colleagues

Bits of academia, winter, and sci-fi

I recently spent some time with a very junior faculty member at my institution. Young, from a prestigious institution, male. Thinks he has everything figured out. When I tell him what some very explicit requirements for tenure at the university are, he pouts and objects that they are unreasonable (they are not) and that if he feels that doing things the opposite way is the way to go, he will do that instead. I have to bite my tongue and muster quite a bit of patience. Even if we forget that I have been been doing the job for a decade, so I might know a thing or two just from being a non-ancient and fairly successful faculty member, I am at this very moment on the effing university-level committee that reviews tenure cases; trust me when I tell you what is important. We may discuss why it is important if you don’t understand, but rest assured that the requirement is not stupid, and it is not going anywhere, whether you like it or not.

To get tenure in most STEM fields at major research universities, you need to show that you are capable of working independently at the level of leading and supporting a vibrant research group. That means you need to:

  • Sever ties with former advisors (or let their involvement taper to nothingness over no more than a year or two), no matter how much you like working with them, or whatever the expertise/tool you could easily get from them; if you need it, find it locally, find it elsewhere, or develop it yourself; you need to show independence; we gave you the startup, the startup is not funding for a super-postdoc-you to continue working for your advisor;
  • You need to apply for funding early and often and show that you are capable of coming up with fundable ideas, the sooner the better; yes, you will get kicked out if you haven’t landed a grant  by the second half of your tenure track. It may be unfair, but it is the rule in my college, and we’re hardly alone in this attitude. There are a ton of resources to help with grantsmanship. Seek them, use them. If you aren’t getting funded, that means something is wrong with your grant proposals, even if the system as a whole isn’t perfect; work on your skills and work within the system.
  • You need to train students and postdocs, and train them well, so you can publish quality work with them, and often;
  • You need to establish collaborations on your own, all the better if they are local, and we will love you if they result in large center grants for the university;
  • You need to do a good job teaching, it can be great if you wish, but not at the expense of your research;
  • You need to publish well and often, in prominent venues; you also need to travel and be seen, so the community knows and respects you, and your colleagues say as much when we ask them for letters;

We are looking to tenure the people who can do this job at high productivity and without burning out for several decades; people who will clear the tenure bar without difficulty, not just barely squeak over it; an ideal tenured faculty member has an internal engine and will keep pretty much at the same or similar pace on his or her own past tenure.

Young faculty, especially male, who trained in prestigious groups tend to think they are destined for greatness. Perhaps they are; thinking they are is probably better than being crippled by the impostor syndrome, as the likes of me are. But there is a bit of a rude awakening that comes when your start realizing that papers without your famous advisor can’t easily get into Nature Progeny, or that you can’t get money from the program managers whom you know through your advisor and who you think love you, because trust me when I say that they love your old, established, National-Academies-member advisor much better and he’s doing pretty much the same stuff you propose; all the more reason to distance yourself from advisor, don’t you think?

I know confidence it the way of the American male academic, but I sometimes wish people would turn down the volume when they toot their horn. I was a complete ball of nerves when I started on the tenure track; I quickly realized I knew very little and I soaked all the information that anyone cared to share. I don’t know what it is with young men, especially pedigreed ones. Doesn’t it cross their minds that they might not actually know everything already, that they don’t in fact have everything figured out before they ever started, and that now might be a good time to shut up and listen? DH tells me that’s just the way of all men, always having to appear to know everything especially when talking with a woman, and that the young’un will go home and think about what I said. Well, if DH is right and it’s the way of all men, then all men are fuckin’ exhausting. The whole meeting was like talking to a petulant teenager. I already have a teenager to whom I gave birth and one is plenty, thankyouverymuch. I’d rather not have to deal with another one as part of my service duties.

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I may or may not be en route to true Midwesternship:

  • Anything above 15 degrees Fahrenheit is very pleasant,  nice enough to take a walk. Anything above 30 means a winter jacket is unnecessary; a sweatshirt will suffice.
  • I drive through blizzards like a champ.
  • The fact that there’s a blizzard outside does not faze me at all when I am determined to get to Costco.
  • I am watching the Superbowl.

