Month: November 2017

Yawn Memory Lane

I promise I’ll be back with the second part of yesterday’s post, but not today. It’s been a long day, and a good one—I received an honor today, and the number of colleagues from the department who showed up to the celebration was amazing. I was really touched by the turnout.

Until tomorrow, here are the greatest xykademiqz hits of 2015, as per WordPress stats:


It’s amazing to think each of these has been viewed over a thousand times—some ever a few thousand!—and that’s just the hits that WordPress records…

How To Tell If Someone Will Be Productive, pt. 1

anonP: “How can you tell if someone will be a motivated and productive student when you interview/select applicants?”
RFon asked: “If this is the official “request thread” I’d like to echo anonPs question from the comment section of “Working with grad students .. pt1”: How can you tell if someone will be a motivated and productive student when you interview/select applicants?”

Short answer: This is always hard. There are no strategies that never fail. But some are better than others.

Part 1: If I Get to Meet With the Student in Person

First, I don’t think I say this enough on the blog, but my students are overall great. Maybe I’m a proud advisor, but all my students are above average for the department, and some considerably so (example: I hired one when one of his letters said they guy was a genius; that letter was not wrong, and the student will graduate in a few months). I get so pissed at some of them, especially when it comes to technical writing, which is PARAMOUNT  (did I forget any embellishment?), when I see they are not doing what I know they are able to, that they are not giving me their best, and that they are therefore not fulfilling their potential. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think my students are generally awesome and very, very capable.

This is why, if I get to meet a prospective student in person, the most important thing I do is to schedule ample time for them to spend with my existing graduate students. I learned this from a senior colleague, who said years ago, when I asked him how he managed to have such a great group, “Quality likes quality and doesn’t like to be diluted by non-quality.”

This has been extremely valuable because students, as a group, don’t want someone who would drag everyone down.

Everyone in my group knows that I purposefully don’t want a group that’s too uniform in terms of gender or country of origin. I like to have people from the US, Far East, India, Middle East, and an occasional European (they don’t apply often, that’s why “occasional”;  I also haven’t seen applicants from South America or Africa). I could have all Chinese or Indian or Iranian students, and it would be so soooo easy to have all boys in the group, but I take all this into consideration when hiring and we have a very nice a friendly group. Also, don’t underestimate students. They too like to be exposed to other cultures, or at least mine do. Diversity is important and keeping an eye on it is a good thing for everyone involved.

Because everyone in my group expects diversity rather than uniformity, I have never seen my group lobby for only one specific type of student. They really do seem to check for: Does this person seem interested in what we do? Can they actually follow what we say about our work? Do they seem like a nice person or a jerk? Do they ask intelligent questions? Do they have research interests that fit with what the rest of us do? Would they be pleasant to have around? 

My students are never mean in relaying their comments, but they definitely have opinions and they are usually right on the money. A few years ago, they were super enthusiastic about an American girl, and cold-to-lukewarm and skeptical about an American guy; they were spot on both times. The girl became a wonderful addition to the group in every way; the guy was blah from the get-go, missed group meetings, struggled with coursework, and decided within 3 months that the work in the group was not what he wanted, and left to get an MS in a different field.

Basically, students talk to other students more openly than with advisors, so from the interactions of your prospective students with your group you can get info that you cannot directly. Also, the students themselves want someone both capable and pleasant, probably even more than you as advisor do, because they are the ones who have to interact with the new addition all day every day, so it makes sense to include them in the decision.

To be continued…

Fiction-Assisted Navel Dive

I am giving myself 17 min for this post, and then I have to go to bed so I’d have a fighting chance to get up at 4:30 tomorrow.

So forgive lack of editing etc etc.

I know  many of you don’t care for my fiction-related pursuits, but I have it on good authority (mine; people sent me emails) that some do actually enjoy these posts.

Here are random thoughts; they are the best thoughts.

I don’t know that I’m very good/any good at fiction, but I know I am already much better than the first time I submitted a story in August (has it been that long)?

