Archive for: October, 2009

Something scary

Oct 30 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

With Halloween this weekend, I thought I would post about something that recently scared the crap out of me: Coming up with my own Big Idea.

As a grad student and postdoc, it's essential that you are always coming up with your own ideas, but you have the net of working in a lab with an established theme and having lots of people around working on related things to bounce ideas off of. Then you start applying for jobs and have face the fact that you need to sell yourself on your own ideas. Some people might be able to leave their postdoc labs with projects of their own design are will continue working along those lines. That's great if you can pull it off and it will sure make your life easier. Of course, I didn't do that.

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way to take advantage of my fairly diverse training in order to come up with a novel research program to pursue, but coming up with an independent and exciting research direction is a daunting task. I had lots of ideas, but either they borrowed heavily from what I was doing at the time (and I didn't want to compete with my PDF advisor in my early career) or I wasn't excited by them. This went on for a couple of weeks. Reading. Thinking. Repeat. It sucked, because I couldn't shake the feeling that I was going to end up either doing research that only slightly excited me and 6 other people in the world, or not doing research at all because no one wants to hire someone with boring ideas.

So, I took a different approach. I started thinking of it like a layered database, where the top layers were huge questions that could not be directly tackled and each successive layer below became more and more tractable from a research standpoint. You can't write a grant proposal saying you want to cure cancer, but you can say that you will use XX cell line to understand YY process with the ultimate goal of making headway towards treatments for a certain type of cancer. My problem was that I was looking at the top and bottom layer and couldn't connect them until I used this approach to think about it.

I started with a broadly-observed phenomenon that I was very familiar with from the work I was doing as a PDF and tried to figure out ways to explain how things transition between the normal and altered state. In order to do that, I decided to look outside the systems that people had used to make the observations and identify a system where the actual transition was ongoing. The search for the right system led me back to my PhD training, where I was introduced to a truly unique system that hadn't been worked on in years. With my question and system in hand, all I needed was methodology to make the observations I needed and do the experiments to test the system, much of which I had learned as a PDF.

In retrospect, it all makes sense but I can't tell you how many hours I spent trying to see how I could carve out my own scientific niche. And hell, I haven't gotten anyone to pay me to pursue these ideas yet, so they might still all be crap. But I do know for a fact that my questions and the unique system I am using to go after them had enough of a "wow factor" to make a big difference during interviews for a job.

That's just my experience, but I doubt I am alone in facing the daunting task of making a research program one's own. It's unbelievably scary to feel like you can't come up with the one original question that you will need to make your mark, but having a broad knowledge base and getting into some of the older literature is what allowed me to piece things together. It's an exciting time when you;re finally on to something that you can turn into a unique research program.

10 responses so far

Range of busy

Oct 29 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

DrDrA had a post the other day about journal club and in it, voiced something that has been going through my head as of late. In it, she states:

Now don’t even tell me you were too busy to read the paper- you won’t find any sympathy from me on this one. I’ll bet you a million bucks that you and I don’t even measure busy on the same scale...

More than making me laugh, that particular point drove home something that I've been feeling for some time. That is, even when you think you're maxed out, someone will come along and drop another straw on the pile. I think over time we adjust to this (for better or worse) leading to her sentiment above. The longer you're in this gig, the more deadlines and workload you have to handle, so being "busy" becomes a sliding scale. For those of you who prefer figures, I submit this:

Figure 1. A fair warning to students who want to keep at this.

I remember when I used to complain about how busy I was to my PhD supervisor and he would just laugh and say "You don't know busy". At the time, I thought "If he only knew what I'm dealing with!" but of course, he did. And of course, I now chuckle at the complaints of being busy that I hear from trainees. It's like the circle of life... but different. And with fewer baboons.

18 responses so far

Identity crisis; the littlest hobo

Oct 28 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

If you've been reading here for a bit, you may remember that the college my department is in is currently in the middle of a giant clusterfuck reorganization. Essentially, we're moving from a traditional departmental structure to a system that divorces the grad and undergrad curricula and organizes the faculty by their grad program affiliation. In a large and diverse college, we are going to end up with 11 undergrad degrees and 4 graduate concentrations. Faculty are being asked to self-identify with graduate groups and organize the program from the ground up and to a large extent, this process is going surprisingly well.

Some of the current departments are being absorbed, whole-hog, into the new grad groups, whereas in others, like mine, the faculty are dispersing among the four programs. From my perspective, it's nice that I don't feel any pressure to follow the rest of my department into one section, but I find my research interests (and the projects I currently have students working on) evenly split between two proposed graduate groups. This is significant because we are being asked to declare a "primary" affiliation for voting rights and resource allocation (i.e.TA support), so any students I have will have to follow the rules of my primary group. If, generally speaking, I work on "Produce", I'm essentially being asked to choose a "fruits" grad group or a "vegetables" one, and I'm kinda stuck. So I began weighing the pros and cons of each.