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I just finished “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie. It’s excellent! Highly recommended for lovers of space-opera sci-fi. I just ordered the sequel, “Ancillary Sword,” and can’t wait for it to arrive. I am not going to spoil the book for you, but I will say this much:

  • The book will have you question your understanding of gender, I can promise you that.
  • As much as many sci-fi writers love apostrophes in the names of aliens, people, or places, Leckie loves double vowels, especially aa (Anaander Mianaai; Seivarden Vendaai; Amaat; Aatr; Lieutenant Skaaiat) and, to a lesser degree, double consonants (Garseddai; Liutenant Issaaia; Jen Shinnan). I am sure it’s all meaningful within the context of the Radchaai language, but it was a bit much and honestly made me itch for some apostrophes.
  • Best alien species name ever: Rrrrrr (that’s exactly 6 r’s).
  • New favorite curse: “Aatr’s tits!” Commonly used in the contexts where “Holy $hit!” would fit. Aatr is a minor deity. With tits, obviously.

Navel Gazing: On Energy

In a comment to a recent post of mine, Zinemin asked  (and Ana seconded):
I have a question for you. I would be really curious to read what you would say about the topic of energy, since this is something I am currently thinking about.
It is clear that you operate on a very high level of energy. Most people would be overwhelmed doing a quarter of what you do. Why do you think you have such high energy? Is this genetic? Your upbringing? Very high motivation? Your way of thinking about things?
Have you had phases with low energy? Do you feel like you are “using up” your energy over the years, or do you have some way to replenish it?
I am asking this because I feel like I have used up a lot of energy over the years I spent in science and it is only slowly coming back, and I am not sure if I will ever be at the level that I was before. You however seem like you must have only become more energetic with time…. maybe it is like in sports. Some athletes have ruined their knee at 28, others are still successful at 40, and maybe it is small differences in how they move and how they manage themselves that make all the difference….”

I don’t know how I seem to people who only know me from my writing on the blog. Sometimes, when I read some very old posts, I wonder “Who the hell wrote this? This sounds nothing like me.” To be honest, I don’t think I am particularly energetic at all; I actually think I am quite lazy. I am not a poster child for anything really. Plenty of what I talk about falls under “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The way I envision a successful and respectable academic is someone who is lean and healthy, eats organic food and is possibly vegetarian, drinks water and sometimes unsweetened tea (rarely coffee and never soda), gets plenty of sleep and gets up early to exercise (bike or run or swim for miles), comes into work and works with inspiration and creativity and 100% focus for 8-9 hours while bathing in exercise-induced endorphins, then leaves in the evening to spend time with their lovely family. This person has a great work-life balance, spending weekends on enriching activities with the kids, who also run and bike and eat their vegetables, even ask for seconds! Their house is immaculate, as is their office. Order is everywhere. They have a standing desk in the office. This person is very eloquent, even-keeled, and universally loved and respected. Their jokes are PG and don’t make anyone uncomfortable, ever.  This person has a knack for politics and would make a fabulous administrator if they ever chose to go that route. Everyone asks how they do such a marvelous job of being a scientist, teacher, parent, and adventurer.

I know a few such people. They are the ones who should be dispensing advice, but I would be very surprised to find that they read blogs. They also might well be from Mars, as far as I am concerned, because how they operate is very alien to me.

I am basically the polar opposite of the ideal academic, so you don’t want to emulate me. Even I don’t want to emulate me, but I have little choice in the matter. But, hopefully, this essay helps the likes of me a little bit.

