Thursday, July 31, 2008


Last year, with job interviewing and conferences, I traveled a lot. I was usually home on the weekends, but very rarely during the week. By the end of this period, I was completely exhausted, and didn't want to see the inside of an airport terminal for a long time. But, on a positive note, I'm now an elite member of more than airline (premier, executive, whatever). This doesn't get much, but at least I have cool, shiny FF cards.

Anyway, I vowed not to fly again for a while, and actually managed not to travel (for work) for several months. This meant missing one conference, but in the end, I think it was actually for the best, and I learned what my travel limits are. And what my husband's limits on my travel are.

Now fall is approaching, and I'm looking straight down a long list of tightly packed travel itineraries. It is not nearly as complex as last fall, but it still isn't enthralling. In early summer, I thought it would be best to try to squeeze all of my travel into the fall, since I'm teaching in the spring (I have a teaching reprieve fall semester). I was given several invited talks for fall conferences, which I accepted, so I am traveling at least once a month, if not more often. At least, I'm never attending more than one conference in one week. That happened last year.

Not to give the wrong impression, I do love going to conferences, giving and hearing talks, and interacting with my peers. However, traveling is very disruptive to both my personal and my professional life, and neither is very sympathetic.

Maybe next year, when I'm teaching both semesters, I'll try to spread out my travel more evenly. However, for this year, I've pretty much decided that I'm not going to attend any more events.

Unless I can get to them in under 2 hours...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


I wrote earlier this week about the proposal. As one professor told me, the proposal is the most important part of your application packet (tied with you recommendation letters - but you have very little control over what other people say about you at this point so don't worry about what you can't control). That is, until your get the interview. Then the interview becomes the most important part. So, today I'm going to write about the interviewing process.

There are lots of posts about interviewing - but most talk about it from the interviewer's perspective. This is an important perspective, but there are several points which get overlooked.

Just to be clear, I'm discussing interviewing for faculty positions at the assistant professor level.

These interviews (at least from my experience) lasted anywhere from 1 day (morning to night) to 4 days. Consisted of 1 formal seminar talk to 2 talks and one informal discussion. I heard of schools also requesting a class to be taught - but I was never asked to. The interview typically starts with breakfast and ends with dinner, each day. So keeping this in mind:

1) Never have more than one interview in a week. They are exhausting. You are being interviewed from 7am (breakfast) until 9pm (end of dinner) each day. Usually for multiple days - most were 2.5 days. Trying to squeeze in two interviews in one week was just a bad idea, especially when flying gets involved - even if one is 2 days and one is 1 day.

2) Buy 2 suits. You are being interviewed. It doesn't matter if everyone else in the department is wearing jeans. You should be in a suit.

3) Treat everyone equally - secretaries, professors, head of departments. At the end of the day, everyone will be asked their opinion of you. The department is hiring a colleague and they want someone who everyone (including staff) will get along with.

4) Ask for a schedule before you arrive and look over the different research areas. The worst thing you can do is walk into a meeting with a professor and say "so, what do you do". At the very least, know the general area of research of everyone you are scheduled to meet with.

5) Don't over-indulge at dinner. One glass of wine/beer is fine. One bottle is not. And being hungover the next day is not good either.

6) Make sure your hotel room is not next to the elevator/ice machine/etc.

7) Ask to meet with assistant professors as well as tenured professors. The tenured professors can give a broad scope of the department and the direction it is heading whereas the assistant professors can let you know about what type of support system is in place for asst. professors. Both are important.

There are a lot of other pointers too, but these are the main ones.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fostering Productivity

Everyone is always talking about research productivity as measured by some meaningless parameter (# of papers or citation index or whatever). And people love doing comparisons: productivity of men vs. women. Married vs. single. Children vs. no children. And this often comes up in discussions of expected performance as an assistant professor level - where productivity is especially important. But really, how important is important.

I have known (not been friends with, but known) Asst. Profs who essentially took role call 6 days a week. at 7am. Then a natural disaster of sorts hit the lab, and no research could be accomplished for 6 months. The lab had to be re-built and equipment had to be re-ordered. The building still existed (to be clear: this was not New Orleans).

The graduate students all got to take a vacation. The PI got to see his kids. And, at the end 6 months (when the lab was re-built), new science was still there.

I view this as a sign or maybe a lesson. All of science and engineering isn't going to be solved in a day or a year or a decade - but time flies. In the famous words of Ferris: life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around, you might miss it.

