Archive for: January, 2016

The new class

Jan 28 2016 Published by under [Education&Careers]

For better or for worse, I decided to ditch the class I had been teaching pre-tenure and create a new class. The new class has some cross-over with my previous one, but is aimed at an earlier (2nd years) and larger audience. I also decided to team teach the course, because my co-instructor brings a ton of interesting and useful experience to the table for this class.

The last time I did a new class prep, it was horrible. That was the hardest semester I've had in this job, for a variety of reasons, but class creation was chief among them. I thought I had a plan for it, but it kicked my ass so hard. That experience left me with mixed feelings going into this semester. I know have way more service and departmental responsibility than I did back then, a much larger lab and I'm juggling different grants while writing for some new opportunities. I don't have time for an ass kicking.

It's early yet, but this time around is completely different. I could almost saying I'm kind of enjoying it. The experience I have at this point makes it WAAAAAY easier to know what to include in a lecture and what to toss. I have a good feel for timing, which was lost on me before. I don't feel like I need to add content to avoid coming up short. Instead I have the confidence to know I can talk through the material in different ways, depending on the time available. Since the class is right in my wheelhouse, I'm having fun with adding in information from the literature.

In short, it could not be a more different experience. I am controlling the class, rather than surviving it. This job continues to amaze.

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Tenure Funk

Jan 14 2016 Published by under [Education&Careers]

So much academic advice and energy is focused on tenure. How do you get tenure? How do you survive pretenure? What are the tenure requirements at your institution? On and on and on. It's an important milestone, since it is a rare opportunity for your university to tell you to leave, but for 90% of institutions there is far more bark than bite.

I never focused on tenure. It was never my goal. I focused on staying relevant in my field and getting good science out. I focused on keeping the lights on by getting grants. I focused on training my students so I would be proud of them when they left. I reasoned that doing those things would put me in a position to get tenure and stressing about the milestone itself did no good. We also have annual reviews here, so I knew I was on the right track.

And it worked. I jumped the bar and have the official letter to prove it. And then something unexpected happened*.

That summer and well into the next year I fell into a funk that I hadn't experienced before. I wasn't depressed, I wasn't sad, but I felt like I needed some time away. I let deadlines go unmet. I ignored things I shouldn't have ignored. I went to conferences and barley attended talks. I pretty much stopped blogging or reading blogs. Once I got tenure I looked back and realized that I had spent years either writing grants to pay someone else to do cool science or writing papers about cool science someone else had done. I had an office job and now all the benefits and protections of being pretenure were torn away like a badly stuck band-aid.

In retrospect, the drive to tenure was taking a toll on me, whether I realized it or not. I never felt anxious about getting tenure, but clearly the looming deadline had been weighing on me. While I was great to get that behind me, it felt a little like bursting through the curtain to an empty auditorium. "Congrats, now which of these committees would you like to be on!"

I took a semester sabbatical, which did little to change things. I wrote a pile of new grants and some got funded. It was fine, but really not until this last summer (a year post-tenure) did I start to re-engage. I honestly don't know why I stepped away or what brought me back, but things are rolling again. We have new stuff going in the lab. We have some new opportunities and some old ones have starting bearing fruit. Things are good, but it took a bit to be at peace with where I was at, professionally.

*And yes, I know this is basically the top of the First World Problems mountain.

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Protecting students from bad PIs

Jan 13 2016 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Astro physics has been in news a lot recently, with a series of sexual harassment cases involving male PIs and female students. As anyone who has worked in academia for a while knows, these are not isolated cases. Academia is as bad about dealing with sexual harassment as many private and public sector jobs are, and the consequences for the students involved can be complete career annihilation. This is a massive problem tat we are not treating with the urgency it deserves, and it is hardly the only issue that can lead to students being pushed out of academia.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that needs to be dealt with at the departmental and university levels. Of course, an issue that disproportionately effects students that needs to be dealt with by administration is only acted upon if that admin is motivated. They rarely are, which is why the problem exists. And we go round and round.

I get that it makes sense to take the bull by the horns as a student applying to work in a lab, but some things just don't work:

On first glance you might think, "okay, that's one way to start a conversation about expectations, etc...." but take this a step or two further.

- Asking someone an incredibly invasive personal question on an interview aside, what's to say that the situation today is predictive of tomorrow? Things could be going great today, but a car accident, unexpected health issue of a child/parent/spouse, or relationship issue down the road is no less likely to occur if you ask this question. Life happens and it's impossible to predict what the reaction will be.

- Do you have the right to even ask this question? I mean, should a potential PI feel obligated to describe their personal health information to you? The answer is no. You don't know anyone's home situation and you're not privy to that information, even if it may affect you one day. Why not ask if they're on anti-depressants? How much they drink? Whether they do drugs? Are they seeing a therapist? I mean, that's basically shades of the same question. Can you see where this becomes problematic?

Asking that type of question will not protect you from anything and is more than likely going to alarm a potential PI. Maybe it's a vehicle to a good conversation in a few instances, but I doubt it would generally play well.

I am acutely aware that the power differential between PI and trainees is a very steep slope, and that more protections need to be in place for students. Reforms at the department and university level for student (and really anyone junior) protection are desperately needed, but the "advice" above is not how we get there.

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