Question from Reader: Dishonesty in Fellowship Application

Reader Sameir had a question:

… I just found out that a student has copied my NSF proposal for his GRFP * and got awarded the fellowship. What should I do? On one side I think it is only a student and I should let it go, on the other hand this level of dishonesty is unacceptable.


Sameir, is it your grad student or an undergrad working with you and currently applying to grad school (presumably to go elsewhere)? Could you tell us a little bit about how the student got the proposal, and how you found out about him/her using the proposal for the fellowship? (I am just  asking for completeness.)

Blogosphere, what say you? What is the proper course of action for Sameir? Should the student be penalized and, if yes, how? Should NSF be notified?


* GRFP: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

Workaholic Geeky Nonsense

The semester is about to start. Which means that the summer is over. Which means that, in order to fully get into all the fall proposal writing around all the undergrad course teaching and insane service, I have to get these last two papers done and submitted, like, yesterday.


Over the past few days, I worked  12-14 hour every day. Really focused, high-productivity, long days. I fuckin’ loved it. I love working non-stop, and if it were possible to somehow forgo sleep, at least temporarily, without loss of sanity of productivity, I would love to be able to just go-go-go.

Man, I love working.

When I don’t waste my time and energy worrying about whether or not I am appropriately recognized and admired, the bottom line is that I love reading papers, looking at data, analyzing data, coming up with mathematical models and appropriate algorithms for their numerical implementation, troubleshooting, making graphs, writing papers, and talking with graduate student about every single one of these aspects of my job.

I love doing science.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am actually a good role model for inspiring people to leave academia. More than one student has said that seeing me and the insane schedule that I keep has convinced them that mine is a job they don’t want.

I read all the time all around the web about there being a surplus of PhDs who all think they will be professors, who are then all surprised when that proves impossible and are also for some reason oblivious to the fact that there are other things they can do. Apparently, I do my part — without even trying! — to discourage young’uns from pursuing an academic career ; the few who were not discouraged have done very well for themselves!

I don’t know what it is that other professors do that (supposedly) makes all of their students and postdocs think they want the professor’s job and there is nothing else. I bet the professors look really cool while doing their job. Luckily, I never look cool, especially not while doing my job.

How do I achieve this elusive goal of discouraging all but a few? You can do it, too!
Look sleep-deprived and incessantly drink coffee, having mild panic  attacks when a coffee cup approaches empty. Send emails before 7 am and after 11 pm. Respond to their emails immediately no matter what time of day or week. Share with them when the deadlines are and name all the things that depend upon certain grants being renewed (their food, shelter, tuition, and health benefits). Work with them closely on every paper and proposal and let them know how much effort goes really, truly into every piece that is meant to be read and understood by others while bearing your signature. Keep track of all the details of all of their many very different projects in your head and be able to give each of their talks at a moment’s notice with no prep whatsoever. Push them to do better and lift them up and don’t let them give up on themselves or their work. Forward them emails from industrial collaborators about job openings. Encourage them to attend all manner of professional workshops to broaden their soft skill set. Sleep less than any of them and take less vacation than any of them.


In life, there are various quantifiable aspects that change over time. More often than not, it’s not the value of the function that we care about, as much as the sign of the first derivative. Sometimes a positive first derivative is good, sometimes a negative one.


If anyone tells you that calculus is stupid or useless, you can print this post, crumble it into a ball, and shove said ball into the mouth of the heretic spouting such nonsense. Calculus is an almost absolute goodness, only surpassed by complex calculus... And calculus on spheres, donuts, and other cool objects, also known as differential geometry… *geekgasmic sigh*


You know how The Oatmeal made me grumpy the other day? It’s all forgiven, as I came across an old classic — The Motherfucking Pterodactyl comic. And there is even a song (below)! It is hilarious,  but view at your own peril.


Lastly, among the comments to the last post emerged the awesomeness that is this guide to acting like a Minnesotan. It has a very Monty Python feel!

Start Date ASAP

When I was last hiring a postdoc, I had no problem waiting several months for the candidate I really liked. Sure, we all want the person to start the second the grant starts, but it’s understandable that it would unlikely happen that a good candidate  would have his previous appointment end simultaneously with the grant money appearing in my account. The postdoc had been awesome and recently became a PI.

Now, I have a student who is getting ready to graduate, but we are waiting for him to find a postdoc. The student is excellent, one of the best I have ever had. We were able to get the student a very unique and valuable semester-long opportunity, but he had to commit to be here for the whole semester and he did.

Lo and behold, very recently there emerged a postdoc opportunity with a group that had previously said they would not have the money, but now they do and they basically want him to start ASAP.

A couple of years ago, another colleague also pressured one my students to finish ASAP and come do the postdoc; the colleague was relentless in checking “Is he done yet? When is he going to be done?”As a result, the student didn’t finish some work that he had promised to do, and the work will likely never be completed.

