Monday, December 22, 2008

Number of Grants

So, FSP wrote a post about the appropriate number of grants to file. And she put it as 5-6 a year. As I have had 5 grants denied in the last 2 months alone - and I'll get to this in a minute - I have to disagree. I'm going to go with the number of "as many as is humanly possible to file and still do a reasonably good job". This number will of course vary with your teaching load and how fast you can write.

Also, the number of relevant announcements ebbs and flows - in the summer/early fall, there were more announcements than there were in November, and right now I'm in an upswing again. But, again, I'm not about to not-submit just so I can get some sleep. But, I'm not going to waste my time submitting to a not-relevant announcement either.

So, about the 5 rejections. 3 were for NSF grants. I've officially been rejected from NSF. I'm not really all that upset, which is kind of funny. I got a couple "goods" and a couple "excellents", but apparently, you have to get all "excellents" to get funded. As I was never a straight A student, except for one semester in second grade, I really don't see this happening. Maybe this is my being pessimistic, but it just seems like (probabilistically) it isn't going to happen - 5 reviewers all thinking "she's excellent!". Not likely. And I didn't really get any useful feedback saying what I could do next time. Maybe I won't be submitting to NSF again anytime soon...

The other two rejections - one was a Young Investigator and one was an NIH. NIH - they said what I could do next time - focus on a specific disease. And the YI - well, those are beauty contests, basically.

So, right now, I'm working on three different ones, all due in January. I was working on two, which is a kind of comfortable number. But then a program manager called and asked me to submit. This normally wouldn't be a problem - adding one - but this one happens to be a group submission (me plus a couple other people). So I had to pull together a team. Again, normally not a big deal - but the holidays change things. Everything becomes choatic.

It isn't us (the PIs) who are the problem. It is the budget and admin people. We have to get budgets approved, which means we have to get our budgets approved. And apparently pulling together a budget is akin to balancing the federal budget. So, my other two have been put on hold (as I'm the only PI on those), and now I'm working on forcing this larger one through the budget people. And there is cost-sharing involved.

Well, Happy Holidays to everyone.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Roller Coaster...

Friday was an incredible exhausting day. It started out in neutral, so to speak. I had to call a bunch of granting agencies/foundations and leave messages/speak with assistants to arrange phone calls with program managers for next week. I managed to successfully orchestrate that, so I was pretty proud of myself.

I was chairing a student symposium for the department which was from 10am-3pm, and there were industry judges and both an oral and poster session. So, at 9:30, I left my office and went over to the hall where it was. (Note, extensive planning had been done in the weeks leading up to this to enable me to just "show up"). I brought the judge's gifts with me (and they were awesome, by the way). So, from 10-3, I got to meet with undergraduate/graduate students, which I really enjoy, and learn about a lot of research going on in my department - which was also useful. And we had Halloween cupcakes. This was one of the admin assistant's ideas - which I strongly supported - and they were great.

Around 2:30, we announced the winners of the symposium (presentations and posters) and one of my students won the poster contest, which was awesome!

And, about 10 minutes later, I got an email from DARPA, saying that my grant (which I submitted in August) had been positively reviewed, and would now enter into contract negotiations - ie, I got a grant! I am planning a party for my group for next Friday.

At this point, I think it was a good thing I had on heels (which I never wear and therefore, they make me virtually immobile), because they kept me from jumping up and down and screaming.

After the whole symposium wound down, I went back to my office, and shot off a bunch of emails (namely to my post-doc advisors about the DARPA grant). Then my department chair called.

As back story: When I arrived, I had one person filing my grants (who was awesome). Then the chair hired a new person - who knows less than I do, if that is possible. I asked to keep the first person. (Let's call this person AP - for awesome person. We can call the second person CP - for crappy person.) Apparently, CP's job was to file grants for everyone in my building to let AP file grants for everyone in the other building. AP couldn't handle both buildings - which I completely believe. Therefore, I had to use CP.

AP has been doing this forever and would semi-proof read my grants - make sure I hadn't forgotten something obvious, like an equipment justification section, or make sure I wasn't asking for an obscene amount of money in comparison to other other grants recently awarded. This is stuff I didn't even think of (the latter) or know how to write (the former). Now that I know to do this, I will. But AP's experience is really helpful.

AP thought this was unfair (a new professor working with a new grants manager - essentially the blind leading the blind), and continued to file my grants. My chair found out, and got pissed. I requested to meet with him (in person) to discuss this next week. He opted to call - conference with everyone - at 5pm on Friday. Not surprisingly, it turned nasty. I'll just stop here.

Then at 5:30, I had a meeting with a professor in another department to discuss teaching - this professor has won lots of awards in teaching and volunteered to meet with anyone who wanted advice. He asked how my experience was going so far. I said it was okay. He asked how I liked my department administration. It was like he read my mind - bizarre. I pseudo-lied, and said I liked my division - I love my dean. And, as this prof is smart, he said what I couldn't say - that my chair is a grumpy ass, but his term is also limited. So, as long as I get along with the dean (whose term isn't limited), then I should focus on that, and somewhat ignore the chair (obviously not ignore - but keep my eyes on what is really important). We are meeting again next week to actually talk about teaching.

Well, a lot of other stuff is also going on, which is probably obvious as my blogging is getting more and more sporatic. But I felt like I needed to at least give a feeling for the rapid emotional roller coaster that occurs in a single day. The ups are much much higher, and the downs are much more pronounced than when I was a grad student or post doc. So the total swing is just more exhausting. I'm sure I'll develop a coping mechanism of some sort, but I'm just not sure what it is going to be or when it is going to kick in.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Grant writing

So, it is official. I suck at proposal writing. I got back my first set of "summary statements" from an NIH grant that I submitted. They basically said "go find a mentor - the science is solid, but your proposal is unintelligible, so we can't fund this piece of crap". Perhaps it was phrased a little better (in fact, the reviewers spent 5 pages reinforcing the concept of all the ways in which my proposal was unintelligible), but that was the gist.

They did give some helpful comments, which I will use in re-writing my proposal. And I knew that this one(s) was a piece of crap. I submitted three proposals in June to three different NIH sections on three different topics. I had never written an NIH proposal before, so I basically had no clue what I was doing. I wrote another one a month or so ago with another (much more senior) professor, and I learned a lot. However, based on the significant differences between that proposal and the ones I submitted in June, I could pretty much assume that none of those were going anywhere.

All of that being said... Waiting for these rejections was almost like waiting to go to the dentist and have your wisdom teeth pulled. You know what's coming, but it still sucks when it actually happens. Especially reading the 5 pages of comments saying things like "if you had only written more background information, then I would have recommended this for funding" and "the PI clearly has a strong track record in this field, therefore, while I believe she can successfully perform the research, she can not write proposals and therefore I can not recommend this for funding" and so forth...

In any case, the main thing I learned: put in as much background as humanly possible. This really showed in the reviews. Both with the specific comments about the lack of background information and the resulting confusion. Also make sure to use the phrase "As the PI has previously shown..." (or similar words) as many times as possible. And make sure the short paragraph in the grant itself about me (a semi-bio) is extremely flattering. These last two things I have problems with. I tend to have problems writing these types of things (especially the latter). I'm going to get my husband to do it. He has no problems. Also, it is easier to write complimentary statements about other people than it is about yourself.

And I wrote his resume last night.

Friday, October 24, 2008


So, I have spent the last 10 days in multiple cities and time zones and being uber-social. While my husband claims I am an extrovert, I say I'm just a really good actress. Oscar-worthy.

The first round was in DC with granting agencies and program managers trying to figure out what they really wanted. Their announcements say one thing, but what they really want to fund can be a little different. But finding out what they really want, can make a big difference. But it is a trip like any other: airplane, hotel, food, etc. All to get 30 minutes of face time with a program manager. After the first meeting, I've found that PM's are much more receptive to follow-up phone calls. But for initial contact, they really like meeting you.

Then I went onto a conference, gave a talk, got the typical "your talk was really impressive. I was really surprised." Um, not really sure how to take this. Now, I just say thanks, and walk away. I used to press the person to actually explain what they meant - try to make them feel uncomfortable and actually admit that they thought I was going to give a crappy talk because I'm short and female. Now, it just isn't worth the effort.

After that, I want to a "school" retreat. School = everyone in my "division", not the whole university/college. This was fun and stressful. Everyone was there, even the dean, and there were a lot of people I had never met before, so many names came at me very fast. And I'm really, really bad with names.

