Attitude and Aptitude. Alas

Graduate students come with a range of technical backgrounds/levels of preparation, a range of natural aptitudes/talent, and a range of attitudes toward gradate school (comprising the willingness to work hard, coachability, etc.). There are other relevant axes if excellence, but for now let’s focus on these three.

Ideally, a student has a great aptitude, background, and attitude. It’s also common to have someone with a good background and aptitude, but less than ideal attitude; with some (or a lot) advisor irritation, these students often produce good work. Sometimes the student’s attitude improves when they switch groups to one better aligned with what they want to do,.

In the past,  I’ve had students who were poor along all of three axes, and those usually left with a Master’s.

A good attitude can compensate for a lot of deficiency in background and aptitude. A LOT. Perhaps all. But perhaps not.

A few years ago, I had a student who had the right attitude (StuOne), but StuOne’s background and aptitude for what we do in the group were not high. Moreover, while StuOne worked hard and was coachable, I think StuOne’s sights were always on a software development job for which, to be honest, one generally does not have to have a PhD (except in the generic “I know how to think analytically and troubleshoot complex problems” sense) and definitely not a PhD in my field. I tried a bunch of projects with StuOne, but StuOne just couldn’t do them, even with plenty of hand-holding. We had talks of StuOne leaving because it was starting to seem highly unlikely that StuOne could complete any work in my group. Eventually, and probably 3-4 yrs into StuOne’s PhD, I found one project that StuOne could do, which was on the small side and much more focused on code development than on physics; StuOne ended up doing well on it. StuOne received what I would call a fairly minimal PhD compared to what I expect in my group, but definitely enough by my department’s standards. StuOne  went on to get a well-paying job with a household-name company.

I faced a similar advising situation more recently and it’s one that saddens me. This student (StuTwo) has a great attitude, does everything asked of them, pours their heart and soul into all they do, and is the group’s social glue. But StuTwo’s aptitude for the work we do in the group is average at best and their Bachelor’s preparation was woefully inadequate. StuTwo has spent three years taking coursework but, perhaps because their aptitude isn’t very high, they don’t seem to be getting as much from their coursework as they could and should. Things aren’t sinking in well and they aren’t able to make the higher-level connections I need them to make. Also, StuTwo suffers from anxiety (I didn’t diagnose them; they told me). The normal course of what happens in academic science — someone graduates and leaves, and others in the group have to pick up their slack; funding doesn’t come through, a person has to switch from one project to something else — appears to greatly stress out StuTwo.

StuTwo is now done with coursework and is hopefully about to ramp up in their research. I have qualms about StuTwo’s ability to complete the project they started on, because it’s a very challenging one, but StuTwo is really into it and wants to keep working on it. The prospect of not having data when my grant-renewal time comes is really stressing me out.

Anyway, StuTwo’s PhD program moved to requiring dissertation proposals earlier during the student’s time than before, so StuTwo had to do it this summer. Despite several dry runs and PPT checks, it did not go well. AT ALL. One committee member (my longtime collaborator) basically said StuTwo should be kicked out of the program altogether; that they are too slow on the uptake, and that there’s no way they could complete a PhD in my group; this committee member hasn’t said anything that I haven’t thought myself at one point or another. Others chimed in with their stories. They shared that sometimes they would get a student to a PhD with great effort, which they regretted. One committee member revealed that they never regretted letting an underperforming student go, but they always regretted not having done it. The dissertation proposal paperwork wasn’t signed. Several committee members were in favor of chewing everything down into small, bite-sized pieces and providing a super-detailed outline of what is to be done in the near future, then revisiting. We can do that; I have a lot of mixed feelings, though.

On the one hand, I am resentful that such bite-sized pieces are needed. Graduate students are not kids; this is not middle school (seriously, I wish my kid’s middle school provided sufficient guidance on their projects; it’s all crazy and up in the air). This isn’t undergrad, either. Bite-sized pieces shouldn’t be required in the course of a PhD. The chunks should be larger and the student should be able to cut them up on their own or tear them off smaller ones with their incisors and basically figure out how to best swallow them without choking. The best PhD students never require micromanagement; they take broad direction and just run with it.

