Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Collaborate, Good Times, Come On!

It might not say the best for my graduate career thus far that I didn't really have an appreciation for collaboration until today. Thus far, I have only "collaborated" with my advisor (who discusses ideas and tells me what analyses to run), her former post-doc (who discusses ideas and tells me what analyses to run), and assorted undergraduate students (who I had to tell ideas to and run analyses for). Which means that it never mattered how many people were involved in a project, it was always me turning the data into digestible information. "Collaborators" meant people I was responsible for reporting to or people I was responsible for guiding. Aside from having other people (undergrads) to collect the data, it has never meant a decrease in the effort involved.

My current project actually involves a collaboration with another graduate student. I did the programming and collect the data, but it was his idea originally. Thus far, "collaboration" has again been based entirely on a handful of discussions, since we had no data worth mentioning. There were, however, many data files that could be analyzed that hadn't been. These are Excel files, which each contain the neighborhood of 3,500 to 4,000 rows of data. Knowing that these would have to be analyzed, I set aside a day of spring break to dedicate to the problem. Or, at least, to learning how to script in Excel so that I could have any hope of analyzing the data.

I emailed my collaborating grad student just to make sure I had some idea of what we wanted to analyze. And, lo and behold - send me the data, I'll put together the analysis script. This should have been an obvious reaction. C. actually has experience with scripting and these types of data files in particular; what would take me several days will take him - well, far less; I'm sure it might still be a day's work in there, depending on how cooperative the technology is. It's entirely reasonable, and thus all the more insane that it didn't occur to me that a "collaborator" would do more than give me a few tips on how to handle the list of things I would need to take care of.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Teaching to Write

A week ago, we held a writing workshop for our undergraduates. It was mandatory for any of them wanting to do a senior thesis next year, and optional for anyone who just wanted to get some tips. I led it, because I actually enjoy doing this kind of thing. I've been thinking quite wistfully about how many mandatory freshman writing courses at UR were taught by graduate students from all sorts of departments.

At the moment, I'm mildly obsessed with it. I went home from the workshop and tweaked my presentation extensively. I did it again when our current honors thesis student gave a practice defense, since many of the same organizational points apply. Now I'm reading the assignments we required of the prospective thesis students, with the presentation again open as new issues come up. I think I'm about to create a checklist resource for writing, because the biggest problem seems to be that no-one reads their papers once they've written them. That's the lazy editing process, which we as grad students want to avoid (it means we have to do that basic editing instead).

I'm impatient to get to give my new and improved workshop. Maybe next semester's TA will be a lab class where I can spend one session impressing upon my students the importance of writing, if only to get good grades out of me. After reading one assignment - from a student I know has written better - I almost want to make them sit through Version 2.0. At the least, I think I'm seeing a "revise & resubmit" in the next week for all three of them. The ability to make sense of reviewer's comments and decide which to follow is, after all, one of the critical skills they will need as thesis students, so naturally we should test them on this as well...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring Break

Spring Break. For the undergrads, a time to get away from the (hopefully last) remnants of snow and hit the beaches, or take other exciting trips over which they will forget most of what they've been taught for the past few months. Even some of the graduate students are taking advantage of a week without classes, although one of these is going home to visit family and another is going to Baltimore, of all places.

For me, Spring Break was never an exciting travel time. Sometimes I stayed on campus, sometimes I went home. My senior year of college some friends and I took an overnight trip to nearby Toronto - and visiting the CN Tower and seeing a musical hardly qualify as a wild, crazy trip. So it should hardly be surprising that I see Spring Break as a time to catch up or get ahead on work. There are no classes, no colloquia, no meetings; I have arranged to have no scheduled research or academic activities for five whole days. I have not yet gone so far as to dedicate specific days to specific projects - well, I did as soon as I wrote that sentence, but I'm reasonable enough to understand I'm not likely to follow my own schedule.