The fruits grad group is essentially one current department plus a number of people from other departments who are coming in. A few from my department are making this transition, but the situation inherently makes me nervous for three reasons. 1) The majority of the group have already been interacting as a department for years, and if you've ever seen Survivor, you know how that works out for the new people. 2) The untenured faulty in the current fruits department are regularly frustrated with the actions or inactions of the tenured people in fruits, which brings me to, 3) The fruits grad group will be heavily populated by tenured faculty, many of whom are in their last ten or so years before retirement (You didn't think "fruits" was an arbitrary name, did you?). The combination of these factors concerns me. A lot. However, my lab probably fits in the fruits section best, if I had to choose at gunpoint.

The vegetables grad group will be a mish-mosh of people from several departments, with a pretty even spread in age and rank. The eldest faculty are research active individuals whom I respect. However, although the group looks big in a meeting, the number of primary affiliates may end up being the smallest of the four grad groups. Maybe that's a good thing, but it will depend on how resources are meted out (which has not yet been determined) and how much influence a smaller group will have on the whole. The composition of the people in the vegetables group will likely be a better fit for me.

Obviously there are some other politics involved that I don't want to get into, but for the moment I'm left with a fairly major decision to make and feeling torn.

9 responses so far

NFL Week 7, threesome addition

Oct 27 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

We have some stability returning to the picks this week, with scores ranging from 5 - 9, and all but two of the scores clustered between 7 and 9. Tom is this week's winner win 9 points and a win in the tiebreaker between himself, Genomic Repairman and Damn Good Technician. That also means that Tom is the first to pull off three wins this season and the second to post a back-to-back. With the win he pulls into a tie for second place with PiT and the rest of the pack trailing closely, like hungry wolves follow an injured deer.

6 responses so far

Wait, I have an idea!

Oct 26 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm going to create a phone that has all the bells and whistles. It's going to look all high-tech with it's digital display and even require an ethernet port instead of a phone line. It'll will have all the features that anyone might need, except one. Even though I'm going to put a speaker on it for speaker phone, I'm not going to add a microphone. I mean, why would people actually want to talk during a conversation in which they are using speaker phone? Isn't it way more convenient to have to turn the speaker phone off and use the headset every time one wants to communicate with the person on the other end of the line? Surely, if you are using speaker phone, it's not because you have a couple people in your office who would like to participate in the conversation, it's just to listen in on a monolog being delivered by someone far away. And what better way to get close to your colleagues than a game of "Pass the Headset, Tell Me When To Hit The Button"?

Wait, what? Cisco already made that phone? Oh right, it's the one on my desk. I knew I got that fucking brilliant idea from somewhere.

5 responses so far

Most Posting

Oct 25 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Dr. No, has thrown down a gauntlet suggested a meme that got me thinking. Dr. No has requested the information in bold below, and since I should be writing and will take any excuse to procrastinate, I've got my answers.

Most Liked Post? (by you)
This one took me the longest to figure out, but I settled on starting the Sciblogs NFL pool, because that's been a lot of fun. That narrowly edged one of my new favorite products and the why are you reading meme, because that was interesting to get feedback from a number of people who had not previously commented.

Most Liked Post? (based on readers comments or hits)
I think my post on NSF Boarder Impacts, based on the hits. If you google that phrase, it actually shows up second, behind NSF itself, which I find hard to believe.

Most Memorable Post?
That would have to be after realizing that Drug Monkey had blog rolled me and all of a sudden my readership increased by an order of magnitude, maybe more. I never really expected many readers, but all of a sudden they were there.

Most Indicative of Your Blog Identity Post?
Maybe my early post on sales reps. I was still kinda figuring the blog out and that post helped me hit my stride.

Most Humorous Post?
Hmmm, I guess poop is always funny. This post actually gets a lot of hits from people using the search term "long hair lab hazard", which always makes me laugh when I imagine their reaction to clicking the link.
Nudity is also funny and people seemed to delight in my inability to not blurt out what I'm thinking in my locker room post.

Most Regrettable Post?
I got rid of most of the posts in which I talked about my department directly. I put a bit too much faith in the thin veil of pseudanonymity and although I didn't get burned by it, I left the door wide open.

Most Misunderstood Post?
Probably my post in reaction to anonymous commenter letting me know they had figured out who I was. It was a little too knee-jerk and not thought through well enough. It came across as angry when I actually was just more upset that the commenter hadn't gone about things differently. It wasn't meant to be an attack, although it came across that way. The commenter and I chatted by email and worked everything out. A mistake by both of us, but I handled it poorly. I guess this could go in the category above as well.