I don’t sleep enough, and I don’t exercise. I should lose weight. I don’t run, bike, or swim. I eat everything, and with great gusto. All of my family eats meat. Our younger two kids barely eat any vegetables (not for lack of trying on our part, I promise). Coffee is almost as important as air to me (I drink tea only when ill or when completely out of coffee and too lazy to go buy some). I would say that any semblance of balance I have in my life is because I have a  family and kids don’t thrive on chaos: kids need regular meals and sleep and time with their parents (all our kids are healthy and smart and get lots of rest) , so I do work regular hours and I don’t work too much over the weekends, except at crunch time. When it’s crunch time, I can work like a maniac, 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week; I am fortunate to have the stamina, I love every second of it, and crave being able to do more of it.  If I didn’t have a family, I would probably lead a very unbalanced and unhealthy life. My family weekends are embarrassingly low-key; we laze about in our pajamas and/or sweatpants, have kids over for playdates, and do chores (of late also chauffeur Eldest everywhere all the time; I am starting to appreciate the prospect of him driving at 16).  But DH and I are spread pretty thin and do what we can to steal some time for ourselves (individually and together). I have blogging, he has video games (hence the late bedtimes). We have a lot of chores between us.

Everyone in the academic enterprise is smart, and most people are smart enough to be successful. There is a great degree of luck in success, but personality also plays a role in how things turn out. There are a few aspects of my personality that I think have been useful for me to have. I am not saying they are necessary or even anywhere near ideal in general, but I think they are strongly correlated with my professional and personal standing (I am happy with both) in the overall mishmash that is my personality.

Accepting failure, embracing imperfection. First, I accept that nothing is perfect and I accept that I am imperfect and that I will fail at stuff (perhaps I anticipate failure to a fault). I think I have had this internalized since an early age. This enables me to be resilient, i.e. I do not get completely discouraged in the face of failure, and it the basis for my pigheadedness. Alas, this also means that I am probably too focused on the possibility of failure and am probably less bold in my professional life than I would be if I thought success were a virtual guarantee (I know several people whose self-confidence I wish I had; but then, they may simply be smarter and better at their job than me). Expecting the worst all the time does tend to wear you out. This is in no small part because of my upbringing; lots of gloomy specimens where I come from. But here’s an example of how tolerance of imperfection is a good thing. I used to smoke pretty heavily, and, like many smokers, tried to quit a number of times unsuccessfully, but I always knew that sooner or later I would have to quit. I quit when I got pregnant with baby No 1, then started again about 4 years later, but then about 1.5 years thereafter I quit for good after several fits and starts. During the 1.5 years, at some point I realized something had changed in me, and that I was seriously nearing quitting. I think you really need to get sick of yourself and your habit to do it. I quit for good after having started my faculty position 10 years ago and haven’t smoked since. In contrast, the guy whom I dated for years before I met my husband (15.5 years ago) and who was my smoker-buddy for much of my early twenties, still smokes. He has always waited for some sign from the heavens that he would be ready, because he said he wanted to be sure he would quit once and it would be for good, it would stick. He is a perfectionist all over, which got tedious and is one of the reasons we broke up. After years of him wanting for the stars to align perfectly (where we lived, where we worked) so we’d get on with our lives together or consider kids, at some point I said “Screw this” and I left him and the country. I am guessing stars haven’t aligned yet regarding his smoking either.

As I said above, when it comes to research, I operate in burst of high productivity followed by periods of near uselessness; at crunch time, the high-productivity periods involve long hours with high focus and feeling high on all the adrenaline. When I am feeling useless, I do all the other stuff like teaching, writing homework solutions, various service, book hotels and flights, reimbursement. I can do all these with very little intellectual engagement or inspiration, so I do them. That way I don’t feel like a total procrastinator and the times when I am in top form are spent on the tasks that require it. A big part is also knowing when you can perform intellectually demanding tasks and when you cannot. While I can write homework solution for an undergrad class or file for trip reimbursement even after not sleeping for 2 days, I cannot write a strong rebuttal to a scathing review or a competitive white paper for a funding solicitation without having my wits about. So I believe this also falls under working around imperfection: maybe Tuesday I have no inspiration for research, but I can do all this other crap. Or maybe I have to take a short nap in my office (I cannot stress enough the importance of a chair that’s conducive to napping. Clearly, I will never have a standing desk). But on Wednesday, I might crank out 1/3 of a brand new proposal and successfully troubleshoot with a grad student who had been stuck for weeks.