Spring Break is my prelude to summer, when there also will be no classes, although there will be some meetings and a fair share of data collection. Studies abound describing how hard it is to redirect attention to the task at hand once an email program has pinged for new arrivals, but none seem to point out how hard it is to get a project done when you know you have to be somewhere else in 45 minutes.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

PhD Peacock

As part of a discussion on the evolutionary origins of intelligence, I made a facetious comment on the brain being compared to peacock feathers (both being demonstrations of a wide array of genes) and how this put my pursuit of a PhD in an entirely new light. For some reason I didn't have the following mental image until I was walking home much later:

Take the PhD. Now attach it to a wire, like you're going to wave it around as a protest sign. Instead, stick the bottom of the wire on the back of your belt. The wire should be stiff enough that the PhD stays permanently on display, but flexible enough that it bobs around a bit. I give you: the PhD Peacock Tail. Or any degree, prominently displayed so potential mates will have a clear fitness indicator for sexual selection purposes. Now, doesn't that make life so much easier?

I am so tempted to actually do this.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Teaching and the Funding Fairy

Funding has been somewhat uncertain recently, but recent news suggests that I will continue my slightly-better-than-paycheck-to-paycheck existence for the foreseeable future.

My department guarantees funding during the school year via teaching positions, but the summer is much more variable. There are TAs in the summer months, but these don't pay that well - each of the three sessions pays well for what you work, but there is enough demand that you're basically only working one month of three, and an your own for the other two. Many of us manage to get RAs over the summer, with our advisor paying us for the actual amount of work we're doing (full time, unpaid vacation time).

My advisor had a nice grant that was fully capable of supporting 3 or 4 graduate students for the summer, with the joys of full-time work covering my student fees during the school year. The operative word there being "had". The grant officially runs out in November (or whenever that Fiscal Year change happens). Two more are in the works, with various levels of acceptance, but nothing official yet. With 4 graduate students and a PRA (lab coordinator), and the potential need for a PRA search over the summer, the possibility of exploring the normal graduate student Ramen-diet-and-indebtedness lifestyle was looming large.

My advisor obligingly crunched the numbers to determine whether we would need to apply for Summer TAs. The verdict is that we will be funding at least at our "minimum" level, of how much we need to make to pay rent and buy groceries, or at the "preferred" level, a more accurate reflection of how much time we'll be putting in to the lab (in terms of weeks worked, not hours per week). This might be stated in the group meeting we have later today, to discuss how "funding will be tight".

I'm guessing that the "funding will be tight" discussion will include comments on how vital it is to our training as mini professionals that we spend some time teaching. Or perhaps a direct statement that we'll all need to Fall TA while the current grant is dredged for lab costs and the new grants (hopefully) get started. I intend to volunteer to TA for the remaining two years of my grad school career.

I didn't want to TA over the summer, partially for money and partially in hopes of getting a lot done for my comps with no classes to distract me. I was desperate not to teach this semester, because last semester was a horror of being given two lab sections with no instructions ("teach them how to do research") while simultaneously trying to finish and defend my master's thesis, and I needed time to recuperate. But I do want to teach in general. I have used that time to attend teaching seminars, ruminate on the experience of teaching a course on the fly, and make plans for dealing with teaching in the future. One simple workshop I taught last week has reaffirmed that my interest in teaching far exceeds my interest in research as a career. I'd want to TA even if my advisor were flush, but the funding talk gives me a reason to ask for it with no expectation of being a strain on the department's ability to accept new graduate students or my advisor protesting my dedication to my dissertation.

I'll also be more willing to ask for full-time funding over the summer if I haven't been a drain on any grants during the school year. I do like my summer "vacation", and making enough money to cover the next year's student fees.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Grad Student as Teacher

(From back in the Fall semester)

I'm constantly surprised at many grads' attitude toward teaching: don't like it, don't want to do it. Our department Lead GTA (a thankless job for a miniscule pay raise) started a monthly department brown bag seminar on teaching topics, and was assessing interest. I had slept in (and we'll ignore the fact that I wasn't up early enough to attend a seminar that started at 11), but the response from others in the immediate vicinity was along the lines of "I don't want to teach ever again". I got a similar response from one TA I asked for advice on my current class; while the other was incredibly enthusiastic about it, she's also on a year of temporary leave as she considers changing careers away from semi-meaningless research. Here I'm halfway to requesting a TA every school year, and everyone else is begging their advisor to be RA-only.

