Sunday Miscellany

  • I usually give myself Saturday to not do work. But this Sunday tackled me with a vengeance as soon as I got up and knocked out some teeth. OK, maybe I’m being too dramatic, but I’ve put in a 10-hour workday today and I’m feeling very, very stabby. I am too old to not have weekends.
  • Aging sucks. My ass and my jawline are never again gonna be as taut as they were when I was 20, when I should’ve taken great pride in them instead of beating myself up for not being emaciated. But with age also comes a dwindling supply of fucks, and that, my friends, is a major perk. Young people have way too many fucks to give, and fucks are very heavy to carry around.
  • I’d been a member of a sci-fi book club for several years, since before the pandemic. Giving it time and all, but I just never managed to fit in. I think there are people there who like me well enough, but those that don’t really send me loud “Fuck off” vibes, or some other flavor of off-putting vibes, but they’re definitely sending me something and whatever it is, it’s not welcoming. The last however many times (a vast majority of times, actually) I came back from book club feeling down. It’s a weird environment with a definite hierarchy. If you like a book others didn’t, you feel stupid. If you didn’t like something others did, better tone down your displeasure. People argue pretty aggressively, but it’s hierarchical with the same people having the floor most of the time. And, to be honest, I read a ton, across genres, and I dislike the suggested books more often than not. Plus I’m an actual practicing scientist, so I don’t get hung up on the science in the books being perfectly accurate. I live with science; it’s hard and tedious and highly constraining. As someone once said, I like my fiction with a lot of fiction. Most others in the group are not scientists and are very particular about the science being correct to the point that all the other things that make books resonate with people seem irrelevant. I’ve been struggling with leaving the club for a long time, thinking about it every month but always  avoiding it because it feels permanent, and then yesterday I just did. I removed myself from the Google group, so I won’t be getting emails anymore, and that will be the end of that. My husband is relieved because I won’t subject him to the monthly “Should I? Will I?” I should and I did. So long and thanks for all the fish.
  • When it comes to writerly pursuits, I get much more engagement and better interactions and just overall a more wholesome vibe at Mastodon, where I literally have an order of magnitude fewer followers than on Twitter. It’s a really nice and comfy there, I highly recommend it, especially if you can get on a server with a bunch of nice friends.

Sup, blogosphere? How is this November treating you thus far? 

Musky Avicide and a PSA

It looks like Twitter is on its last legs. Apparently the offices are locked for the weekend, and employees have resigned en masse

I will miss the hellsite. Twitter is like sanitary pads with wings: once you start using them, you can’t imagine how you ever lived without them (yet you did, most of your teenage years, you did). I took to Twitter reluctantly after seven years of pretty much only blogging. I’ve meet some cool people there. Mastodon is nice, but just very different. Feels pretty lonely. You can’t really stumble upon interesting conversations they way you can on Twitter. I dread moving to Instagram, the other location many writers are flocking to.

Ugh. Just ugh. 


Anyway, in less differently depressing news: 

\begin{Ranty PSA}

If you share a passing interaction with someone and notice they have a foreign accent, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, ask them where they are from.

It doesn’t matter how curious or fascinated by accents you are. Leave them alone. If you care at all about their comfort, you will swallow your curiosity and treat them as you would anyone local until the brief interaction ends.

Why? Because they keep getting asked that question all the fucking time and it’s alienating and aggravating. 

Exhibit A (6 pm yesterday): 
This was a 5-min parent-teacher conference that my husband and I attended over Zoom. Within 2 min, the teacher asked us where we were from and proceeded to talk about how she’d never traveled there but would love to, and asked if it was closer than country A or country B. My husband humored her, because he’s way nicer than I am. However, because of this bullshit I didn’t have time to ask some questions about the kid’s AP exam.

Exhibit B (9:30 am today):
I am at a car dealership, dropping off my car for maintenance. I am talking to the service guy. Another random guy passes by (I’m not even talking to him).

Random Guy: So where are you from?

Me: *tries to decide whether or not to spill blood on the pristine dealership floors* I’ve been here awhile. I’m from here now.

RG: But I hear you! (Congrats, RG, you possess ears)

Me: *mumbles murderously* Yeah, well.

RG: *grins* Welcome to America!

He welcomed me to America. I’ve been here 23 years. I am a citizen. Tell me this isn’t meant to be fucking alienating.

Having an accent is not quite like having a huge scar across your face, because most people stare, but don’t dare ask how you got it.

Having an accent is like being perpetually pregnant. For the rest of your life people will ask you if you’re having a boy or a girl,  then proceed to touch your belly.

No, it’s not the same as someone from Ohio asking someone from Louisiana where they’re from.