Then onto another conference. One more talk. Again, the "you gave a good talk and I'm surprised" comment. Yes, I know. I look like I'm 18. I'm not. One of these days, I'm just going to lose it. Let's just hope it is post-tenure.

But, now I'm back, and my students are extremely happy. I spent all of yesterday in the lab with them. And I'm hoping to spend part of this afternoon and all day tomorrow in the lab (if they are there tomorrow, it is their choice). But the lab is 99% done, and I want to have it completely done by Monday. I feel responsible for it not being done. If I had been here over the past 10 days or so, it would be done. So I feel really bad for delaying my student's research progress.

Oh, and I had three grants not go through and a young investigator award (YFA/YIA) not go through. Oh well. That's life. But I filed two more grants last week (they had the same due date), and next week I'll file at least one more, and another YFA/YIA.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I have now had many people ask me what it is exactly that I do all day. I can fairly confidently say that I spend a significant portion of my time in meetings. I enjoy the ones with students. The ones with professors - not so much. Especially with groups of professors (ie committees). And there seem to be lots of those.

These meetings appear to have no definitive end time. And sometimes no agenda is sent out (or formed) either. My parents always said a meeting must have an agenda - apparently that concept was lost on engineers. Without an agenda, the meeting meanders from topic to topic like a lost puppy.

In my department meetings, I am extremely fortunate. The room we meet in has a class immediate after (1 hr after the start of the meeting); therefore this is a limiting factor.

However, as an example of the topics covered in the last meeting: status reports from several seminar sub-committees on invites to speakers (speakers invited, dates being arranged), status report on faculty search (reading over CVs), random discussion over assorted yet unrelated topics. The first topics could have easily been reported via email; the second part (random discussion) didn't really need to happen - or at least it didn't really need to involve everyone.

One committee I'm on does everything 90% electronically. It is awesome. I can comment at midnight. And discussions end up being more focused.

The department seminar sub-committees (yes, I'm on these too) actually meet. Why, I have no idea. The meetings last for 45 minutes or so (again - what we talk about for this period of time, I really have yet to figure out - I tend to think of other things. But more importantly, the meetings have tended to take place in the middle of the afternoon, which completely disrupt an entire day. And they often are in a building far from mine. So a 45 minute meeting ends up lasting 1 hr, plus the additional disruption to my work.

In any case, one person commented on the 20% service requirement - this counts service. So, I easily am fulfilling my service requirement (committee work) - I also do other stuff. What is rather interesting is that as you do more research, you have to do more service (if you go by the percentage method). So you end up, in a sense, being penalized for doing research. But really, the percentages are guidelines anyway. The dept just wants to make sure you contribute.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


For those who are at or considering an R1 university, you already know what the 40/40/20 rule is. For those who don't, 40/40/20 refers to how an Assistant professor is supposed to split their time: 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service.

This seems very well-defined. It seems straightforward. It seems like, given these parameters, why doesn't everyone get tenure - just follow the 40/40/20 rule and you're golden. Well, it really doesn't work out that way.

Just as in grad school, the percentages don't really count. (in case you don't know to what I'm referring: if homework counts for 60% of the grade, and the final exam counts for 40%, it would appear that both homework and the final exam are important. However, since everyone gets 100% on all of the homeworks, really the only factor which plays a role in determining the final grade is the final exam, unless you completely blow off your homework.)

Everyone follows the 40/40/20 successfully (unless they are just completely clueless), just like everyone got 100% on the homework. Therefore, in the end, what really matters are the letters. Reference letters of sort. Letters from complete strangers (because, they aren't going to ask people who have a vested interest in seeing you do well - ie your thesis advisor, your post-doc advisor, your collaborators, etc). And, apparently, there will be something like 6 of these letters.

And they need to say things like "she would get tenure at my institution" and "she is the top of her field" and "she is amazing, fantastic, glorious, god-like". (Okay, maybe the last one was over the top).

Based upon my experience with strangers commenting on my work (ie journal referrees), I'm not too confident in this system. I have about a 50% track record of getting positive comments (and by positive, I mean good enough to get the manuscript published, not good enough to qualify in the "she is fantastic" column).

The one good thing about this system - my thesis advisor is automatically dis-allowed as a letter writer. Not really for the right reason (typically advisors would write an overly positive letter, when in reality he would write a negative one), but he is still excluded, which is the important thing.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My students are awesomer than yours...

I know everyone thinks their kids are the best. But as I don't have any kids yet, I think my graduate students (and my undergrad) are the best. Whether or not this is true, I have no idea, but I think they are. I am fully aware that I am biased. However, I have gotten confirmation that my undergrad is indeed awesome - she got an award. And, today, I got confirmation that one of my grad students is awesome - he won a fellowship.

His fellowship benefits both of us. I didn't fully appreciate this fact when I was a graduate student (by the way, I did not get a fellowship). I saw fellowships as mostly benefiting the student - after all, fellowship students make more than non-fellowship students. However, now that I am not paying my student 36k+overhead a year, I can buy more equipment, which is overhead free. So I basically get 60-ish% more for my money. (Yes, overhead is overly high).

And he is extremely happy with the extra money. He doesn't realize it yet, but he should be more happy with the title which will help him get a job in the future. And as he wants to go into academia, the more "honors and awards" one has, the better.

In any case, this particular grad student is exceptionally awesome. Every assistant professor should have a graduate student like him. He works on weekends, is extremely independently motivated, and never complains that something is "not science". For example, I worked with grad students as a post-doc that complained that writing software to analyze data was "not science". Taking data was science, but building the testing set-up to take the data or writing the software to analyze the data was "not science". Essentially, if it couldn't be plotted, the grad student didn't want to do it.

Anyway, my grad students are awesome. They have all dug in and helped build the fundamental backbone components of my lab. If only I could get them all fellowships.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Journals (pt 2)...

This post is in reference/follow-up to my previous post "Journals".

I heard back from the editor (yes, it took awhile), and he agreed with my assessment of the reviews and has accepted my manuscript!

Interestingly, I have read numerous blogs/articles discussing that men are more likely to argue with editors than females, and that females will more likely accept a rejection and"fade into night". This follows the trend discussed in the book "Women don't ask", in which the authors say that women are less likely to ask for things than men, and as such (in the long run) end up with less. Women essentially expect to be rewarded for good deeds, while men ask to be rewarded. I agree with much of this and have seen it in many of my female colleagues, but I have come to discover that it doesn't really apply to me. I'm not trying to sound arrogant - I actually don't think it applies to most females who went to an all-girls high school.

I think this is because women who attend all-girls high school learn at an early age to accept leadership roles, and they become comfortable in them. It doesn't seem strange for a girl to be the president of a club or of the class, because, by default, it will be a girl. Therefore, when these women go to college, they continue to pursue these leadership roles that they have grown to enjoy. And in these roles, they have to negotiate for things like funding, they have organize events and run meetings. Often undergraduate clubs have annual budgets of 5k or more, and a single event, if it is school wide (like a Mardi Gras party or orientation week), can have a much larger budget.

Then, in graduate school or as a faculty member, the budgets and the responsibilities get larger. Much, much larger. I just evaluated my annual burn rate.

After being responsible for organizing a large event or for orchestrating the construction of a lab, asking an editor to re-evaluate a decision on a paper seems pretty easy. Especially, if the decision was clearly incorrect.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Committee assignment

I have received my first committee assignment. And it came the same week that I have two grants due and that my lasers finally arrived. I would much rather be playing with my lasers. I have been waiting 4 months for them. Next on my list would be writing the grants - money will buy more lasers.

I downloaded the committee assignment last night - after glancing at it, I really don't want to do it now. The committee I'm on is the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee or some such lengthy title. Essentially, every time any department wants to change their curriculum, they have to ask us. That is the reality. The description of the committee was a little different. It said that we discussed how to change the undergrad curriculum to modernize it. As an undergrad and a grad student, I was involved in such discussions, and I really enjoyed seeing them implemented. So, I thought I would enjoy being part of a committee that was "progressive".

This committee - not progressive. It reads paperwork. The people who submit the paperwork - they are the progressive ones. The committee actually is anti-progressive.

So, as I said, my first assignment came last night. I have to read about 100 pages of proposed changes that another department wants to make to their curriculum. Not minor changes either - additions of about 5 classes, deletions of about 3 classes, addition of a minor and addition of an interdisciplinary minor. They grouped the whole thing together into a single submission, so I (and another committee member) have to evaluate it as a package. We can approve sections, but still, if they had submitted it in parts, then the work could be split up.

