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.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Perspective on Power

So my labs are almost done. This is actually pretty amazing since that the lab space I was given was built in the dark ages - not literally, but the space pretty much had to be gutted and rebuilt from scratch - new floors, new ceilings, etc. They even cleaned out the ductwork in the building while they were at it.

Now that this is done, I have to fill it. This may sound like a fun task, but it really isn't. I started rounding up quotes in April/May - yes, many months ago. I then started submitting purchase requests at the end of June. With many requests, I even submitted secondary forms stating that this vendor was the only vendor in the universe who made this item, and the school shouldn't bother to look elsewhere.

It is now August. Many of my quotes had 90day expirations. I have been contacted by some of the salespeople because they know that their quotes have expired and they want to know if I would like a new (and non-expired one). Um, why wasn't the PO issued a month ago?

I can tell you - Purchasing (in their infinite wisdom) decided that they knew best, and sent the item out for bid to see if I was indeed right. So, instead of my item getting ordered in June/July, it is now August, and the item has yet to be ordered. And my labs are done, and I have items I can put in them, but no single complete system. Therefore, all of the individual items are essentially worthless. Like have screws without the screwdriver.

I experienced this to a lesser degree at my graduate/post-doc institution and to a non-existent degree at my undergrad institution (but then I didn't really order anything over $200 there, so it probably doesn't count).

I can really see this slowing down my research to a huge degree in the future, and causing major problems. I'm not sure how to correct this - or if this is even something that can be "corrected".

I know people often use personal credit cards to fix this (purchase immediately then get reimbursed), but putting several 100k of equipment on my CC isn't really an option - and the school "discourages" purchases over 5k. I can't really being doing anything that the school discourages.

So, right now, I'm just really frustrated. However, this whole thing has given me some perspective. When you are an undergrad/grad student, it seems like the professors have infinite power. Once you become a professor, you realize the people in purchasing and in grants administration have all the power.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Space, the final frontier

No, I'm not referring to the region that contains Mars and Jupiter, though I did finally watch In the shadow of the Moon last night, which is really good, if you haven't seen it. I'm referring to lab space, or lack there of. And the constant battle for it. Older professors always want "more". Younger professors just want "some". And there is never enough to go around.

Then someone retires, and there is suddenly some open space, and everyone turns into squatters. I'm pretty sure if it worked how land rights did in the "Wild West", I would see professors sending grad students into empty labs with sleeping bags. (The professors wouldn't squat themselves).

Similar, but more vicious, battles happen over new lab space in new buildings. And, as that involves a lot of space, those battles are more like world wars between departments.

Right now, in my department, both types of battles are occurring - buildings being built and people retiring. Not this year or next, but a couple years down the road. But the fighting has already started. Which is actually kind of funny, if you have the presence of mind to take a step back. What this really means is that while right now, space is really, really tight, in a couple years, we will all be floating.

But everyone is fighting over everything - meaning, each professor is fighting for each space, so to an outsider, it looks like every professor wants everything. When really they are all just panicking that they won't get anything - which won't happen, the chair is a pretty level headed guy. If everyone just sat down, wrote down a list of what properties they needed in a lab (low vibration vs. fume hoods vs. high voltage vs. etc), this could probably be solved by a computer program, instead of a playground brawl.

But, apparently, the more degrees you get, the less rational you become. Or maybe you just become more greedy. In any case, I know I'll get more space. The chair has said so. Every month or so, I re-iterate my concern, but he seems confident it won't be a problem, which makes sense as the sqftage of the dept is almost doubling. And he makes the final call anyway.