Restlessness/boredom and inability to adopt traditional organization paradigms. I am not sure this is a good or a bad thing, but it is a part of my personality, and a very important one. I have accepted it  and organized my life and my work around it. I get bored really, really easily, with everything. Every routine that I have ever come up with has to be rehashed frequently because I can’t take it. I can plan and pre-cook meals for a week in advance, but I will get bored with it after a few weeks, then will resort to spur-of-the-moment cooking during the week after work for a while even though it’s more tiring. There are people who are organized, make lists of everything and that works for them. Lists make me physically uncomfortable, because I have never been able to put in a list everything that goes in the crazy head, and trying to do that causes me discomfort; I use a calendar on the phone for things I will likely forget, like dentist appointments and student defenses, and set up two alerts for each, but the rest it just in my head, I can’t do lists.

I also cannot take too many standing long-term commitments (e.g. commit to a collaborative meeting every week on Thursday even though much of the time is wasted and is better spent me writing) because they cause me anguish and I bail on them (my long-term commitments begin and end with my family and my students). God knows it is unbelievably easy to get overcommited in academia because there are heaps of service to go around (some useful, much bullshit) and many people seem to feel useful when meetings happen, no matter how pointless or unproductive they are. I am a horrible meeting-avoider, so instead of bailing, I just automatically say no; indulging this aspect of my personality has done wonders for my happiness. (I also minimized seminar attendance. Sometimes, seminars are fun and useful. Often, they are not. It’s OK to miss them when they don’t seem of interest. It really is.)

Basically, I try to keep my schedule in flux as much as I can. Long term weekly commitments are: teaching, office hours (I cancel them if there’s no homework due or if we’d just had an exam), weekly faculty meeting (skipped when possible), once-a-month university meeting, and my weekly group meeting (skipped when overworked or students have exams or too many people out of town). Everything else is done via email, if possible, or scheduled on a need basis (PhD defenses) or only 0-2 days in advance (1-on-1 with students). I will absolutely not do long-term meeting commitments other than listed above. Instead of having my will to live killed by meetings, I have some big blocks of time to do writing and reading in, and am much better at keeping them uninterrupted then I was as a noob professor, even though I am much busier now.

There is an aspect that people sometimes ignore: people who have a lot of meetings or a lot of travel seem busy and very important. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about looking busy and important enough. I am mostly over it; yet, ironically, I am busier and more important than ever. But with fewer meetings.

Being in touch with what you want. This is really key for long-term sustainability of anything that you do. Being able to somehow sift though everything that you are supposed to want or be, and get to the bottom of what you really want. This can actually be very hard, and it’s not a straightforward process. And even if you know what you want, you may feel like you don’t have the right to go for it, or that it’s not the right time, or that your going for it will hurt someone (all of these have happened to me more than once). Even here it helps to take it easy on yourself and allow for imperfection; maybe you don’t know what you want today, but will in a few months. Maybe you don’t have the guts to go after what you want today, but you might later. I know that I generally always know, deep inside, what I want, but very often don’t act on it, and nearly 100% of the time I delay doing what I know is right (this is balanced by me speaking out sooner than ideal 100% of the time). But ultimately being able to take understand what you want and allow yourself to have it is critical for happiness.

OK, finally, the question of energy. As I said, I don’t think I am very energetic, maybe I just give off a different impression with my writing. I probably would have more energy with more exercise and a cleaner diet, devoid of stimulants like coffee. I have done that a few times, even lost like 30+ lbs on WW, but it was too restrictive and not a sustainable lifestyle for me. After 5 months I felt too deprived to continue and I went off the wagon, then because I’ve been-there-done-that my boredom issue kicked in, so I have never thereafter been able to get back on that same program. I will have to find a way to get more energetic and more fit without boredom or too much deprivation. At least temporarily. I will wrangle some unicorns while I am at it.

