your advisor is from your home country and all your advisor’s collaborators, postdocs, and other graduate students are from the same country, too. I can understand that it may feel like speaking English is unnecessary… But that’s a dangerous lie. Such labs fail students in a key aspect of professional development to a degree that I feel is abusive — what else do you call a situation in which an advisor prevents his or her students from acquiring critical skills necessary for success?

It is not enough to be “sort of” fluent. You have to be able to express yourself as well as you would in any other language. You have to be so fluent that you can make strong, succinct, and grammatically correct statements; you have to be so fluent that you can use idioms, and make jokes, and understand jokes, and perceive nuances in the response of others. You have to be able to be your complete self in English; if you are excited about research, you have to speak English well enough, with good enough diction, that the brilliance and enthusiasm can effectively come across, rather than struggle to break through the barrier erected by your lack of facility with the language.

You have to be completely fluent. Both your vocabulary and your command of grammar should be comparable to those of a native speaker with the same level of education, because that is who you are competing against; today, it’s for faculty jobs; tomorrow, it’s for grants and awards. 

So work on your English tirelessly, from the minute you arrive in the US. Devour written and spoken English, and dissect it like the scientist that you are: Why did this native speaker say that? What does this idiom mean and when should you use it? Are your verbs and yours nouns/pronouns in agreement? Do you use punctuation correctly?

You may not be able to completely get rid of your accent (I imagine I have less of an accent than I do; only when I hear a recording of myself is when I do hear that some of my sounds are sharper or otherwise a little off with respect to what they should be in American English). However, becoming more fluent means that your diction will also improve, and you will get better at enunciation overall. The quest to improve your English should never stop.

2. This faculty search is broad enough that, for many candidates, I don’t know the technical nitty-gritty of the research projects, but you bet I can tell whether the person answers precisely and succinctly, whether they are at the top of their game, and whether they are persuasive enough in their communication to be able to get recognition for their work and effectively raise grants. When you drone on, in painful monotone, about the technical minutiae during your Skype interview, so that most of the committee no longer looks at you but at their phones or laptops, you are dead in the water; you are never getting that campus interview.

(Bonus: Do not freakin’ read your research statement to us straight from the computer screen, pretending that you are answering a question. Yes, we can tell you are reading; remember, we see your face blown up to 3 feet tall on the conference-room screen. We can tell by how your eyes are moving from left to right, by how unnaturally even your speaking tempo is, and by the sharp drop in the quality of your spoken language when you go off the script.)

3. Many people could not articulate what they had done in the past that was important. They couldn’t tell where their work had made an impact and how. Some did not understand what we were asking (even after three committee members took turns trying to rephrase the question somewhat; see the need for facility with the language) or were pretending not to understand in order to bide the time while figuring out what to say. Others were only ever able to talk about the minutiae, showing that, while they are good as “doers,”i.e., as someone who can execute the grand vision of others, they are not likely to develop a vision of their own.

4. Many people could not articulate what their plans were for the next 5 years beyond “I will do this (one paper’s worth), and then maybe I will do that (another paper’s worth).” They could not tell how they would be different from everything that their postdoc and PhD advisors did.

We are not interviewing your advisor, or you as a postdoc. We want a person who can stand on their own two feet, who has scientific curiosity and drive, and who has enough maturity to understand what this job entails. You need to have thought about who you want to be, and what you want to do, and what you need to get there.

The other day we interviewed a guy who didn’t seem to take this job application business seriously at all. He had no clue where he would apply for funding, didn’t seem to be able to see past the next couple of papers, overall conveyed  that he had no idea what the job would actually be, yet seemed quite confident that he’d be coming to an on-campus interview (as in, “I will ask all my questions during the on-campus interview”). We were all amused by how clueless the candidate was.

You have to take the job search — any job search — seriously.

5. You have to be able to answer why this job, assuming you want it, is a good fit for you. Which facilities would you be able to use, what equipment would you would need to buy? Who are your potential collaborators on campus?

6. You have to have some questions for the interviewers. The prepared candidates asked perfectly reasonable questions about the startup package, tenure expectations,  teaching load, and advising students from different departments (my campus is great about that, barriers to interdepartmental or intercollegial advising are really minimal). Depending on the duration of the Skype interview, you may or may not have time for all of these, but be prepared to ask something. If you are serious about the job, you will naturally have questions.