On the other hand, I think I can get this student to graduation, but it will be with a great investment of time and energy on my part. If there are intellectually nontrivial issues, I will likely have to be the one to solve them, which is what happened with StuOne. But maybe that’s OK. In the words of a colleague, faculty are usually the best people in their groups.

I feel like I owe it to this student to see them through, in part because they are such a good member of the group and have such a great attitude. In part because they’re three years in. One committee member feels my loyalty is misguided and is perhaps correct.

I met with the student after the dissertation-proposal fiasco and we discussed what comes next. I tried to convey the committee’s concerns as tactfully as I could. I mentioned the possibility of mastering out (they’re also getting a Master’s in another related field, so those would be two MS degrees). StuTwo felt this was unfair, that they were just about to ramp up (which is true) and that they weren’t able to do much work because of coursework (which is fine, but they demonstrated very poor absorption of concepts from coursework) and then went on to talk about how their anxiety was going up because of past deadlines: StuTwo gave a very thin talk at a recent conference on what should have been much more preliminary work; StuTwo was also sent to a Summer School to learn some cool stuff, but this was apparently all too much. StuTwo needs a very structured schedule and low-to-moderate demands on their time, otherwise their anxiety flares up. To be honest, I’m not sure how StuTwo will work in corporate America, but at least I can try to get them to a PhD with reduced stress and hand-holding. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can make all the stress go away completely.

Btw, a whole bunch of people whom I had in my fall graduate class have either mastered out and left or changed their original groups. I count four who seemed fine in my class, but have since left their research groups completely, and three who swapped groups. One of the group-swappers joined my group and is kicking ass; he’s on par with the best students I’ve ever had had. But there’s something going on in how we recruit students or maybe the funding demands are so high that we can’t tolerate the natural learning curves of PhD students, but so many people mastering out or leaving groups is bad for everyone’s morale. This is one more reason why I am reluctant to kick this student out; StuTwo is a well liked in the group, so their departure would likely be hugely disruptive to others.

But, note to self: I need to be much more selective when I recruit in the near future and I don’t think I will ever again recruit from StuTwo’s PhD program.

What say you, blogosphere? Thoughts? Shouts and murmurs? Related anectdotes? 

Howdy, Strangers!

*cough, cough*

Anyone home? It’s really dusty in here.

I know my blogging frequency has dropped to nearly zero, but I’m still here and I plan to stay here, just not as often as I used to. I don’t want to commit to a posting frequency, because all commitments make me want to flee screaming (exhibits A and B), but I will try to post every couple of weeks; that should be doable. Maybe. Hopefully. In all seriousness, it should be.

Right now my research group is full of new members, so we’re ramping up. A couple are really good, the rest are so-so, but they work hard and have the right attitude. So-so means that they can be effective and successful with the right project and within a relatively limited set of parameters. For periods like this one, when new group members aren’t producing yet, I have a backlog of lower-urgency papers authored by recently graduated group members to polish and submit during dry spells.

I am headed to a conference in Canada, afterwards have some roadtrips with family. Middle Boy just turned 12 and is 5’10”. I watch a lot of middle-school basketball, which I love (thank heavens he doesn’t play baseball), so it’s great fun plus bonding time. Eldest is doing great in college. Smurf is entering 3rd grade! Can you believe it? I blogged at Academic Jungle when he was born! I’m bringing some of those old posts back up for this particular occasion (one, two, three).

My fiction writing, for those who care about it, is going OK. I placed in some contests, had some semipro sales for my speculative fiction, and had some (lengthy!) holds and final-round shortlists at pro-level markets, but no pro sale yet (insert sadface emoji). I’m currently volunteering as a slush reader at a pro market (i.e., reading unsolicited submissions; slush is a term from the days of paper submissions, when received envelopes formed highly slippery piles in editorial offices); I’m learning a ton.