Productivity is really in the eyes of the beholder. And science can't be forced. I could make my students show up to work at 7am. But they may have nothing to do at the lab - maybe they are in the middle of some process that doesn't require them to actually be at the lab. My behavior would just create resentment, which doesn't exactly foster the type of creative atmosphere necessary for innovative science.

But I'm new at this. My peers keep telling me that in a couple years I'll come around. I really hope not.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Faculty Proposals

Last year around this time my time was pretty much fully occupied with writing my proposals for faculty positions. So, since the next generation (if I can presume to claim a generation gap) of prospective faculty applicants is currently engaging in the same activity I thought I would share some advice (for better or worse).

Each field is different - engineering vs. biology vs. chemistry vs. etc. So, a proposal that is great in one field is not great for another. Chemistry proposals will be long (5+ pages) whereas engineering proposals will be short (2-3 pages). Therefore, if you have a friend read your proposal (and definitely do this), make sure they keep this in mind.

Don't send the same application to every position. Make sure you point out why that school should hire you, and name the school in the application. Yes, this will take more time, but it will "speak" to the committee. Point out things like (and I'm just hypothesizing here) how the school's new microscopy facility will enable your research or the fact that the school has an interdisciplinary center will attract students interested in your research topic.

Similarly, don't send the same teaching statement. It is important to explain how your teaching interests align with the school's interests and every school is unique. Read over the school's/dept's curriculum. See if there is a place that you could contribute a new course or if there is an existing course you are particularly excited about or if they do something (senior thesis, specialty minors) that you really like and comment on it. Again, this requires more time, but it shows the committee that you are applying to their school.

Find out who the chair of the committee is and address your cover letter to her/him and the search committee. This information may or may not be posted in the listing. But, call the department secretary. If she/he is hesitant to give out the information (job applicants can often be seen as pests), simply explain why you want the information and state that you will not call or in any way directly contact the professor. They will most likely give you the professor's name. This will personalize your application.

In your actual write-up (proposal of your research), assume that the committee has a very, very broad background. There will most likely be theorists and experimentalists on the committee. Sometimes, there is also an out of department person. Make sure to put the research in context. Include pictures.

Apply to a lot of schools. And make sure to attend a lot of conferences and department seminars this year. If you see someone at a conference who is a professor at a school you applied to, introduce yourself, your research, and mention you applied to the open position - even if it isn't in their department. Practice this introduction - it should be 3 minutes or less (called an elevator speech) and contain all of the important information about you concisely.

As far as departments go, don't limit yourself to your department. Apply to positions where your research fits, not where you got your PhD. Departments usually are looking to hire in a given area. This is very true for engineering. Chem/Phys/Bio departments primarily hire people with Chem/Phys/Bio PhD's.

Follow up on reference letters - specifically, make sure that the schools received them. Professors forget to send them, they get lost in the mail, they get lost at the school, etc. Don't let your application not get reviewed because it was lacking a reference letter.

Finally, save a copy of each application packet. When you get an interview, it will be handy to be able to go back and review what you sent them.

I'll continue this train of thought later this week - with either more information on proposals or information on interviewing.

Friday, July 25, 2008


When I took this position, I was concerned about how I would be viewed in the eyes of my peers. Would they ask for my opinion on things, would they ask me to be on committees, etc?

Apparently, that is not a problem. I'm not sure if it is the whole "we need a female on this committee and you are the only one" issue or if they actually want my opinion, but I have barely stepped foot in the department (let alone on campus as a whole), and I've been asked to be on far too many committees. Even non-department committees - like faculty board committees - where they have a much larger pool of female profs to pull from.

I'm not sure if my fellow faculty members quite realize what they are getting into. I'm not exactly the demure female that my stature would imply.

To point: I gave a talk last winter, and a member of the audience actually came up to me afterwards and said something like "I saw you take the podium and I almost left the room because I assumed that your talk was going to be inaudible and monotone. (Here he mumbled something about how this was because I was small and female and requested to be miked.) However, you genuinely surprised me with the enthusiasm you projected about your research. I really enjoyed your talk."

At the time, I wasn't sure how to take this - it was both an insult and a compliment. But, at least, in the end I changed his opinion about me, and maybe next time he won't be so fast to judge (not likely, but maybe). And I always request to be miked in large rooms (200+ people). It is just safer and that way I don't need to worry if my voice is reaching the back of the room. To be judged because I care that my audience can hear me seems a little bizarre. But whatever.

In any case, getting back to the point, I think I'm going to have to start turning down committees pretty soon. I'm not sure what the tenure service requirement is, but I'm pretty sure I've hit it. I heard that a 40/40/20 balance was suggested (or something similar) where it was research/teaching/service. I thought this was interesting as it puts teaching and research equal with each other. I heard another story where it was 50/40/10, which I might believe more. Another version was 50/35/15.