The entertaining part - until last night, I had never heard of this department or this major. I had to look up the discipline on the web to find out what the field was. I guess I have learned something already, though not exactly what I had intended to.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Undergraduate emails

It is the second or third or fourth week of the semester (I'm not teaching this semester, so I've kind of lost track), and my department holds a freshman seminar class to orient the freshman to the department. There is homework, but it is "orienting" homework. Apparently, last week's homework was to interview a faculty member to find out why they chose to be in science/engineering, why they chose academia, what they do, etc. They get two weeks.

I got a lot of emails (based on the size of the class), and I have determined that I got a statistically large number of emails - more than half. I know I got all of the females. But I also got a significant portion of the guys as well. If I was egotistical at all, I would say it was for appearance reasons - but I think it is because of laziness - my name falls near the beginning of the alphabet. The male profs who fall before me, well, I wouldn't want to interview them.

As I'm not in town right now, I clearly can't do these interviews this week. So, next week will be spent being interviewed by undergrads. I'm viewing as a two way interview - I would like to have some undergrad researchers in my group, so now I have the perfect chance to pre-screen and recruit early.

The undergrad school I went to didn't do this type of freshman seminar and I think it is a really good idea. I never interacted with faculty - except in my courses where they were the teacher. And those interactions were less than positive. And when I started undergrad I didn't even consider grad school, until I met a grad student who encouraged me. So, now I have a chance to meet with a bunch of undergrads and plant the seed early.

I realize that not every undergrad should go to grad school - I'm not that type of professor - but I also realize that not every undergrad is given the kind of encouragement they should be either. So now I have this chance. At least for ~50% of the class. Maybe I should change my last name to Aardvark to seal the deal.

(Now if they would just stop emailing me as Mrs. X, everything would be great... Maybe I'll suggest that can be included in the seminar as well - etiquette in communication)

International Traveling

I'm in Europe right now - I'm not calling Europe a single country, I'm just being vague.

I have been on this side of the Atlantic several times this year, every time in a different country. However, I always fly into the same airport first. This is simply because I have a favorite airline, which flies non-stop from where I live to one airport in Europe. It is my favorite for several reasons: 1) it gives me a 50% mileage bonus for free which is transferable to my FF club, so I get 150% of the miles (ie I don't have to join their FF club) , 2) they serve really good food, 3) the seats are all equipped with the mini-TVs which are uniquely controlled - ie the movies can be started and stopped whenever you choose. These may seem like small things, but they add up. Especially the movies - the only time I watch movies is when I am on planes - I view my airplane time as my time. It is really the only time I get alone without email interruption. Although right now I'm not getting many emails, as almost everyone I know is asleep.

And about the first point - I know many airlines have the joint membership programs, but very few give you the 50% mileage bonus. On ~20hrs of flying (roundtrip), it adds up.

But that wasn't the point. My favorite part about being in Europe is the coffee and the sandwiches. I realize this seems strange (maybe not the coffee part), but I really love prosciutto and brie sandwiches. If you have never had one, you are truly missing out. And they are everywhere over here - even in airports. Or at least so I thought.

I spent this morning trying to find the sandwich - no such luck. I didn't want it for breakfast, but I wanted to figure out where I would go for lunch. I found coffee (it was everywhere, par normal). I found Subway (bizarre) - and they only had the standard American selection. I found a lot of food I really didn't want to smell, let alone eat, at 6am. But I didn't find any stores which even looked like sandwich stores or bakeries (except the Subway). And there were alot of people having subway for breakfast, which I could understand given the alternative.

I'm quite disappointed to be honest. It is really how I motivate myself to get on the plane and travel for typically 12+ hrs to get here (including the secondary leg which can be a plane/train/bus/taxi), and travel far away from my husband, my cat and my dog. I love all of them very much, and while I love going to conferences and giving talks at schools/universities, I love being with them too.

I realize I came for the science not the food - and I'm sure the science will be great too. But I'm only here for 1 day. So, 1 day of science vs. 2 days of traveling... The prospect of getting the prosciutto really played a big role in my decision to come. And I know I can get prosciutto in the US (and in the airport), but I can't get the bread and the same quality Brie in the US. So, really, it just isn't the same.

But I'll stop now. I know there are much worse problems in the world - and even in the US. People in TX would love to have Subway for breakfast.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ode to Campus Joy pt 2

So I thought about posting a comment on FSP's post today, but then I realized my comment would be far too long, so I decided I would just write the comment here.

When I started reading her post, I began thinking about my favorite aspect of my new campus, and it was, indeed, the marching band.

The past two schools I have attended have been without football teams - really sports programs - to speak of. Case in point - I played soccer in college. Not intramural. I had a school jersey and traveled and everything. I am not trying to convince you of my athletic prowess - I am not an athlete. I am far from an athlete. I am more saying how anyone could compete - I had friends (science friends) on the cross country team. Therefore, accompanying things, such as cheerleaders, marching bands, etc didn't exist.

On my current campus, athletics is big. Therefore, the marching band practices almost every day (from 6-8pm). In fact, my undergrad researcher is in the marching band. Everyday as I leave work, I hear the marching band practicing. I think it is awesome. It is almost like a pep rally everyday for the whole campus (and for me).

At the end of a long day (and at this point, a day is ~10-12 hrs), there is really nothing better than walking by the marching band playing happy music. It really lifts your spirits - after all, the music they play is designed to do just that.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Student seeking position

There have been many posts on many blogs about the correct way and the incorrect way to get into grad school, get a post-doc position and get an academic job. While I realize that the people who probably should be reading the present post, won't, maybe word will spread, and people will learn.

Things not to do:

don't send emails like:

Dear Prof. X,

I am a student at X university. I am interested in a research position in X field in your group this fall. My GRE/TOEFL scores are ###. Can I join your research group this fall?

Interested student

Maybe not all professors, but I explicitly say on my web-page when I have openings and when I don't (right now I don't). And even if I did - it is fall! If you haven't already been admitted to the school, you aren't going to be starting now! You kind of missed the cycle.

Second, I don't admit students, the school does. Only after a student applies to the school should they bother contacting me. Yes - profs can pull strings, but if an application doesn't exist in the "system" there are no strings to pull.

Don't address the email to the wrong professor. This may seem obvious - but I actually got an email from a person looking for a post-doc position which was addressed to a different prof at a different school. Clearly, the wrong cover letter. It just starts things out on the wrong foot. And don't address "Dear sir/madam". Also annoying. I have a picture on my webpage. I'm clearly not a sir.

If you have applied to the school, and verified your application is in, then, yes, by all means, contact professors. In fact, I would encourage undergrads to contact profs in that tentative in between time after the app is submitted but before they have heard something. That is the crucial time.

If you get in, contact profs early (not once the school year has started), but in the spring, to inquire about openings for the next year. Especially if it is a prof with a popular group. I stopped taking new students in June, long before the start of the school year.

But don't send fishing emails before you have even applied. It is very annoying. I still respond. I know many profs who don't (which I think it rather rude - but then I only get 2-3/day, I'm sure they get many more).

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


There is significant background, so please bear with me.

A friend (in a different lab) and I decided to try something (just for fun) once when I was in grad school - using my materials and his equipment. And it worked. My PhD advisor didn't believe/understand the results as he didn't understand the equipment, so he wouldn't let me publish. My friend's advisor thought it was awesome (and that my advisor was an idiot), but he let it go.

Fast forward two years.

Everyone has come to the realization that my advisor is an idiot (the other advisor was in a different department, so it took him some time, unlike my friend who was bombarded with daily stories). So, we decide to submit without my advisor. We choose Nature Materials - long shot, but if we haven't been scooped at this point, probably not going to happen.

Not surprisingly, we don't get in. Not really heart broken...

We choose another, more realistic journal - the reviews come back "this is great work, but it would really be more appropriate for X journal, but that is the Editor's decision". The Editor chooses to bounce it. That I was slightly more peeved about - especially as that submission was 3 months.

Now, third submission at highly specialized journal: 90days after submission, we get response (3 reviewers): 2 are extremely positive - say things like: " this work deserves to be published in an international journal like X". Third reviewer is an idiot. Really. He/she completely missed the point of the paper, compares it to irrelevant papers which focused on completely different topics, etc. The Editor rejects the paper. Um, what?

So, I email the journal directly (they didn't even give me a link to argue) with my "respectfully disagree" letter. That was a week ago - I still haven't heard anything.

Today, an article came out that is very, very similar. Not similar enough to keep ours from getting published (ie not the same). But it is similar enough to prove that we did submit to the right journal, our work is relevant to this community, etc. And it is also similar enough to make me think that one of the authors could have been one of the reviewers, either at this journal or the previous one. That would really make me peeved (and perhaps another word).

