Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Justify Yourself

The end of the school year brings with it the department's request for my Education Plan and CV. What have I done this year, and what do I plan to do next year?

This means, among other things, that I need to go back to last year's justification essay
and see whether I actually accomplished the planned accomplishments. On a basic level, I know this to be true. This is because on a basic level, last year's plan was "get a master's degree and start working on comps". On a more detailed level, the "you didn't really think I could do this, did you?" seems possible.

The only problem I have with my education plan is that I get no credit for what I tried to do. I got rejected from a conference, from a workshop, from a fellowship, from a paper submission, but at least I tried, unlike past years when I just worked on classes and data collection. Trying is progress that is not indicated on my progress report. Perhaps I was getting the benefit of the doubt in previous years, if they (wrongly) assumed I had unmentioned unsuccessful attempts at enhancing my CV, but being unable to count these attempts - even as failures - makes the past year feel like more of wasted time than actually listing the litany of rejections would.

I doubt the department really cares, beyond "got master's, check; proposed comps, check; took time to answer our short-essay questions, check". The only thing they're likely to care about is if I say flat out I have no intention of entering academia or doing research for a living, at which point they might wonder what they've spent so much money on me for.

The only way this will work is if I write down all the same period non-academic accomplishments and plans at the same time. There's no point in examining only one aspect of my life to see if the past year was worth remembering.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Negative Motivation Is Still Motivation

Grad school might be a financially strapped time, and the country might be full of financial uncertainty, but I think I have my priorities in order. When I discovered that my nephew's birthday party would be held the week after he turned one, a weekend I was remarkably free of Friday and Monday classes and meetings, I immediately shelled out airfare for a much-needed vacation. If I were given to superstition, I'd have taken the fact that I managed to travel for just $300 on less than 2 weeks noticed as a sign confirming how vital this trip was.

I stepped up my production schedule to get all my classwork done in advance of my trip, which was the weekend before the last week of classes; I wanted no deadlines floating around in the back of my mind. I only brought my laptop because I would return Monday morning and go straight to campus. I did not think about school or research for three whole days, except to provide the one-sentence-summary of my comps paper when asked how school was going.

Chasing my niece and nephew and hanging out with my sisters led me to an important revelation: I want to move. As much as I love the city I'm living in, I'd love being within easy travel of my family more. Getting from the continental divide to the East coast is rarely convenient; it's a trip that has been limited to just twice a year. I've been thinking about how much I want to get out of grad school recently; now I have some idea of where I want to get to. Motivation increases tenfold to get it all done - the sooner I finish comps and defend my dissertation, the sooner I'm spending more time playing with kids instead of staring at a computer screen. It might not be the best motivation for getting a PhD, but it's a far more effective goal to keep in mind than, say, landing a professorship.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Committee

My comps committee has, with substantial revisions, approved my comps paper proposal. Not that revisions are a bad thing; the main comments were prefaced with "it's way too ambitious and you're going to go crazy trying it that way", and followed with "overall, it's really interesting!" - fifty-five minutes later.

I didn't want to use the same three-person committee I had used for my first two years. My advisor is (obviously or fortunately, take your pick) still the same. We have a relatively small group of faculty - less than a dozen - so I wasn't exactly spoiled for choice. I wound up with one other person from my master's committee, because that's the only other person in our department who does research using our methodology, if not quite in our domain; very helpful for experiment design and feasibility assessment.

The third person on my committee is new, one of two faculty members I haven't had a class with. I haven't actually spoken with her since my prospective weekend, when I struggled not to doze off while attending her lab meeting. I was hopeful she had no idea who I was. The request was based on the fact that my comps paper marks my attempts to get beyond my advisor's research; the half of it that is not my advisor's area of expertise is this person's. You could tell, because she's the reason the committee meeting lasted as long as it did.

I was somewhat prepared for this by her probing questions to a lab mate's colloquium presentation just an hour earlier. I said very little during the meeting, my contributions being mainly the furious typing as I tried to get down all the references that I should have included on my reading list, the brief lecture on how what I was looking at really worked, and assorted sections I should cut, adjust, or expand. I started out planning to organize comments by who made them, but they were all from one person, so there wasn't any point.