I think the more important thing about these ratios is that the teaching/service portion was never less than 50% of the total sum. As has been brought up many times, teaching is becoming more important. Not that research isn't important, but teaching is also important. Which then begs the question - what about service? Where does that factor in? And how is one to balance all of these? Time isn't limitless. (And I'm not even going to get into how one is supposed to fit in a family while achieving these metrics).

I would like to spend more time on service - not committees. But things like outreach: going to middle schools and high schools. There was a report in Science about how even though ~48% math majors are women, only ~10% of engineering majors are women. I'm in that category, and I really think my time could be better spent on outreach than on a committee deciding if the undergraduate curriculum should include 2 semesters of PE or 3.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


When I was in high school (and even in college), it was also easy to identify who was studious (I chose this word carefully) and who wasn't by simply looking at their hands. Studious people usually had the tell-tale callus on one of their fingers whereas non-studious people had normal (if model-worthy) hands.

Recently, I noticed that my lack of pencil/pen use had resulted in my callus all but disappearing. This didn't really bother me. However, in its place, I now am developing a pair of mini-calluses on my thumbs - from my laptop trackpad. I'm not sure which is worse.

And apparently (though I didn't realize it), I must sit at a slight angle in front of my computer as well, because my left elbow hurts while my right arm is completely fine. Not my wrist or my hand, my elbow. I know - weird (but painful).

In any case, I'm hoping to finish this proposal I'm working on tomorrow, and then I'll take a break from typing. It really seems like that is all I do.

Maybe I'll optimize my new desk chair. It is "fully adjustable". It even came with a manual.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


I'm currently working on pulling together a group website, so I've begun to pay closer attention to what other professors put on theirs - and if they even have one. And I've noticed a few things:

1) Many professors don't have one.
2) If they do have one, it was last updated in 1983 (or whenever they got tenure).
3) The picture of them was taken in 1983.
4) The links don't work.

I view my group webpage as my link to the outside world - almost like a public relations department. I have complete control over it - unlike my posting on my department's webpage which takes an eternity to get updated - so I don't understand why more professors aren't taking advantage of this outlet.

And, besides all of this, it is very annoying. I'm (obviously) a new professor at my university and I'm trying to figure out what many of my colleagues are doing. The description on the department website is typically something along the lines of "technology" or "energy". Great. Is that theory or experiment? What size group do they have? Are they even still active? It would be really helpful if these professors had even a simple website listing their current (note, I said current) students/post-docs and their current research interests.

But maybe that is just my pipe-dream. After all, clearly people don't go into academia to be social or collaborative...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I previously alluded to the "poor" relationship that I had with my thesis adviser. Just so no one worries (not that any one would), I had wonderful experiences in my undergrad and in my post-doc labs. But back to my thesis adviser.

Adviser I
I chose graduate school because I wanted to work with a specific professor. There were other professors at this school whose work I was interested in, but I was really enthusiastic about this one professor's. Within about 1 month of my start, he told me he was leaving. It wasn't a tenure related issue. It was a two body problem. He was in one state, and his wife was in another. They were both academics. He offered to take me with him. That wasn't exactly appealing - he was both changing departments (which is fine for him, but I don't think I would have passed the coursework or the qualifying/candidacy exams) and the school wasn't as prestigious. So I declined. He was a truly great person, and continued to pay me until I found another adviser - which I did.

Adviser II
As I said, there were other professors at this school whose work I found interesting. Luckily my second choice was accepting students, and he accepted me. {Note the trend: both of these professors were men. In fact, all of the professors in my department were men.} So, I happily started a new research project fully confident that I would be successful. His most recent graduates were successfully employed in a variety of fields and he was very prominent. Then, three months in, his prominence became an issue - he was being recruited by another university. Lets call it "Very famous and very rich private school". The very rich part is very important. After about 9 months of waffling back and forth (and trying to get my graduate school to meet the very rich school's offer), he decided to go to the very rich school. While this school was equal to my current school in every way, I was done with my first year of grad school by this point. However, I didn't have my masters yet - I needed 1 more course. If I transferred, they weren't going to accept my coursework, so I was looking at re-taking everything. Not exactly appealing. So, I decided to stay. And change groups again.

Adviser III
Yes, my third adviser. This adviser was just starting down the tenure track path. While I guess I should judge, since I'm now in the same position, nothing seemed to be working out. I'm not referring to research - research ebbs and flows. I realize this. I'm referring to his general ability as a leader of the group, creating a cohesive research goal for the group and handling the stress that comes with the territory of being an Asst Prof. And he didn't really seem to want to ask for help. I (and many of my fellow lab-mates) realized the situation wasn't good, and left. Rather unfortunate really. It could have been a very good learning situation.

