Author: xykademiqz

Purple balls are awesome. When made out of glass, that is.

Chalk Talk

Disgruntled postdoc asked:

Faux pas you see during faculty interviews, especially the chalk talk. I know you’ve written about the interviews (on site and Skype) overall in general but specific things during the chalk talk would be nice since from the outside postdocs have never seen any other than their own


I am not in the biomedical sciences, so I can’t say what’s needed there. My department usually does one long talk that’s part seminar, part closed session grilling of the candidate on their plans, which could be referred to as the chalk talk. What follows is, as is my wont, a stream of consciousness:

The seminar

The seminar showcases your knowledge of the state of the art and your prior work. But this is a job seminar talk. Its purpose is for you to look like an expert who’s done good, important work in an exciting area. I am always surprised by how many candidates don’t tell us what it is that they did versus the general state of the field. Others act as if their whole grad school or postdoc group is the same as themselves. Nope. Unlike a seminar at a conference, where you are a representative of your whole research group, this is a job talk. It’s nice if you are gracious and give credit where credit is due, but we are all here (including you) because you are interviewing for the job. We need to see what you know, how you think, what you did.

And get some clothes that fit and that you are comfortable in. Uncomfortably squirming, sweaty candidates in clothes made from non-breathable fabric and bought many pounds ago do not leave the greatest impression. You don’t have to be stylish or spend a lot of money, but be comfortable and professional. “Professional” does depend on the field; there are fields where wearing a suit is a must; in others, people are are much more casual.

The chalk-talk part

You need to have thought about what you will need and how much it will approximately cost. Ideally, look into the shared facilities at the university before arriving to the extent possible and show us that you know what you’ll be able to leverage. This is very impressive when done right and shows you are serious and interested. If there’s stuff you absolutely have to have as your own (e.g., because you will build upon that equipment with some custom additions), we need to know about it.

We want to see no fewer than three and no more than five sturdy lines of research that you will undertake. Think about long-term and short-term plans. What will you work on first, the first couple of years?  What will your first several proposals be on? How about five years in? Where will you apply for money? Are you naive about what the funding trends are? How large do you envision your group will be initially? Eventually?

What will your first few proposals be on? You don’t have to talk about these as proposals, but rather as exciting research ideas; either way, we want to see that you can think in terms of fundable, executable ‘quanta’ of research. Pitch your ideas to us. If you excite us with what your ideas and what you feel you will pull off, that’s a great sign.

Again, your ideas. Not trivial extensions of the work your group is currently doing, in which case they’ll be funded for it and not you. Your unique ideas. You need to grow your niche. Convince us that you know you need a niche, that you will develop one, that your envisioned niche is something you are uniquely positioned to do, and that it’s important and exciting.

Far too many candidates are indistinguishable in that they don’t have original ideas at all; instead, they regurgitate what they’ve heard at conferences or in group meetings to be the next obvious steps. That’s boring. We want to see interesting, well-thought-out, fresh ideas.

Blogosphere, please chime in with chalk-talk dos and don’ts? 

Sunday Smorgasbord

To editor of a scientific journal: After you’ve been sitting on my manuscript for over a week after the reports had come in, without making a decision, I may not take kindly the fact that you wrote to me to hurry up with my own review of another manuscript in your journal.

Favorite time of day: The 10 min I spend in my car after I’ve parked it in the garage at work. It’s 10 min of listening to the radio, browsing the web on my phone, sipping my Venti Pike Roast with nonfat milk, bracing myself to get out and face the day.

To anyone among the readers who’s also a writer: If you have a writing group or writing buddies who are helpful, how did you find them? I do ask some people I know for feedback on occasion (thank you!), but I know I’m imposing. I would like a reciprocal critiquing framework.

By way of Wandering Scientist, a great article on the global profile of birth-control use and abortion practices.

Easy bread pudding

A cat trying to pet a bird

Brilliant Student

Emily asked:

A problem I’ve been having recently. I’m newish faculty (in my second year!) at an R1, and one of very few women in my department, which makes it hard to go to other people for advice on this.