I am not even angry, I know people need to move on with their lives. And this student has been great and productive.

I just hate the situation.

I don’t expect the corporate world to give a fuck about what the institution where their soon-to-be employee got their PhD degree and I, the professor who trained said employee, want or need because we were the ones having in place contingencies so the student would be able to eat and pay the rent while looking for a job. Companies care about their own bottom line, and for the most part a student joining a company is leaving academia for good. It would be best if the student didn’t have to burn any bridges in the process, but to many a big paycheck is worth a bridge or two.

But it really pisses me off when fellow professors, who really should know better, don’t give a $hit about the things that the student promised to do in the next few months; all they care about is that the new postdoc materialize at their institution and start working on their stuff ASAP. The arrangements that were in place to take care of the student for the next few months in the event of no follow-up position are of no consequence. Where is fuckin’ professional courtesy? Why are you putting the screws on another person’s student, making the colleague a monster who won’t let the student move on with life if they don’t adhere to your schedule, and forcing  the student to be a no-good promise breaker?

If I really like the applicant, I will wait for him or her a reasonable amount of time. There is nothing worse than a bad postdoc (except perhaps two bad postdocs), but a good postdoc is worth his or her weight in gold and can energize the whole group. I will wait several months for such a candidate. Better to have  a good candidate for 2.5 years than a mediocre one for 3. And I understand that there is another colleague at the other end of that transaction, one who has trained my candidate so well,  and that I should be respectful of both the candidate and the colleague and try to accommodate their arrangements.

But apparently I am alone in this attitude and selfish is the way to go.  And I cannot really blame the student for wanting to grab onto the opportunity.


I have been a slacker blogger… But for a good reason! A lot of technical writing is happening these days, making sure papers variously get submitted/revised/come out before the proposal-writing lockdown commences in August.

But there’s always time for a little rant!

If you have been reading my blog for some time, you might remember that I think one of my defining qualities is impatience. I am intense and a real pain in the butt, so says pretty much everyone who knows me. I am irritated when people talk really slowly or can’t get to the point fast for whatever reason. I have colleagues whose emails I dread receiving, because they always respond to even the shortest of inquiries with multi-screen emails and I just get queasy at the thought of parsing through all that verbiage.

I do try (and unfortunately sometimes fail) to be cognizant and respectful of the fact that not everyone has the same priorities or timelines as me. However, for my own sanity, I try to stay away from people whose relevant timescales are longer than mine by an order of magnitude or more.

When it comes to writing papers, it seems I want them written up and published more passionately than most people I work with, even when those other people are first author. That’s a source of puzzlement and irritation on my part, perhaps on theirs as well.

First of all, I love working on papers. I love doing the figures, writing the text, I love all of the aspects of organizing my thoughts into something fluid and cogent. And I LOOOVE the process of uploading and submitting a paper. It’s like Christmas morning every time. I felt this way even when I was a student.

These days, my students do the uploading and paper tracking for the most part. I consider it part of training to learn to correspond with editors and referees, to fight for the publication of their work (I oversee and edit all the correspondence). But I almost never see in my students that crazy enthusiasm, which has followed and still does every submission on my part; it confuses and saddens me.

I wonder to what extent I and the likes of me really understand what motivates most graduate students to go to graduate school.  I mean, I understand intellectually — in my field, most people want to put in the time to get a degree that leads to a well-paying job — but I don’t think I actually get it at my very core. Many students have multiple hobbies to which they devote considerable energy and time. Graduate school seems just another thing they do, and not a particularly important one at that, or one that brings them much joy. Basically, it’s like a job. They do what they are told competently, but very little creativity goes into the work. I see very little pride about their work, very little desire to show their cool contributions to the world. This is very different from how I felt about graduate school or how I feel about my job even now, with the ups and downs and funding uncertainties and post-tenure slump. Being in grad school is a freakin’ privilege!

This post is motivated by a recent experience with a former group member (FGM) who is now a junior faculty member elsewehere. We are writing up our last paper together, one that should have been published a year or more ago, but FGM was preoccupied with job applications, then moving, getting settled into their first year teaching, etc., so I didn’t want to get on their case. But it’s time, and FGM really needs papers (I know they do, I hope they realize how much they do), yet working with them on this last one has been like pulling teeth. I did a large share of edits, a very lengthy referee response (3 referees), not to mention cleaning up the text and have recently had to redo a figure in a way that completely pissed me off because, while I love fiddling with figures, I am far too senior to do things like this (such as doing a point-by-point capture of experimental data from a graph in another group’s paper, to which we compare our theory). I was pissed because I was doing this work as I apparently wanted this manuscript submitted and done more than FGM, the person who is first author and considerably junior to me, and they were acting nearly disinterested. I have had to prod and poke them to submit every revision.