Starting year II.

Adviser IV
Now I was stuck searching for my fourth adviser. At this point, I was also considering changing schools - no, I hadn't yet made it to the point of considering leaving graduate school, but I was considering leaving the particular school I was at. I emailed the last three professors whose research I was interested in. I could easily rank them in my head. I met with all three. My first choice didn't have any funding at that time, having taken 3 students from my class already. My second choice also was out of funding, having just changed from another university, and being in between grants. That left my third choice. After pondering me for a few months, he took me. On condition. That should have been a warning sign, but I was very desperate.

However, within the year, I had one first author publication, passed candidacy (note: I was the first in my class to take it) and the "on-condition" went away. The project I was interested in working on for my thesis was different than most of the other work in his lab, so I worked with him to submit grants (4) - one got funded (1 million over 4 years), so I was flush with funding and well on my way. Yet, even though my project was by far the best funded in the group, I never seemed to be able to purchase anything. Then (after two years) I realized that the funding for my project was being spent on other projects that he actually cared about.

After a few years (4), I was ready to defend my thesis. I had a fair number of publications, and I had written up my thesis. It was February. I asked when he was available - July. So, now whenever anyone asks, it looks like it took 6 years for me to get a PhD (this is long), because my adviser couldn't be bothered to show up for my PhD defense for 6 months.

And, yes, he did read my thesis - at least, the acknowledgments section. His comment: I didn't thank him profusely enough and I needed to change it.

I could tell more stories - like how every piece of data I took had to be reproduced by someone else in the lab before he would believe it or how he gave credit for my work to my male colleagues - but I'll tell those stories some other time. I really just wanted to give some background information this time. I guess I didn't really explain that much about him, but without the background info, you might think I was crazy for not leaving.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Course Development

I recently received my teaching assignment. As this is my first year, my teaching load is reduced, so I only have to teach one class. My class happens to fall during the spring, so that gives me a little time to prepare which is nice. However, since I've never taught before I've started preparing now. To make this a slightly more complex situation, the class I've been assigned to isn't one of the classic freshman classes where there are a thousand books to choose from. In fact, I'm teaching an undergrad-level class that is new - as in, the course is relatively new to the school, and the topic is still active research.

While this does make the class more enjoyable to teach - it is a field I'm interested in - it also makes it more complex. How do you find a textbook? I found many books on the subject, but no textbooks. The difference is that books do not have questions at the end of the chapters. I found one book that does have questions at the end, but it would be a stretch to call them homework worthy. It is even a stretch to call that book a textbook.

So now I've pretty much relegated myself to the fact that I'm going to have to write the homework questions from scratch. I had hoped to do a mixture, at least the first year - 50% text questions/50% mine. However, it looks like this isn't going to happen.

In any case, I have a feeling I'm going to end up using one of the books (I'm not too fond of) as a guide and complement it with numerous review articles. Hopefully, once I get all of this put together, homework questions will just materialize. In any case, I think I need to first figure out what I'm going to teach before I can start working on what I'm going to ask.

Now if I can only figure out how to use this work in my NSF grant application somehow...

Friday, July 18, 2008


The FSP today discussed the concept of academic insults, specifically "I've never heard of you". While, other academics have said this me, more commonly, people have said "I've never heard of him" (in reference to my thesis advisor). This is usually followed up by "Is he an assistant professor or new to this university?"

[Note: my advisor is a full, tenured professor with a named chair. For the last few years, he was the chair of the department as well. In other words, short of being the Dean of the Division or Provost or President or something, he is pretty much as high up as you get - ie not new or assistant.]

Therefore, I'm not sure what category this comment falls into. Is it an insult to me - after all, I did choose to be in his group? Is it an insult to him - his research isn't important enough for people to have heard of him?

[Second note: he has a very unusual last name. And many of these people/professors asking this were within my graduate university.]

Therefore, could it be a sign of the "asker's" ignorance? After all, they are unfamiliar with their colleagues (at the same institution)?

As he is a hermit (yes, an unusual quality for a department chair), it could be a little of everything. But as I did some of the research, I would prefer to think it isn't a sign of the quality of his research.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Graveyard Clean-rooms

Central user facilities are appearing everywhere - and they are a great way to make sure that everyone in a given community has access to the same equipment, not just the Nobel Laureates who bring the multi-million dollar grants. But, at the same time, there is limited space in these facilities.

