Thursday, January 31, 2008

Don't Want to Know

Last Friday I received the FCQ (faculty course questionnaire) results for my Fall TA. I found them in my department mailbox just as I was heading home at the end of the day. I immediately decided that I didn't want or need the stress of finding out what my students really thought about me; it would be quite the crimp on my weekend plans. Granted these plans were just writing and reading assorted papers, but the mood needed to be positive.

I did take the summary sheets with me. I have no fear of numbers, just of whatever comments might have been written in that little white space devoted to letting students air their true thoughts. I have no illusions about this. There will be nothing as entertaining as that list of comments from MIT that circulated the web so many years ago, and I doubt that there will be all that much positive. I fall prey to traditional psychology anyway; a few negative comments would have more of a negative impact on my mood than the same number of positive comments.

The numbers revealed precisely what I expected. On a scale of 1 to 6, I got 4's on just about everything (the exception being Respect for Students. I maxed out respectfulness). This is below the average for my Department, Division, and Campus, but I consider this a success. There was no comparison group for a first-time TA who was given two lab sections for an upper-division course with no instruction or guidance beyond "teach them how to do research". I made a lesson plan from scratch, I made assignments from scratch, I graded with no more guidance than "don't fail anyone who does the work", and I got reasonable scores on median.

The comments, on the other hand, will reflect all the variation that the median doesn't capture. I received in-person complaints about the about the grading methods (that I shouldn't take off points for grammar because it wasn't an English class) and the work load (more in the lab than the lecture, as if this were not the point of lab classes); I came down hard on a plagiarism problem, which should also come up somewhere.

If I work on anything, it would be my Effectiveness at Encouraging Interest in the Subject Matter. I like the topic, and even with a class full of students who enrolled because they liked the professor I could have made more of an effort at helping my students like it as well.

And then, months from now, when I wind up TA for another class, I might actually look at the comments.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


The thesis has successfully been trimmed to 3,883 words. The palindromic number wasn't intentional, although I would have tried for it if I'd been slightly over. I say "trimmed", but everything except the methods has been changed drastically. New organization, new arguments - the discussion is barely recognizable, which is just as well since I hated writing the discussion of the thesis.

The paper is most certainly better, making me think I might just have a chance of it being accepted. The thesis itself has become even more of an albatross...this long, huge thing that didn't even do a good job of getting the necessary points across. My own bound copy will still be given some pride of place on my bookshelf, but it is the shorter paper I will provide to anyone who wants to know what I did to get that diploma. Because I'd rather they actually read and be impressed by the research than heft and be impressed by a huge tome.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Seeking Clarity

Relationships with the advisor are tricky things. I'm told one professor here is entirely hands-off, so that most "meetings" are brief exchanges whenever advisor and advisee pass in the hallway. One student is fine with this; one changed advisors over it; a third tried it then requested and received a regular meeting scheduled.

The relationship with the advisor is incredibly important, so I didn't dare rock the boat...until it capsized. Individual meetings with a mediator were arranged, a joint meeting is in progress.

There were no job descriptions or contracts provided when I became a graduate student, just a brief list of milestones and the deadlines by which they should be reached. Last semester, confusion and controversy reigned as I tried to figure out why I was doing an RA's work while being paid as a TA (my advisor's other graduate students were doing the same work without the added work of teaching). I don't know for sure what adv wants, other than taking all steps possible to avoid further shipwrecks, but I'm hoping for a job description.

People who are organized and meticulous enough to manage research shouldn't be expected to like or even manage fluid, semi-stable situations. Every future professional relationship is getting some kind of contract.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Authorship Update

A compromise has been reached. Although my advisor prefers to err on the side of inclusion, adv accepted that there isn't enough time in this case (Proceedings submission due next Friday) to get them the prospective additional authors up to speed and give them some input in the submission itself. It's all in the phrasing...inclusion doesn't sound so great once you realize you're telling colleagues "we're putting your name on this, but not giving you the chance to make suggestions or even approve of it".

Should we attempt to get published in an official journal (Proceedings aren't "archival", so rules against double-publishing don't apply), an offer of authorship will be made to those who may feel some shared ownership of the project, with a careful and courteous explanation for why they were omitted from the poster. Which is fine with me; I don't mind sharing authorship, I just feel queasy with the potential of being author on a work you've never seen.

The Grants Go Marching One By One...

A recent publication for academics in my field includes a brief article bemoaning the state of research funding in the US. The recent failure of Congress to pass NIH's budget increase took center stage. I was affected by these problems, in a way; my advisor was part of a joint grant that spent several months in the limbo of "we want to fund it, but can't officially until we know how much money we'll have". This had immediate concerns about whether I would need to TA this semester (I didn't, as the old grant is good 'til end of summer), and potential long-term concerns about whether I would need to TA my way through my PhD. Despite this, I can't help but feel a slight bit of pretension in the article. How much funding are we really entitled to, anyway?