If you care at all about the comfort of people who were clearly not born in the US, just fucking leave them alone. Your curiosity doesn’t have the right to their life story when you share a 10-second interaction.

\end{Ranty PSA}


What else is new, blogosphere? What’s going on with you?

Cool Chair in the Hot Seat

lyra211 asked here:
How about your what-to-do/what-not-to-do for new chairs? (I am becoming chair next summer and therefore it’s on my mind a lot.)

I’m going to be of very limited help here, since I haven’t been chair, but I know for a fact that several of the regular readers have been or currently are chair. Folks, please share your wisdom with lyra211!

I’ve personally worked under four different chairs since I became faculty. Here are some of the issues that I’ve gleaned from my cushy vantage point of being a regular, albeit unusually grumpy, member of the faculty. I think everything I suggest below is doable, at least in principle:

Figure out how often you need to have faculty and/or tenured-faculty meetings. Always have an agenda. Be merciless (merciless!) about staying on time and on point. I’ve had chairs who kept us for two hours every week and chairs who managed to get stuff done in an hour every two weeks. The department still ran, so… Some things are clearly not as necessary as they seem.

Figure out what things absolutely have to happen in terms of service and what don’t. Cut whatever service roles you can cut. Get good people on the service tasks that absolutely have to happen.

Excellent working relationship with the staff is necessary. Find a way to show them your appreciation that isn’t yet another burden on their time (e.g., monthly lunch with them might be appreciated, but likely isn’t; a gift card probably is, or a lunch they can eat on their own if they so choose).

Student recruitment and retention are extremely important. See if you can improve things there. We are there for the students first and foremost. They are what makes a university a university.

Depending on your levels of extroversion, you may tolerate face time well, or extremely poorly. Being chair is a marathon, not a sprint, so you have to keep up both your strength and your will to live. If you don’t tolerate face time too well, minimize the shit out of it. Whatever can be an email, make an email. Whatever can be a monthly instead of a weekly meeting, make it so.

A lot of things are supposed to come in front of the executive committee (all tenured professors) that technically wouldn’t have to come in front of it and can be handled by a smaller subcommittee or someone in a vice chair capacity. Use that. Delegate authority to handle stuff to capable colleagues or committees. The delegation process itself might have to go in front the executive committee, but it will be worth it.

People will take out all sorts of shit on you when you are chair, doubly (triply so) if you are a woman. Find a way to dissociate from that garbage because most of the time it isn’t really about you at all (although people sure like to transfer the blame to you, especially when they are the real culprit). As a wise woman who excels in a leadership position once said, remember that their lashing out is a reflection of some underlying stress that usually has little to do with you. If you can have this stuff roll off your back and leave the stresses of work at work, you will likely thrive in the chair position. If you take it all personally (as I know I would), you will be miserable. Don’t be like me!

Your research will take a hit. It might be a big hit. You might not mind the hit since you’ve been itching to do something new anyway. Or you might resent the hit and look forward to not being chair anymore. If the latter, try to stay afloat, but don’t beat yourself up. You won’t be able to publish as much as a regular faculty member, but as long as you’re not completely out of  students, money, and ideas, you will bounce back. Consider it a research hibernation of sorts. You’re not dead, just waiting for spring.

If you are an extrovert, or an introvert with good interpersonal skills and acting abilities who can mimic an extrovert, and you are effective at working with donors and alumni and bringing money to your department, college, and university, you will be absolutely beloved by the higher-ups, and in turn they will have an easier time swallowing whatever else (other than more hard  money) you need for your department.

Readers who’ve been or are currently serving as department chair, please share your nuggets of leadership wisdom with lyra211!

Profanity-laden Post on Collaboration

So I might be exiting a collaboration to protect my postdoc and my own peace of mind. It’s a collaboration of about ten people across several institutions. It came together based on joint interests, but the postdoc and I will quit as soon as the current paper is accepted. I have my own funding (thank gourd). My postdoc is a capable woman and no shrinking violet, but she gets piled on whenever I don’t attend collaboration meetings, and pretty much even when I do, although to a lesser extent because I take some of the heat and can also deescalate some. Plus, the most aggressive people are probably infinitesimally less aggressive when I am there; I don’t allow them to interrupt me as she does out deference, and I talk over them if they talk over me. Still, after every meeting I am winded and exhausted, like I’ve just run a few miles.

It’s not a fun environment. Things have gotten to the point of no return upon the joining of a new junior faculty (male) who, perhaps due to his cultural background, seems particularly hostile toward my postdoc and, to a lesser extent, me.

And I am so fucking tired having to handle assholes in kid gloves.