How’s everything on your end, bloggy friends? Anyone still here? Or has everyone migrated to Twitter? I am mostly active on Twitter under my supersecret  literary pseud, much less as @xykademiqz, but nonetheless feel free to stop by and say ‘hi’ if you tweet. Btw, as xykademiqz I subbed an ultrashort story to a contest judged by Roxane Gay and got an honorable mention, plus some cool swag.

Tell me what you’ve been up to and, if you have topics you’d like me to discuss on the blog, please leave a comment.

Stay cool, lathered in sunscreen, and well hydrated!

In Which Xyk is Called Cynical and Perhaps Rightfully So

We all know that one by George Carlin (paraphrasing): ” Inside every cynical person hides a disappointed idealist.”

I wonder if I’ve hit the level of cynicism that ends up being toxic to those around me, rather than serving the primary purpose, which is to steady me for inevitable disappointment in the face of people’s bad behavior. A junior faculty member — who, if I am being honest, seems to me to have had a pretty charmed career and life — told me that I was being too cynical when I mentioned that some initiative was never going to happen because it would hinge on the involvement of people know for not giving a fuck about anyone but themselves.

Look, I come from a background where people are distrustful because people are untrustworthy. I was taught to always look for an ulterior motive, to always assume others are there to take advantage of you. I was always too soft, too trusting, and too easily disappointed and manipulated for my ancestral culture, which is in part why I was always so uncomfortable there. I am much more comfortable here in the US, where the whole society works better, and where hard work is usually recognized and appreciated. Only here I have the opposite problem: according to local standards, I am too distrustful, too negative, paranoid even. I was told by a senior female colleague (who’s local) that I always assume the worst about people’s intentions, which isn’t really true, but I admit that it takes me a lot of intellectual effort to imagine the best and be charitable, especially when my previous experiences have been negative.

My colleagues are generally nice. However, in my particular subfield, we have a few whose values are just not aligned with the rest of the department. They put in minimal teaching, eschew service, show up to meetings only when they have a vested interest in what is being discussed. I know for a fact that they think less of those of us who do teach and do service, because they occasionally let it slip. They think that we are not serious scientists, because if we were hardcore, like them, we’d ignore teaching and service, too.

So why did the junior colleague say I was cynical? Because I pointed out, in response to his idea that we should have a local topical workshop, that I’d thought about the same thing  years ago, even ran some numbers and inquired about funding, then polled people about their interest, and it turned out no one was interested in putting in any work but everyone was interested in gracing us with their presence and giving a talk if I organized, to which I thought, Fuck you all, I am no one’s secretary, if you all are too high and mighty to organize, then so am I, and I dropped the whole idea.

So, yes, I suppose I am cynical.

I’ve been faculty for 15 years. The novelty has worn off. I know these people. Some are nice. Actually, most are really nice. Most are also reasonable, well-meaning and hard-working. But not all are nice and not all are reasonable; in fact, I consider some of them so selfish that I will not expend any of my good will or time to do anything that benefits them. I will never harm them or their students, but I will avoid them and I will ignore them and when the time comes that I can choose to benefit someone, I will not choose them.

Now, politically savviest folks around here manage to treat these clearly self-serving individuals as if they are not self-serving. The savvy folks give everyone the benefit of the doubt, treat everyone with kindness, no matter what happened in the past. (I am willing to bet it has to do with savvy folks all being church-going protestants. Turning the other cheek?)

That I cannot do. I treat people with kindness and good will until they’ve shown that they don’t deserve either. Afterwards, I am still civil and polite, but the good will is gone. I am not vindictive, but I do get uncharitable and unhelpful.

And you know what? I am so, so, sooooo tired of having to understand and excuse people’s bad behavior. And by people’s, it’s mostly the dudes’. They go on their merry way, stomping around like clueless elephants, oblivious to how they act and whom they hurt.