Sure, the article cited the NIH's ongoing battle to cure cancer, ward off Alzheimer's, develop treatment for Parkinson's. And some people are using NIH funds to do just that. But I'm not; more to the point, my advisor isn't, and her grant isn't. Our research is incredibly interesting to us, of course, but probably not to anyone else. There has been an article or two in local newspapers over the past decade, but it's never going to make national news, not even in a "weird science" or "offbeat human interest" column. Looking at the articles in one of the journals I just received, I see a lot of potentially interesting but hardly life-altering articles. The same publication included tips for journal editors on how to select articles for publication that would "advance the field", but no-one seems to be doing it.

So, do we merit an extra so-many million dollars of funding? To be honest...not really.
I can accept billions of dollars being spent funding matters of purely academic interest only in the same way I can accept billions of dollars being spent making movies: it's necessary to keep everyone employed and keep the economy limping along.

Even within my own field, there are people doing research of practical importance that might change the way we live. There I can see the argument that shifting the budget to war and defense expenses is a tragedy, if not a crime. When it comes down to hearing the complaints of people who couldn't state the importance of their research beyond resolving a long-standing debate in the field, however, I'd rather see the money not spent at all.

This is why I probably won't go into research academia as a profession. I don't want to apply for grants, partly because I'm intimidated/lazy, but mostly because I don't have that semi-egotistical notion of deserving funding that is so necessary to convince anyone to give you funding. Deep down, I don't want to be so directly responsible for taking money away from research that might actually turn out something useful, or even such a non-event as trying to pay off the national debt.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Three-way debates on whether to proceed with an analysis (can it tell us anything? would it be extra work for little gain?), a bug in the script (not mine, though I caught it), and three attempts at analyses (give us graphs, what if we include these trials, what about this interaction...) can all be made worthwhile with a single, one-word reply from my advisor:


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Authorship where Authorship is Due?

In a community known for the moniker of "publish or perish", it should come as no surprise that debate about authorship and credit are rampant. Information about authorship policies was volunteered as enticement in grad school interviews. Authorship order has been debated in the hallways of my department (or at least in one doorway), and interpretations of authorship have been discussed in everything from comics to scientific studies. Articles now come with a variety of disclaimers about what contributions each person made (whose idea was it, who collected/analyzed data, who wrote), or that authorship was determined alphabetically.

I had never felt the need to involve myself in these debates: my advisor lets students first-author their own research as a matter of course, and I'm not so committed to academic life that I particularly worry about "perishing". Still, I was intrigued
by the results of the scientific study mentioned above, which have recently become even more relevant for my academic life.

According to that scientific study, the first author of three would be perceived to have been involved in 37% of the initial conception, 57% of the work performed, and 33% of the supervision. The last author - by convention in psychology, the "head honcho" - gets 20% of the work performed, but 49% of the initial conception and 54% of the supervision. The middle author gets the leftovers - considered to have contributed a meaningful but relatively small portion of the work.

At the time I came across that study, I was writing up a single paper as first author of three. I found the results to be acceptably reflective of the work each of us had put into this paper, certainly far more accurate than the comic (although of course you're hearing from a biased perspective). I was only tangentially involved in the inception ("hey, we can use those tasks in my thesis work, and then if nothing else we can have a replication to talk about..."), did all the data collection, and performed all the data analyses (with a great deal of electronic hand-holding from the second author). The head honcho, far from not having read the paper, holds most of the responsibility for its current organization, and several of the analyses.

Now, I keep mentally returning to that study because there may be a dispute of authorship on a related writeup, the attempt to get my master's thesis published. From this broader perspective the second author isn't really involved. The task he programmed and trained me on was just one of four, and even the results of that task are from a different angle than the one he helped with. He doesn't know what the results for the other tasks are, may even not remember what the other tasks are, if he ever knew. I have heard enough against author list inflation to think he belongs in the acknowledgments, not in the author list.

I'm not sure how intense my advisor's position on this author list is. His inclusion only comes up at all because the author list was copy-pasted from the smaller writeup. Upon consideration, adv might agree with me. Not wanting confrontation, however, my first volley in the debate is to turn in the first draft with just two authors listed. Perhaps adv will accept this without comment. If not, I will list the purported second author's contributions, and point out their similarity to the contributions of a person who is firmly in the acknowledgments.

The real question that preys on my mind is what to do if adv doesn't accept these arguments. I want this work published, and I don't need my relationship with my advisor to be any more rocky than it already is, so I'm not sure I can outright refuse to accept a superfluous author. If I let it happen, though, I know it'll bug me from here until eternity and forever tarnish my opinion of whatever paper we get out of this. Academic honesty meets academic authority...rock, meet hard place.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Graduate vs. Undergraduate Classes

The classes I have taken in graduate school have all been "seminars". These generally take the structure that [appears to] gives the professor no duties beyond selecting papers and assigning grades. When I first came to grad school, with the ink still wet on my college diploma, I was thrilled. The "senior seminar" I took the last semester of college was of the same format, I had loved it (although perhaps that was due to the home-baked treats the professor's wife provided each week), and I was looking forward to more of the interactive, discussion-based classes rather than being lectured at.