I pulled out of a grant-review panel a few months ago when I found out I would again serve with a combative jerk with whom I had promised myself I would never serve again.

I will pull out of a collaboration because I don’t want my postdoc dreading every meeting, feeling rattled each time she attends, and I don’t need to be walking into a meeting with a machete to cut through the bullshit flying from every direction.

The thing is, most of the men in the meetings are completely silent. Do they not see what’s happening? Do they think the uppity  women deserve it? Do they not wanna say something to deescalate these clearly tense and uncomfortable exchanges? Do they not notice anything? How the hell are people so oblivious? They probably just don’t care.

And, of course, it will be “women are too difficult to work with” again. 🙄

Fuck this, seriously. Thank fuck I am not dependent on them for the funds and can just walk away.

Bullets of Ego

  • Remember months (years?) ago when Pete Davidson dated Ariana Grande (Why do I even know about this? Social media, that’s why), which popularized the term “big dick energy” (BDE) to denote a person who is quietly confident (because they know they’re packin’) and doesn’t have to rub their qualities (ahem) in everyone’s face. Apparently, BDE is perceived subliminally and is very attractive. Someone being all up in your face with their perceived awesomeness, trying to get you to acknowledge them, is said to have “small dick energy.”
  • I remember the movie “The Social Network,” where Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend tells him something along the lines of, “You think people don’t like you because you are a nerd. But actually people don’t like you because you’re an asshole.”
  • Anyway, these days I am thinking about how it would be really nice if there were more BDE people in academia. People who are competent and confident, but not jerks about it. They go about their business, doing their work, advising students, being colleagues, and not having to measure dicks against others at every turn. Not have to constantly show they’re the smartest person in every room. Not have to put people down with no good reason.
  • By extension, I’d like it to not be automatically assumed that, just because someone is kind and calm, they aren’t competent or confident, or just because someone is supportive and helpful, they aren’t an ambitious. I wish people stopped assuming outward self-confidence were a proxy for competence. Haven’t we learned anything from 2016 — 2020?
  • I’ve been interviewing prospective students, and there are a couple who are confident. Very confident. Very, very confident. So confident they are really obnoxious about it. I am sure they were told about having to be boastful in the US, and it’s true in the sense that self-promotion is much more overt and expected in the US than elsewhere in the world, but self-promotion is a fine skill and it’s very easy to land on the side of annoying. So annoying that it will likely disqualify them from admission into my group, because people with outsize egos are exhausting to work with. But such students are brilliant, you might say. Not brilliant enough to justify them being as exasperating they usually are.
  • In a multi-PI collaboration, a brand new male assistant professor who joins the collaboration late is automatically afforded respect. I have to battle with a male PhD student of another PI, a student who is writing his first paper, about technical details pertaining to my group’s part of the work, about the text we contributed, about everything. Every detail is a struggle. (You don’t want to even know how my female postdoc gets piled on when I don’t attend the collaboration meeting.) Being a female professor is a little like being queer, in that you have come out over and over and over again, to everyone individually, only in the case of a female professor it’s having to convince people of your competence, over and over and over again, even people twenty years your junior who should assume you know something based on seniority alone, but they never do.
  • This shit is so exhausting.

Of Beaks and Tusks


Saturday is usually the day I take to myself, in the sense that I don’t do anything work-related. Sunday is a mix of chores and catching up on work, but Saturday is for me and my frivolous pursuits. 

Eldest is coming to dinner today, so I have to go shopping for that and cook, but other than that, it’s mostly my fiction-writing time. I have a bunch of short stories (OK, not a bunch, but maybe three, so a tiny bunch) that I want to touch up and send out again, and there’s the novel which I sadly haven’t been able to work on this month yet. But I try not to have the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

I have a small Twitter presence under xykademiqz, but I don’t really do much there or check that account often. I spend much more time on the Twitter account associated with my fiction pen name, where my timeline features mostly writers and artists. 

But after the recent $44 billion takeover of the Bird Site by the Tesla guy, plenty of people have fled to Mastodon, or more like purchased a vacation home on Mastodon to which they will end up moving if their primary residence goes up in flames.  Technically, the network is a Mastodon fediverse, a distributed social network of independently run  servers (called instances) running Mastodon open-source software, which offers a cozier and more relaxing experience than Twitter but is in some ways akin to Twitter. You join a specific server (you can change it later if you need to, but you can follow anyone from any server anyway). You write and post “toots” (analogue of tweets), which I find endlessly hilarious, but which I find many people object to? I don’t care how old you are, potty humor is always sidesplittingly funny, so don’t be a stick in the mud and pretend it’s not. Toot with us! Anyway, you can “favourite” (like) and “boost” (retweet). However, the fediverse is not built for virality or promotion; it’s built for interpersonal connection. I have two accounts there (one associated with my short fiction (which is mostly dark and mostly speculative), and another with the genre in which I’m writing a novel), and dipping my toes into different social-media waters has been interesting. So far, I’ve really enjoyed the Mastodon fediverse, but the locals (understandably) aren’t too keen on all the changes the raucous Twitter refugees have brought along with them, not the least of which is the need for swift and presumably expensive hardware upgrades to support all the new traffic. 