Anyway, sorry for the bitter post, but I'm just really frustrated... I know it won't be the last time, but did it have to be the first time (that I was submitting as the last author)?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Faculty Meeting (pt 1)

As I mentioned on Friday, I went to my first faculty meeting last week. Actually, it was double header - I went to both a dept faculty meeting and a university committee meeting, back to back. So, 4 hrs of "meeting", with a location change in between. I'll limit myself to the dept. faculty meeting for today.

I'm the secretary this year. Apparently, the new professor is always the secretary. I checked; this isn't some evil joke. I really, really hope they hire someone else this year (there is an active search), so I can stop taking notes next year. I have never been good at taking notes. I like listening too much.

Also, when I was an undergrad, I always used to think that profs would hang out after work and talk about us. When I became a grad student/post-doc, I realized that profs were way too busy to hang out and talk about us. I now realize that it was a little of both. They don't hang out and talk about us after work, they do it during faculty meetings! Maybe not specific students, more general - like, "what do you think happened to the sophomore class? I gave them the same test as I gave to the juniors last year, and they all failed it." As I'm not teaching, I can't really join in, but I was kind of taken aback.

The majority of the meeting was actually spent going over the plans for the semester (seminars, hiring etc), with one small exception when we talked about the tenure/review process. A lot of people would like to see it standardized (numerically), and many people are quite happy with the personal touch (namely, the ones with friends in high places). As I'm new, and have neither friends in admin nor any idea what the proposed numeric system is, I asked for information but didn't really say much. But, this did lead to the discussion of the general review process - namely, how we (profs) get reviewed every year, and students get reviewed every semester, but who reviews the staff?

Apparently, our chair! And he feels they are doing a great job! (Doesn't everyone? he asked). Um, no. So, we all asked to be included or asked for input when the next round of reviews were due. I have a feeling that this years reviews are going to be significantly different than the last decade of reviews.

And maybe our chair will finally realize he gets preferential treatment...

Friday, September 5, 2008


Unlike the title may imply, I'm not referring the benefits of being a professor, I'm referring to the Benefits Office, or the people who control things like health insurance. This is my least favorite part of changing jobs - dealing with changing health insurance. In fact, next to moving, I would have to say this is my next "least favorite task" - if I was asked to rank them - assuming major things like surgery, death, etc were taken out of the rankings.

In fact, I hate dealing with these people so much, I almost missed the deadline to sign up. I made it by a day - and my transactions with them today have been equally, if not more, nightmarish than at my last three jobs.

The people in the office are extremely rude - irregardless of how nice you are to them. Okay, I shouldn't generalize. The person I spoke to last week was very nice. But, I guess she is out this week. The person I spoke to today verged on being obstinate just for fun. An example:

The school has very good health care, in part because there is a medical school/hospital on campus, and if you go there, you get very, very good prices (free with very low monthly payment). So, I wanted to sign both me and my husband up (me +1 adult). This meant I had to show I was married - ie bring proof of marriage to the office. So, I called the office to find out where they were located (I'm still working on figuring out where all of the buildings are) so I could bring it over. I was first berated for not attending orientation (which I did), then I was berated for not paying attention during orientation (which I did). It wasn't covered in my orientation - mine was 3hrs long, and Benefits simply handed out a book, said to do everything in it, and call with any questions.

Now, after talking to my dept's admin asst, apparently the staff orientation is given in three parts, each one is a day long, and in theirs, things like which building Benefits is in are covered.

In any case, we (the Benefits guy and I) finally decided I would simply fax it to him. So I did. I called back to verify he got it and make sure he didn't need anything else and find out a timeframe. Apparently, things like timeframes were also covered in orientation - um, not mine.

At this point, I explained (calmly) that my orientation and his were different. Mine was 1 day, and his was longer. Mine did not involve a presentation from Benefits, and his clearly did. And that I would appreciate if he would simply answer my question, as I was told he would do, because this discussion was a waste of time. In the end he answered my question. But, seriously, why all of the drama?

I know, I shouldn't let this kind of stuff bother me (my husband just told me as much). But really, I know the reason he treated me like crap is that I sound like I'm 12 on the phone, so he thinks I'm 12 (or maybe 20), and a graduate student, and so he can treat me like crap. If I sounded like I was 50 and male, he probably wouldn't have treated me the same. I realize I sound like I'm viewing everything through the gender lens and all, but the person last week knew I was a professor, and the person this week didn't. And the person last week was extremely helpful.

Since I tend not to call and say "hi, I'm Prof X, can you please answer my question?", I can only assume that the difference is based on this knowledge - otherwise, all I can assume is that the person I spoke to today really enjoys making other people miserable. And I would really rather not jump to this conclusion.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

New Office Furniture

I'm sitting on the floor right now waiting for my new office furniture to arrive. It was supposed to get here at 9am, so I rounded up a couple of my students at 8:30 to help me move out my old furniture (circa 1970) to make room for my new furniture. It is now 10:30 and some of the furniture has arrived (it is in boxes outside of my office door), but the people (and the rest of the furniture) who are going to put it together haven't arrived. They are one floor down putting someone else's furniture together.

Therefore, I'm sitting on the floor and waiting. I waited turn on my laptop until a few minutes because I kept hoping it would be just a few more minutes until they arrived, but a few minutes would go by, and they wouldn't arrive. So, now I turned it on. I'm betting they show up any minute now.

In any case, it will be nice to have furniture because I can unpack and organize, finally.

I have felt like I have been living out of a box the past few months, both in the lab and in my office, and it has been taking a toll on my sanity. Hopefully by the end of today, my desk will be organized (assuming it actually gets unpacked), and then my office will be organized. Next, I'll tackle the labs.

I spent a large portion of yesterday in them (when I wasn't in two committee meetings), and part of this morning in them. I am fully planning on spending this weekend in them, and dragging my husband along for the ride...

Well, the desk hasn't shown up - so much for hoping that turning on my laptop would do the trick!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Labs Done!!!!!

In case you can't tell, my labs are done. Well, 99% done - and done to the point that I (and more importantly) my students can move in. Technically, I no longer get a desk in the lab, so they are really the ones moving in. We spent all day yesterday moving. Yes, we labored on Labor Day. My husband and I were going to do it irregardless of the day - we have had boxes and boxes of stuff in our apt for the last few months, so at the first sign of approval, it was getting re-located.

My students volunteered to come. I didn't force or in any other way require them to come in and I tried to make it clear that if they didn't, I wouldn't hold it against them. But they came just the same. And, I have to say as much as I want to say it doesn't effect my opinion of them, it really does. Their enthusiasm does make me happy.

So, we spent the day moving stuff - both my textbooks and lab equipment - into the lab and my office. And, since a bunch of equipment arrived last Friday in crates, we also spent part of yesterday, uncrating equipment and setting it up. (In anticipation of moving stuff Monday, I went to a tool store on Saturday and bought a ton of tools, including a crowbar).

As my undergrad said, it was like a very, very expensive Christmas. I don't think they quite understand just how expensive most of this equipment is, so I'm thinking this afternoon, we may just take a walk around the lab and do an inventory.

Oh, and the reason I had so much equipment in my apt - I bought a lot (all) of it used from start-up companies which were going under or consolidating (ie in stages of going under). So, they don't really ship. Therefore, I picked it up. And they were closer to my apt, than to my school, so I took it there. And, while I paid very little for most of it (when compared to retail), the replacement cost is very high.

In any case, I'm extremely happy right now - even though one company forgot to put some adapter in the crate so I can't finish setting up the really expensive piece of equipment (that I did pay full price for). But I still have that feeling of someone who got everything she asked for.

Friday, August 29, 2008


When I started undergrad, I knew exactly what I wanted to major in. By the way - it was not engineering, it was a fundamental science. My drive resulted from everyone (except my parents who are the epitome of support in this respect) telling me that I couldn't do it. My high school teachers, most of my high school classmates, and many of my college professors all were very discouraging. But instead of being convinced out of pursuing this field, it actually convinced me even more.

My mom refers to this as my stubborn streak. When I was child, she used to view this in a negative light. Now she agrees it is probably my best asset. Apparently, it is an inherited trait which runs deep in our family.

It definitely got me through undergrad - I was told I couldn't do things so many times I lost count. I could take three lab courses simultaneously. I couldn't take an MBA course. My senior thesis project - it couldn't be done (I did it - it was hard, but it got done). I just shouldn't even bother applying to grad school with my subject GRE score. You know what - I have yet to meet someone who does well on that stupid test!