Most Satisfying to Write Post?
I'm not sure satisfying is the right word, but venting about my frustrations with a recent round of grant reviews at least gave me a venue in which to freak out without terrifying my students or colleagues. It's also the post where I was left feeling the most naked, and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Most Likely To Never Be Posted Post?
I never leave posts on the shelf. If I think it's worth going up I send it, for better or for worse. However, you will never see criticism of my students here.

Most Important Post?
Do I have "important"posts. Probably not, but the most important to me was probably my post of my daughter's anxiety over moving because it resulted in some really helpful advice over email.

Most *Adjective of Your Choice* (I choose "Euro-angry") Post?
My post on the ridiculous evolution video put together by a European group based in Germany received an irate response from one of it's creators that required a series of back-and-forth long emails to sort out. We never really agreed that it was effective and my complaints about diversity and understandability were not really heard, but I haven't really received hate mail like that for anything else I've posted.

11 responses so far

1 Year + 1 Day

Oct 24 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

A year ago (+ 1 day) I started this blog. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought it might help others avoid any mistakes I've made, but in reality it's probably helped me more than anyone else. One could argue that taking time to do this is keeping me from spending my limited time doing job stuff, but I would counter that not only is this mostly job stuff, but getting feedback from all of the readers and other bloggers has probably saved me a decent amount of time figuring things out in another way. At the very least, it's a wash on the time side of things and this blog has allowed me to develop a number of great relationships with people I otherwise would likely never meet. We're an odd little community, but one that I'm glad I've joined.

Thanks for coming and thanks for letting me give and take advice, vent, celebrate and laugh with all of you.

14 responses so far

Uncomfortable evaluation

Oct 23 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I'll start this post out by saying that my Employment U. does Tenure and Promotion different than most. By contract the entire department is involved in the evaluation of all faculty, whether they submit an annual review (Asst. Profs), a tenure package or a semi-annual review (tenured profs). In a given year the department may have 4-6 people being reviewed, all at different stages on the ladder.

This is both a good and bad thing to me. It's certainly nice to have a better feel for the evaluation process and how things work. It turns out that there is no meeting in an underground chamber with candles and mead when it comes to tenure decisions. No conversations with hoods pulled down to obscure half the speaker's face.

I know, I'm a little bummed out that doesn't happen too. I totally thought there was a secret tenure chamber under the old lecture hall.

In any case, it's a bit odd being asked to provide comments on colleagues and their accomplishments after being here for a year. I don't really know the expectations unless I look around at who recently got tenure. Even in that case, our department is diverse enough that a candidate in one year might have a very different CV from one in the next. Some people's research costs $2000 per year and others need $800,000. Teaching expectations are different, depending on one's field, when a person joined the department and how aggressively someone negotiated to get teaching release when they were hired. There is no text book example of some who should get tenure, and I don't think my department is unique in that regard.

I'm sure the older faculty have a better feel for what does and does not fly when it comes to tenure and part of the annual review is to let untenured faculty know when they are off course. But I'm still being asked to evaluate everyone else and that makes me feel a little uneasy. They will never see my signed evaluation, but the chair does and part of me feels like I'm being evaluated on my ability to evaluate, if that makes any sense at all. Maybe it's just that untenured faculty feel like everything is a test, but not only am I thinking about each candidate, I'm also trying to figure out how my comments on each reflects back on me.

No wonder why I never get anything done.

5 responses so far

Why do I even look?

Oct 22 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Damnit, I just looked at the NSF panel meeting dates and figured out that the panel for my solo grant met this week and the one for the collaborative grant meets within the next week. Now I get to have that split second of excitement every time the phone rings, only to realize that it's a colleague asking me to do something. Aaahhhhhhhh! I hate this part!

12 responses so far

You have your....

Oct 22 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Over the past couple of years I've noticed a presentation style creeping into meetings and conferences: people using second person. I don't know if that's a "style" or not, but until 3 or 4 years ago I don't recall anyone giving a presentation in the second person.

The first time I hear this was during a grad student departmental seminar. The student and I were friends and during their practice talk I pointed the second person usage out and we joked about it. During the actual presentation, the student lapsed into second person only a couple of times, correcting themselves on a couple of occasions.

Later I started hearing it in other student talks and finally, to my abject horror, I realized during a talk that I was giving that I slipped into second person while describing a figure. I think I said something to the effect of "In this figure you have your donuts here and pastries here..."

Wasn't I just joking with a student about their odd usage of second person and here I am doing the same thing? What am I doing?

Since then I have seen the same phenomenon growing in prevalence at conferences and the other night even saw it in TV show where someone was giving a presentation. What is going on?

Is there a general shift in the way people are communicating to an audience or was I just wearing second-person-cancellation-headphones for a number of years? Has anyone else noticed this?

6 responses so far

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