This may not be a big of a problem in the life sciences (but here I'm rather out of my league, as I'm not in the life sciences, so please feel free to correct me), but in engineering where most of the equipment is put in clean-rooms, space is fought over. This brings me to my next point. Whose equipment is most important and who gets to decide?

Is it the assistant professor's new X, which is critical to their success, but no one else really cares about it/uses it or is it the tenured professor's Y, which is occasionally used, but 8 yrs ago produced a Nature and/or Science paper. Or, is it the department chair's Z, which is currently broken and just taking up space, but it cost a trillion dollars (not literally) when it was initially purchased, so no one wants to be the one to trow it away.

In the perfect world, there would be space for everything, and a choice wouldn't have to be made. But progress happens, and new equipment needs to be purchased in order to stay at the cutting edge. But to buy new equipment, it is necessary to show the granting agency gods that you have a place to put it - and right now, that place doesn't exist because of the graveyard that is the clean-room.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Chair Hierarchy

When I was in high school, there was definitely a clearly defined hierarchy - and I was at the bottom of it. Not that I'm bitter about my social ranking. I really had no desire to be Class President or Pep Club President. I'm more stating this as a fact.

The same trend pretty much followed in college - I hung out with the classmates in my major. As I was not really in one of the party-friendly majors, very little partying happened there. And the pattern replicated in graduate school and in my post-doc. So, from the outside, I was still at the bottom of the social pile - and I was really quite happy there.

However, within this ranking, there was a social hierarchy. "Smarter" students, as determined by test scores or research success, were treated better. Luckily, I happened to be one of the smarter students. Or maybe I just worked really, really hard. I knew some students who got better grades than me who didn't work as hard. I worked hard. Really, really hard.

Now, I'm an assistant professor - officially at the bottom of the faculty rankings. And, as I look around, I realize that even among Asst. Profs., we are treated differently. We even treat each other differently.

Even students treat us differently - many don't really understand the whole faculty system, which is really a problem - but the whole age thing throws them. Once student even asked me if I was "real" professor - he though "Assistant" implied I was an "Assistant" to a Professor... But that is a whole different problem.

Anyway, the whole point was that I have had many discussions over the past few months with several different Dept chairs - my dept and others - and they all have very different opinions (polar opposite in some cases) on how I should be approaching my first year. In fact, at this point, the "score", if you can call it that, is pretty much 3:1, other chairs to my chair, in favor of my pursuing a series of options (which I want to pursue).

So, do I pursue these things or listen to my chair and not do them. Other chairs say I should - but my chair (who is my boss) says I shouldn't. In the end, I probably won't. After all, I'm only an assistant professor. I shouldn't rock the boat too much.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Granting Innovation

I have been writing many, many grants recently. Part of the reason I have been so prolific is that the average chance of getting a grant funded is around 25% (I realize this varies by the granting agency - but, this value can be as low at 10%) - and part of the reason is that I have no funding other than my start-up funding. Therefore, I really need funding.

Also, these % values are for all ranks of faculty. The values decrease for assistant professors. Yes, there are special grants (young investigator awards) for assistant professors. But these aren't much better, in terms of probabilities.

So, basically, for every project I am truly excited about, it is only prudent to file about 5 grants for each project. But, then this creates a problem: there are currently 4 projects I want to work on. Since most granting agencies "discourage" filing more than one grant to a single program announcement (even if the grants are on completely different topics), I now have to find 20 program announcements that are relevant.

And to increase the complexity further still, it is best if the filings are spread over as many granting agencies as possible - which means navigating the subtle - often imperceptible - differences in formatting requirements.

To complicate matters further still, apparently the granting agencies move at a snail's pace in making decisions, so I most likely won't hear back from anyone until spring at the earliest. I'm not naive; I fully don't expect to get funded on the first try. So, the earliest I can re-file will be spring. Meaning - I can't expect funding until next December. Not December 2008. December 2009. And this is for a grant that I initially filed in June 2008. If I'm lucky. Because I can't dual file.

How is research supposed to be innovative when it is always starting at least 1.5 yrs after its conception date?

(I'm only using the term "innovative" because apparently that is a word that DC really likes right now. That and nano-science.)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reference Letters

I have started receiving requests for reference letters. Not people requesting reference letters about me - which was the norm all last year when I was applying for jobs - but people requesting reference letters from me. I now have a new appreciation for how difficult it is to write one of these.