I have published/or have forthcoming what is now 10 stories, 4 flash (under 1000) and 6 microfiction (ultrashort flash, up to 100). I have 6 pending (2 micro, 3 flash, one short story longer than a flash).

The long one (about 2000 words) has been shortlisted at a good market and is waiting for the issue cull. That one is the weirdest and perhaps best one I’d written and soooo fun. Anyway, it was rejected twice from top markets with personalized rejection letters and invitation to send them more stuff, which is as good of a rejection you can hope to get.

I have another flash that I think is really good and that has been with a great SFWA-listed market (means they publish SF/F and pay a professional rate) for a conspicuously long time, which I guess means I have passed the first cull. I hate that this makes me hopeful and I hate that I will be soo disappointed if/when they cut me near the very end. But at least it means they liked it… And why can’t I believe that they would actually take it? I’ve got issues, obviously.

What have I learned?

I am timid: I really have no belief in my abilities (why should I, seriously) and am greatly dependent on external recognition. This is not cool. I think with some actual successes this will get better, at least temporarily. I am envious when I see people publishing their first story in a great zine. But I am too impatient for many top zines; I want my fix fast. I tell myself that this is a hobby, I do not have to have my freak competitive flag fly.

I do best when I write what I want to write, without worrying about what I think is wanted. I don’t do great at writing contests, although I took part in only two, and I am still really really new, and, you know, a dilettante. I need to balance writing for craft-development sake and writing for publication. I think I will keep writing microfiction pieces but hold on to them, post them here or on the other blog, and use them to experiment more.

I am seeing patterns. I know this is not 100% or whatever, but women seem to produce these heartfelt pieces, whereas the pieces written by men, even when they are personal or supposed to feature vulnerability, end up being a whole level more detached. I don’t know how much I am imagining or projecting or whatever, but there’s a definite difference between the tone of supposedly equivalently heartfelt pieces written by men and women.

I am ashamed to admit that wish I could write more like a guy. Internalized misogyny and whatnot, but I wish I could produce acclaimed, respected prose, without having to sell my heart, if that makes sense.

In that vein, I have today cemented the status of the weirdest member of my kickboxing gym (as if being the only one with an accent weren’t enough) because I polled my fellow gym-goers on how they would write down the sound made by kicking a heavy bag. Everyone scratched their head for a few seconds. I love awakening the nerd in people. But yeah. that’s me being all research- and business-like about my fiction.

I am sitting on this story about aliens because I have noticed the SF community, especially hard SF, to be unbelievably nitpicky about getting the science right. Thus, I have read this paper on neural networks deriving the relationship between number of limbs and limb-to-body-length ratio based on neural network connectivity because I want creatures with a certain number of limbs.

Click to access ChangiziBrain25000Chapter1.pdf

I’m also looking into discovered habitable planets with stars whose peak in the emission spectrum is at a specific wave length because I want photosynthetic organisms to have a certain color…

So that’s me, and with a minute to spare. How’s your week going?

Saturday Slump: Sounds and Stories

To break the seriousness of the advising posts, here is some fun.

Did you always want to know what sounds punches and kicks make? Well, maybe not, but I do now for a story I am working on, so the linked Onomatopoeia Dictionary comes in handy.


Some stories that I’ve read in the last few weeks and that I either liked or had other strong feelings about:

I Won at NaSuHeMo! (one of the writers who inspire with both the quality and volume of their speculative fiction)

Oshun, Inc.  (just beautiful; it made me very happy)

Taiya (on ghosts, isolation, and depression)

Midnight Plus Thirty (I wish I could write like this)

Burp (or like this; I love Jersey Devil Press)

The Husband Stitch (won’t make you happy, but will blow your mind; also, a nice accompanying article)

The Mouse Petition (a lovely story in Wigleaf, a top literary flash zine)

Two Micros (the first one is a nice thought, but seriously, one sentence?)