Another student told me that I am the only professor he knows who actually works on the figures themselves;  everybody else’s advisors just mark corrections on the paper and do that as many times as needed. I do go back and forth with students several times, but then at some point I need minor layout tweaks and to try different combinations of panels or colors etc. and with all but one or two students, who seem to have a naturally good aesthetic sense and are able to produce appealing visuals on their own without excessive intervention, it’s sometimes much less painful for me to do the tweaks than for us to exchange 6 gazillion emails.

So WTF do I want? Good question. I seem to whine about doing figures, yet also enjoy doing them.

Doing science and getting data is hard. Writing papers and making figures is necessary, but it is also much easier than doing science and and is super fun (for me, at least), and I don’t know why junior folks don’t savor it. Savor it, damnit!

What I want is for my trainees to take pride in their work and to be hungry to publish their work. I want them to chase me and nag me to finish the paper and to send me 15 versions of each figure and to be engaged in writing their work up for publication. I don’t expect them to do anything perfectly, but wish they would want to do things, on their own, without prodding. I know being effective at presenting takes time and practice, but I don’t think you can learn to have a fire in the belly.  Apparently, what I need are students with chronic indigestion…

The Life and Times of TT Academics: A Stream-of-Consciousness Post

Psycgirl had a couple of posts on mentoring that made me think about my own experiences.

A while ago, I wrote a book review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. There are several things I still remember about the book, and one is her view of mentorship: Mentors are problem solvers, give them a problem to solve. Don’t use them to vent your frustration, use their time wisely. People mentor those in whom they see something; unfortunately, the last one, more often than not, translates into people mentoring the likes of themselves; we all know how well that works out for underrepresented minorities.

There are many people who do very good, solid work. However, most of them don’t get much recognition; instead, only a select few get all the recognition. You could argue that it’s because they are the best of the best, but in my opinion that’s not true. I have met a number of people who are young superstars in their fields, and for the most part they are not all that better than many others who are not equally recognized. However, while people are comparable at 30 or 40, by 60 or 70 that means the select few are National Academy members, while most others are not. What really makes a difference is being networked with the people who have the willingness and ability to champion you, who recognize the importance of having junior colleagues nominated for stuff early and often, and who will do it for you either on their own or without much prodding. Getting recognition early is a prerequisite for getting it often, because awards beget awards.

The point is that you have to be meritorious, but you also have to have someone who will be happy to nominate you, proactive about doing it, and who knows how these nominations are written. And it needs to start early, as early as possible. Before the PhD, actually (so yes, foreigners are a bit screwed right there.)

I work with a woman who is considered a superstar, so I am closely familiar with how she does things. I can tell you that she most definitely keeps an eye on her CV and makes sure that she gets nominated for something every year, and has a great network of intra- and extra-departmental supporters who are very happy to write these nominations for her.

I work with a young  male superstar with very high energy. Recently, I watched his PhD advisor give a plenary talk. The man showed the pictures of all his students, and specifically highlighted my collaborator and a couple of others who are professors, mentioned their recent achievements, and for my collaborator used the words “high-impact assistant professor”. You cannot buy type of promotion. The collaborator’s PhD advisor is a really big name, and gives many talks, everywhere, which means that my collaborator gets this type of lip service in a lot of places, including at federal funding agencies.

I got my TT position straight out of grad school, so my PhD advisor remains someone who I presume is the person most invested in my success. Unfortunately, he is of the mind that going after awards is in poor taste, and that you do good work and the recognition will come (this is a man who really should have been in the National Academies, but is not because of personal conflicts). So when I ask him to nominate me for stuff, he does it, but he never thinks about doing it on his own. (Cue: Feel free to think I don’t deserve it; I think that all the time.)

I have various colleagues and collaborators who are happy to contribute letters of evaluation for me, but they are not invested in my career. People are too busy taking care of their own careers, and hopefully the careers of their own academic progeny, to worry about mine. Another aspect is that my immediate scientific community is truly international, with more than 50% of people in Europe. The importance of a steady trickle of recognition is probably less important, or differently important, outside of the United States.

I am now at a  position in my career where I am no longer junior, which is fine. But, I feel like I am entirely alone, that I really don’t have a community or a support network in my field.  I can see how people turn into the jackasses we know from conferences, who seem to be in your shit because you didn’t cite their paper from 30 years ago and who put down your work. It comes from realizing that they are isolated, that nobody cares about them or their work, and their options are to either get demoralized and quit working (hence deadwoodification) or they realize that the only way to keep going is to emotionally distance themselves from everything and everyone about their work, rely on their own devices, put their head down, and plow. The deadwood/jackass are two possible outcomes for smart, passionate people, who invest a lot of energy into their work but who keep getting overlooked. Sometimes they quit or retire early.