Maybe it is because I have never written one or because I haven't read that many, but I'm rather unsure about what to put in it. It would really be a lot easier to just have a conversation. I know that this is also rather common - several of my referrers said that some of the search committees called them to discuss me. But, for the present requests, I doubt that will happen. So, for the mean time, I'm left with the letter.

I guess my main concern revolves around that fact that I actually do want these people to succeed - not that I would ever not want someone to succeed - but I do truly feel that these particular students do embody the characteristics necessary to succeed at what they are applying for. And, I am concerned that my letter won't carry the weight of some of my peer's (as I'm an Assistant Professor) or won't be as convincing (because I won't use the appropriate language).

But, for right now, I had better get started because one of them is due by the end of today.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bureaucratic Loops

I'm currently in the process of nominating a student for a fellowship. This is a newly created fellowship, and the announcement was recently posted and circulated. Shortly after the fellowship was announced, I emailed my dept chair and asked if I could nominate someone for the fellowship - after all, I am still living on the dept's money, and I wasn't sure if there was going to be a limit of some kind. He said it was fine, so I proceeded to tell the student.

The nomination packet consists of the normal items (letters, CV, transcript) and a proposal. this particular fellowship is targeted to a specific research area. So, I decided that it would be good experience if my student wrote the proposal. He agreed and he did a great job.

Today, I received an email from the XXX Dean of XXX (she also emailed several other profs including my dept chair) saying that the fellowship was for first year students. In the original announcement, it very clearly said that the fellowship was open to current students. So, I decided I would just call and clarify before I wrote my letter of support.

I called, we had a very nice chat, she clarified where the confusion had happened (apparently the press release was wrong, and the fellowship was, indeed, for 1st yr students). End of conversation - or so I thought. 10 minutes later I get an email from my chair asking me to call him.

Apparently, I should not have called the XXX Dean of XXX directly. I should have called him, explained my confusion, and then let him make the judgement call on what to do. No, actually, I should have called my assigned mentor, asked him to call my chair who would then make the decision on .....

Um, a decision needed to be made today, as the application is due in 4 days. Was there really time to bring 4 people into the loop on this? And, I would have thought that creating an endless email chain would have been more annoying? But apparently, that is the route I will be taking from now on.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Personality Profiles

I have worked with many different personalities over the years. Keep in mind, I can only comment on my short career - so "over the years" is really 10 years, but I still think I can comment on a fair number of personalities from a wide range of countries.

I have never had a conflict with anyone - at least not a conflict that has interfered with research. I acknowledge that you can't be friends with everyone, but I have been able to have working relationships with everyone - do the getting coffee thing, helping with research project questions, etc. In fact, I published papers with almost everyone in my PhD group. (The one exception was a person who was working on a completely unrelated project). I'm only going into to all of this detail to try to set the stage for what is currently going on.

About three years ago, I started collaborating with a fellow professor on a project. It is going great - and has produced many papers. The project's data is taken in my lab. He recently (8 months ago) got a grad student who he has put on the project. I worked with her to bring her up to speed, and she was making pretty good progress. For the first three months, she and I got along decently. At this point I was starting to interview for faculty jobs. Then "something happened". I still don't know what. I have tried to find out. The other professor has tried to find out. The result of "what happened":

- She doesn't talk to me. - I can say hi, and she will refuse to respond.
- If I enter a room that she is in, she leaves.
- She doesn't return my emails.
- Meetings called with other professors and myself - she won't attend.

The end result of this behavior - I'm getting extremely annoyed, but I don't really have any recourse. I've never really been confronted with behavior of this magnitude and since I don't know what happened to instigate it, I don't really know what to do to correct it.

And since I'm going to be working with more people, I'm now slightly paranoid that what ever happened, could happen again (since I don't know what it was), and this whole cycle could just repeat.

This whole experience is just very exhausting. Maybe I should just take a psychology class.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Oreos and Pringles

I have noticed lately that I don’t really have time to eat, and when I do, it ends up being at 3 in the afternoon. At this point, there isn’t really anything left in the cafeteria. After eating Pringles and Oreos for lunch several days in a row, today I expanded my options to include granola – which is also sold in the cafeteria/coffee store on campus.

It was surprisingly good. I realize that I can’t live on granola for the next 30 or so years, but at least I have found one thing that is edible and won’t result in my cholesterol hitting 300 by the time I hit 35.

Now, if my coffee maker would just arrive, so I could stop drinking the burnt coffee that the cafeteria forces on me.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Suits vs. Non-suits

As I look around my department, I realize that there are two types of professors: 1) the ones that wear suits every day to work and 2) the ones that wear don’t. The suit-wearing variety tends to be the tenured professors that no longer need to go into the lab, and spend their day behind desks or in meetings. Whereas the non-suit wearing professors (ie khakis/jeans and polo/button down shirt/occasional T-shirt) tend to be the assistant/associate professors who still go into the lab.