For instance, this is what recently happened with a longtime collaborator, with whom I’ve published several papers, who’s been in many of my students’ thesis proposals and defenses and always asked pretty pointed questions. I was in the thesis proposal presentation of one of his students and I asked some questions about motivation. They are working on a topic that was hot 20 years ago and stopped being hot because of major technical issues. The student was motivating the talk the way it had been motivated in its heyday, to which I brought up the fact that with that motivation many people in my fields will roll their eyes and say you’re doing stuff that’s no longer relevant. The student didn’t seem to be able to respond regarding whether the work should be differently motivated. After the student left, my collaborator (there were three additional people in the room) became hostile and said that if it were him instead of the student, he would have crushed me and sent me back to my home department. Yes, he used the words “would’ve crushed you” and “sent you back to Your Department.” I was shocked at the hostility of the comment, and I said that it is true that the problem has its heyday 20 years ago and that if there are new developments, which there are, then then new developments and the vistas they open is what should be pitched. He proceeded to yell how there was someone at FancyPants U who got a large defense grant to do similar stuff, which to him apparently meant I should shut up, that all technical issues were moot because a defense agency known for funding “blue sky” projects had thrown money at someone with a good pedigree.

I didn’t want to make a scene, or make the scene worse; it was my collaborator’s group’s event and there were three other people there. This is a guy who’s been rough to my students; we’ve had papers together, but obviously I am just a theory serf. Things work out as long as I don’t challenge him.

I left feeling like complete shit. I kept feeling like shit the rest of the day and for a few days afterwards.

What am I supposed to do with feeling like shit? I can’t go confront him, because women inciting direct confrontation only get labeled crazy and difficult. We are only collaborators; we’re not friends. I don’t know him well enough for a heart-to-heart. Whenever I brought up grievances with colleagues in the past, they always, always, played dumb, pretended they had to idea what I was talking about, or insisted that I had misunderstood (yes, the good old woman labeled crazy when she says something a dude doesn’t want to hear). So all I can do is a) vent to husband; b) vent on blog; c) find a way to deal with this internally. I feel hurt personally and betrayed professionally. The way to deal with this internally is to stop considering this man a person who is safe and well-meaning; instead, he becomes someone who should be avoided. This means I will not be pursuing papers or collaborations in the future. I will avoid having him on my students’ committees, and I will be less likely to participate on his students’.

Will he notice the cooling off? Maybe, maybe not. Most folks don’t or if they do, they don’t care. There will be no healing or whatever you want to call it. There will be me withdrawing because that’s all I can do to protect myself from feeling like shit in the future for the same reasons.

Now, does this make me cynical? The fact that, going forward, I will be acting aloof toward this person, forgoing the most charitable assumptions?

Perhaps. But people in general — and let’s face it, this mostly refers to dudes because women are socialized to be attuned to others — need to mind their behavior and the feelings of others more. I know people often say, “Well, if you have a problem with something, say something. Otherwise, people assume there’s no problem.” That’s bullshit. Those are the same people who say, “What’s the harm in asking? If you don’t want to do it, just say no.” These are all dudes who never assume that people might not be willing to speak up for all sorts of reasons. That their own paths are so smooth because so many others (women, minorities) anticipate their actions and move out of their way.

Then — shockingly! — those of us who’ve spent 40+ years moving out of the way seem insufficiently optimistic and unwilling to be charitable in the assumptions about others. Surely something is  wrong with us to have become so cynical in our dotage.

An Open Letter to a Kondo Kultist

Dear Passionate Organizer of Stuff,

I am glad you enjoy your clutter-free desk, alphabetized books, and color-coordinated to-do-lists. I am glad the teachings of Marie Kondo elucidate a path toward joy for you.

What I ask is that you leave me the fuck alone; that you do not passive-aggressively or — let’s face it — plain aggressively suggest that I clear out my desk; that you do not offer to organize my bookshelves.

The clutter on my desk and the seemingly random ordering of the books do not bother me in the least. I know this is probably hard to understand for you; sorry about that. Now leave me the fuck alone.

Why am I being so rude? Can’t I see you’re just trying to be helpful? No, because I don’t go to your office and offer to clutter your desk or disorganize your books. I leave you the fuck alone.

You imply concern about my productivity. How could I possibly even begin to work until every last bit of office stationery rests in its rightful place?

It’s easy. My mind is perfectly organized, thankyouverymuch, even if you find that unfathomable.

We all know what this is really about: You think you are superior to me and want to make sure I know that.