A good PhD and postdoc advisor will be able to help you prepare for interviews, but this is your job search, you need to be proactive about finding information. My PhD advisor did comment — once —  on my research and teaching statements, and gave me some advice when I was comparing competing offers, but everything else I learned on my own, using resources from the web. There are plenty of resources. There were certainly enough online resources even when I was applying for jobs in late 2003 (interviewed early 2004), over a decade ago. There is a ridiculous amount of information available now (like here!). There is no excuse to be uninformed.

As I said, many of the people who looked best on paper ended up interviewing poorly. Those who rose to the top and will be coming to campus in January were not all native speakers, but were certainly perfectly fluent and had no problems with listening comprehension. They were able to answer the above questions clearly and persuasively, and came across as enthusiastic, energetic, and just ready to conquer the world. The ones who rose to the top were the ones with whom the whole committee was engaged throughout the interview; they conveyed their infectious love of science and cut the time-wasting bull$hit.

Good luck to everyone on the job market!

New Year’s Academaze Game


Hi all, it’s been a few months since “Academaze” came out. As I am quite proud of it, I would like to spread the word and get more people to read it.

If you enjoy this blog and are active on social media, I would like to ask for your help in spreading the word about “Academaze”! To that end, I invite you to play New Year’s Academaze Game:


Over the next two weeks — starting when this post goes up, which is Sunday, December 18, 18:00 EST, and ending Tuesday, January 03, 03:00 EST — collect as many points as possible by sharing information about “Academaze” in various online spaces. The points are assigned according to:

2 points for each tweet containing the word “Academaze”, plus 2 additional points for each retweet and 1 point for each “like” that the original tweet receives.

20 points for an honest review of “Academaze” on

12 points for an honest review of “Academaze” on Goodreads

12 points for an honest review anywhere else (personal blog, Google+, etc) that’s at least a paragraph long (please leave a link in the comments); you can post the same review in different places and collect the points for each venue.

Whoever has the most points on January 01 wins!


There will be 1-3 prizes, depending on how many people end up playing.

Each prize will contain a paperback or electronic copy of “Academaze,” as the awardee prefers (outside of the US or Canada only electronic). If you win a paperback, I am happy to sign it, if you’d like.

Each awardee can request a drawing of their choice: I can draw your portrait from a photo (I am actually pretty good at drawing portraits), I can draw a special scene or a new cartoon on a topic of your choice, or I can mail you the original of a cartoon from the xykademiqz archives (US and Canada only).

If you already own a copy of Academaze and don’t want another one, you can replace the book with an additional drawing, post, short story, or a poem on a topic of your choice, or an illustrated explanation of a math or a physical-science concept.

Thank you for playing!

PhD Defense Grumpiness


Two of my students graduated in the span of a week. Essentially everyone but me who was on their committees was an experimentalist, with the exception of one pen-and-paper theorist.

Let me tell you this: developing computer simulations of the physical world which have real predictive power is very complicated. It requires understanding experiments, being able to understand and/or develop an appropriately detailed mathematical model, and then being able to develop and computationally implement an algorithm to numerically solve said mathematical model. It requires the skills of an old-school pen-and-paper theorist along with the skills in the computational sciences. The work is challenging and requires careful attention to detail; if you don’t know what you are doing, it will be garbage in, garbage out.

When I read experimental dissertations and attend defenses, I hear about all the details of growth, fabrication, and various characterization and measurement techniques. I consider it important to understand what those are.

Yet, whenever I present my group’s work, I have to always wave away the details of what I do because people don’t care. I have to care about various chemicals used for etching this or that, but it’s totally okay that my colleagues don’t care about the mathematical model that actually resulted in some graphs. I guess “math is hard and boring” applies to the mindsets of middle-schoolers and professors alike.

It pisses me off that my experimental colleagues cannot be bothered to try and understand the details of what my student did — at least at the student’s defense. The defense should be a time when students get to talk, at least a little bit, about the cool things they did, because that’s why they are getting a PhD.