It Falls

Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild

Working with Grad Students: Stream of Consciousness, pt. 2

Rheophile had an interesting comment to yesterday’s post, listing some ways in which an advisor’s and grad student’s interests may be in conflict.

– Student wants to do project with fancy technique that will benefit them in industry job search – but it’ll take a few extra months to learn, and their adviser wants the paper out sooner.
– Project resulted in boring, marginally publishable results, but the student’s an awful writer, and the prof thinks it’s not worth their time to help write the paper up.
– Student wants to publish in society journal, so they can finish up project and graduate; prof thinks another year of experiments will put the project into a glam journal.

There are conflicts of interest! Good advisors, I think, will always put the student first in these cases (except maybe the first one). But I’ve definitely seen advisers take the other side, too.

Rheophile is a valued longtime commenter, and this is really meant just to start the discussion rather than be a confrontation.

Good advisors…will always put the student first in these cases

I disagree with this statement because the advisor is not a parent. A parent is someone who is expected to always put a child’s needs first. A good advisor can only be expected to give a lot of weight to what the student wants, but cannot be expected to always put the student first, even if we are talking about what the  student needs as opposed to wants.

In most of these cases, there is a compromise that will work for everyone, but it is also true that, in most of these cases, the advisor does not have a 100% ability to grant or not grant student wishes. Several of the reasons are that: a) if the student is a research assistant (RA), then there are constraints as to what can be done with the money and requirements on productivity; b) the student is not the advisor’s only student; that student’s wants and needs may impinge upon someone else’s wants or needs.

Disclaimer: I do not/cannot/will not speak for all PhD advisors. I have no doubt that there are horrible advisors out there and that there are also equivalents of Mother Theresa out there. But most PhD advisors are neither; most try to do their best for their students and their careers when facing many often conflicting constraints. And, you know, they’re also human, not infallible deities wielding infinite power.

– Student wants to do project with fancy technique that will benefit them in industry job search – but it’ll take a few extra months to learn, and their adviser wants the paper out sooner.

I don’t know any advisor who wants the paper out sooner just because. Usually there is a good reason, such as a) danger of getting scooped (see last post on working in a high-pressure environment; some labs work only on hot-hot-hot stuff; if living in constant fear of being scooped is not what you enjoy, you might want to switch); b) grant deadline; c) tenure evaluation. These are, IMHO, all valid reasons for the PI to say, “No, we have to get this paper out first. Then you can go learn fancy technique.”

The following is an example from my group. I had a student who wanted to learn how to do something relevant to industry and there was a paid part-time opportunity for him to learn to do so on campus. I said that’s fine, and a slowdown in his progress was fine, but that I did not want his progress on his research to drop to zero during that time. This was a mature and organized student, who came up with a strict schedule in terms of where he was which morning/afternoon, and was able to keep up decent pace on his project, as well as take on the added opportunity. Another student might not have done quite so well in the same situation.

Now, as for funding. This was a paid opportunity, so during this time he was paid primarily by those who provided said opportunity, and I had no problem agreeing to have him take it in part because it temporarily freed up some money so someone else didn’t have to teach. But, if this student had wanted to take on a similarly time-intensive opportunity without the pay, we would have had to come up with something. I cannot pay a student a full RA if he spends more than half a week, every week, doing something else. I would negotiate with the student that he take on a bit slower pace with this outside learning (maybe one day a week), or if he wanted to do it more intensively then his RA would have to be partially cut and he’d have to take on some TA-ing or something. It’s not just about me letting him or not; taking federal money and not working on the project as many hours as commensurate with pay (now we have effort reporting on federal grants) is a mishandling of federal funds. Basically, it’s OK for the student to carve out some time for professional development without a change in their RA appointment, but it cannot be an arbitrarily large amount of time. The advisor and student have to work together so that everyone understands wants, needs, and real constraints.

– Project resulted in boring, marginally publishable results, but the student’s an awful writer, and the prof thinks it’s not worth their time to help write the paper up.