Then, in grad school, the same cycle repeated. And as an experimentalist, I have to say stubbornness is definitely important. Especially if you think something can be done. I did many experiments that other students had dropped because they gave up. Giving up is lame. Trying the same approach for 1 yr is stupid - but giving up, especially on experiments which can lead to really interesting results, can lead to even more wasted time. It takes a lot of time to come up to speed in a research area, understand the purpose of project and begin experiments. Why not try 2, 5, 10 different approaches to reach the final goal?

Science is about thinking outside of the box and coming up with creative solutions to complex problems, and many of my male colleagues in grad school would stop when the first easy solution failed. If it was easy, it probably would have been done. It is only interesting because it is hard. And finding the solution is part of the fun.

Anyway, this only comes up now because I gave one of my students a project in May, which from my perspective sounded easy - everything is easy when you are the advisor. You get to sit in the office and state the beginning and the end, and wait for results. Maybe not that easy, but all of the details, like taking time-points every 2 hrs (I had friends in Biology - I felt so sorry for them), just happen, magically.

In any case, it sounded straight forward, but in June, he began to run into some problems. Reported them, then said he would fix them. Then in July, he had fixed them - he did a literature search, came up with a new solution based on a modification of a method found in literature (which was published in the 1970's), and it worked. Then he characterized his samples using like 10 different methods, and everything triangulated. I'm just so proud of him. Granted, it all worked out in a couple months - but he also works 6 days a week, 12 hrs a day. So for a normal grad student, it probably would have taken much longer.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Engineering Ad Campaign

As everyone knows by now, the numbers of US undergrads pursuing engineering degrees is extremely low. So, since I had a group of 18yr olds last week, I decided to ask them why they chose the major they did - it was a mixed batch of majors ranging from philosophy to graphic art to engineering and physics (which also made for an interesting teaching experience).

The answer - engineers don't make a lot of money. I found this very interesting, as engineers do make a lot of money, comparatively speaking. So I pressed to find out what "a lot" was. They ball-parked it at 35k-45k.

Before arguing, I decided to ask about grad school - if any of them had thought about grad school, the costs of grad school, how grad school could effect one's money making ability, etc. Some said yes, some said no, some said "grad school?". In any case, all of them had no idea that engineering grad school (PhD) is often free and you can often get a stipend on top of that (I explained the stipend concept). I also explained that this very rarely happens in fields like medicine or law, where you typically leave with loads of debt.

Then, I laid out the facts about starting salaries - how 35k was not average for a BS and it definitely was not average for a PhD - luckily I happened to have an issue of an engineering journal with me which had average numbers for all engineering fields for 2007. I do not have these memorized. And I explained that you don't have to worry about mal-practice or making partner.

Their next big concern was the concept of "jobs being shipped overseas", which is understandable, as this has been in the news alot lately. So, I explained that there are lots of jobs which can't be shipped overseas - like military work and work at national labs. So for US citizens right now, finding a job isn't hard, it is "finding a job in the geographical location with the right mix of co-workers" that is hard. I don't think the 18yr olds had ever thought about the last two requirements on a job before. Money had always been the priority.

They all pretty much said that if I told high school students these numbers more would go into engineering. So, basically, I need to walk into high schools, tell the students how much their earning potential will be as an engineer, and then they will all want to be engineers instead of doctors and lawyers. Interesting... I don't think that tactic will work, but it was an interesting perspective. Maybe an ad campaign showing engineers in massive houses with gold toilets and fast cars...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Service Credit (and a short lab rant)

My labs are still not done. I'm only going to complain about this for one paragraph, I promise. They were supposed to be done two weeks ago, and every day (my office is across the hall) I see that they aren't done. I check on them multiple times a day, because I have nothing else to do. Well, not quite true, but as my office is quickly filling up with boxes, I have a constant reminder that my labs aren't done. And when my office door is open, I see the workers walking by my office and reading the posters in the hallway. Now, I'm all for people outside of science learning about science. But considering the time they have spent reading the posters, they should be able to give presentations on the work by now. Anyway, I'll stop.

What I really want to share is that when I taught the freshman seminar/class last week, I got paid $500 for 3 hours of teaching. When I signed up to teach the class, I thought this was awesome (as I'm sure everyone who is reading this right now does).

But when I started trying to update my CV this week - I'm giving several talks this fall and have published/submitted a couple papers - I realized that this seminar didn't count as service because we got paid and it didn't count as a class because they didn't hand out official teaching evaluations. Apparently, in order for something to be service, you have to do it for free, which I think is kind of restrictive (for example, the present case). And because this was at my home institution, it doesn't count as a talk/seminar.

So, it doesn't count as anything - not a talk, not a seminar, not service, not a class. It doesn't fit under any heading. All because they paid me $500. I'll give the $500 back to get the service credit, especially since I need some service credits (which are low on time commitment). And this one would be an "easy" one, especially as it is already completed. And it involves undergrads, which always makes people happy since most faculty don't like the undergrad population!

After the program ended, the organizer asked for suggestions, and I suggested that they not pay us so we could get the service credit. He said that wasn't an option - when they tried not paying, they couldn't get faculty. I actually find that kind of funny. $500 was an enticement in May, when I was still on my post-doc salary, and $500 represented a large portion of my salary. Now, $500 represents a small portion, and I'll probably use it to purchase things for the lab - the fridge, microwave and coffee maker for my students. Things I can't put on a grant. And any left over (if there is left over) will go towards group meeting food. But the concept that $500 would be a big enough enticement that it would make/break the decision is rather absurd. Especially for full professors who make at least 2x what I make - most of the profs who taught were full profs.

There is a meeting of the curriculum committee - which I also got assigned to (yeah, service credit!) - next week. Maybe I'll suggest that they hand out forms (student evaluation forms) at the end of the seminar, so that the profs can get teaching credit. Though that probably won't work either. Since the course has 0 units, how do you assign the evaluation "grade" to the course?

Or maybe, getting paid could be optional... I would have chosen to not get paid and elected to count it as service, if given the choice. That may be the best option.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Work/Life Inbalance

My Mom is a professor (I know, I've said this before). And while I'm incredible proud of her - she went back to grad school when I was a teenager, got her PhD, got an Asst. Prof. position when I was in high school, and a couple years ago became a full Prof - sometimes I think she is completely clueless. I'm sure part of this stems from the fact that she is a Prof in a completely different field than me - she is in business - yet she tries to apply her experience to mine.

A few examples: when I was interviewing and talking about getting start-up packages in the million dollar range, she told me to think more realistically - universities just can't afford that. And when I mention summer salary, she asks if I'm going to be teaching in the summer. (No - not, planning on teaching). And when I work 5-7 days a week, even though I'm not teaching this term, and I very rarely take vacations, she keeps asking why I'm working such long hours - I shouldn't work so hard. Do all of the other profs work this hard? She only goes into work on the days she teaches - the other days, she stays at home and writes books. And the books do well. Why am I not writing books? Note: She has appeared on CNN to talk about her books - and not the 3am time slot either. I'll never appear on CNN. My work just isn't CNN material. I think it is awesome, but it just doesn't have that general audience, CNN appeal. Maybe I should discover or dispute a planet...

[I would like to point out that my Dad basically doesn't comment. His opinion is "as long as you're happy, I'm happy". I'm clearly happy. Possibly happier than I have been in a long time - after my tortured PhD experience. Tired, but happy. Therefore, he is happy.]

These types of discussions happen every time we talk on the phone. Many bloggers think that if their parents were in academia, they wouldn't have these types of discussions because their parents would understand. I just wanted to point out that this is not true.

The frequency of these discussions is increasing - it used to be just once a month or so (when I was grad school). At that point, I distracted her by saying my schedule would calm down when I graduated. However, I was clearly not being completely honest. I was more referring to my experimental schedule, which required long hours in the lab.

My Mom clearly has grand-kids on the mind. Because usually about halfway through these conversations when she realizes that I'm focusing on getting my career going, she mentions something like, but if you are working 14hrs/day, and have a 1.5hr commute (each way), how are you possibly going to raise a child? How are you logistically going to do it? With your travel schedule, how is this going to work out?

My answer: I am married. I have a wonderfully supportive husband whose job is 20min from home and who has a non-existent travel schedule. And my school has a great day care and maternity leave policy which will cover the first few years. We have looked into this. And really, I'm relatively young - yes, I'm not 20 anymore, but I'm also not 40 either. And until my lab is somewhat self-sustaining (ie I have some older students who can train the younger ones), they are really my children. I don't need two sets.