According to my unscientific observation, most men on the tenure track seem confident about what they do, most but not all women seem fraught with doubts about every aspect of their work.  For instance the first few years on my TT were really stressful for me, probably because I started out right of grad school and quickly realized the job was very different than what I had envisioned. I have no idea what I had envisioned, really, perhaps what astonished me was the sheer amount of work, the unrelenting demands on faculty time. It was a very steep learning curve, but one of my redeeming qualities is that I generally know when I am in over my head and I seek advice. In other words, I have never had the problem of being overconfident about something, and I always look for ways to improve, and then I do.  (In contrast, a supremely confident guy who started the same time as me didn’t get his contract renewed after 3 years. Some men don’t ask for help or take advice even when they really, really should. )

Unless I have a great track record doing something, I generally assume I don’t know squat, then I ask and I learn. But, a side effect is that the people I asked for help now think I don’t know squat and they will take it into account when evaluating me in the future. And this is the double-bind (or is it triple?) of asking for help, especially while female, where the default assumption is “incompetent until proven otherwise”: if you need help and ask for it, you will get it but be held in low regard for asking, which will then lead to reduced support, and could result in failure due to this second-order effect. If you need help but don’t ask for it, you will either figure it out on your own, which will generally take more time and energy than necessary but then you will succeed, or you won’t figure it out and you will fail due to incompetence.  When you objectively don’t know what you are doing, there is a small chance you will do fine by persevering on your own, but a high chance that you will either ask for help and be resented for it, or that you will downright fail.

Many young women in academia lament the lack of support (emotional and practical) for the struggles they are facing. Here is my attitude. Your department colleagues, those who evaluate you, are not your friends. They are your colleagues. They should not know your innermost dark secrets and doubts. THEY WILL EVALUATE YOU. So be prudent about what you discuss with them. I am not saying that there are no exceptions, that you can’t have real friends in the department, but it’s probably safest to do it after you are both tenured.

Who do you vent to? People who really love you, even if they don’t understand what you are going through. Then, people who really care about your success, even for selfish reasons [e.g. your former advisor(s) or non-departmental collaborators]. Then, a peer, ideally from another department or discipline, or another university; someone who is in the same boat, but with whom you are not in direct competition.

I think the key to a good peer relationship in which you can vent is that there is no power differential and that you both need each other for venting, at least at times. For instance, there is a relationship I have with a so-called peer mentor (a person a few years ahead of me career-wise), and the person never wanted to break the facade of infallibility with me, I think because it was important to them to remain superior (or just because it’s WASP thing, who knows). Since I have a deep belief that we are all human, and that we all have flaws and fears and doubts, and that everyone’s $hit stinks, I decided I wasn’t going to keep pursuing an honest relationship with someone who insisted on keeping their guard up. End of story. We now have a nice arms-length relationship, where my shell communicates with their shell, exchanging content-free sugary pleasantries. The relationship is so warm, there are icicles on my sleeves after every interaction.

I have a good mentoring relationship with a couple of senior faculty, who are so senior and so well-established that there is no way in hell they would ever consider me as an equal. But that’s fine, as I get good honest advice from them as they would give to a daughter. One is my PhD advisor, another a very senior collaborator. They are the only ones with whom I don’t mind sharing doubts and insecurities; they enjoy dispensing wisdom, and I take what makes sense and discard the rest. With everyone else, I assume they would judge or dismiss me for showing weakness, or I had already made the mistake of oversharing, which resulted in uncomfortable squirming, followed by them indeed judging and dismissing me.

(Of course, I am talking about colleagues. My DH is very supportive and listens to 100% of my whiny $hit, on repeat. He is as clued in about the life of women in academia as any man on Earth. Thank you for putting up with me, DH!)

So what’s my advice on getting mentored and championed? Based on my own experiences, this is what would say:

Get as much help and advice and learn as much as you can about being a TT professor before becoming one. Afterwards, seek help at your own risk — past the first year or two on the TT,  people will take it against you if you ask for advice about doing your job. Your colleagues will take your insecurities to mean that  you don’t have what it takes. Separate asking for specific problem-solving advice  from asking for moral support. I have found that the long-term acceptable questions have to do with personnel or university politics, because everyone assumes all scientists and engineers are clueless about dealing with other people.

Go for advice only to people you trust to really have your back or be invested in your success. For instance, your grant got trashed in review. I know how disheartening and disorienting it may be; my heart still sinks every time I get a rejection even though you’d think I’d be used to it by now. And I am, on an intellectual level, but not emotionally. So I bitch and whine and moan to my husband, but to absolutely nobody else any more. Whining about grant rejection is, as one of my colleagues says, ‘loser talk.’  Most people think the same thing, they just don’t say it. Just like most people think men are the default in STEM and women are not “real” candidates, but can be considered if exceptional, they just no longer say it. (Yes, I am disillusioned  after spending too much time serving on the recruitment committee.) So whine about grant rejection to department colleagues at your own risk; I assure you most will think it’s your fault.

