Archive for: July, 2012
Once again this summer, I am teaching science teachers science. It's my second year helping with this program and it's something I enjoy (despite the crappy timing this year). There's no question that it is an eye-opening experience for me and I'm as interested in hearing what they are seeing as they are in what I can tell them.
If you've been following along on twitter (#teachingteachers) you will note that there is reason to be concerned with the state of our schools. Although this program is limited to my state, I doubt the situation is hugely different elsewhere. A few things that surprised me the most, included:
- An urban area high school biology teacher remarked that he didn't think his students had read 6 pages in a row. Ever. In their lives. Perhaps there was some hyperbole there, but the fact that he could make that statement without any of the other teachers (from diverse districts) looking surprised, made me concerned. He reported that the majority of his students voluntarily take a 0 on an assignment to avoid reading a few pages. Not because they couldn't do it, but because they didn't want to.
- School districts are constantly adjusting how they teach different groups of students. The definition of terms like "honors" and "low performing" vary from one year to the next, leaving teachers constantly trying to teach the same concepts to a different mix of abilities. As one 7th grade teacher put it, her students range in ability from 2nd to 10th grade.
- Perhaps part of the reading problem can be traced back to the fact that many school districts in the state have gone text book free. On the surface one could argue that text books may not be the most dynamic reference text, but they have replaced them with... nothing. Teachers are now supposed to be finding their own materials, but following from the above point, that often means two or three readings on the same material, geared for different abilities. Add the fact that copy paper budgets were not adjusted to compensate, and school districts are running out of paper in February. I guess the assumption was that kids all have computer access at home? I don't know.
Beyond the computer access issue, however, the move from text book to "the internet" makes me uncomfortable for many reasons. We want kids to develop critical reading skills and the ability to discern what are dependable sources. ESPECIALLY at the middle school level, I don't see how taking away a text book achieves this in any way. Rather, my assumption is that it will confound the problem. Is wikipedia supposed to be their source for all "dependable" material. I sure hope not.
Perhaps I'm just not grasping the benefits of this idea, but it sure seems short-sighted to me.
This post has been bouncing around in my head for a while, but I've put it off because I've been too busy to do a decent job of writing it. However, I'm terrible at ignoring ideas in my head without writing them out. Afterall, this was one of the main reasons I started blogging in the first place. And since I've been kinda spouting off this week about mentoring, it seems like a good time.
I'm going to acknowledge an important point right off the bat: I don't view any of my trainees as "children" in any sense of the word. Most are my age or older and some have kids of their own. They are adults and to treat them otherwise would be stupid, insulting and self-defeating.
That said... wait....
ah, that's better. Haven't worn these in a while. Where was I? Oh, right.
That said, there are numerous parallels between mentoring graduate students (and to a lesser extent, postdocs*) and parenting. Part of what solidified some of these thoughts in my head was a conversation yesterday with @babyattachmode that followed this:
I can completely sympathize with the notion that you need someone to deal with an email and you get the feel it's being ignored. Sometimes things are time sensitive or may delay work you are doing. I get it. I really do. No one likes to have to wait on someone else, especially if there is an impression that the individual is simply choosing not to deal with something.
The flip side, however, is that sometimes a PI isn't going to respond to even urgent requests for any number of reasons. Maybe she's tired and doesn't even want to think about lab bullshit right now. Maybe she needs other information before responding and has contacted others. Or maybe she just wants to see how you handle the situation. It could be all or none of the above, but sometimes a targeted withdrawal of attention is a feature, not a bug.
This brings us back to the goal of mentoring, or at least how I see my role. My end goal is to produce an independent and confident scientist with the tools to pursue the career they want. Getting there sometimes requires techniques that every parent will recognize. It requires that I foster creative and independent thought. Occasionally I have to let people fail when I could have saved them or "not deal with something" that I know they can handle if they step up. Sometimes it means I have to have a "come to Jesus" talk with people who are spinning their wheels to little effect. I have to tell people when they are not living up just as much as I have to let those same people know when they are kicking ass. And eventually I have to ensure that students are on a trajectory to leave while hoping I've given them guidance that will serve them well.
So when I equate parenting with mentoring, it has nothing to do with trainees being "kids" and everything to do with preparing someone to transition effectively to life on their own**.
*Yes, this is a training phase, even if you're called a colleague.
**Whether or not they recognize it at the time or even come to appreciate it latter. However, you will never appreciate your own parents more than once you have kids of your own and some of the same can be said of good mentors.