I have had this situation several times. If something is boring or marginally publishable, the question is whether the paper should exist at all. If the science won’t be advanced by the existence of this paper, then the reasons have to do with the one who did the work and these reasons have to be compelling enough. For instance, one reason for the paper to exist is so the student will have something to show for all the time spent on it before moving to something else; in this case I’d bite the bullet and write it and submit it. But no, unless there is a really good reason to write this paper up, then we don’t do it. I am busy enough without polishing every possible turd nuggets.

By the way, I don’t know how other groups do it, but in my group there are no papers that are drafted without my OK. When we have enough data and understand it well enough that I feel we have a compelling story for a paper, then I say, “OK, go ahead, start drafting.”We outline the paper skeleton on the board (everyone takes pics) before the student goes to write.

I will OK the drafting of a marginal paper if there is a good reason to publish it (see above) and if I can envision a decent venue that would take it (no sending to Obscure Journal of Irrelevant Science). If I OK drafting something, then I will stick with it all the way through, yes, through all the awful writing and my extensive rewrites, to the bitter published end.

– Student wants to publish in society journal, so they can finish up project and graduate; prof thinks another year of experiments will put the project into a glam journal.

Well, I have specific requirements for the number of papers to graduate, so a student can generally tell whether or not they are close to graduating. Students generally want to try to place their stuff in good journals, or at least to try. I do theory, so we usually can’t hit Glam Magz alone but do with experimentalists, but we can indeed hit some high-profile society journals. Again, students at least usually want to try. There are several we usually hit (society level) and several higher up where we try if I think the work is unusually good. In the latter case, we map out together where to send next, following a potential rejection.

Here’s another example from my group that’s related to some of the points above. I had a student who wanted to do stuff that is related to the type of work I do, but I don’t find these problems particularly interesting, I cannot really justify using existing grants to fund this type of work, and getting money to do it would be hard and I am not interested enough to fight for those types of funds. I tried steering the student in the direction that’s more aligned with the group, but he kept going back to the techniques and problems he liked. So we had a series of talks, the base of which was that I didn’t want him to be miserable, that he obviously liked certain types of topics and problems, but that I didn’t have the interest or funds to support that work, and that he should probably work with someone else. After this series of discussions, we figured out that he really wanted to get a degree in a more “pure” field and working on the topic of interest in that pure field, which would require that he go elsewhere (probably not in the pure field at this institution). So we made a plan in the spring that he would stay with the group until the fall the year after; in the first fall after the spring when he made the plan, he’d apply to different schools to the pure field; before then, I’d make sure he submitted two papers that he’d done while in my group, so his new application would be strong. (It’s important to note here that if he wants to ever be a professional purist, he needs a PhD in the pure discipline, otherwise they’ll never consider him one of them; since he does want to become a purist, he can’t get a PhD in my discipline or even in the pure discipline but with me as advisor, because the pure discipline really insists on impeccable pedigree purity if he’s to really advance; thus, he has to switch and work with a pure purist and not me, an impure purist, if he’s to be considered a true pure purist eventually). While in my group, which would be for a year and a half after we made the plan and for nearly a year after he’s done with a new set of applications and awaiting enrollment elsewhere, he’d mostly TA and continue the work he liked, and he would have a partial RA justified by helping wrap up some work by a student who had graduated and also help a new student ramp on a project I have funded. So nobody has to be miserable, and nobody has to be anyone’s parent, but people do have to figure out what they want and talk honestly. I am not my student’s enemy, but also not their mom. All I can do is try to lay out to the best of my ability what the different constraints are, and if the student does the same, then we can usually figure something out.

Maybe my advising motto should be “Nobody has to be miserable.”

Working with Grad Students: Stream of Consciousness, pt. 1

As MC3 requested yesterday, there will be a few posts on working with graduate students.

I have been an advisor for over a decade and I think I am a better advisor for everyone involved (the students and myself) than when I started out. This sounds like a trivial statement, but I assure you it’s not, as I see plenty of young guns who think they are already beyond reproach in this capacity (or at least present themselves like that to the world) even though I can see the ways in which they might be messing up, mostly because I used to mess up in the exact same ways myself.