I have a new student this year, and she’s, well, brilliant. I think of theory as really having two major components – there’s the technical stuff, which you can learn in classes, and there’s the more intuitive part, which is how people learn how to ask good questions, and is how you get a ‘feel’ for data. I’m good enough technically, but I have a career because I’m very good at the second part. It’s also worth noting that I’m in a subfield where good theory is usually close to experiment, and where mathematical frameworks don’t really exist yet.

Anyway – my new student. She worked in the field as an undergrad, and it turns out that she has a better understanding of the literature than most postdocs in our department. She’s technically not great, but she’s solidly at the top of her classes, so I expect that she’ll be at a point where there’s not much I can teach her in that respect in a year or two. And most importantly – she asks REALLY good questions. She’s been here for two months and I’m already planning on writing a grant based on something she brought up! And no, I spoke with her old undergrad advisor, these aren’t things that she lifted from his group and is pretending to have thought of, even accidentally.

I don’t know what to do with her. I’m encouraging her to spend a lot of time on classes and get her technical skills up to par, but beyond that – I don’t know how to help her. If I were to honestly advise her I would tell her to find someone else to work with – she’s going to be a better scientist than me very quickly. Or I can graduate her very quickly. Or I can just give her a lot of independence while keeping tabs on her, and treat her like some combination of a 20 year old and a senior postdoc?

Anyway, help?

I think it’s awesome you are looking out for the student and recognizing her potential.

There are several aspects here.

Don’t assume that just because a student is talented that they will necessarily quickly surpass you. You still have more experience, and I know that I always have plenty to teach even the most brilliant students. Also, first impressions are first impressions; it’s guaranteed that there are things she lacks or could be better at on account of simply being human and thus not perfect. Maybe she needs help with writing. Maybe she has trouble finishing what she started. You’ll see.

Your field is male dominated, math/computation-heavy. I cannot stress enough the importance of a good, supportive PhD advisor (hint: you!) who is also a role model.

You might think that the student deserves someone better, someone more famous, more flashy. That’s your impostor syndrome talking. I was the same with the first student who I’d thought was very talented when I first stared out; I thought I was unworthy of such a good student and was going to encourage him to move to a more hotshot prof so I wouldn’t ‘ruin’ him! Luckily, the hotshot advisor gently told me that I would be a fine advisor for the student, and that I should be a little selfish, and actually hold on to the good ones. Note: Hotshots are usually a little (or a lot) selfish and it serves them well. Learn from them.

Work with the student to the best of your ability, give her freedom, but also give her as many tools she doesn’t yet have and the full benefit of your expertise, whatever you can. Prepare her for the big cold world that may not be will definitely not be as welcoming to her genius as you are (because female geniuses are always qualified, doubted, or put down). Sending her to someone more famous might end up working out great, but it might also completely squash her if she has to battle someone’s ego, potential sexism, or plain advising neglect. Caring, as you do, it priceless. You can be a good coach even though you think that your player might have more raw talent than you.

And help her work on her weaknesses. Everyone has them, it’s an absolute guarantee. Sooner or later, as you keep working with her, you’ll figure out that she’s only human, there are things that she doesn’t know or doesn’t do very well, and you can help her. I’ve had several students where the initial reaction was “Wow, this kid is way smarter than me!” It turns out I invariably have plenty to teach such kids, mostly because my mix of abilities is different than their mix of abilities, plus I have more experience in work and life.

So forget about doing the student a disservice. Be grateful for the opportunity to work with her, advise her in the most creative and selfless way you can, and try to inoculate her, with your devoted advising, against the indifferent, cruel work of academic science that awaits her after she leaves your group.

Blogosphere, what do you say? 