I often hear about people describing PIs as "hands off", meaning that their students have to forge their own way. Some find this style works for them because they are self-motivated and don't want someone looking over their shoulder. However, there is a fine line between hands off and doesn't give a shit. If a PI is still hands off when it comes to reviewing manuscript drafts, looking over thesis drafts and advocating for you, then you are just politely saying they don't care about you at all.
I'm sure there are instances of grad students getting all the way to their defense only to have things go terribly, but it is a massive failure of the system (in the North American system) for this to happen. Unless the students just freezes up and blows the question period, no one should fail their defense. If an advisor or committee (and preferably both) are doing anything for a student at all, there should be a near-zero rate of failure at this late stage.
That moment you realize your good intentions are writing checks your body can't cash...
A quick question today related to the behavior of individuals who come by your desk during lunch. I often find myself eating at my desk while reading over something. I'm not always doing work, I often use the 15 minutes or so it takes me to eat my lunch as an opportunity to catch up on sports, news or blogs. But it is not uncommon for people to visit my office during this time.
One alternative is to close and not answer more door, but I rarely do that. This leads to interactions where people come to talk to me about something before noticing that I am eating.
If this is a common experience for you, how do you find people react? Do they say they will come back later or carry on as though they would if you were not eating? Does it vary based on student vs. faculty? Your lab vs. not your lab? Etc....?
In NSFlandia there are two kinds of Program Officer: "permanent" and rotating. Rotators are those who have academic jobs and are essentially "on loan" to NSF for 1 - 3 years, whereas the permanent members are NSF staff. Every program that I have ever interacted with has a mix of both PO types and your proposal may be handled by either.
Why does this matter? Because there are always new people coming in to every panel and sometimes their interests are going to line up with yours. It's easy to get into the habit of submitting to the same panel all the time, but by not exploring other panels you may be missing an opportunity.
Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to interact with roughly 10 - 15 different POs in a few different roles. Early in my career I assumed that POs shared similar agendas or at least had an NSF script they were supposed to follow, but reality is very different. Whereas there are obviously certain commonalities, it is far more similar to an academic department with all its personalities and perspectives. And why shouldn't it be?
But there are two critical points that follow from this that I had little appreciation for early on: 1) NSF program officers have much more authority to pick and choose what they want to fund than many other agencies, and 2) Different POs get excited about different science. Therefore, if you can find a PO who is excited about the work you are proposing, you are MUCH better off* than working with a PO indifferent to what you are trying to accomplish.
This is why it helps to talk to more than your assigned PO. It is often true that there are more than one panel that your proposal would fit in. Check the backgrounds of the POs of other panels and see if anyone works or worked on something related to what you do. Call up that PO up and see how receptive they are to the work you are proposing. Also remember that rotators are only around for a short time, so you need to act quickly if you do find an advocate.
Things are tight right now. Any slight edge you can get is well worth the effort.
*Within reason, obv. It's not like they are going to pick up a mediocre proposal just because it is on a system they like.
On any given day, there are dozens of people who's jobs facilitate my own. Many of these people, in accounting, payroll, maintenance, shipping, etc., are people I rarely if ever interact with. Others I engage with more frequently (departmental or college staff) or occasionally but intensely (grants office staff). When I'm pushing against deadlines or have a todo list a mile long, it's easy to forget about the contribution many of these people make.
That's why I try to go out of my way when things slow down to thank the people that have helped me. I've written a little about this previously, but I can't stress how important it is appreciate the efforts of staff members that facilitate what you do. Whether you are a grad student, tech, postdoc, PI, or work somewhere completely different with none of these distinctions, there is a good chance your work is largely dependent on someone else doing a good job at their's.
Both historically and more recently I have been witness to some pretty egregious behavior when it comes to PIs and their treatment of administrative staff who's only offense was to be helpful. That kind of thing not only makes you look like a douchcanoe, but is completely counterproductive for everything you need done by admin staff in the future. You may feel like hot shit because you just brought in a new grant or published a big paper, but I can assure you those moving the paperwork don't care about your h-index*.
I'm often surprised that this even needs to be pointed out, but with ample evidence to the contrary, I'll keep doing so.
*Actually, no one does.
I'm curious if people have a feel for the differences between various NSF panels or even between NIH study sections. My NSF experience has been in a single organization in the BIO directorate. Really, within a single program. I may have the opportunity to serve on a panel in a different BIO organization, but it is worth it?
Are the differences enough to warrant the work or do all panels basically run the same, with the variation unlikely to matter all that much? What about NIH study sections? Have people noticed a difference between different study sections? Is the broadening of experience worth reading all those grants?