What if you crave external validation, someone to give you thumbs up that you are doing a good job? I certainly do. Here’s the deal — it’s just not coming, definitely not with the frequency or the intensity that you need. People are too busy worrying about themselves, and it is assumed that, as a grownup scientist, you are confident (hahahaha). Unless you have the right network of accolade-nominating champions around you, pretty much all you have to go on are published papers, invited talks, awarded grants. They do mean that you are doing well, or at least not doing poorly. (This is me taking myself up as much as spewing advice into the ether.)

As for me, I find that focusing on my academic kids is really fulfilling. I make a point of supporting the people who are mine to support  — my students and postdocs — in the strongest possible terms, in the way I wish I had been supported by my elders, making sure they get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. So at least my scientific progeny will be able to say there is  someone out there who looks out for their careers.


Writing Papers with Graduate Students Who Don’t Want to Write Papers, Take Seven Gajillion

Over the past few weeks I have been working on papers with several students in parallel, and I am again pulling my hair out and wondering if there is a  way to get the writing done and the students trained without me going bald.

Reporting findings in written form is an inherent part of doing science. If you don’t publish your work, it’s as good as nonexistent. But, even more generally, scientists and engineers with advanced degrees will likely have to write technical texts one way or another, regardless of where they work, so it is important to train graduate students to write.

To me, writing has always been the easy, enjoyable part of every project. Sure, literature survey for the introduction is a bit of a pain the butt, but starting to write a paper means that the technical hurdles have (mostly) been overcome, that we have done the hard stuff and now it’s time for the frosting on the cake. Getting to write the paper has always been the reward part for me. Also, writing helps me distill my thoughts: the process of trying to explain what was done and how the reasoning went in a coherent, fluid form, often helps me understand the problem even better than before.

In contrast, I find that most of my students dislike writing. While for international students it may be the insecurity about their command of English, I find that even native speakers and non-natives with excellent command of English would largely still rather not write than write. Even students who may be very good and engaging presenters are often surprisingly lackluster writers or just horrible procrastinators when the time comes to start putting words on paper. “That’s because they are novice writers,” you say, “surely they will learn with practice, and writing will become easier;” that’s true, but only to a degree. Many simply really, really don’t want to write, don’t want to learn how to write, and would rather I left them to do their reading, derivations, and coding. They love being immersed in the technical nitty-gritty of their projects.

Writing is to science what eating fiber is to diet: necessary to keep things moving.

When you were little your mother probably bugged you about getting fiber through fruits, vegetables, and grains. Once you are all grown up, you probably understand the importance and include it in your diet, even if you don’t really like eating it. With my PhD students, I definitely stress very strongly the importance of technical writing. I used to iterate ad nauseam with each student until each paper was perfect; that took forever and the process often didn’t converge, so I had to take over. Right now, after the framework of the paper is agreed upon, I have a policy of 3 back-and-forths with edits before I take over and do the final rewrites; I ask the student if he or she wants to iterate more, as occasionally I do have a student who does want to keep going a little more to perfect their craft. However, most students are very happy when I take over; some procrastinate endlessly with their edits, some will tell me that they hate writing and don’t want to do it, or that it’s just really hard and they would rather I did it.

You know, it’s my duty to emphasize the importance of technical writing to students and to offer them the opportunity to learn. But do I actually have to shove the writing down their throats? I mean, if they are resisting learning, is it really my duty to force them to learn to write? We are dealing with young adults, but adults nonetheless.

I am wondering if I should reduce the mininum technical writing requirements to “full drafts for those who want to learn how to write, figure and figure captions for those who decide they don’t care to learn how to write,” or some similar scenario. Basically, when I see someone is fighting me and just does not want to write, perhaps it is OK for me to say “Fine. You supply the figures I tell you to make, I will write the paper. But don’t tell me that I didn’t tell you it’s important to learn how to write, and if you ever want to have another crack at it, let me know. In the meantime, you are relieved of this ominous duty.”

What say you, blogosphere? Is it OK to relieve the suffering of both myself and the students who really really don’t want to write?  Sure, that will leave them scientifically constipated, but I’m tired of having to chase them in order to force-feed them professional whole grains. I am not sure it’s in my job description or in anyone’s best interest.

Potential and Ambition

A few weeks ago I chatted with a colleague. One issue that came up was this colleague’s frustration with a student whom the colleague recognized as very talented, someone with great potential in the colleague’s area of study, but also someone who had no interest in applying themselves towards achieving excellence. I understand where the colleague is coming from: when you are someone who works in the field that has always been your passion, it is indeed quite disheartening to see a person who has what it takes to succeed but who simply does not care.