Now, I am enrolled in one of the peculiar mixed undergraduate-graduate classes. Graduate students are held to higher standards and have more assignments than the undergraduates, but the class time is the same. I find myself absolutely thrilled with the experience. We sit in rows facing the projector, rather than in a half-circle facing each other!
We get out of the classroom after just an hour twice a week, instead of after three hours straight once a week! I get to be taught by an actual professor, rather than by my equally-inexpert fellow graduate students! I am asked specific, factual questions rather than being asked to pontificate on about my opinion! Most importantly - most refreshing - we are discussing basic concepts rather than the pluses or minuses of broad theories or specific experimental design!

Not all the changes are positive, of course. The student's work in a seminar class is usually to read the papers, participate in class and "lead" the class discussion once or twice a semester. For the degree-requirement classes there were usually some form of reading reaction and a final paper, but the "upper-level" seminars don't usually bother. This mixed, undergraduate-style class had me spending a good five minutes entering the various reading reactions, homework sets, and larger assignments into my calendar. Barely a week will pass without me having to turn in a reading reaction or homework set. My field is not one generally given to "homework sets", except for the basic stats class, so that's a novelty in itself.

I can certainly understand why professors prefer to minimize course preparation if at all possible. But if the real reason this course seems so wonderful is just the change of pace from the classes I've been taking the past few years - as the seminar did at the beginning of graduate school - then I have to seriously argue in favor of offering graduate students more classes instead of seminars.
Even the professor seems far more engaged in this environment than in the traditional "seminar" I took with him last year. The enthusiasm for a different style of learning is going to carry over into whatever subject matter is presented, with the potential of making me fond of a subject matter when I only enrolled in the course because it's related to my advisor's other line of research and meets some degree requirements.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hatchet Job

Back in college, I read a collection of short stories by a favorite author, Spider Robinson. In the introduction, he wrote about editing his first short story. Someone he respected told him to cut several thousand words from the "final" draft. He was sure there was nothing else to cut, he sweated over and mourned each deleted word, and he admitted in the end that the story was amazingly better.

Now, I find myself in the position of attempting to cut a 79-page master's thesis into a 6-page submission to the Proceedings of a conference. To be fair, that's a slight exaggeration: university guidelines request marshmallows (lots of white space, lots of pages with fluffy and sugary content) and conference guidelines request chocolate (ink-slathered pages of rich and condensed content). Still, it's nipping and tucking 15,250 words to roughly 4,500.

It's not that I'm attached to those 10,000+ words that are getting the delete button. Six weeks is just about enough time that I can stand to look at that document again after growing heartily sick of it during months of revisions, but not so much time that I've grown nostalgic about my first great academic work. In fact, I look at it with near-disparaging revisions. It would read so much better if I organized the results like so instead of so, this paragraph is too redundant, this sentence lacks elegance.

It's not that the 10,000+ words are necessary. The thesis requirements demanded inclusion every intention, step, and analysis in some specious attempt to validate my degree with hard work and a lengthy document. A conference submission, aspiring to be no more than a poster presentation, wants only slightly more meat on the bones than a mere abstract. Entire swaths of text, pages at a time, were cut for being unnecessary or unworthy. Failed analyses and non-significant "trends" can be ignored, tasks that added nothing in the end are removed from existence, citations added to bulk up the reference section can be adjusted to a single work by the same author.

It's just that it's a daunting task. After two days spent doing little else, I'm still at 6,700 words. The new angle, selected to make the results appear more meaningful and appealing, will require still more re-organization and re-writing of the discussion section, if not the introduction; this could take words off or pile them back on. My paper is on a yo-yo diet of cut and add, cut and paste.

In the darker moments, usually when scrolling through the now-26 pages in hopes of finding something else no one else would care about, I wonder whether it's at all worth it. I think of the day a few months from now when I receive the email telling me that the submission was very nice, thank you, but no one outside of the selection committee need be subjected to it. Will I be able to look back with a mature attitude, and say that my academic training wouldn't have been complete without such an intense and extreme revision process? Will I be willing to dust off the old analysis outputs yet again with an eye of trying toward publication in some journal? Or will I despair of having put this effort into a failed submission?

At the moment, I'm leaning toward seeing it as a learning experience regardless of the outcome. My explanations to various family members can now contain my concise but contentful descriptions of research past. It might even help convince them that my research is actually worthwhile. It's gone a surprisingly long way toward convincing me.