But I am not your inferior, so you can fuck the fuck off.  Go tidy up in hell.


The One Whose Cluttered Desk Gives You Palpitations

In Which I Feel a Kinship with Bruce Banner

As faculty at research institutions, we have a lot of freedom in how we run our groups and that’s generally a good thing. Most of us do many things in similar ways: we have group meetings and individual meetings with our students; we teach them how to write research papers and give presentations; we train them to identify compelling problems at the cutting edge and devise ways to tackle research challenges.

Yet, we are not all the same. Some things transpired in my workplace that reminded me that not all advisors are made equal and that many students suffer in bad advising situations.

I found out one of my colleagues has mandatory group meetings on weekends. This is in addition to multiple research-progress checks during the week (as in, every other day). This I learned from a student whom I know from coursework and who is quite capable, but who is now thinking about dropping the PhD altogether or switching groups because the pressure is unrelenting.

I am angry for the student, for all students. Angry with everyone who thinks that their own priorities need to be everyone else’s priorities.

Look, I am a workaholic, or at least I used to be. I spent my youth perpetually craving to work more. I was irritated by other people’s laissez faire approach to research, angry that they didn’t feel as passionately about it as I did. But I never chained anyone to the lab. I never required people to be in on the weekends or in the evenings, even though I regularly worked evenings and weekends myself.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned as a mentor and, fortunately, did so pretty early on, is that the people I advise are not my clones. Many students are in grad school for reasons different from mine. Most people, in grad school and elsewhere, do not run towards challenge, difficulty, and constant change. They want well-paying, interesting, and secure jobs that won’t stress them out too much. They want to have time and energy for other people and hobbies.

Graduate students have to work hard, but their workload has to be reasonable. I am confident that if a student really works 40 hours a week on coursework and research, they will get a ton of work done, generally more than enough for very good progress toward the PhD. I know sometimes there are experimental demands that might necessitate longer uninterrupted hours (e.g., when you finally got some time on an expensive shared instrument), but these should be intermittent.

There is a big difference between following your inner workaholic drive and foisting your workaholic habits on others. Maybe you want to work only with other workaholics, so if you select them well things might work out, but forcing everyone in the group to forgo weekends and evenings because you do is just cruel.

I have another colleague who still keeps bleary-eyed-teen hours himself: rolls into work close to noon, has meetings with students into the evening. If I had had an advisor like that, I wouldn’t have gotten a PhD with him. I had a kid in grad school and daycare was only open during certain hours. I knew I had to be productive during those hours and I was, extremely so. I hinted to this colleague that maybe graduate students have other obligations in the evening, and he said they were all single (?!) and anyway those were his hours and the students had to adjust.

These two colleagues both came from large, high-powered groups. I am assuming they do what they saw done, the way they saw it done. Top people in my field all run really tight ships and work themselves and their groups extremely hard, which is disheartening: if you want balance and variety in your life, if you have significant obligations toward family, or if you are simply not willing to push your group members beyond what they might be comfortable with, you cannot reach the top echelons in the field.

I am angry because capable people should be able to complete their PhDs without becoming so miserable from overwork to think about quitting. They should not feel unworthy of the degree because they need time on the weekend to do laundry or buy groceries or see their significant other or catch up on sleep. The PhD is hard enough already; the technical challenges at the cutting edge are hard enough.

I am angry because everyone is so enamored of prolific researchers cranking out dozens of papers every year that we turn a blind eye to the abuse they might inflict on their group members. Whenever I’ve brought up these concerns with somewhat higher-ups, I’ve been met with uncomfortable laughs and “Boys will be boys” “Ha-ha, I guess he just works really hard and expects a lot from others.”

I am angry because, at the same time, these same higher-ups make empty promises to help with grad-student mental health, which seems to be universally abysmal, yet never say out loud that some advisors are, in fact, unreasonable and abusive. Yes, some  — perhaps many — make it out of the groups of these abusive advisors seemingly unscathed and go on to become successful, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t others who have been run out of degree programs and out of science altogether not because they didn’t work hard or love research, but because they were human beings who couldn’t or wouldn’t make the work their entire life.