As for the energy to do work, people tell me it goes in cycles. I currently feel very good about my work (apparently, has been lasting for over a year now), after having made changes to my MO that I had long wanted to make but thought I shouldn’t. I dropped some collaborations, I dropped some research topics, and I started doing the work I was interested in with my students. Some of these collaborations used to come with meetings that I found tedious, useless, and requiring too much commitment from me. All these “droppings” had a profound effect on my motivation at work. A few years ago, I though I had completely lost my mojo and the professional future looked rather bleak, as in “Why am I doing any of this? Everything is stupid.” But then I realized I was doing way too much what I thought was expected of me and too little what I wanted. So at some point my feeling miserable overcame the anxiety about doing the wrong thing, and that finally gave me the courage to do what I wanted to do all along.

I think people often assume that there is a fault with the things that they want and they deny themselves (I am not talking about candy, although who doesn’t like candy? but things such as changing fields of research, or job, or partner). Sometimes what you want is hard to get or dangerous or imprudent, sometimes it hurts others, but if you are constantly feeling unhappy and tired, but are physically healthy, it’s worth asking whether there are things deep down that make you unhappy and that could be changed, and what the reasons are that you are not changing them.

For instance, I would like to live someplace warmer or where we have more friends. But, I like the department, I am respected, and after 10 years family and I are settled. This is the kids’ home. My husband loves his job. We have it good here. So I am ultimately OK with staying put and not acting on what I want, for now.

But chasing funding fads and not being able to catch my breath because I am constantly pursuing what others think is important as opposed to what I think is important? I have tenure now, I don’t actually have to do that. It used to make me deeply, profoundly unhappy, and it spilled into my personal relationships. So I went back to doing things my way, and even did some work where my personal style was applied to the topics others are interested in, which resulted in unexpectedly warm reception. In research, like in art, you have to be authentic: if you don’t burn with love for your work, no one else will.

So how do you replenish energy? Barring physical issues, I think the key is to understand what you really want, and identify what is stopping you from pursuing it: is the goal truly unrealistic (e.g. a 42-year-old woman playing in the NBA) or a little risky (changing jobs or careers) or at the level of disappointing someone (mom will question why you sunk all those years into a PhD or into a specific boy when nothing came of said PhD/boy)? Give yourself  the permission to go after as many of the things that you really want as you can, without putting anyone in jail or needlessly endangering anyone’s life, limb, sanity, or long-term well-being.

Dear readers, what helps you replenish energy? 

TGI December and Reader Questions

‘Tis December!!! Phew. I must admit, posting every day in November has been tough, which was probably obvious from some of the less-than-inspired posts. When you start photographing produce, you know you are scraping the bottom of the blog-fodder barrel.

I think last year’s November blogging was easier, I am not sure why. I don’t remember having quite this many moments like “It’s roughly 11:30 PM, I am completely pooped and I finally got a few minutes to sit down. I want to go sleep, but I haven’t posted today. What the heck am I going to write about?” (Enter squash.) I had more travel but I think I was overall less busy. Or at least I felt less busy. Or I repressed traumatic memories of excessive busyness and insufficient inspiration. Or I just had a higher tolerance for my own vacuous posts. (I was kind of aiming for some serious academic blogging here. I guess that ship has sailed!)

Thanks everyone for reading!

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OK, that’s enough meta self-flagellation.  EarthSciProf posted some interesting questions after the 15-Min Improv Blogging post.

1) How long does it usually take you to do a review? I take much less time than I did when I first started but am wondering about how long it takes you since you’re farther along.

It depends a lot on the length of the paper. In my field, there are letters, of 4-page double-column size (like Physical Review Letters) and there are comprehensive articles (like in Physical Review B, for instance), which can be anywhere from 4-5 to 20 pages long. I would say most papers are 6-10 pages of main text, anything over 10 generally means long appendices.