[I actually seem to have a third set of children - the female undergrads, but maybe I'll talk about this tomorrow.]

Anyway, I know the concept of Work/Life balance is on most people's minds, especially those considering an academic career. But, really, I think as long as everyone in the relationship (both you and your spouse) support each other and communicate with each other on a regular basis, then it is possible. My husband and I actually use google calendar, even now, to post our travel schedules - it is more mine than his. I started this last year with all of the interview trips, but it is really helpful. It gives him a way to know when I'll be where, and I can include my hotel contact info and flight info.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Grant vs. Proposal

I have many friends in Biology who refer to a proposal as a grant (this is before the proposal is actually awarded). IE, they write grants, not proposals. Whereas, I write proposals, and hope to have them awarded, as grants. I picked up my vocabulary from my dept. and from my colleagues (all engineers), so I think this terminology is pretty standard. And I have always viewed it in the same light as calling a manuscript a manuscript until it is accepted - then it becomes a paper.

However, I was talking with a couple friends who are not in academia last night - they have economics degrees and have careers in fields like marketing and finance. They were asking what I do with my days. This is a very common topic of conversation recently. I told them I spend my time writing proposals and manuscripts and directing research and trying to get my lab built, etc. They asked what a proposal was, and I explained. Then they said that they felt the concept of calling it a proposal was "looking at the glass half empty", which I thought was interesting.

I have to admit, part of me agrees with them. However, another part of me is a pessimist and does look at the glass as half empty. Maybe even 90% empty - since only about 10% of grants get funded - at least, 10% of grants by Asst. Profs, depending on the agency. So, yes, maybe I am being a little pessimistic.

On the other hand, maybe it wouldn't hurt to start referring to these documents as grants - maybe the positive energy would come across in the writing. Kind of like how if you talk on the phone and smile, people can hear it... And then, maybe I could get one funded.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Impact Factors

I promised a week ago I would make a comment about the ISI impact factor (IF) system (and my dislike of it).

I’ll start off my diatribe by referring everyone to an Editorial written by Mike Rissner, Heather Van Epps and Emma Hill called “Show me the data” which appeared in the Journal of Cell Biology on December 17, 2007 (technically, Vol. 179, No. 6, pg 1091-1092 of JCB). This Editorial summarizes several other important articles (which it references), namely one article that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and one that was published in PLoS Med.

This is much more than an editorial, I would go as far as to call it an investigatory piece. They contact Thompson, request the data used to calculate the IFs for specific journals, calculate the IFs, and compare numbers. The IF numbers don’t match. They re-contact Thompson, get a “squirrelly” answer at best, get a different set of data, re-calculate the IF’s, and get a different set of IFs. They still don’t match.

As the editorial (correctly) pointed out, if this happened in academia – the paper would be retracted. However, in this case, these numbers aren’t retracted. On the contrary, these numbers are used to determine important things like tenure and promotion.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. You can read the Editorial. Thompson issued a statement (which they edited on 6/28/2008 by the way – 1.5 yrs after the original Editorial). It is located here:

On the bright side, an alternative to ISI is on the horizon. It is free, and it was announced about 1 month after the JCB editorial. Nature wrote an article about it, which is located here: The database is located here:

And it is free (yes, I’ll say it again). So no subscription needed – unlike ISI.

Anyway, enough for today.

(And I have no affiliation with either ISI or Scimago – though I wish I did have an affiliation with Scimago because I’m guessing they will get bought by google sometime soon, if they haven’t already).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shaking hands and Kissing Babies

Today is freshman orientation day for my division. The dean is going to give a welcome (10 min). A senior undergrad is going to give a talk. And this "program" is going to be bookended by the faculty meeting the parents. We are all going to wear name tags, and the Dean is going to introduce us (we have to stand when he introduces us). I hate nametags and standing for a long time, and my lastname is near the beginning of the alphabet. Why couldn't my last name be Zylo or something? I never know what to do while I'm standing. On a positive note, there will be food - probably cheese, maybe fruit.

Today is also the day that I'm having a very expensive piece of equipment installed and my lab (and myself) are getting trained on it. I'm very excited about this. I have waited a long time for the equipment - I placed the order for it in May (down-payment out of pocket - yes, my pocket).

I found out about the freshman orientation event on Monday. I planned the installation of the equipment three weeks ago. I am not moving the installation of the equipment. The progress of all of my grad students' research depends on this equipment.

The clothes I should be wearing to the freshman orientation event: "professorial". The clothes I should be wearing to get trained on the equipment: "grad student". Obviously, these are not the same. Professorial = nice slacks ie the kind you have to iron, button down shirt, some vague form of make-up, and my hair should look decent. Grad Student = jeans, shirt that I don't care about b/c I may/may not get it dirty, hair pulled up.

So, I had to split the difference = black khakis (in case I did get them dirty), white striped button down (hopefully it won't show dirt), and pulled up hair. I did wear minimal make-up. I hate make-up. It takes time to put on in the morning that I could spend sleeping.

The full profs don't worry about this kind of stuff b/c they don't install equipment. In fact, the other assistant profs don't have to deal with this either - they aren't installing equipment right now as they have already built their labs. And even if they were, they could just not attend the event. But, I'm the "female" of the department, so I have to come (and I have to look decent).

Maybe they will have cheese and wine...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Beginning (again)

It is the beginning of the school year on campus this week. It was the beginning last week as well for grad students and international undergrads - and essentially all summer, and this particular campus has optional "rolling" orientation programs that students can do during the summer to make the start of the school year calmer. But, after seeing the massive lines on campus yesterday, there really wasn't anything "calm" about it. I think physics professors could model it using chaos theory.

I went to a small undergrad institution (total population<4000)>

In the past few days, I have been asked on more than one occasion what my intended major is. the first time, I found this humorous - I just turned 30, I found many (far too many) gray hairs in the past year - I think they are mating - so it was more of an ego boost than anything. The second/third/fourth/etc time - not so funny. My response now - ten years ago, I majored in X. Now, I'm a professor of Y (my undergrad major and my faculty position are not in the same field).

I'm really not looking forward to teaching a classroom of guys.

The other thing that is interesting, and that many other female professors have noted in blogs and talks, is that while most of the administrative assistants call the other professors by Prof. X or Dr. Y, I'm called by my first name. Even in emails, I'm addressed by my first name and the other professors are Prof. X. However, the other profs have picked up on this, and have started calling me Prof (which is really awkward - imagine calling your labmate Dr. or Prof. - it just seems unnecessarily formal), but I know they are doing it to try to get across the point that I'm a Dr. too, which is nice. But it is kind of annoying that this is even necessary.

In any case, I emailed the Dean (technically, the assistant to the Dean) to let him know that I could attend. But, I think it will be interesting to see how the actual freshman react - not the seniors who are quite arrogant - but then that is typically of seniors. Maybe they will still be in awe of an actual professor - and not hung up on if a professor looks like a "professor". Or maybe I should just go get an Einstein costume...

Monday, August 18, 2008


My labs are not ready. They were supposed to be ready on Friday. I was so, so very happy. My student were very happy - perhaps happier than me. (I should probably stop using happy now). But, no, they failed inspection.

A team of people inspected the labs to determine their state of readiness, and we all determined they were not ready. There is a laundry list of things which made this so, so I will not bore you. But they both (there are two labs) failed. It wouldn't be so bad if only one failed. But they both failed.

There are two reasons this is a problem: 1) my students are currently borrowing desks in many different professor's office throughout the building (they are three different offices on three different floors) and 2) I have three rather large pieces of equipment arriving on either Friday or Monday. Large = heavy, in this case.

Currently, all of the "stuff" that has arrived for my lab is sitting in my office. This is not to say I have some massive office - it is more to say that my office is becoming increasingly crowded by boxes, and if I wasn't unpacking things as they arrived to eliminate the excess space that the packing material takes up, I wouldn't fit in my office by this point. The large equipment won't fit - it wouldn't fit even it my office was empty. It wouldn't even fit through the door.

So, one of the labs needs to be done before the equipment gets here. Ideally, they both would be done, but at this point, I'd settle for one. However, unfortunately, the reason for "failure" wasn't stuff like painting or electrical or flooring (which would mean the crew could focus all of their efforts on one lab and get it done). It was that "stuff" which was ordered hasn't arrived yet, so they couldn't install it (electrical outlets, cylinder racks, safety cabinets, etc). This reason effects both labs.

In any case, I went from being extremely happy friday morning to being very disappointed. And what really contributed to everything - I met with the contractor on Wednesday, and he explicitly said everything would be done by Friday (I asked that specific question). He had to have known on Wednesday that he was running behind. It really makes me mad.