I am angry because of how cutthroat and competitive science has become. I am angry at how often, at the same time, the expensive, cutthroat science is actually quite boring, at how often what legions of overworked junior scientists produce is flashy but underwhelming. I am angry because the demands are so high yet the payoff is so mundane.

I am angry because I am 5*3^2, old enough to be wise, yet deep down I still feel like a loser for not working more and harder, because, deep inside, KoolAid still runs through my veins and I feel that unless I am all in I am not worthy of being in at all, because it is so hard to shake the workaholism as a necessity for self-actualization and instead embrace balance and empathy and deep relationships with other humans as a genuine source of happiness and not feel it’s a cop-out.

I am always angry.

Image result for hulk i'm always angry

Per Annum

I’ve been working on my annual report for 2018. It was not a bad year; I got a lot of new money, an award, but paperwise it was lower than my usual annual output and I know why — senior students graduated in the two years prior and the group is full of newbie folks who are still ramping up. I also didn’t travel as much as I usually do, as I just felt deflated: Eldest going away to college slayed me and the rest is just general midlife angst; it was hard to get motivated to do things that at best helped in the second or third order but were draining in the zeroth order. (Do I need to serve on one more panel of a program director unlikely to ever fund me? I think not. Do I have to go give that talk abroad? I think not, because I have tenure dammit and I hate traveling overseas.)

Objectively, everything is fine. Still, I feel a bit like a failure, in part because I had several really good years just before. It looks like 2019 and 2020 will be great in terms of papers, so this mini slump (again, objectively not a slump, but I feel like it is) isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

Except that I fear it might be. I fear it signals some sort of irreversible change about me, and maybe it does. That doesn’t mean I will stop doing my job, just that priorities shift and maybe I need to be doing things differently altogether and that’s OK.

Because it is really hard to get pumped about the things I  was pumped about 15 years ago. The science is still exciting, but the mechanics of doing the job isn’t. Writing proposals, getting pummeled, occasionally funded. Writing papers, getting desk-rejected because we don’t make sexy gadgets, sending to reputable but nonflashy journals, battling reviews, getting published. Teaching graduate students from scratch, suffering through their insufferably bad first drafts of first papers, teaching them the genre, having them graduate when they’ve finally grasped it.

I have a full life and it’s a good, enjoyable life. I need to preface everything with this because I am aware of my enormous privilege in every way imaginable (except for the privilege of a very high metabolism that would enable me to eat whatever I want and still remain thin as a noodle). When we go to a school in a bit poorer neighborhood and my kid plays basketball against these kids who just run and hustle and live for basketball, while he’s semi-bored and protesting in advance the lameness of the summer vacation plans, it takes all I’ve got not to yell at him for being an ungrateful brat because he is; he doesn’t realize how good he’s got it and he doesn’t appreciate what went into him having all that he’s having. So I try to remind myself of my many privileges, too, one on them being well paid and tenured, being able to whine and opine and explore what interests me from the standpoint of financial security.

Perhaps my relationship with my job need not be the infatuation of my youth but a friendship with a full recognition of both our flaws and limitations. Perhaps I need to be committed to doing a good job teaching and serving, doing a good job thinking about science and advising PhD students and writing papers. Maybe it’s OK for my job and me to have other friends and hobbies and not be everything to each other.

Then I think about my junior colleagues, so many of them so unencumbered, even if they have families (but quite a few electing not to). I remember never having been able to give my 100% to my work because I was always spread too thinly. I don’t expect people to make accommodations for my choices, but maybe I should allow myself to acknowledge that life is good, that I have done well, that I don’t have to constantly compare myself with the people who can sprint without anything slowing them down, and who are also 10+ years my junior.

I don’t want to cut myself slack or make allowances for my choices; no one else will. But I could cut myself a little slack inside my head, sometimes. The inside of my head sometimes feels like the cruelest, least slack-giving place I will ever find myself in.


(I crave to write fiction again; I haven’t in months, as this semester has been kicking my butt. Maybe starting in September I will go to a coffee shop to write, to maintain some structure but not go to work. But this is all a topic for another post…)