For a well-written letter in PRL, it takes 1-2 focused hours to read and write a good report It may be longer if there’s supplementary material or I have to look at a lot of references. These letter papers also tend to be reviewed for hotness rather than just interest and correctness; a common complaint is “This  is fine technically, but of too narrow a focus, and should be expanded and submitted to a specialized journal instead.”

A comprehensive paper takes longer to go through and write a report. Between 2 and 4 hours, depending on length.  Flying on planes is my favorite time to review papers, as there are no distractions. (Crappy papers take longer to review, because I start reading, get irritated, drop the paper before finishing, then have to still do it later, but then I procrastinate because I have already experienced the pain.)

A few months ago I was a referee for a good review paper, it was probably 60 pages (double column) and it took me all day. It was written by people I respect, so I ended up writing a lot of comments in the margins and scanning the marked-up document into a PDF which became part of the report. There should be some karmic brownie points in it, I hope.

What about you, blogosphere? How long does it take you to review papers? 

2) You posted something about a few months ago here

http://mistressoftheanimals.scientopia.org/2014/07/22/bleg-blog-beg-on-mentoring/

about only a small percentage of collaborations working out long-term. Any advice/guidelines/rules of thumb that you use to cut things off when a collaboration doesn’t seem to be going anywhere?

Ugh. This is a tough one, but I will give it a shot. All collaborations of mine that have dissolved owing to nonfunctionality were simply abandoned to die by all (dis)interested parties; at some point, no one attempted resuscitation any more. The parties stopped communicating and went on with their lives, never discussing the collaboration. The upside is that technically there was no confrontation, so everyone is still formally on good terms. This is not a bad thing in the long run.

I also have several collaborations that are generally healthy, but are on-again off-again, depending on funding and interests. We work together, then go our separate ways when the grant ends, then rejoin a few years later to do something else. I like this type of collaboration. It’s with people I enjoy working with, who have the same zeal, similar attitude to advising students and publishing, but we don’t have to be joined at the hip. In contrast, I have a colleague who does everything collaboratively, with several long-term collaborators. I find it stifling.

Are you on a grant together? If not, then just cut your losses and part ways. If you are on a grant together, then you need to produce something one way or another for your own sake, even if the collaboration is not working out. Proceed as best you can alone. If you feel appropriate, offer to include the collaborator on papers on your own terms; if they don’t agree or are being difficult, that’s your answer. I have found even very demanding people, when you do all the work and offer to have them as a coauthor on a polished paper, will swallow the pride/whatever other bug they have up their butt and say “Sure, go ahead and submit. Looks good!” I take myself off of papers to which I didn’t contribute enough, but most people don’t.

EartSciProf, if you have a specific situation, I am sure the readers would be happy to offer their insights.

Here are also some thoughts on collaboration from the depths of the Academic Jungle.

Wise academic blogosphere, please help EarthSciProf with the collaboration dissolution tips! 

Research University, Now With Words

I am at a major public research university. Sure, this is a university and teaching is important, for some definitions of important; anyone who says that research does not beat teaching to a pulp is a liar.

Bringing in extramural funding is the most important metric in most STEM fields. It translates into overhead dollars for the university. It also generally translates into high-profile work, for money means you are doing work that is “hot” and also money can pay for a lot of smart students and postdocs who actually do the work in many fields (with the exception of math and some fields like theoretical physics and computer science). The most highly paid and most coveted members of the faculty are those who do flashy, news-worthy, high-profile work. [Between research productivity and  funds raised is an implication (–>) rather than equivalence (<–>), i.e. money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for high productivity or flashy papers; there is such a thing as having too much money to efficiently handle. But I digress.]

We are professors, yes, but our peers and our administration care about research almost exclusively. So, where do teaching and service come to play?

Teaching has to be good. If it is bad, you will not get tenure. It has to be decent. But, anything better than decent, unless it is at the level of prestigious national teaching awards, is not rewarded. Being better than a decent teacher is all on you, and feel free to do it if it makes you feel good. But, if you are doing a better-than-passable job, people may (as I know from experience) ask what it is that you are not doing instead when you are wasting time on this silly teaching business. Not all colleagues are like that; in fact I have several in the department who really value and do an excellent job of teaching while also having some political gravitas. However, for the most part, spending considerable time on teaching is looked down upon by the most-research-productive colleagues, who sometimes consider teaching a nuisance that should be minimized or avoided to the extent possible.