Here are several insights into advising that likely become apparent to most faculty, with experience.

Regardless of how much I bitch and moan here — perhaps exactly because I bitch and moan here — I am actually even-keeled and patient with my graduate students. In fact, I can now work with almost anyone, which wouldn’t have been true when I first started out.

My students are not me

I now understand that students come to graduate school for a number of different reasons, most of which are valid reasons and most of which are not necessarily the reasons for which I came to graduate school. Most of my graduate students are international; they were among the top performers in their home country, and while some nominally want to become professors, by the time they’re done, most want to graduate and get a good job and a green card. These are valid goals, and smart, educated people can contribute to the society in many different ways.

Most graduate students are smart enough to do well. They may not have the right background, or motivation, or attitude, but most have the ability to do if not well, then passably. But most students also have a different combination of background knowledge, drive, motivation, and plans for their lives than what I had and what many of my faculty colleagues had. Understanding — at a visceral level — that graduate students are not my clones and that just because they are not  motivated to the same extent as me, or want the same things as me, doesn’t mean they are not suitable for a PhD or even a career in science.

What really helped, other than experience alone, was deciding what the minimum was that I was willing to be OK with for someone’s face time, productivity, and output. I have a document that details what this minimum is in terms of papers, conferences, etc. This incoming-student document also details what I expect in terms of presence in the office; it contains words such as “…graduate school is perfectly compatible with having a personal life, but you have to use the time you do work efficiently” and “…assume that an extended weekend is always OK to take, just drop me a line that you’ll be away…,” also “…summer internships near the end of your studies are encouraged…” It also specifies what they can expect of me.

We, faculty members, are usually academic overachievers. Not each graduate student will be like that. Some will be average. Some will be below average. Decide on the minimum you find acceptable, communicate it clearly, and stick with it. The best students go well beyond this specified minimum. But there is a minimum, and once a student hits the minimum, I will happily let them graduate.

Different levels of stress for students with advisors who are pre- and post-tenure

Working for a faculty member on the tenure track really isn’t for every student. No matter how awesome, patient, and emotionally intelligent the faculty member is, without tenure they are under tremendous stress, work very long hours, and are also inexperienced as advisors. So if you are a student who needs a lot of hand holding, or who has a very restrictive home life (little flexibility with your time), then a tenure-track faculty member might not be the best choice for you. This sounds like a blanket statement, but I have yet to meet a junior faculty member who is not under a lot of pressure, so it should not come as a surprise that they will apply pressure to you, their group member, to work hard, go all in, and produce. A PI on the tenure track is also less likely to be able to carry an unproductive student or a student who’s just a bad fit for a group for a very long time. Their clock is ticking and their ability to waste time, money, or energy is nonexistent.

This high-pressure environment is like a startup, and it’s invigorating for the right kind of student—motivated, confident, independent, thriving on a challenge. But it’s definitely not for everyone.

If you need a lot of supervision/help/pats on the back, then you don’t want to be in a pressure-cooker lab. Many (most) tenure-track labs are like that. Some are like that even after the PI’s tenure. Those that aren’t only aren’t because the PI has enough money to afford some waste, enough people to distribute the workload, enough empathy and experience to see beyond low self-esteem or whatever and zoom in on the productive quantities, and is willing and able to find the time to actually mentor.

There are many reasons why some grad students and some professors don’t work out. Some advisors can work with almost anyone. Some can and will work with only a certain type of student. If you are a student in a bad situation, try talking to your advisor. If you get a feeling they don’t appreciate you or that things won’t change for the better, get out, change groups.

But! Don’t expect friendship or a parenting relationship even from the best advisors. You and your advisor have a symbiotic professional relationship. Your advisor is your work supervisor, teacher, mentor, and senior colleague. Not a mom, dad, friend, shrink, or cleaning lady. You know, as per The Laws of Herman. [PDF]

What annoys me most in my role as advisor

I would say, overall, what annoys me most is when a graduate student makes my work with them much harder (more laborious) than it needs to be.