Basically, no matter how long I collaborate with an experimentalist, they only ever care if the simulation is completely done with all the bells and whistles so that it matches perfectly with this or that, and they don’t care at all that it takes time to get to such high levels of quantitative agreement, that there are natural stages in the development of a detailed simulation, and that I cannot keep a student around for 15 years. What they want is only the information about what is yet not in the simulation and the reasons why it’s not yet perfect, rather than talking about how exactly we already got it to capture 85-90% of the physics.

Why the hell do I do this job, again? Seriously?

The other day I met a theorist who does old-school pen-and-paper theory. There was not a graph to save a life in his presentation. The dude publishes in Prestigious Society Letters far more often than I do (pedigree matters; also, PSL clings to this old-school theory and it is very hard to get much of the more modern or more applied topics past their reviewer base. I have spoken with some editors and they are all surprised why their impact factor is suffering — it’s suffering because they have not adapted to the reality of where the action is in the area that caters to the largest physics field today; journals published by a couple of other publishers, including a large society, have not had that problem and are now sporting impact factors twice or three times that of PSL. But I digress). Anyway, nobody among my experimental colleagues would have any patience whatsoever with me if I were to throw equations around with quantities in arbitrary units, only in the limits of what I can compute analytically (hint: very little), and only rarely show any actual data.

DH says that I shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks and that I do what I do because I love it. I am not so sure any more. I am kind of sick of it all.

Sick of always being second fiddle to experimentalists — more of an unpaid intern or a serf really; I sure as hell have to find my own money to do the work. Sick of working really hard and always only being asked why it isn’t all absolutely perfect yet, with anything that anyone could  possibly imagine computable in a heartbeat. My former postdoc has this great saying, that he feels people think we theorists receive a giant magic box with a million buttons (presumably when we are admitted to the secret society of theorists), so that whatever anyone imagines being calculated about any physical system just requires pressing a button on the magic box, and then people get cross when they want some specific data from us and we sit on our lazy a$$es and take our sweet time pressing the button.

And then some student from the audience asks why we do this complicated theory, can’t people just buy software to do this? I almost blew my top off. No, there is nothing commercial that is even remotely like what we are developing.

But this conveys another aspect of why everyone has such a low opinion of theory and simulation — they think what I do is the same as what they do when their boss buys them some canned software and they play around with it. That’s what 99.99% people have in mind when they say “I am so cool, I can do both experiment and theory.” No, you cannot. Developing new simulation techniques and running canned software are not the same. It’s night and day.

This is all such bull$hit. Why do I even bother?

Such bull$hit.

I cannot wait to go to a conference in my subfield in June.

Most Important Papers

I have been asked to submit a list of my N most important papers for a certain nomination. In this case, N is five. In the past, for various reasons, N was often three,  including for my tenure package years ago.

It’s always hard to chose; what does it even mean — “most important papers”?

There are highly cited papers that have an experimentalist as the lead senior author, so even though my student/postdoc and I did a lot of theoretical work and wrote large sections of those papers, I don’t consider them my papers, but the experimental group’s papers.

There are highly cited papers that have me as the lead senior author, but many of those I honestly think are boring. People read them and cite them because we did what needed to be done at the time when it needed to be done, we did it well, and we wrote it up clearly and compellingly. But I never thought that they were particularly technically exciting, at least to me. Maybe part of what makes them well cited is that they are appreciated even by the people who are not as enamored of theory and math as I am.

Then there are the papers that are not yet highly cited as they were only published 1-2 years ago, but I think will eventually get there, because the work is cool and their citation rate (number of citations per unit time) is pretty high.

Then there are those that often aren’t highly cited, but that I think were really exciting to work on or that really broke new ground. They may or may not get citation traction, because some of them are really complicated, but I think they are important, and sometimes they do start to pick up citations after a few years delay.

Why am I even hung up on citations? Well, they are a metric for how much we influenced the field. Still, I don’t really want to list the highly cited papers that I don’t think are technically beautiful.

I have to remark that, post tenure, I definitely have a much higher proportion of exciting, technically challenging work to the obvious-next-step-that-we-can-do-faster-and-better-than-others papers than what I did on the tenure track. And that’s a major perk of tenure — having the security to work on the harder, higher-risk stuff.

What say you, blogosphere? How would you pick your 3–5 most important papers?