I freely admit that my attitude as I gathered my belongings to head to my lab this morning was along the lines of "I don't want to do this...". However, this was no different and no stronger a reaction than my usual attitude when going to a class of my own or a meeting with my advisor. Not the best attitude to have, I admit, but far more reflective of the anxiety of putting myself on display than of what I was about to do. As soon as the family arrived or as soon as I step into my classroom, the attitude to adjusts to a more dignified version of "let's get this party started".

As for the activity itself, I certainly prefer teaching to sitting around collecting data. It's more interesting and challenging to fumble around for definitions of concepts than to count trials so I'll be ready to push the "next" button when it appears. The benefit of my research experience, at the moment, is that I'm mostly inured to the drooping eyelids and slack faces of my undergraduates during most of the class period. I know I'm not entertaining, and the subject matter can't all be thrilling. At least with a class, there are always at least a few who pay attention, and they're only going to make disparaging comments outside of class.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Overheard in the Office

Grad students in my department have little clusters of offices, and mine is right next to the grad student lounge. I overhear quite a lot when I decide to leave my door open. This is often, as grad students are not entitled to such things as "windows", and open doors alleviate claustrophobia.

This put me in a position to overhear brief comments between two other grad students. In true cocktail party fashion, I was ignoring a conversation until I heard my name. This turned out to be:

"[Grad Student] dominates when she talks, but she doesn't talk a lot."

Blinking (trying to be sure they were talking about me, since my name is rather common), I discovered the discussion was about the dynamics of the graduate student seminars. The seminars are populated by a mix of first- and second- year students, and the discussion was between a current 2nd year (who had seminars with me) and current 1st year (who probably wouldn't recognize me by sight). The 2nd year student wasn't so much complaining as contrasting how different it was (the current 1st years are apparently a quiet bunch who need to talk up more).

I certainly have no problems with the statement - anyone who has sat through a seminar with me would say the same thing, if I didn't say it first. I usually just listen and think, but if I have a point to make I want to make it now and I want to make it clear. It was just an odd moment, mostly because I'm even quieter outside of seminars and was shocked anyone would talk about me in general conversation. Still, it's a reason I keep comments on other people to closed-door situations.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Gray Mark?

The black mark is a strong argument against accepting a prospective academic. They've done something extreme, like ignoring the advice of the natives and getting incredibly drunk, or saying that they had just finished writing an R01 grant and hated it and were never doing that again (actual hearsay of a faculty job talk). These are the clear situations where the prospective has just shot himself in the foot, and would to do some fast magic to salvage the job opportunity.

Then there are the gray marks. Nothing obviously bad, no story that will be repeated with relish for the remainder of the department's existence, but something that instills doubt about an otherwise unremarkable person.

As a third-hand story. One of the prospective students had to catch a shuttle to the airport at 3, 3:30 in the morning. The shuttle stop (a local hotel) was too far to walk. The host offered to call the prospective student a cab, setting everything up the night before. But, no, what if the cab didn't come. The host should drive the student to the shuttle stop, at 3 in the morning. The prospective does not apologize for the inconvenience; it is the host's responsibility. To add insult to injury (sleep deprivation should qualify as injury), they nearly missed the shuttle because the prospective hadn't finished packing, so the host worried she would be called upon to drive the student all the way to the airport (a 45 minute drive or more).

It's hard to tell how bad this is. I have it in the retelling that there was a sense of "entitlement" on the prospective's part. I would never have asked a host to drive me somewhere even at six in the morning, but then I was never comfortable asking my hosts for a glass of juice in the morning. The general consensus is that this was a bit extreme.