It took me a while on the tenure track to accept that most students didn’t share my ambition. They just want to get a well-paying job, no matter how much potential for this or that they have. The colleague’s student simply isn’t interested in doing research for a living, irrespective of how good he could be at it. Research doesn’t float his boat. I am not sure what else does; perhaps nothing at all. There are, in fact, a great many people who go through lives without developing an overwhelming passion for any activity. This is a hard truth to fathom for the intense, perhaps obsessive overachievers, such as myself and my colleague; I cannot claim to have fully internalized it.

Last semester I taught a great undergraduate class. There were several kids in there who I think would do splendidly in grad school. I spoke with a couple of the best, and neither wanted  to do grad school. One is a wonderful, laid-back kid, who reminds me of my eldest offspring; this student appears to be paired up with a very intense young woman and is very happy to just go with the flow and follow her. Another feels very strongly that he has to get a job and start earning money right out of college, and he will do great wherever he lands. Of this cohort, the most intense kid, one with passion and focus, is an AB student; very good indeed, but not the absolute best technically. He really knows what he wants to do and is voracious about learning more. We could lament the fact that the best students won’t become career scientists, but so what? They are smart kids, they can do whatever they want with their lives. Besides, what does “the best” even mean? Potential and talent are very nebulous; they just mean you could do well in a certain broad field, but if you don’t actually apply yourself, talent doesn’t mean very much. However, the student who is very good and very focused can indeed get far, potentially as far as his passion carries him.

In the US, there is a prevalent “singular-focus” mindset. You have only one talent, only one outstanding thing about you, and you have to embrace it, have it define you, and hone the related skill with all your might, if necessary at the expense of everything else. This singular-focus mindset, which is quite foreign to most of Europe, is why there are also so many achievement-related stereotypes.  That’s why we have the dumb athlete stereotype — of course you can only be athletically blessed, you could not possibly have other ambitions or talents, because being able to throw a football somehow precludes being able to do math, sing, or paint. Then there is the stereotype of the socially-clueless, athletically-hopeless geek, as if one could not possibly be able to understand calculus, swim fast, and have a girlfriend. Based on my experiences, most smart kids have multiple talents; there are several things they could do quite well, even if not prodigiously. For instance, I know a number of kids who can write very well, sing, play an instrument, play a sport, and who also excel academically. Who’s to say which one of these avenues should the kid pursue? Some are very passionate about one of the things they can do, but many are lukewarm about all of them. In fact, based on a lot of time spent around geeks, and having taught at a high school for the gifted in math and physical sciences, I would say that most kids don’t have strong passions early on. I am sure someone somewhere has done research on this topic, but my gut feeling is that the following happens: when you have a very smart kid, things come easy to them, and everything being easy may be an obstacle to developing a keen interest in anything. I think to develop a passion for something there needs to be an equal mixture of awe and challenge;  but perhaps this is BS and it’s all about personality — you are either A-type or B-type personality. and however gifted you may be, you won’t drive yourself insane trying to overachieve if you are B-type and you will be irritated by the perceived ambivalence of others regarding their talents if you are A-type. [I am talking purely based on my own experience (a.k.a. out of my a$$), people who follow the literature on giftedness may have different views.]

Anyway, having been a professor and a professional scientist for a number of years, I can safely say that there are a many more kids with the potential to do science than there are those who actually elect to be scientists or even purse any career with a strong science component. Many of these kids have other talents and interests that they may prefer to focus on. Many have a number of talents and they never really decide what it is that they are pursing, and are rather satisfied just dabbling in variety. I think what the A-types among us professors have to realize is that we are talking about these kids’ lives, and that they are completely entitled to spend them however they like, even if that means not using their science potential or any other potential at all. To us it may seem like a waste, but to someone who never thought of science as cool or enticing, just something they can easily do if they have to, it probably doesn’t seem like a waste at all. Being free to make choices means you are free to excel at whatever you want or not excel at anything.

Maybe the people who are not tightly-wound overachievers have a point. One day, we’ll all be dead and most of us will prove to be completely inconsequential in every way imaginable, except for perhaps having left a little bit of DNA. Instead of focusing on achievement, which for most of us appears to be just smoke and mirrors, why not enjoy the people around us,  the connections for which we are apparently wired, the sunsets and good books and the giggles of our kids and grandkids?  I can answer for the likes of me: because there is an internal engine that does not allow us to sit idle and just take in the world and the people we love, because the awesomeness of life and people does not scratch the perennial brain itch. But we should also learn to live and let live, and find ways to work productively with our smart and happy but itchless students, and not consider their lack of ambition to be anybody’s failure.

The 7-Year-PhD Itch

Over the course of the past few weeks, the topic of average PhD duration at different institutions came up. I am in the physical sciences; it is normal to expect variations among fields, but in a single field you’d think the PhD takes more or less the same amount of time across different R1 institutions. In reality, it turns out not to be true.