I wonder what the suits think of the non-suits. Do they think that we (I fall into the non-suit category) are slackers for not dressing up for work? Will is effect our (my) professional development and growth? Or is it only a problem if I don’t wear suits on really important occasions, like when I’m attending conferences or other important school events?

My Mom, who is in a completely different category of professor, is at another school, and has never stepped foot into a lab in her life, falls into the suit wearing category. She definitely considers me a slacker – and has said as much on many different occasions. Maybe I’m letting her opinion cloud my judgment. After all, there are other non-suits. But then, if everyone else jumped off a bridge, would I?

And this question is of course complicated by the fact that I’m trying to compare my clothing choice to a bunch a men – there aren’t any other female professors around in my department. So, then the question becomes, what standard do I use: the standard of the male assistant professor or the standard of the female professor (in another department)?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Construction Delays

During my life I have witnessed three home construction projects – two on my parent’s house and one on my in-law’s house. All projects took far longer than they should have, even factoring in the “construction projects take a long time” factor.

I’m bringing this up now because my labs are currently being built and they, like the three other construction projects I have witnessed, are also taking an exorbitantly long time. (At least from my perspective.)

The initial meeting to design my labs happened the first week in April. Then drawings were made. It took almost one month to get the drawings finalized. Then the project went out to bid. That took three weeks. Note: we are now at the third week in May. Things stalled. The financing for the project had to get approval from the finance office (why was this not put in place while the project was going out to bid?). And that got held up because of the Memorial Day holiday and because the finance office wanted a lot of detail.

So, now it is the second week in June and construction has yet to begin. We have a meeting with the contractor to go over the plans. Um, how did he bid on the plans if he didn’t understand them? And I thought that was why he had three weeks in May – to fully understand the plans. But moving forward, now he has to order the paint, tiles, etc. and those parts won’t arrive until mid-July.

All of this put together means that construction on my lab can start in mid-July, and it slated to be done by mid/end of August (my labs aren’t that complex). Minor things, like patching the walls, have started, but it took 1 day. I talked with a couple other professors about this “timeline”, and they are impressed at how fast it is getting done. I know that labs at other schools have year time frames, not month time frames. But I really don’t see why that should necessarily make me happy. This isn’t complicated. It is 800sqft of lab space with minimal changes. No plumbing. No electrical. Just some cabinetry, flooring and paint. It is just really frustrating that something so simple is delaying my being able to start.

Though maybe part of my frustration is stemming from the fact that I already have three students, but I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Running low on time

I went to the gym today at my university and while I was running on a treadmill, I looked around. Keep in mind I was in the “cardio” section, so all of my observing is slightly biased.

There was the normal assortment of undergrads (male and female of course). There were also a few grad students and a few post-docs (or what I’m guessing/hoping were post-docs). These were female. There were also a couple other younger professors – also female. And there were a few older professors there with their spouses – these were male, but it looked like they were there more by force than by choice.

I’m only detailing this list to make one point – it is more important to stay in shape as a female than as male (there have been studies on this published in multiple places – NY Times, Science, etc). And yet it is also harder to prove yourself in science as a female than as a male. So this makes it doubly difficult. As a female in science, you both have to look perfect and be scientifically flawless, whereas the rules are a little more flexible for males.

Maybe I’m only seeing this side of the coin because I’m on it, but it would be really nice to be able to have a “pot-belly” and be considered “dignified” instead of “potentially pregnant” or “lazy”. Not that I want to “let myself go”, but I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to continue to be able to wake up at 5am to run, so I can commute 1hr to work and get there by 8am, put in a 12hr day (like my male colleagues), get home by 9pm and go to bed. It just doesn’t leave much time for anything else. Not that cutting out the run would help much – but it would free up 1hr a day I could spend with my husband.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Battered advisors

Since I didn’t have the best advisor relationship, I have recently been reading a lot of books on being a good advisor, trying to glean any kind of advice I can. This has led me to start thinking that the advisor-advisee relationship is a lot like a parenting relationship. Which takes me to my next point – do battered advisees become abusive advisors?

There is a lot of evidence in the parenting world that this is case, but no one has every studied it in the advisor-advisee world (maybe someone should). But I’m particularly concerned because I don’t want to be an abusive advisor. I doubt any professor sets out in life wanting to be an abusive advisor, but after spending the last 5 yrs of my life hating myself, I don’t want to inflict that particular kind of torture on future generations of students, knowingly.