For those of you who follow (kind of) these events, here’s a thoughtful post by one longtime Mastodon user:

Academic blogosphere, do you use social media? Which ones? If you are on Twitter, are you thinking about moving elsewhere? 

Funding Gaps, Funding Students

Nicoleandmaggie asked this question:

How do you deal with funding gaps (or potential funding gaps) if you have to support PhD students with grant money?

This is always unpleasant to think about, but very important. The short answer, in my experience, is one or more of the following:  a) discretionary money (from an endowed professorship or some equivalent-ish internal award), b) small internal research grants (again, if this is available in your field and at your institution), or c) teaching assistantships. Teaching assistantships may or may not be abundant in a given discipline, but even if your department doesn’t have many (or any), there are related departments that might; for example, if you are in chemical engineering, your students might also be able to TA in chemistry, biochemistry, perhaps intro physics or biology; if you are in economics, your students are likely able to TA intro math or statistics, too. In my experience, anyone who’s needed a TA has ultimately been able to get one somewhere, but I don’t know that this is the norm, and it’s stressful for the students because it typically needs to be handled anew each semester.

The thing with funding lasting three years and the PhD lasting roughly five years is that there’s no guarantee a student will both be able to be funded the whole time and stay on the same project. Senior students typically prefer to teach and keep their ongoing  project over getting moved to a new one three or four years in. Who can blame them?

As an aside, I think teaching undergrads is an important part of professional development for graduate students, and should be part of every PhD experience. Graduate student TAs also benefit undergrads, who like learning from instructors close in age.

Blogosphere, what do you say? How do you handle funding gaps if you have PhD students to support? 

Shameless Plug: Academaze, Yo!


What is Academaze?

Academaze is a book of essays and cartoons on academic life at a major research institution. I wrote it under the pen name Sydney Phlox and it was published on June 20, 2016 by Annorlunda Books. The book title is a combination of “academic” and “maze,” hinting at the labyrinthian nature of academia. You can think of Academaze as “The Best of Xykademiqz and Academic Jungle (my old blog)” that has been organized into coherent chapters, copyedited, and nestled between beautiful covers! I am very proud of it.

Where can I buy the book? 

Paperback: Amazon | | Createspace

Ebook: Amazon | | GumRoad | iBooks | Kobo

Will I like this book? 

The book is really cool, but don’t take my word for it. Here are all the reviews I am aware of:

Pawel Niewiadomski

Elizabeth Haswell

Alex Small (Physicist at Large)

Clarissa’s Blog

Natalienne (Fill Your Bookshelf Blog)

My Cup of Beauty

All Reviews

All Goodreads Reviews

Review in the APS CSWP & COM Gazette (Newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics & the Committee on Minorities of the American Physical Society)

Review in POSDOCket (Newsletter of the National Postdoc Association)

From the back cover: “Academic life can be wonderful, but also daunting. This collection of essays and cartoons on life in academia provides an “insider’s guide” to the tenure track and beyond in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields at a major US research institution.

Sydney Phlox, a pseudonymous tenured professor, takes the reader through the maze of academic life: from the job search, through the research, teaching, and service that form the core of academic work to the quest for work-life balance and the unique challenges faced by women in STEM. Along the way, Phlox shares the joys and tribulations of working with students and collaborators and navigating academic politics while trying to get papers published and grants funded.

Who are thee, Sydney Phlox, the author of this fascinating treatise? 

Here is how my pen name Sydney Phlox came about. And here’s a biosketch:

Sydney Phlox is a professor at a large public research university in the US, working in one of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. She loves quantum mechanics, science fiction, and bad puns. She and her husband raise a prime number of unruly children and drive in the snow like champs. Phlox blogs and doodles at Xykademiqz.

And, a little more about me and my various pseuds.

Where did you say I can buy the book, again? 

Paperback: Amazon | | Createspace

Ebook: Amazon | | GumRoad | iBooks | Kobo

How did Academaze come to be? 

All the posts about the book, from the idea, through the editing process, to publication, have been compiled under the tag Academaze.

Cartoons, I want more cartoons!

I am glad you like them! There are many that did not make it into Academaze; all have been collected under the Cartoons category. (Most are also under the  comics tab.)