ValueTeaching

For example, when I told a colleague that I give 3 midterms, hour-long and in-class, over the standard 2 longer evening exams (more frequent exams are less nerve-wrecking for the students because their grade does not hinge on any one exam so much, and it’s also less daunting for me to grade so I do it faster and they get the results sooner), the colleague told me that I must have too much time on my hands; he, who apparently must be the yardstick by which all workload is to be measured, has only one midterm (this is way too few for undergrads, in my opinion). So it’s not “you do this, I do that,” it’s an explicit statement that me doing something that I feel benefits the students is indicative of an unforgivable professional deficiency (not being busy enough). The same colleague told me “That’s loser talk” a few years ago when I complained that a grant was unjustly slaughtered in review (likely by this guy); needless to say, I am not discussing grants with that colleague again.

People who run very large groups and raise a lot of money generally have very hectic travel schedules and are overall very busy. I know from what students tell me that it translates into many cancelled and rescheduled classes, which is probably not a big deal for graduate students, but it is for undergrads, whose days are usually packed to bursting with classes, labs, project group meetings, and often part-time work. The extremely busy colleagues would often love to have the absolute minimal teaching load, and perhaps they should, for everyone’s benefit.

What about service? There are some important service assignments, and I understand and endorse that they have to be done. Many of them have to be done by faculty (e.g. serving on PhD dissertation committees, or tenure and promotion committees). My beef with service is threefold. First, there are people who really do the fewest and the lightest assignments; they tend to be either among the very high performers or, unsurprisingly, among the very poor performers (deadwood) who have mentally checked out. My second beef is that there are many committees that are pointless because what is needed is money, but the money is not forthcoming; while meeting to brainstorm and bloviate may appease whomever because it seems like something is happening, nothing really is, so the whole thing is a time-wasting charade. Third, service doesn’t do anything for an individual’s career unless it is a formal administrative position (e.g. you serve as department chair), and even so the gains appear… dubious.

The most aggravating part of life at an R1 university is that, during the semester, teaching and service can easily eat up your entire work week. I have several student papers to edit, I haven’t been able to get to them in way longer than I would like. We are dealing with a completely nuts situation, in which much of the core university mission work (teaching, service) takes up so much time that, if you are at all conscientious, your research — the only part that can potentially advance your career — suffers terribly; if you don’t want to neglect your research (or your career in general), you shaft the core mission or your personal life, usually both.

I don’t think faculty are at fault here. People do what is expected of them, and smart people read expectations very well.

Do Not Send

Recently, I did something I had never done before: I asked a program manager at a funding agency to not send a proposal to a certain individual.

To be honest, I had always thought that excluding people from lists of potential reviewers for papers or proposals reveals a lack of conviction in the merit of the document or a lack of belief in the review process — surely, all scientists are objective! But I finally got over my naivete and did what I probably should have started doing a long time ago, because a couple of proposals and probably more than a couple of papers were likely mishandled by this individual in the past.

When you do work in computer simulation, the system does not exist until you code it up. Your understanding of the physical reality affects what your computer simulation will look like. It can look and act very much like the real system, in many aspects or in a few. It may behave entirely unlike the real system, which means that either you don’t understand the physics well enough, you are having issues coding up the physics, or possibly both. But at no point does it stop being important whether or not you understand the system; at no point does it become solely about having more computational resources. You cannot cure faulty physical assumptions by throwing CPU cycles at the problem.

I don’t think I am being a revolutionary when I say that all numerical techniques are approximate. They all have limits of applicability and accuracy; some of the limits are fundamental, some are computational. We as scientists have to understand the limits and work within the constraints. Throwing enormous resources at a problem is sometimes necessary, but often it is not — the question is what you are after, what question you want to ask of your simulated system. Sometimes, a slingshot is just enough to kill the sparrow. Other times, you do need a cannon, for the problem is a pirate ship… Or a whale.

The individual is a subscriber to the One True Technical Path for all problems in my area. That’s silly, there is no such thing as the one true technique, in principle or practice. Unfortunately, this individual has single-handedly managed to damage the prospects of a number of people who do not subscribe to The Path and is hurting the community because of his strong connections to the funding agencies. I actually feel bad on some level, because I don’t think he’s aware how many people he has managed to piss off and alienate; there are stories circulating about his abuse of the peer review process; I am not the only one who has him listed as someone not to send proposals to; many very smart people don’t want to discuss science with him because they don’t want the hassle.

I am probably crazy to even feel bad for him, because I know he feels underappreciated. But being an a$$hole to everyone around you is not going to win you friends or recognition. Only the unusually creative and original are allowed some eccentricity; mere mortals need to rely on working hard, doing a good and rigorous job, and not becoming someone everyone loves to hate.

Do you have someone on your “Do Not Send To” list?

Riff-raffin’ It

A lot has been written around the scientific blogosphere about some prominent gentleman of science lamenting the fact that science today is populated by riff-raff as opposed to the intellectual giants among whom he undoubtedly counts himself. I am not in the mood to retell what was already covered elsewhere, so if you are interested go ahead and check out these links (here here here and here)

I have a somewhat related riff-raff story of my own.

Some time ago, I was nominated for a university award, which is very competitive and several letters of reference are required. I suggested the names of several colleagues, all senior to me but not dramatically (perhaps 5-10 years). I suggested them because I know a) they are serious scientists who do good work on topics close to mine, b) they follow my work and would be able to write about it in detail, and c) they would be willing to write these letters for me because they think I am a serious scientist who does good work, too. These colleagues are from all over the world.

It was brought to my attention that some of them may not be not high-profile enough to write letters for me for this internal ward.

I felt a little offended on my colleagues’ behalf. First, they are excellent people and some of the top people in our relatively small field (not small for a physical science, small when compared to most biomedical fields, for instance). Many of them are in Europe, where getting a full professorship is much harder than in the US (basically, a chair has to become vacant). Many of them don’t care about the accolades the way we do in the US —  for instance, even some very prominent people never bothered to become fellows of the appropriate professional societies, even though I am sure they would be shoo-ins. Lastly, most of them, being outside of the US, don’t maintain meticulous professional pages with awards and honors; for all I know, they could be drowning in awards, I wouldn’t be able to know without point-blank asking.

First of all, this was a competitive but ultimately university-level award. I wanted to ask people for whom it would not be too much of a stretch or effort to write about my work and whom I would be comfortable asking because I believe they wouldn’t mind doing it for me. I must be riff-raff myself, as I don’t rub elbows with MIT or Stanford folks; I do know people in these places (and god knows I send them enough grad students with REU experience and awarded NSF fellowships; where are my brownie points?!) and I will bother them when the time comes to write letters for my inevitable second Nobel prize. But for an internal award? Not so much.

Why is it that whom you know and who vouches for you are  the most important proxy to scientific quality? And why is it that a select few get to have an opinion about everybody’s work ? Surely the opinion of someone who doesn’t follow your contributions at all because they do barely related things cannot be more valuable than that of someone who does follow it? Why does being at Elite U endow someone with superpowers to judge everyone everywhere for everything?  If only a handful of universities are worth anything, why not close all the other ones and be done with pretending that there is important science elsewhere? We who are not at Elite U give them that power.

There are kick-ass riff-raff people everywhere. They are smart, curious, respectful to colleagues, and they they make doing science fun. They are my riff-raff.  Don’t anyone dare say anything bad about them.

To wrap up on a cheery note, here is good cheap wine that DH and I have been enjoying lately. Apothic Red — it’s great, and about $8 per bottle at Costco. (I do not recommend Apothic Dark.)