So, where are the advice books on reversing trends in advisor-advisee relationships – how not to be the person who taught you?

Friday, July 4, 2008

Catch 22

I’ve begun applying for grants. Actually, I began sporatically a few months ago, but I really began on a regular basis recently. I haven’t heard back on any yet – but that will be the subject of a different post. Really my topic this time is about how writing grants relates to recruiting grad students.

From what I can tell, the time from grant submission to receiving grant funds is about 12 months. This obviously varies depending on the agency, but for the sake of this post, let’s use this number – and assume that the grant being written actually gets funded the first time. Both of these are assumptions, the former being closer the truth than the latter.

As most grants have a life expectancy around 4yrs, this gives me two options: 1) split the research being performed between two grad students (use the money to fund the last couple years of one grad student and the first couple years of another) or 2) write the grant before I’ve even met the grad student who will perform the research. To be honest, I’m not too happy with either option. Ideally, I would like each grant to have enough research in it that it would form the perfect thesis – a single topic, perhaps with a few side studies.

Splitting a single grant between two students is disruptive to both students – one student has to stop a project that is just beginning to get interesting while the other is picking up a project mid-story. That student doesn’t have nearly the vested interest in it.

On the other hand, writing the grant before the student arrives so that the money and the project is ready and waiting is rather risky as well. What happens if the student doesn’t like the project (though that can happen in the previous scenario as well)? What happens if the money doesn’t come through?

What would be truly ideal would be if the student could have some say in the writing of the grant – ie in their thesis topic. I want them to love their research. But for this to happen, I also have to be able to get funding in those areas in time for them to pursue that research area. With the 1+ yr turnaround, that just doesn’t seem feasible, at least not for their whole PhD, which is frustrating to me, but I’m sure is even more frustrating to them, since they just see me as an even dictator telling them what they have to research…

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Form Letter Professor

After being posted on the department’s webpage, I began receiving applications from students interested in joining my group. And I use the term “students” broadly. At first, this was very flattering. After all, one of my biggest fears was that no one would want to join a highly unknown quantity.

After the 50th or so application in under 10 days, I added a page to my group website with extremely detailed instructions on how to go about joining my group, and a statement saying that all positions for the 2008-2009 academic year were filled (at this point, it was May). The first statement in the instructions was something to the effect of “students do not apply directly to my group, they apply to the graduate school. In the graduate school application, put a statement mentioning your interest in my research.”

[I also have sections discussing undergraduate (essentially any time – I really support/encourage undergraduates doing research) and post-doc (not this year) applications. I’m still getting post-doc applications as well. One would think that by the time a graduate student has made it to post-doc status they can read a sentence that says “no openings for 2008-2009 academic year”. But that is a different matter.]

Now, I am not totally clueless. I realize that as a professor I can have some pull over an admission decision. If I really want a student and they are border line, I can push their application over the edge. However, they still have to put their application in the pool to begin with! Who is spreading the rumor that students apply directly to professors? Is this how it works at other schools? It hasn’t worked this way at any school I have attended.

Further still, I’m still getting applications (for this academic year). At first, I was taking the time to write emails back to each student. Now, I have a form letter that I email in response. I really didn’t want to become the form letter-type professor. But, then again, these are also form letter-type students. At least, in almost all cases, they are getting my gender correct (it helps that my picture is posted).

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Like many people, I have never written a blog before – read numerous ones, and even commented on a couple – but never actually written one. But, I realized several months ago that I needed some outlet.

This realization probably came about as a result of several things: 1) the horrendous end to an even more traumatic PhD experience and 2) completing an exhausting faculty search. After being asked for advice by many of my classmates and my friends about how to deal with both of these experiences, I thought that there may be other PhD students and post-docs who might benefit from advice – not that I am an expert in either. So, I am embarking into the blog-o-sphere.

I am starting at one of the faculty positions in the fall. I already have a sense that I am quickly going to be overwhelmed and need a place to vent, and this seems like a good forum, at least for now.

Since this is the first post, it is only appropriate that background information be given here, so: I am starting as an assistant professor at what most would call a (private) tier 1 research institution in an engineering department. As you can probably guess from the title of the blog, I am female. While there are other female professors in the engineering school, there aren’t in my department. This isn’t a new experience – it was the same during my undergrad and my PhD, so at least I’m immunized (for better or for worse). My post-doc lab was the one beacon of hope, but that is another story. However, all of us (the female professors) meet for lunch – I feel like I’m in AA or something – but it is nice to have this support group of professors, if for no other reason than as a mentoring network.