Many aspects of interaction with graduate students are not annoying at all, because I consider them an inherent part of my job.

Not annoying EVER

1) Writing letter of recommendation until the day I die or the student no longer needs them, whichever comes first

2) Meeting with the student in person about data/coursework/progress/general career discussion/brainstorming as often as they need

3) Giving feedback on talks/posters/papers/miscellaneous presentations/CV/cover letter for job hunt

Things that are ALWAYS annoying as all hell

1) Giving me a manuscript riddled with typos, with a sham of a reference list, or where it’s in other ways apparent that you don’t give two $hits and expect me to do most of your dirty/boring/labor-intensive work (see the bit about me not being your mother or your cleaning lady)

2) Being obstinate without a good reason

Example of being obstinate without a good reason:

You prefer to use the software that you are used to even though everyone else in the group uses certain other software for the same purpose. It’s not the question that your tool is superior and that you are enlightening us, it’s a matter of you knowing the tool you know and not wanting to learn the tools we use.

I had a student like that recently. I don’t think he realized how fuckin’ annoying he was, or maybe he did but didn’t care. We argued about some tools and I came close to losing my $hit with him several times. At some point, I gave up arguing, because I have limited energy and he’s not the only thing on my plate. He was a smart student otherwise, so I didn’t let him go, but even though he probably thinks he won, he did not; I was simply reducing my own annoyance. With a student like this, in the past I probably would have let him go. The reality is that I did end up working with him, but he did not make me happy, I admit avoiding him more than my other students, and this persistent annoyance resulted in me not going to bat for him as much as I could have if he had been less obstinate. When he graduated, I was much less sad and much more relieved to see him go than for my other students.

I am not going to adjust to you, you need to adjust to the group. Do not piss off advisor without a good reason. Use the goddamn tools that everyone else is using.

Half his $hit is not directly usable by others now that he left. And his presence resulted in specific lines in that grad-student document that will hopefully prevent other new students from being irritating in the same away.

Example of being obstinate, but with good reason:

You believe I am wrong about a technical issue and you are right. You should always fight for your ideas with math, data, and references. I will be delighted for you to convince me that I am wrong! See The Laws of Herman again. [PDF]

You have an idea about something new that we should try and are very excited to try it. I never say ‘no’ to new student ideas is the idea holds water and there’s any chance of me justifying it on my current grants and/or otherwise finding the money to support the work.

However, if I say ‘no’ and tell you why not, don’t pester me. If there’s no money, there’s no money. If I said ‘no’ on technical terms, then do a better job of convincing me that your idea holds water. I assure you I am not impossible to convince; I’m just not particularly easy, but neither will your eventual manuscript referees be.

Related: Just because you think that what I ask you to do is stupid, or your gut tells you that it’s stupid, doesn’t actually mean that what I ask you to do is stupid. In fact, between my gut and your gut, I trust my gut, because my gut has seen $hit and done $hit and felt $hit that your gut can only dream of. So, if you think what I ask is stupid, you can a) go do what I say and show me the results of my stupidity OR b) prepare to argue very seriously, with math, data, and references, why it is stupid, AND follow up either a) or b) by proposing something better instead. If you don’t have a better, less stupid idea, then we are going with my stupid idea.

What say you, blogosphere PIs and grad students? What grates your cheese (or your carrots, in case you don’t eat dairy)?

To be continued, sometime…


November Daily Blogging Is Back 2017


As every year in November, to celebrate the submission of NSF proposals, there are daily posts here on Xykademiqz.

You can think of November daily blogging as my unofficial contribution to NaBloPoMo, a companion to NaNoWriMo.

I’d like to:

  • Invite you to suggest topics for me to write about. I know the last few times I did not get to all the topics that were requested. If I never got to yours, I’m sorry! Please request it again, and I pinkie-swear I will get to it this time.