Sunday, June 21, 2009

All three

I was talking with an older professor the other day about I'm concerned for my student's lack of data. Not entirely true - lack of extremely compelling/exciting/novel data. But I'm getting off track.

Anyway, he said that it is very rare to have all three: students, money and data. He said that usually it took two out of the three to get the third, and by the time you were close to getting the third, one of the other two was vanishing (ie, in my case, the student was graduating or the money was running out). He mentioned this was the most common reason that profs ended up keeping students longer than necessary or paid them far to low...

This made me start thinking back over my graduate career - evaluate a couple cases, and I realized he was completely correct.

However, this didn't really make me feel any better about my current situation. Basically, my only option to get data is to hire more students than I have funding for, essentially unbalance the students/money/data ratio.

I'm not very happy about this. It seems very irresponsible.

I'm going to try an experiment - supplement with undergrads. This may work or be an utter and complete failure. Undergrads do distract the graduate students from performing at 100%. But, managed properly, an undergrad can produce quality results. It really depends on the graduate student (and the undergraduate).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

3rd year review

The third year review. Whose crappy idea was this. It seems like a good concept. The asst prof gets feedback in an official sort of way - a mock 6th yr review. Like a practice thesis defense.

Except it really isn't.

I have to prepare my "packet" for my third yr review at the end of my second yr. If I was a theorist or someone who did simulations, maybe this would be okay - maybe I would have a paper in review right now. Maybe my students would have produced something novel worth submitting to a decent journal.

I'm an experimentalist. I work with theorists AFTER I (or my grad students) have data. Which means I (my grad students) have to have a working experiment or at least have preliminary data before we could even consider doing some kind of "quick and dirty" theory thing. This means that I have to have grad students who are completely functional. And experiments take time. Some never work.

I could be one of those asst profs who just shoves the grad students out of the way, takes the data, writes the paper, and leaves the students completely clueless about a paper that has their name as the first author. I refuse to take this tactic.

My students will understand every aspect of their PhD research. However, this takes time. There is a ramp-up period. I understand this. I will not be a bad advisor and inflict permanent mental trauma on my students simply to appease some completely asinine rule.

I spoke with my mentor about this. His response was that he got tenure with no published papers or awarded grants. That would not happen now, so it really was a pointless conversation.

Maybe, someday, this will change to a 4th or 5th year review which would really be better for everyone involved. I mean, I didn't practice my thesis defense or my job talk in my first year of grad school...

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Takes a village

I may have mentioned last summer that despite the fact that I was new, I had been assigned an equally new staff person to handle all of my stuff (grant applications, purchases, etc). At this point, I told my assigned mentor that this was probably not a good idea. The blind leading the blind concept. But it continued. Problems ensued - grants getting bounced because things were done wrong. POs not getting paid. Students (and me) not getting paid. Essentially, chaos.

Obviously, I don't want any of these things to happen. And obviously, the staff person is not just assigned to me - she is assigned to a group of profs. While she has made some of these mistakes with the other professors, they have also caught many of the mistakes in time, and rectified them (grant-related mistakes). I haven't been as lucky.

So, now it is May. This has gone on for almost one year. The other professors are looking for the person's head on a plate. I just want to be re-assigned to a more senior person - which may sound like the same thing, but it really isn't. I don't think the person is malicious, I think they just need more time. Granted, the job isn't that difficult and they do seem rather lazy, but at the same time...

Anyway, the point was just to emphasize that your staff is crucial. Just as your grad students and post docs are crucial, your admins and budget analysts and grants and contracts people are just as important. I'm hoping that this whole situation is going to be rectified soon - the head of HR is now involved, so my chair and assigned mentor (who in reality is really powerless) have pretty much been taken out of the equation.

The other profs have been really good about leaving me out of this. They have focused on their issues, which are more than sufficient to get a new person in, without dragging me into this. They are all full profs, so they don't have anything to lose by making a big stink. I obviously do.

I think one reason why there has been such a delay moving forward, at least in the department, is that she was hired by the chair - not transferred into the dept from another dept. So, if she is proven to be ineffective, it falls on our chair. This would be a sign that he made a mistake. Who wants to admit that?

Friday, May 29, 2009

To post doc or Not to post doc

I have lately been on numerous panels. Work life balance. How to get a faculty position. How to prepare a successful packet. How to succeed in a faculty position.

(BTW: The last is my personal favorite - I've been doing this under 1 yr. What do I know about succeeding. I think I asked the other panel members as many questions as the audience asked. I had an advantage - I was sitting next to them.)

However one panel which I haven't been on officially (because there isn't a panel dedicated to it), but which basically becomes a discussion at every other panel is: should you post doc or not. This is a complex question, which is really dependent on the individual. So, I've compiled a short list. This was compiled this morning during a phone conversation, but it was compiled none the less.

Positives (+)/Negatives (-)
+ you need rec letters b/c: a) you didn't work with enough people during your PhD to get 3 "solid" letters for a faculty application, b) you and your thesis advisor hate each other (happens frequently)
+/- you need more publications: this isn't necessarily a good reason, the bar goes up the longer you work, and it necessarily guaranteed that you will get publications
+ need to expand your network
+ want to change fields: plan to do at least a 3yr post-doc
+ you need more skills: this is a valid reason, but don't screw your post doc advisor over - ie only post doc for 1 yr. You cost your post doc advisor a lot of money. Even if you have a fellowship.
+ you and your significant other need to match up (time line wise)
- everyone else post-docs: not true (except in bio/chem/physics/math)
- can't decide between industry and academia: post-doc'ing isn't really going to help in that decision

So, in the end, I don't really have any advice - unless it has to do with rec letters or research field.

But, just the same, everyone keeps asking me for my advice. No one asked me last year. It isn't as though the day I became a prof I was handed the magic book that had all of the secrets to the prof universe.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Yep - I have been totally MIA for the past several months.

I taught my first course - which was total chaos - but really enjoyed it. I haven't gotten my evaluations back yet, so here's hoping. I may not enjoy it so much in a couple months when they roll in.

Other than that not too much to report - I've gotten a couple grants, which has been...

Yes, all of the above. Even scary. No one mentions that once you get a grant, you actually have to do the work. This implies hiring more grad students/post docs. Which implies growing your research group. Everyone focuses so much on the difficulty of getting grants, no one warns you what happens post-grant getting.

As such, my group is growing way faster than I had planned. I'm almost in double digits. Counting undergrads, I'm well in the double digits. I have to appear calm and confident to everyone, all of the time. Simultaneously, my mood is alternating between " oh shit, oh shit, oh shit" and "I'm so awesome". The swings are much, much worse than anything I have ever experienced. A some point it will all blur together into some nice balance of "I'm the shit", but that hasn't happened yet.

Anyway, everyone, good luck.