Friday, August 15, 2008


The topic of publishing was brought up in a comment a couple days ago (and how students and advisors argue about it frequently), and it brings many thoughts to mind.

When I was a second year grad student, I submitted a paper, and it got rejected, as many papers do. My advisor (who is tenured/chaired) took the comments to heart - as he always does - and said we shouldn't bother resubmitting it. He never argues with a journal. I agree - this is very bizarre behavior for a man. However, I view it as simply further evidence backing up my statements that he is a truly bizarre man.

However, the reasons the journal/reviewer gave were extremely weak. If they had been along the lines of: the theory is flawed/the data was taken poorly/the analysis is incorrect/etc, then I would agree - we should not argue. However, this was NOT the case. The argument was: the manuscript is similar to a previous paper. Not true. The paper was significantly different from a previous paper. The reviewer (and there was only one) clearly did not "get" the point of the manuscript. In my opinion, this is grounds to request an additional review.

But, as I said, I was a second year grad student. At this point, I did not realize that my advisor was incompetent and I followed his advice. I also did not realize that it was "okay" to disagree with reviewers and to argue with journals. I learned this later on. (This was my second paper (ever), so I didn't have much experience on the whole submission process.)

In my fourth year, I wrote up a manuscript on other data and showed it to him. He said: I don't really think it is a strong paper, but if you want to submit it, then go ahead - but I don't think it will get in. If he had said this in my second year, I probably would have backed down. By my fourth year, I had a substantially different attitude. I even had colleagues who submitted papers sans advisor's names (and members of my thesis committee encouraged me to do as such).

So, I submitted. The paper flew through review (under 2 weeks) with glowing remarks. I have yet to have another paper come through with such remarks. And it got mega press. In under two years, it has gotten 20+ citations in journals like Nature and Science, which is unusual for a paper in my field. IE, it wasn't solving a crystal structure of a protein or about the climate or about the genome.

This experience officially made me doubt my advisor's opinion on submitting. I did before, but after this I had no faith. So, I decided to revisit the publication from my second year. It had always haunted me, in a way, because the co-author was an undergrad, and there were only three authors. So, it would be very important for this second author. I did a literature search - and nothing competitive with our results had been published in the interim (again, justification for the merit of our work!).

So, I decided to re-submit. I brought it up with my advisor, who said, sure go ahead and re-submit, but I don't really think it is that good (again, with the qualifier). Why, oh why did I not push it in my second year. So, since there clearly was no eminent threat of being scoped, I chose a rather highly ranked journal (impact factor>10). I contacted the undergrad to do one final read through (I made some changes, updated references, etc). And told him where I was submitting. And I warned him it would probably get rejected - the previous journal's IF was ~3. But, I figured, why not? The field was "hotter" now.

And, it got accepted. The undergrad was thrilled, to say the least. I was thrilled for him. And mildly amused at the whole process. In the end, we got a better publication than we would have originally. However, that part was pure luck.

The lesson: if you think a manuscript is worthwhile, it probably is. By the end of your PhD, you should be more of an expert in your tiny, tiny sliver of science than your advisor. If you aren't, than you aren't ready to graduate. What that means is that you know when some material is publishable and when it isn't. The best way to convince your advisor - write it up. A finished manuscript is harder to turn down than a hypothetical one.

And the process of writing the manuscript can make you realize that maybe there are pieces of data that you are, indeed, missing.

However, I will agree, that sometimes advisors simply won't give in. I didn't mention the two publications that my advisor isn't on.

(And, no, I do not base everything on citations or IFs. In fact, I hate both. But that is the subject of another post.)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Committee Meeting

I had my first official committee two days ago. It was officially a big waste of time. Both of my parents are in business, and the one thing they taught me (that is currently useful) was to share a meeting's agenda with the meeting's participants ahead of time. Corollary: Have an agenda. This concept seems to be lost on everyone in academia. That was the big/primary problem with this particular meeting.

The committee chair did come in with an official agenda, but he didn't tell any of us what it was. (side note: this was a planning meeting.) We are planning for an event which has happened in the past, so while I have no idea what we need to plan for, everyone else on the committee does. Additional complication, the chair and I are Asst. Profs. Everyone else: tenured.

So, as soon as everyone sat down, they began essentially commandeering control of the meeting - asking if X, Y or Z had been done, who was going to do X, Y or Z, what the budget was, etc. All of these were items on the agenda. But we hadn't seen the agenda. If we had seen the agenda, then we (I probably shouldn't say we, as I was pretty much silent during the meeting since I had never attended the event I was "trying" to plan) would probably have let him control/run the meeting. But we hadn't. So, the tenured Profs essentially turned the meeting into chaos - having numerous sidebar conversations, which went in circles. This went on for an hour.

The last 5 minutes were orderly. Tasks were assigned according to the agenda. If we had stuck to the agenda, the entire meeting could have been 5 minutes. In my mind, the entire meeting could have been done over email. But maybe I'm too much of a dictator. Or maybe I just don't have that much free time - after all, I don't currently have multi-million dollar NIH/DoD/NSF grants with fully functional labs. I don't have labs at all.

My assigned task - get one of the administrative assistants to print up award plaques. Is that really a task? Couldn't the chair just contact her directly? Why go through me? It seems like a lot of bureaucracy for bureaucracy's sake. Especially when I have no idea what I'm doing. But, I'm sure she does. At least, I hope so.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Graduate Student Recruitment

Obviously, I'm not an expert on the subject (Graduate Student Recruitment), but the method my new department uses is, in my highly naive opinion, stupid. Yes, that is a technical term.

Just so everyone is level: first, all interested students apply. Then all of the applications are sent to a single (yes, one) professor who determines if the student is "worthy" to be a part of the program. At this point, the student is deemed "admissible" or "non-admissible". However, the student is not told of their status. Then, admissible applicant's files are put in a pile (technically, a file drawer) in the department office where professors can peruse through them with all of the other "admissible" applicant's files. At some point, the department secretary compiles a list of all of the admissible applicants, and mails it out to the faculty. Faculty can "claim" students at any point during this process. Once one faculty member has claimed a student, no other faculty member can claim that student, unless the student rejects faculty member A. Once a faculty member has "claimed" a student, the faculty member makes a formal offer to the student which is worded something like: "You are accepted to University X, pending that you work for me." So, essentially, the student can either a) work for the professor and get in or b) not work for the professor and not get in. There is the potential for c) not for the professor, and maybe another professor is waiting in the wings, but that scenario is not likely.

There are several major flaws with this system. The most obvious: the pressure that students face to accept offers to work with professors on research that they may not be interested in. This leads to students changing groups (a lot). Second problem (and I faced this already), professors claiming students and not following through. This means that students essentially lose out on potential grad school offers, and professors lose out on graduate students.

The school/department I went to for graduate school had a different system - students were admitted on-mass. We had one year to find an adviser (before summer break). Some of us were funded through TA's; some were funded through department funding. Other departments with a similar system gave until winter break. Apparently, my current department used this system until a couple years ago; however, they had problems with all of the students wanting to work for the same professor (or a small group of professors), and some professors not getting any students. I can actually understand why.

Um, I already see that problem continuing even with the current system. I have been on the department web-page for 4 months - my labs aren't even done yet - and I have already had 4 students defect into my research group. I have had 3 others try. These students are not all from the same research group, and they are very good, self-motivated students. As a side note, my group is now over 50% female. I know I hated being the only female in a research group. That could be one problem...

So, now, professors recruit specific students and pay for their first semester/year, then have them leave. Is that really better? Isn't that just going to generate hostile feelings in the department towards the "popular" professors? Or if the students aren't allowed to change research groups, isn't that just going to make for unhappy grad students?

Anyway, I'm just going through this dilemma right now because my first graduate student (one I specifically recruited) just arrived. And while I could really care less about the money involved (especially as she is on a fellowship), it is more the time that I will invest in her. If she is thinking about leaving, I would really prefer to know now - I would never cut her off or hold a grudge or do anything that immature. I would just prefer to know now, so that I can plan to recruit a replacement for her next year.

What I would really love to do is to try to convert the department back to the previous recruitment process - however, I think that is going to have to be postponed for a couple (maybe a nice round number like 6) years...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

You could never be a woman

So, my husband and I were having dinner at a friend of a friend's house with our friend (three couples: us, our friends and their friends). This particular friend happens to be a little bit older than us - our friends are about 5-10yrs older, their friends share probably the same age gap with them. But this is just my guess. In all three couples, both partners work. Shockingly, the wives do not have what I refer to as "passive" jobs. Our friend is a chemical engineer and her friend is a partner at a law firm - actually, the firm was just named the best firm in the US. Definitely, non-passive jobs.