One colleague tells me that, at his (elite) institution, a PhD in the same field as mine lasts 6-7 years. At my institution, it’s about 4-5 years. The 2-year difference is essentially equivalent to keeping the student on student pay but working as a postdoc. These students, when they graduate, have massively long publication records and are very competitive for prestigious postdoctoral appointments and academic positions. At the end of their 7-year PhD, these students are better trained than those after 5 years and have longer, better-looking CVs, which definitely helps with getting academic jobs.

Yet, the prevalent sentiment on the internet is that simply having a student do a PhD in your group is somehow exploitative and that the student should be allowed to graduate as soon as possible and go into the mythical real world. The sentiment is that the PhD training is this unfair, torturous ordeal, which the student has to endure in order to get the PhD;, that the learning, doing science, writing papers, and giving talks are all dues that the student pays grudgingly in return for the piece of paper that is the PhD diploma; advisors are for some reason evil to insist on these dues being paid, as if it were somehow possible for a student to receive a PhD without doing  the work.

Federal tax dollars pay for research. They literally pay for the student to go to school and get training and in return it is expected that research will be done. So it pisses me off when people say that someone is being a tyrannical advisor for not letting the student graduate whenever and without papers. Graduate school costs money, and it’s federal money, and scientific papers are the product that is expected in return.

So, how much work is expected to be done for a PhD? I had a double digit of journal papers from my PhD, nearly all as first author. I was motivated, I loved doing science, I had an advisor who was willing and able to give me free reign rein (thx to Spellmeister PhysioProffe), I liked writing papers and I wrote them fast. I really, really don’t expect my students (a majority of them) to do that or to even want to do that.

Students want to be all treated fairly and equally, but I am not sure they realize these are not synonymous, as students all want different things from their PhDs. One wants to just get out of here and get a job in industry, so I say three papers and you can go. Then another one says he wants to get out with three papers too; I say, sure, but you also want to be a professor, and with three papers you are not particularly competitive for postdocs. Why don’t you stay another year and really cash in on all the nice work you have done so far, really crank some papers out now that everything is working? But he wants to get out because the other guy did, and then when he’s not competitive and gets buried in a dead-end postdoc it’s somehow my fault. (The thing with grad students is that they are young and often don’t have the right perspective; ironically, the most talented ones are often the most stubborn ones and think they know better than the advisor, so they often end up undermining themselves.)

I understand why people keep a student 7 years and not 5. You invest so much time in a student and by the time they finally reach some level of competence, they want to leave, and you are back to working with untrained folks all over again. I can totally understand wanting to keep the good person around and actually get some useful work out of them. I understand that it seems selfish from the standpoint of the average student, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it’s good for the enterprise of science to be done by fully trained people and not people in training; some academically inclined students don’t actually seem to mind staying a little longer and getting the few extra papers out. One asks why not just pay them postdoc wages? Maybe the advisor is being cheap, but maybe it’s the fact that it actually does not look very good to stay at the same place for a postdoc, it looks better on the CV to be a grad student a little longer, then go elsewhere for a real postdoc.

If you are in a field like mine, essentially all your students are paid as RA’s the entire time. That means each student is probably a very poor investment of federal funds in the first 2 years, but they have to pay the rent and eat the entire time. So it seems to me it’s not inconceivable that the student should do a lot of work in years 3-5 to actually make the whole investment worthwhile from the standpoint of the funding agencies. I really don’t understand the people who say it’s swell to have your school and stipend paid for for years and then also have the gall to insist to graduate without papers.

So I don’t know. I know this will get me no love online, but doing academic science , while being to a great degree about training (how much exactly depends on the funding agency), is really not primarily about training; it’s about doing science professionally, with a mixture of trainees and career scientists. Funding is there to do the science, it’s not a gift or  a handout or a guarantee for anyone. In many fields,  such as humanities, people would be extremely grateful to be paid to do the research on their dissertation. I really don’t think publishing research papers in return is such as horrible thing to require.

Anyway, I will keep saying “You can graduate with 3 papers from your dissertation, but if you want to go to academia, that is simply not enough, you have to have more.” If they listen, good; they will stay longer and have more papers, If not, they graduate with 3 papers and we unleash them upon the world.


* For the young’uns, here’s where the title came from



Professorial Hypertension

In STEM fields, a graduate student works on supervised research and is part of a research group led by a professor. Learning how to write up technical papers for publication is one of the most important parts of PhD training, so the student will typically be tasked with producing the first draft of a manuscript, which then gets heavily edited by others involved in the work, most of all the professor. This practice, however, is not without danger


Doing Science, Advising Students, and a Bit of Shockley

There is a small programming assignment I like to give my beginning grad students or upper-level undergrads who want to do research in my group. The assignment is a reasonably simple but quite accurate simulation of a system they all encountered during undergraduate studies. Most students never really ask themselves what the approximations are that result in the textbook results. The simulation, which is perhaps several hundred lines of code, solves several coupled partial differential equations in one spatial dimension; the students learn about the numerics  as well as about the theory that describes the behavior of the physical system beyond the textbook approximations.