Perhaps ordinarily this wouldn't have been enough to count against the student, but in this case my advisor is purportedly looking for students who can work independently, since she already has four of us making demands on her time. Here we have a prospective that isn't capable of taking a taxi for lack of hand-holding, and seems to feel that sense of entitlement (not my words) on what should happen. Three days of unremarkable interactions were so easily negated by one anecdote.

It remains to be seen whether my advisor, and the rest of the faculty, would have the same reaction to this story (assuming the host passed on the perceived problem). The host isn't the kind to hold a grudge (obviously, she wasn't the kind to refuse going out of her way, where I would probably have said "I'm calling you a cab; take it or leave it"). But if the prospective is admitted and comes to the department, she's going to start out with a bit of a negative balance; even a mildly bad impression will leave quite a bit to overcome.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Trouble by the Numbers

A rant from elsewhere, back in the Thesis Defense phase:

Multiple choice question. Graphs:

a) may or may not show all the work you put into creating them
b) present data much more coherently and completely than words and averages
c) are the product of THE DEVIL or his minions intent on creating chaos and frustration
d) all of the above

Let's consider these different options.

A) This is correct. Excel will automatically put standard error bars on any graphs, but as far as can be determined it pulls these numbers out of its electronic posterior. SPSS is supposed to have a button to add standard error bars, but this doesn't work. I spent two hours Tuesday manually entering standard error bars in Excel, and I will probably spend less than two minutes talking about each one.

B) Also correct. My powerpoint presentations contain few words, and dozens of images. Only one slide in my practice talk contained a verbal explanation of a finding rather than a visual one, and that was because I hadn't had time to create that graph yet. I promptly went and created a very pretty scatterplot showing the relationship between two measures in my experiment in hopes of impressing my committee that my research wasn't an entire null result. Looking at that pretty scatterplot, I discovered an undetected outlier, which let me remove it and make re-do the analyses before sending everything off to my committee.

C) Oh, is this ever correct. Thanks to that outlier, not only did I have to trudge through re-typing a lot of obscure numbers throughout my methods section, the entire meaning of the results for any analyses related to that measure changed, and I spent an entire evening re-writing chunks of my results and discussion section and reformulating my


D) All of the above. As in all such multiple choice questions, this is the correct answer. As thrilled as I am to discover that my experiment just became more meaningful in its "marginally significant" way, and that the error was discovered before sending a draft to my committee (they might read it, and changing conclusions for the defense probably wouldn't go over well), I spent most of a day fixing something that was supposed to have been finished. I fully intend to irrationally blame the graph for all that frustration. Ignorance is bliss; knowledge is a re-write.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Let the Writing Begin...

After a month and a half of reading dozens of articles, emailing summaries and thoughts about them to my advisor, and generally flailing around in a sea of Background Literature, I finally have a comps topic.

The sheer relief at finally having a topic cannot be expressed. The final paper is 50 pages, but settling into a topic seemed far more overwhelming. Identify a hole in the literature...sure. Make it something interesting, but not too challenging, and something that has obvious studies that can be turned into a grant proposal...It had gotten to the point that I was willing to write on anything, just so that I could stop running wide random searches in hopes of piecing some ideas together.

Technically, my advisor is the one who stated the topic, but it was the middle of the brainstorming session and based on things I have been interested in since before I arrived, only with a bit of nudge to get me out of the well-defined area my advisor investigates and into a broader field with a lot of papers I haven't read before that could be interesting.

Now, of course, I have to knock out a six-page proposal (and put together a committee, for that matter) and come up with a list of some 30-odd papers I plan to read for the final paper (meaning I need to read the abstracts and make sure they have some connection my committee will buy). I haven't been willing to do it just yet - not because the deadline of "by April" seems so far away, but because I know the relief of having selected the topic will quickly give way to frustrations of more literature searches and actually trying to make connections.

Grad school has so few instances of feeling relieved and accomplished. I like to savor them when they come.