Archive for: January, 2014

"Look Dad, I drew you a dolphin!"

Jan 31 2014 Published by under [Life Trajectories]

Inherently, even kids know that dolphins are dicks.


5 responses so far

Same job / new job

Jan 30 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers], LifeTrajectories

The longer I have this job, the more it changes. Outside of the general adaptation to new science and evolution of that arena of my job, there seems to be a convoy of Things That Must Be Learned at each stage. When you first start a lab you need t figure what it is to actually do that job (No, not just what your postdoc-self thought was the job. The one you could totally handle if someone would just give you the keys.). Then you're thrust in to learning how to teach. Oh right, then how the university actually works. Suddenly you're not "new" anymore and people are looking to you for things.

If you couldn't guess from yesterday's short post, it's only now becoming clear to me that I've been taking on an increasingly "political" role in my college. In hindsight, I can see that I haven't found myself here by mistake, rather I've been maneuvered into this position fairly deliberately. Suddenly I find myself navigating yet new waters, once again. But somehow this seems different.

First off, this isn't something I need to do for my job. Yes, we all have a service expectation, but it is surprisingly easy too look busy on that front without really contributing anything. No, this falls under the things you do because you want to make your environment better (as you see it) at the expense of your time doing career stuff. It's also the best way to make academic enemies - the kind that will hold a grudge for decades over a minor slight. And you are BOUND to piss someone off, because resources are limited. If they are used to support something you champion, it means they were cut from somewhere else.

Thus, I'm left in the unexpected situation of being seen as linked to a particular administrator because of... circumstances. It's becoming clear to me that many senior folks are feeling under-appreciated and under-resourced and they are getting antsy. Things are tight everywhere and, man, those new start-ups are looking pretty fat. Do new people really need all that to get rolling? etc. etc.

I imagine that part of being "politically savvy" is being able to contribute to a shared agenda without drawing attention of those opposed to it. I don't know if I've got that ability. I'm bad at keeping my mouth shut (Surprise, I know) and worse at not pointing out staunch defense of the status quo. I have no idea how this is going to go or if I'm pissing people off right now. I'm not even sure if I should care.

So, onward. I guess.

3 responses so far

Question of the day: Political savvy.

Jan 29 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

When someone in your department is referred to as "politically savvy" what does that mean to you?

15 responses so far

Reader Poll: After hours emails

Jan 27 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I find I can have wild swings in the number of undegraduate emails I receive from one semester to the next. Often the vast majority that clamor into my inbox are from a fairly restricted pool of students in my class and the difference between two Emailers and six is pronounced. There is almost always at least one student who will email whenever they happen to have a question and as someone who likes to keep the reigns on their unread messages, my temptation is to just fire back a quick response. However, that can lead students to the false impression that I am available to them at all times and I have had a few (not many) complain that they didn't hear back from me as fast as they expected. Increasingly I find myself moving to a only-during-typical-working-hours approach. I'm curious if that is typical or not.

12 responses so far

Graphic Fridays: What you know about parenting

Jan 24 2014 Published by under [Life Trajectories]


8 responses so far

The education / effort trade-off

So last night's #pubscience discussion was focused on decisions about undergraduate education. Specifically, how our panelists saw the pros and cons of undergraduate education at different types of universities and colleges. These are questions I face regularly at University open houses and in one-on-one conversations with families considering sending their child to the place of my employment.

"What can you offer that comparable universities can't?", "What will my student's job prospects be when they graduate?", "What types of student support are there here?"

Parents and students, alike, are trying to measure their chances of success at a particular place, and importantly, the value of an education there. Price point is increasingly becoming one of the most important criteria when students are selecting a school, IME.

Okay, but what does that mean for me as a professor? Whereas I don't teach as much as some of my colleagues at other institutions (and I teach more than others), I see my share of undergraduate faces every year. As a pretenure prof, balancing the amount of effort I put into teaching is important.

Why? Because teaching won't get you tenure. At least not here. I'm not saying that's right or just or The Way It Should Be, only that it is reality. Without significant* research output, the odds of one passing into the ranks of the tenured are dramatically lessened. This leads us to the great pretenure balancing act - do the best job at teaching that you can without taking too much away from your research effort.

As a specific example, let's take labs. I teach a class that has a lab. The class meets twice a week (1.25hrs ea) and the lab meets twice a week (3hrs ea), but the class is split so that each student only goes to one lab per week. Therefore, I have to prepare roughly 2.5 hrs of material for class per week and 3 hrs for lab. I teach all the class periods unless I am traveling or there is a daycare crisis, but I have a graduate student TA to teach the lab. We meet weekly and I have designed the labs to fit the class, but I am not there to teach the material and go over concepts.