In any case, my husband and our friend's husband have both interacted extensively with my thesis adviser, and they (particularly our friend) "enjoys" saying mean things about him. Maybe, it is a kind of self-help group. Maybe it is just to try to help me realize that he was the problem, not me - kind of like in any abusive relationship. Who knows. In any case, the topic comes up semi-frequently.

This time, it came up over dinner, when the law firm partner was around. My husband is still in a state of disbelief that my adviser got away with much of what he did, and feels that there must be recourse. IE he is in denial. He is a man, and has never been treated with anything but respect his entire career. When I first started having issues, he said I should go to the Dean and he would fix everything. I fought this suggestion, but he pushed. I went - the Dean's response: "I don't want to get involved." Not shocking.

Anyway, we started talking, and the lawyer essentially said, "you are surprised? You could never be a woman" (directed towards my husband). I started thinking about this. She is totally right. He couldn't. He isn't patient enough. He enters into any negotiation like a bull in a china shop. He really doesn't put up with anything (or anyone) who annoys him or treats him poorly.

But then, why do I put up with everything I do? Is it that I have been sculpted to after years of "training"? If he had had my life experiences, would he be able to deal with the daily onslaught? If I hadn't dealt with the profs in my undergrad who said things that surely were inappropriate, would I have a personality more like his? I'd like to think that I am who I am, but I'm sure that isn't true.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Coffee Maker came!

Well, my coffee maker actually did make it here on Friday. I, of course, had neither coffee nor filters for it. But today I had both. And now I have massive amounts of coffee sitting in my desk. It is the small victories.

I remember when I was interviewing, I met with an assistant professor. At the top of his marker board was written ( in very tiny script): Annus unus est abyssus. For those who took latin in high school (I was one), you can directly translate this. For those who didn't, it means something along the lines of, "the first year is horrible". At this point, he was in his third year. I asked him about it, and he said he kept it there to remind himself that things were getting better.

I've decided he is absolutely right. Though, I have a feeling my first year might be easier than his was. He had a baby during his first year. Granted, he didn't have the baby, but he was involved to a certain degree.

While departments are becoming more progressive/supportive about having children, I just don't think it is smart to start a job and have a child in one year. Maybe this is just my personal opinion, but I think one major life change a year is really all any normal person can/should handle. And having a child is a huge life change and changing jobs (especially if moving is involved) is also a huge change - because support systems are lost.

I'm probably thinking about this more than normal right now because it seems like everyone I know is having kids right now. I guess I'm at that age. 5 years ago I was at the "everyone is getting married" age - and I seemed to be 3 yrs behind. But that was okay, because a biological clock wasn't directly involved. Now it is, at least if I want multiple kids, which I don't. But for some reason, other people are worried that I might change my mind, and then where will I be.

Anyway, I kind of rambled today. I guess the weekend (and its interactions) just brought up a lot to think about.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Coffee Maker

Yesterday, I finally ordered a coffee maker for my office. Officially, I have been in my office for 3 days now, but unofficially, I have been in my office for a couple months - I was spending 1-2 days a week here.

I had hoped to wait to bring/order things for my office until my new office furniture arrived, but that just became a non-starter for the coffee maker. I probably will wait to bring my books here (though my office looks really bare and I'm lonely) and things to hang on the wall and something for the floor.

Just to back up a little bit and clarify, I'm not sitting on the floor now. There is furniture in the office, but it is circa 1975. Literally. I was told that it was in the office (used) when the previous professor took the office, which was in the '80s. I'm sure it was in better condition at that point (ie he didn't need a tetanus shot).

My desk chair has already arrived, but pieces like the actually desk (U shaped), small round table, visitors' chairs, etc haven't. Everything was ordered in mid-June, and originally was supposed to arrive in late-July (apparently custom furniture takes a long time - the same time frame as it takes to build my entire labs!). But it is now delayed for some unknown reason - I'm checking into it right now.

Simultaneously, I have tried the coffee (several times) at every coffee shop on campus, only to discover that they, not unlike other college campuses, burn their coffee. I have extensive data on this, and I really can't take another cup of exceedingly burnt coffee - I've even tried putting in a lot of milk to cover up the taste. It doesn't work. And I'm not that picky, but if I pay over $2 for a cup of coffee, I want it to taste good, or at least not horrible. Therefore, I have been forced to go to off-campus coffee shops (where I have found a plethora of students and most of the professors as well). However, the coffee there is even more expensive.

[As a side note, at my previous institution, there was a coffee machine in the department. It required that you provide your own beans - it had a built-in grinder - but the coffee was awesome. There is no such machine here. I have found a couple of the "pod" machines in other buildings. You provide your own pod, and each pod costs around $1.25, I think. However, with the quantity of coffee that I drink, the pods will get expensive. And I'm pretty sure that the departments wouldn't be happy with my using their machine excessively.]

The reason this is becoming a problem is that I really prefer to not spend more than ~$7/day on food - maybe this is a holdover from my grad school days when I was broke (although at that point it was ~$5/day, so I have increased the amount) or maybe I'm just stingy. But in any case, because I have to pay for coffee, this means that I essentially have to choose between coffee and food - and coffee is winning out, which isn't good as far as general nutrition goes.

I realize this is my own personal, self-imposed financial restriction, but I think it is actually a good one, so I don't really see any reason to lift it. It also allows me to splurge and take my research group out to dinner once a month, which I think is in everyone's best interest. Researchers and research groups which do things outside of the lab are more "mentally stable" which makes them more creative which improves their research which makes them happier - and thus the cycle feeds on itself. This was in a report I just read.

Therefore, I bought a coffee maker to solve this problem. It shipped yesterday. I'm really hoping it arrives today - but I think that may be overly optimistic. I'm guessing it will arrive on Monday. With my school's extremely slow internal delivery system, that means it will make it to me by Tuesday afternoon, which is still great. I could have an entire pot of non-burnt coffee, in my office, on Tuesday.

I realize this seems like a trivial accomplishment, but I'm really excited.

The next coffee-related decision is whether I should provide a coffee maker (or other caffeine delivery system, such as a fridge with soft-drinks) for the lab. I have heard many arguments for and against this. I have heard that many students feel that when their advisers put caffeine in the lab, they interpret it as their advisers are expecting them to stay up all night or not take "coffee breaks", etc. However, I have also heard that students appreciate it because it helps reduce the cost of such breaks (like I appreciated it).

When I asked my students if they wanted anything for the lab, they said they wanted a microwave, which gives me the impression, they might want a coffee maker and/or a fridge (and just not know it yet).

Any thoughts?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Moving Boxes

As indicated by my last post, I have recently been placing many orders. This means I have recently been receiving many boxes. They all arrive in an office very close to mine. When they arrive, I get an email saying something along the lines of:

"A package has arrived in X. Please come and pick it up. It is heavy; you might need help."

As I noted previously, the office they arrive in is very close to mine - as in, the room is in the same building - which has an elevator. This is in stark contrast to every other job I have ever had where I had to go to different buildings (sometimes the shipping dock) to get packages. Also, not all of these buildings had elevators. In these positions, I never was told if the item was heavy or not. I would walk over, see the box, try to pick it up as a test - if successful, carry it back; if not, get a dolly and take it back. Only on rare occasion did I get help - for huge items which came in crates the size of my bed.

While some of the items I have recently ordered are heavy - the vendors might as well be shipping chunks of steel; most are not. Many are essentially boxes filled with foam and paper with a tiny, very delicate item the size of a marker. Very, very few people would call these boxes heavy (I'm not sure who these people are, but never say never).

I wouldn't describe myself as a weightlifter by any stretch of the imagination, but the idea of interrupting both my day and the research progress of multiple grad students to carry a moderate sized box is bizarre. It makes me wonder how often the assistant interrupts grad students to do other meaningless tasks which might require minor strength (which she obvious possesses none of) - such as moving a desk or a pile of books. It also makes me very happy that my students will not have offices for the next few years - therefore, they will be "out of reach" since they will be hidden behind the lab doors.

However, I wonder if she sends similar emails to the male profs or if she assumes that they are stronger. Maybe I'm only sensitive to this because in grad school I was never asked if I needed help lifting something or moving something. I was always treated equally by my classmates and labmates; sometimes, I kind of wondered if they noticed I was a women or if that had escaped their notice. So, it is frustrating to have an administrative assistant who is around my age (maybe 5 yrs older) not do so.