I have a new undergrad who is great, smart and motivated, and who fit in the group very well. If I am lucky, he will stay here to get his masters and then will likely go someplace with better brand-name recognition to do a PhD; I understand that’s what the student must do as it’s the reasonable thing to do, but at baseline it’s always somewhat infuriating. When some colleagues at Über Unis look down on us from State Schools, I wonder if they ever realize that those awesome kids with research experience who get into their labs did not sprout from the ground, somebody who knows how to do science has actually trained them. The best American students in the physical sciences have plenty of options to go to the most prestigious universities and, if they are well advised (by whom, I wonder?) to realize what’s out there for them to apply for, they can do it on prestigious fellowships. Luckily for me, there are plenty of very smart international graduate students with whom I get to work, in part because options are more limited for them for a number of reasons. But that’s a topic for another post…

The undergrad did a great job, was able to write the code and the code performs the required checks accurately. Then I said “Great! Now you can use it to teach us something new about the model system.” The student was puzzled, we talked a bit, he came back a week later with what he felt were pretty boring results, not knowing whether there would be anything interesting in such a simple system. I said “These are all the things off the top of my head that you could inquire — how realistic are all the textbook approximations, to what extent they hold up in a more realistic simulation, how important are a these different details in the simulation for the physics, what happens if you completely disregard this or that and how it would translate to reality…” You get the point. He thought there was nothing there and to me there were 15 interesting things to ask. I gave him my little speech about how code is like a piece of experimental equipment — once you are done lovingly building it, the science part is deciding what questions are both worth asking and are possible to answer with the tool that you have. 

Left to right: Bardeen, Shockley, and Brattain won the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the transistor. Bardeen went on to win another Nobel Prize for superconductivity, and is considered one of the nicest and most unassuming scientists in history. Shockley was said to have had “reverse charisma” — when he entered the room, you’d instantly dislike him.

This exchange reminded me of this very nice blog post on Dynamic Ecology, in which Brian McGill discussed the pretty famous paper by William Shockley, a Nobel Prize winner (with Bardeen and Brattain) for the transistor and thought by many to be one of most brilliant and most nasty people they had ever met.  Shockley had been able to identify and recruit smart people for Shockley Semiconductor Labs, whom he then drove away (the Traitorous Eight) into Fairchild Semiconductor, a company that became the incubator for the Silicon Valley,  having spun off a number of companies, “Fairchildren”, such as Intel and AMD. Anyway, Shockley’s paper is worth reading for a number of reasons; it is actually pretty famous for its discussion of the log-normal distribution of productivity over professional scientists. What Dynamic Ecology pulled forward and what I find interesting here is Shockley’s hypothesis that productivity depends on the ability to clear multiple hurdles, and he names 8. Being good at all of them is key, you cannot be exceptional at one thing and inadequate at another, as success depends on the product of functions that measure one’s: 

  1. ability to think of a good problem
  2. ability to work on it
  3. ability to recognize a worthwhile result
  4. ability to make a decision as to when to stop and write up the results
  5. ability to write adequately
  6. ability to profit constructively from criticism
  7. determination to submit the paper to a journal
  8. persistence in making changes (if necessary as a result of journal action).

Everything here depends in part on talent, personality/temperament, and training (much of the latter by osmosis).

For instance, there are many students who have #2, i.e. they are smart enough to work on a good problem, provided that someone else formulates it (#1). It takes talent as well as experience to learn what constitutes a good problem, the right combination of interesting and doable in a reasonable time and with available resources. Similarly, with #3 and #4 — it takes experience to know when something has become a publishable nugget, when the data is enough to support a compelling and convincing insight. Once you realize that #5 and #7 are important (and they really, really are: all the nice work you might have done is as good as nonexistent until you publish it), you need to have a good PhD or postdoc advisor from whom you can learn how to write well. If you are a talented person, you can become really good at many of these aspects early in your career with good focused training. Otherwise, it can take you much longer to realize the importance and then teach yourself the skills, and your early career can be impeded.

#6 and #8 essentially mean grit and they are extremely important; probably even more important for grants than papers these days. Most of my grad students get discouraged when we get revise and resubmit with potentially lengthy revisions, because they feel we had already submitted a great product so why this silliness now. And they may or may not have a point, but the key is to go on.  I have had to do it many times already, and I am simply desensitized to it. We have to do it so we do it. But I see that students can wonder whether all the effort is worth it — at the end the result is a paper. You gotta love getting papers published. And having a thick skin does not hurt.

Anyway, this post was written in fits and starts, so I think I totally lost my train of thought and with it my point. But it’s fun to think about what success entails and exciting to see a young person starting to learn about the moving parts of the enterprise of science — what it means to formulate a problem, execute a project, and finally disseminate new knowledge. I guess my point is that I really love advising students.