From an undergraduate perspective, this is probably less than ideal. Unless the TA is excellent it would probably be better to have the person who designed the lab exercise and who is teaching the classroom portion to be instructing the lab as well. There's more opportunities to reiterate concepts from class and chances to push students on the core concepts when you have a single person handling all aspects of the course. I know I benefited from this as an undergraduate and I'm sure the students in my class would too.


There's only so many hours in a day and I have been asked to focus more on other parts of my job than on teaching the lab portions of classes. Reinforcing this is the fact the my college pays a graduate student to alleviate me from those duties. I know it would be a better educational experience if I was in the course lab, but my interests and motivation are elsewhere. And so we knowingly sacrifice on the quality of undergraduate education in the name of research and graduate student training (teaching experience).

It's a trade off, and like any compromise, no one is 100% happy with it. But it's the reality of a university that holds it's professors to a research-centric advancement metric.

But before you think I'm leaving you on an anti-bigU down note, one of the most critical points of last night's discussion was that every one of the panelists who went on to careers in science did so because they got into a lab and did actual science. It wasn't their classes that inspired them to head to grad school, it was getting their hands dirty in a research lab. So, while the majority of my students would be better off if I were in the course lab, the 5-7 undergraduates who work in my research lab per year have been afforded an opportunity they would not get if research wasn't thriving here. For those students who end up in science careers, their time in the lab was like a deciding factor.

*"Significant" is purposefully vague to allow for waffle room. Not Waffle House. Mmmm, train wreck omelet....

15 responses so far

ReRepost: Something scary - generating big ideas.

Jan 07 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It's been a while since I dragged this 2009 post out of the archive in 2010, but it fits with an interesting conversation that has cropped up at Scicurious' blog. In her post, Sci claims that she should have been kicked out of grad school earlier because she never had good ideas. My issue with her assessment is that she seems to assume that people either have good ideas or they don't. I don't know how other people do things, but for me, it's not a issue of having great ideas but a question of identifying tractable ways to attack a question that you want to answer. In most cases, these efforts DON'T ACTUALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION, but make headway in this pursuit.

IME, this is where junior people (myself included) get stumped. They see a question but no way to answer it and become frustrated or think they aren't smart enough to figure it out. What needs to be learned is how to find work arounds to have short and long term goals that set you on the path of answering a question. Once you have building blocks you might be able to make the jump, but it can't happen without a decent foundation. My lab is STILL in the early stages of chipping away at our central question. But we're making progress and finding some really cool stuff along the way.

Ideas are not a bolt of lightening or something solved in sudden insight at 3:00am. The wear more like a river through rock and occasionally there's an advance that allows you to burst another dam.


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.

4 responses so far

Should we stop training PhDs in certain sub-fields?

There's been a lot of discussion in the last few months about the number of PhDs we produce. You may recall JHU trying to get out in front of the issue, but it's still a hot button topic:

The question of reducing the number of PhDs produced is a complex one and there's simply no chance that the overall numbers will be reduced evenly across the board. It seems inevitable that certain fields are going to dry up and blow away and I think this has direct bearing on how we consider training students.

In my own lab we do several things that can more or less be divided into two camps, one of which is more "classical" and the other more cutting edge. Importantly, I have NSF funding for both, so each can be considered a viable enterprise from a funding perspective. However, there is a wild skew in the job prospects for students with training in one vs. the other.

This leads to a significant dilemma. Obviously I feel that both types of work are important and both contribute significantly, but there are just no jobs to do the classical work. And I don't just mean no academic jobs. I mean that training in this particular field leaves you few options outside of an academic job, of which there are none. There is funding out there for this type of work, but it is not accessible if one can not find a faculty job to exploit it.

We've been trending this way for more than a decade. I see it from the labs I know training people in this field. I see it in our regional conference that is bimodally skewed to the old and the students. I see it in the job ads that circulate. Unless you have other significant skills or are willing to leave the counrty, it is excrutiatingly difficult get a job (academic or otherwise) utilizing a PhD in this classical field.

In stark contrast, everyone who spent most of their time in the other side of my lab has left and found desirable (to them) employment. They have skills that are more broadly transferable and that a wider range of potential employers are interested in. Therefore, I am left to wonder whether it is even ethical for me to accept PhD students into my lab to work on the classical stuff, or is it simple labor exploitation. Ironically, I get more applicants interested in this than the cutting edge stuff we do.

Is it time for me to back-burner the classical stuff? Do I need to begin to rethink all of these projects to bring in new techniques that might alleviate this issue (some are emerging, but they are not yet ready for prime time)? Should I be the one deciding or should the student applicant pool decide?

14 responses so far

Happy New Year! Brace yourself.

Jan 01 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

4 responses so far