Thoughts on Moving on the Tenure Track

lyra211 had a question after a recent post on moving in academia:

Do you have any sense of whether similar advice applies for lateral moves between liberal arts colleges? I genuinely do love my current department, and would be sad to leave, but there’s pretty much squat for job opportunities for my husband where we live, and I know there’s an impending retirement in a department at a similar liberal arts college in a more desirable geographic location — it would be a significant step up personally, and a lateral move professionally (there are pros and cons of the two institutions that more or less balance each other out). Should I talk to the faculty members I know there, let them know I’m interested, and ask them to keep me in mind? Is it better to wait until they have a job ad out (which will probably be after I have tenure, since I’m in year 5 now), even though it would probably be an ad for an assistant prof and I’d be associate?

There were some good comments after lyra211’s post, go check them out.

Here are some of my thoughts.

Is your department healthy and generally supportive of you? Do you feel they are invested in junior faculty? Are you certain that you’ll get tenure and that the department would work hard to keep you in the face of a competing offer?

Or do you feel that your tenure is uncertain, or that if they heard you were leaving, they’d say “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”?

My department is of the former kind, and we really work hard to make sure junior folks are happy and productive. I can say for a fact that nobody would begrudge a well-performing faculty member for leaving, especially if there’s a personal reason. It happened a few years ago; a nearly tenured faculty member had to leave as there were no opportunities here for his wife, even after the department, college, and the provost’s office have tried everything under the sun. (In fact, there were options, but she wouldn’t settle for a career downgrade, and kudos to her, so the husband moved to the big city where she had plenty of business connections.) It was a bit sad, but everyone understood and was supportive in the end.

A few years ago, we brought a pre-tenure faculty member in from another institution. She did get a retention offer from her original place but didn’t take it. Both places went out for tenure letters for her at the same time. A few years later, a senior faculty member from the original institution wrote nice letters for awards for her. Successful people appreciate other successful people and understand ambition, as well as other reasons for which people move.

I’ve also been on searches where a current assistant prof applies because he/she wants to upgrade or get access to certain facilities or collaborators. It’s common in the cover letters of applications to ask the search committee not to disclose to the candidate’s current institution that the candidate is looking elsewhere  until or unless he/she becomes a finalist. I personally like to see applications of successful people on the tenure track, as they ideally already have some papers and grants under their belt.

However, if you feel that your department has ill-willed, vindictive folks in it, or that for whatever reason your tenure is not a shoo-in, it might be a good idea to wait until after tenure.

But, in any case, there is no harm in discreetly and non-committally talking with friends or trusted colleagues outside the institution about how your department is great, but that the opportunities for your husband are limited, and that in principle you’d be open to thinking about other schools somewhere down the road that would solve his career problem. You can also say that you are up for tenure and don’t want to jeopardize that, but who knows what future holds. I am hoping they’ll get the hint. I don’t think anyone is naive enough (although maybe some are evil enough) to go ask your current colleagues about you unless you’ve given an OK to contact them.

Overall, it really depends on how the department culture and your standing within it are.

If you are a superstar, the department is healthy with many successful people, then they’ll see your desire to move as a natural career step. They will try to keep you because you’re a valuable colleague and an asset to the department, but people should not take it personally, as some sort of treason, that you have your own life and decisions to make, which might take you elsewhere.

If the department has a cult-like feel (you must belong… or else…) or for whatever reason you are made to feel that your tenure isn’t certain, I’d wait till tenure (since you’re already close) and then promptly split. You probably don’t want to stay in this type of department longer than necessary anyway.

But other people should know to be discreet, or should if you explicitly tell them; if they are not, they are most definitely not your friends.

Random Links As I Have to Grade

Grading and some reports tonight, so I will be back tomorrow with a regular post and a response to the questions that people have posted in the comments today… Also, I have received several new cool requests for blog topics, so those will be coming over the next few days… But not tonight.

Instead, random nonacademic (or are they?) links:

The Pushcart Prize is a big-deal small-press annual prize. Small presses are nominating their own best from this year, so here are some nominee lists. These should all be very good stories:

Also,go read a random flash from Ellipsis Zine:

After the Pause latest issue:


And a reminder to us all: