I was saying goodbye to the place that had been my home for the previous four years and embarking on the two day move marathon with my wife, a 4 month old Wee One, two cats and a mother-in-law. It was not a fun trip, but we made it with all of our stuff and sanity mostly intact. It's odd that it both seems like yesterday and forever ago, but it's been a good first year, overall. A lot has changed and I'm finally starting to not feel like the new guy all the time (only when it's to my advantage). I'm also submitting my last grant of this calendar year (hopefully) today, a few days early, and got a copy of the fully "executed" purchase and sales on our house. Seems a fitting way to tie up year one on the job.
Archive for: July, 2009
Yesterday I got an email from our building manager notifying everyone that we would be have training sessions on the new copier on Monday. He asked that people kindly sign up for 30 minute sessions in groups smaller than 10 people and arrive on time. I have a grant due Monday and it's a fucking copier. You put a document on the glass, close the lid and hit the button. I've never found myself having copier-related issues and couldn't foresee this as a major issue in my life. That was until I walked into the mail room and saw this machine, that is larger than my car and probably costs 10x as much.
Did a Kinkos branch move in upstairs? What could I possibly need to copy that would necessitate the use of this thing? I'm scared that if I get too close it'll clone my ass. I'm pretty sure it holds a forest of paper at any one time - either that or I'm going to open it one day and 43 clowns are going to pile out. Every time I copy something it's going to take me 10 minutes to find where the paper came out and if there is ever a paper jam, the damn thing has more doors and closets than Liberace's New York apartment. Here's to hoping there is a button on it that says "copy".
So the house saga dragged on until this morning. I'm not quite sure what the hell was going on, but a brief timeline of yesterday's events:
9:00 am - Our realtor calls the Selling Agent (SA) to see where to fax our offer. No answer. She faxes the offer to his office.
11:00 am - Hearing nothing, our agent is getting nervous and texts the SA. Nothing.
1:00 pm - SA fucking texts our agent to let her know that he never got the offer at his office and to send it to his house. Our agent obliges.
1:30 pm - SA again texts our agent to say that he got our offer just in time because his fax machine ran out of ink and that he was only able to print the first few pages, but that's fine. Our agent calls. No answer.
6:00 pm - Deadline for all bids.
8:00 pm - Hearing nothing our agent decides to text SA (since he doesn't seem to be able to pick up his phone) and gets a text back saying that SA's clients are going to decide any minute and it looks good for us.
9:00 pm - Nothing.
10:00 pm - Nothing.
10:30 pm - We go to bed with my phone on the nightstand. Toss and turn all night, finally turning my phone off at 1:30 so I don't have to listen to my inbox fill through the night.
5:30 am - Rise and shine. No news. We drag our asses through the morning routine, tied as hell and grumpy because the Wee One is pulling her "terrible twos at 17 months" thing and practicing her two favorite words, "No" and "Mine".
8:00 am - Get a call from our agent, congratulating us on having our offer accepted. Apparently SA emailed our agent just after 10:30. WTF? I've met this guy, he is not mute. Pick up the fucking phone! It's shocking that he can't talk to a bidder's agent at any point during the day when they are putting in a highest and best bid. I actually got the call from our agent while I was writing this post, and I have to say that I barely feel any excitement at all. I'm glad this is over, but I'm so damn tired that I barely care. I'm pretty sure this isn't what buying your first house is supposed to be like, but these milestones are often anti-climatic.
I'm thinking of standing outside the house we want, "Say Anything" style at about 6:00 tonight. I wonder if this would help or hurt....
And what song to play?
About halfway through a conversation, a colleague just let me know that they are considering an offer somewhere else. While I am happy for this person, they are also my closest colleague at the university on both a personal and professional level. We share lab space, our grad students are in the same office and we have plotted
world domination research directions together. In a lot of ways their presence here made my decision to take this job a lot easier. Although we do different things, the similarities in our methods have been complementary and our students have benefited immensely.
I wasn't really sure how to take the news, so I put on a happy face. I'm not foolish enough to feel betrayed in any way, it has nothing to do with me at all. Part of the issue is family and part is research community, both of which would be stronger for them in the location they are considering. I can't really argue with that, but it will be a huge loss for me if they decide to leave in terms of critical mass for the projects I am working on, the intellectual community here for my students and I and other faculty who are going through similar things. There's been no decision yet, but I will surprised if they stay. Not sure what to do. Not sure there is anything I can do. Sigh.
Sometimes I get so caught up in dealing with lab issues and research in general that I forget about the undergraduate side of my job. This has especially been true in the summer, when the only undergrads around are those doing work in labs. About two weeks ago I was asked if I could meet with a student and his mother today to explain our program. The person who normally does this is out of town and for some reason thought that the guy who had been here the shortest amount of time and who has had almost no interaction with undergrads since starting should be the one to recruit a high school student to the program. I said I would do it and was immediately forward the email trail between the parties.
The first thing that struck me was that the contact was entirely between our head of program and the perspective student's mother. It's not as though the mother was overbearing, it appeared more as though the student just did not want to be the one making the contacts. I don't know how common this is, but it surprised me when I first got the emails.
In any case, I realized yesterday that I had the meeting this morning. Crap! What do I know about the things incoming freshman should be thinking about or doing? So, when I got in this morning I went though all of the online and print resources I could find on our particular program, printed out some pages and forms and tried to think up everything that they would want to know.
As much as that was a useful exercise for me, it turns out that I could have done something else with my time this morning because our meeting lasted about half the time that I thought it would and was dominated by predictable parental questions about the prospects of various opportunities during, and job prospect after, the student's time in our program. Luckily, we try not to graduate students into a career of hoboism, but what I want to tell all these parents is that the program matters far less than what your kid does with it. Worry more about the fact that your kid is the "silent starey type" and that you won't be there to make there contacts for them and ask their questions. Our programs turns out lots of great students every year, let's hope your child takes the opportunity to be one.
In the comments on yesterday's post, Sara asked the following:
This fall I am starting the first year of a PhD program, with the eventual goal of heading an academic lab in a faculty position. The impression I have gotten so far from completing an undergraduate thesis, working in labs as a technician, and reading various science blogs was that two people could be equally productive in their research and clever in their networking, but still one may go on to have a successful career and one may not.
Your post may be read to suggest that hard work will prepare a budding scientist for opportunities, and if you do the legwork, are productive in your research, and stay connected to potential opportunities, then you'll likely be successful. Do you think science careers are "fair" in this manner, or do you think it is sort of a crap shoot? What happens when someone picks what seems to be a promising research topic but finds out later that the line of research was a dead end?
There's a lot going on in your question and everyone you ask will have a different opinion. This may also be somewhat field-specific, so I can only tell you what I have seen in my field. That said, the number of trainees produced in any one field is proportional to the amount of money (and PI positions) in that field, so it may just be a question of scale.
In a lot of ways, applying for a TT job is like applying to college (which, ironically, you are). By the time you are applying, you should have a good feel for the schools that are reaches, those on par with your abilities and your "safety" schools. To me, the "crap shoot" argument is the same one people use for not getting into a top-ranked university. "There are so many good applicants, I'm as good as any of them but didn't get into (insert Ivy) because it's all just a crap shoot!" Yes, not everyone gets their dream position, but dreams and reality are often discongruent. If your CV is on par with one level of institution, but you are convinced you deserve something more competitive, you will wind up bitter and find all sorts of perceived slights and roadblocks to your career. I have never personally witnessed an instance where someone whose CV is appropriately competitive for the institutions they are applying to, and is willing and excited to work at that level, has ended up with no job in the end, though I'm sure it happens. Have some people settled for less-than-ideal situations? Absolutely. Have others decided to go in a different direction after some initial frustration? Yup. Might it take 30, 40 or more applications before you find something that works? Hell yes. I think I sent out somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 applications out over two years.
I'm sure you have heard or read that only a small proportion of people who get PhDs actually end up in faculty positions. While on the surface, that's some scary data, you have to realize that A) Not everyone who gets a PhD wants an academic position, B) Not everyone with a PhD is cut out for an academic position (whether or not they know it) C) Some people will just never interview well, which is a big problem unless you are so brilliant that the committee doesn't care that you mumble 90% of the time, and finally D) Some qualified people won't get the position they think they deserve and give up. I would argue that those who work hard to fill their CV and who are realistic in their job search, have a better than average chance of landing a faculty position. What I would not say is that the process is "fair", in the sense that you are guaranteed a job if you do the right things, but no less so than any other competitive position. There will be those who have the skills and never make it, but IMO they are a small percentage.
As far as a research project being a dead end and a student getting screwed because of it, this shouldn't happen for two reasons. It's the PIs job to make sure that if a student goes far enough down a path of research, they'll have something to show for it in the end. I realize that some PIs suck at mentoring, but it is still in their best interest to get a publication out the student's work. Of course, there's the possibility of being scooped, but even still, there should be some angle you can exploit to get a publication from the data. On top of that, it's the student's job to make sure that they have more than one iron in the fire, so that if one project sputters out, it's not terminal. The student who does not branch out from their initial project is probably not going to make it as a PI anyway. It's important to following interesting data and see where it leads, while keeping the initial project running at full steam. Sometimes you may wish you had a third hand, but the ability to multi-task and have a couple of different project running at the same time is what makes people successful in this job.
Finally, do your work with eye to the next step. You don't need to have a PI-ready CV as a grad student, but it is important to be competitive for a solid postdoc and find a lab that will increase your skill set and make you more competitive in the TT hiring process than those who were happy to stay the course in their training. Again, that's my opinion, but I have found that broad experience has allowed me to ask different questions and apply techniques in new ways.
There is nothing inherently "fair" about science jobs, but I don't know what competitive jobs out there have a fair and predictable path these days. However, you can put yourself in the position to succeed by working hard, reading and getting to know as many people in your field as you can. If your science is good and you show that you can think independently, you will be sought after at each stage of the game.
Yesterday I had an interesting experience that made me think about the seemingly minor twists and turns in one's career that can have massive consequences down the line. I realized that if I look all the way back to my initial involvement in research, I can think of dozens of examples where things have gone my way because I was in the right place at the right time. In most cases, I put myself in that place on purpose, but didn't know where it would lead. I think there is an important distinction between being lucky and appearing to be lucky because you find the right place to be.
I got into grad school in a pizza restaurant, over a couple of beers. That was the "interview" and it just so happened that the person I wanted to work with had money and I project I wanted to be involved in. It helped that I was coming with a couple of undergrad publications and a strong recommendation from a colleague he trusts, but it still may not have worked out.
Similarly, I fell into a postdoc after a talk I gave in another university's seminar series. The timing worked out that I was looking when my postdoc advisor needed someone new, but neither of us had talked prior to that point. I actually gave the seminar with the hopes of joining a different lab, but after talking with my (future) postdoc advisor about the project he was working on, we basically agreed that I would start a couple of months later. Again, no application, no search, just two people excited about the science they could do. BUT, if I hadn't presented a boat load of data from my PhD, that conversation likely would not have happened.
I actually did apply for faculty jobs. For me that process worked out like everyone else - you interview at a couple of places and eventually there's the right fit between what you want and what they need. Granted, not everyone finds exactly what they are looking for, but even as much as I bitch about the particular peculiarities of Employment University, it fits much of what I was looking for. And even since taking the job, having a particular skill set and research that encompasses a wide range of subjects has allowed me to take advantage of several opportunities, including getting additional personnel in the lab, that have been the result having needed expertise and being in the right place at the right time.
I'll be sending some things out today that have the potential to produce some data that will set us up for the next 6 months and will almost certainly result in some important publications for the lab, not to mention provide overwhelming "preliminary" data for grants if I still need to submit revisions in the next round. So? You ask. How is that related to the topic at hand? The answer is that I am having this work done at a large facility, but by working with the head of the facility, rather than having them work for me. Subtle, but important difference, because rather than paying a facility to just do the work and having to follow all of their strict rules regarding amount of material sent, etc., I am skirting some potential issues that would set me back a couple of months because the director of the facility was at a presentation I gave and is genuinely interested in the results. After chatting for a while after my talk, the director agreed to use some of their lab protocols and help us optimize the process, even if we could not easily provide the amount and quantity of material they generally require. Like I said, this is something that is going to save me months of time and substantially speed up the process of getting that all important first "independent lab" paper out and virtually ensures we'll have the data to publish the results in a broad-interest journal. Assuming this works...
So, have I been lucky up to this point in my career? To a degree, yes. But the interpretation of events would be very different if I wasn't busting my ass to produce the data that gets one invited to give talks, and then taking every opportunity to talk about my research with anyone who is interested (or doesn't flee fast enough). Sometimes you can make your own good luck.
I have just been offered a tremendous opportunity. I have been in discussions with the director of a large facility to do some work for me. We've bounced a few ideas and thoughts back and forth and now it turns out that the facility will perform a pilot project for me if I send them the samples I need worked on. Did I mention that they are going to do this for free, which will save me a good chunk of change? My reaction was "Email me the address and I will have them out in the morning!"
So, I go down to the office to ask for a package slip to fill out. Nope, can't do it that way. We have no account with FedEx (WTF!?) and all UPS shipments go out through central post. Okay, can it happen overnight? Probably not, but it's hard to say because it depends on the timing and how long it sits. Basically, what I found out was that sending something that needs to get somewhere off campus the next day is almost impossible unless I do a lot of the leg work and take my package across campus myself. I'll likely have to pay for it myself and get reimbursed (not clear yet if I can use my Pcard, but it's not looking good).
How is this possible? Of all the things I have to do in a day, can't shipping a package be handled by paid staff? Seriously? I have to micromanage the mail now? Dude. Fuck! Sigh.
I get periodic emails from the American institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) and those often include an update on evolution education in the US. I have to say that it is a bit depressing when the best news these reports convey is about things that were not acted on. Italicized text below is from the report.
Battles over evolution education continue around the country. Most recently, on 10 July 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) named Gail Rowe to chair the State Board of Education (SBOE). Lowe will replace Don McLeroy, the avowed creationist who failed to win confirmation from the Texas Senate on 28 May 2009. Evolution advocates are not happy with the appointment of Ms. Lowe, who in 2003 and 2009, voted to include creationist criticisms of evolution in science textbooks and curriculum standards.
I've covered this situation a bit already, but this is the same old game of pseudoaction that happens all the time in this whack-a-loon game. Someone gets ousted for being a little too crazy, but is replaced by someone just as crazy, but less loud about it. That's not to say that it's all bad in Texas! Our one bit of good news comes from the state.
Also in Texas, House Bills (HB) 2800 and 4224 died when the state legislature adjourned on 1 June 2009. HB 2800 would have allowed institutions such as the Institute for Creation Research's (ICR) graduate school to offer a master's degree in science education despite the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board (THECB) 2008 decision to deny the ICR's request to offer the degree. The ICR is currently suing in federal court over the THECB decision. The second bill, HB 4224, would have required the SBOE to restore the controversial "strengths and weaknesses" language in the Texas state science standards that was removed after a vote during the 25-27 March 2009 meeting of the SBOE.
Yay! No one did anything! Basically, but letting these two balls drop it at least represents a significant delay to both efforts, if not more. Each would have to be reintroduced in the next session of the house and wait their turn again. Often if bills die on the floor without a vote, they are not introduced again. Sometimes they are re-worded to sound different and thrown back in the ring. We'll have to see.
Not to be outdone, South Carolina wants part of the nut-o spotlight.
In South Carolina, Senate Bill 873 was introduced on 21 May 2009. This bill, if enacted, would require the state board of education to review all science curricula for neutrality towards religion to ensure that it does not show preference for "those who believe in no religion over those who hold religious beliefs." The sponsor of the bill, Senator Michael Fair (R-District 6), has previously sponsored bills that would support the teaching of intelligent design in science courses.
Oh, how coy of you Senator Fair! Let's make this a religious persecution issue AND not specify any poor, poor attacked religion, just to we can hold hands in unity against this injustice! We wouldn't want people persecuted for their beliefs! Unless they believe in a different deity, no deity, wear different hats or even read a slightly different version of the same book. Those people are the enemy.
Lest we forget that these issues are not only from Southern states, let's crank the crazo-meter to 11.
In Ohio, the John Freshwater saga continues. Freshwater, the eighth grade science teacher facing dismissal for allegedly preaching in the classroom, has reportedly filed a lawsuit against the Mount Vernon School Board, four district administrators, and several others involved in the 2008 federal lawsuit against him. Freshwater had been sued in June 2008 for allegedly bringing religion into school by posting the Ten Commandments and Bible verses in his classroom, branding crosses into students arms with an electrical device, and teaching creationism. The Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education has been involved in proceedings to terminate his employment since October 2008.
What? You want to fire a guy for branding his students with crosses in science class. Come on. If we can't brand our students, how are we supposed to know which ones have already taken the course? Mr. Freshwater totally sounds like a stand up guy and pillar of the community. What do you think is the basis of his wrongful termination suit? I'll be curious to find out, because I am always looking for new sources of unintentional comedy.