None of this is a bad thing, of course. It's the kind of revision that turned a never-going-to-be-read 15,000-word master's thesis into a 4,500-word article that, while never going to be published or presented, at least I can show off to my family if they want to know what I did to get the fancy degree. All those comments might very well keep me from going crazy as I attempt to demonstrate my ability to synthesize different literatures and produce novel ideas. But first I have to pick through two full single-space pages of notes and track down "that review paper in Journal Name that discussed your topic", among others.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Longing for Professionalism

There are days - coming more and more frequently - when I long for the business world and its supposed emphasis on deadlines and punctuality.

We have a regular colloquium on Mondays; the graduate student presenting this week was so late the organizer called her to find out if she was arriving. I have a Tuesday-Thursday class to which the professor is always five to ten minutes late, and then keeps us five to ten minutes after the official end of class (it's not clear whether this is to make up for the late start or because he's generally incapable of keeping track of time). The audience to a meeting doesn't show up until several minutes after the official start time (unless there is free food, in which case they chat around the food table until several minutes after the official start time.

This week has been worst than most. First there was my interview with the director of my university's graduate teacher program, a formality for hiring me as the lead graduate teacher for my department next year. My appointment was at 1; I dressed in business casual for the occasion and arrived at 12:55. The director wasn't there. She had gone to pick up her car from the mechanic over her lunch break, and was expected back momentarily. Around 1:20 the administrative assistant called her; she would be another 15 minutes. It's not that the meeting was late, which is somewhat understandable. It's that she was able to answer her phone right away, and remembered she had a meeting, but hadn't bothered to call when she knew she wouldn't be on time.

Then there was our lab meeting. My advisor's son behaved true to toddler form, ran into something head-first, and had to be taken to the hospital for stitches. Again, a perfectly understandable reason for throwing off a schedule. She informed our lab coordinator that she would be late, with instructions on what could be handled before she got there. We handled all of that, and then sat around for 15 minutes chatting about nothing waiting to see if she would show up. Eventually the lab coordinator borrowed a cell phone to check messages and discovered that a voicemail had been left to just videotape the meeting. This is one of those situations where no one is really at fault: the advisor could have tried calling someone else after not having the call (placed after the meeting had begun) answered, the coordinator could have brought her cell phone to the meeting, one of us could have encouraged checking messages earlier.

Why is it too much to ask that if people say something will happen at noon, it happens at noon? When I do have an event scheduled, I show up on time or five minutes early. No one else in academia appears to offer the same courtesy. I know I impair my own productivity often enough by surfing the web instead of writing a paper, but at least that's on me: my fault, my responsibility to correct. If I have to spend five to twenty minutes sitting around waiting because someone else didn't have the courtesy to arrive on time or at least inform me that they would be late, that's on them. That's time I can't spend on what needs doing.

I appreciate the flexibility of an academic's schedule; I show up to work at 10 or 11 many days of the week, though usually after working until midnight the night before. I would happily exchange it, however, for a 9 to 5 job where I at least am told if something won't happen on schedule.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Best Laid Plans of Herding Cats

What is the difference between staff and faculty? Staff coordinate; faculty stray. Getting faculty together is like herding cats; staff herd themselves.

I needed four official signatures on a form. My advisor was easy; she happened to be on campus, we had a quick meeting, she signed. The others were two staff and the department chair. I emailed the first staff member, she agreed to sign, I put it in her box. Within two hours, I had the form back with all three needed signatures in place. I didn't have to try to pin down the department chair, I didn't even have to put any effort into finding the other staff member.

I also needed to arrange a meeting of my comps committee. A mere formality, one hour to discuss my proposal. In the entire month of April, there are three days one person can make it, and one time slot each day my advisor can make. I sent three e-mails over six days to the third committee member trying to find out if she could make any of those responses, then had to send another email to the first person to find out if she was available that (since she'd only given me days, not times) before I could finally know what time my comps proposal would be officially completed.

So, one morning to get a form taken care of by staff; one week to even hear back from all faculty committee members. The upshot of this is that my comps proposal is three weeks later than planned, although still within the "by April" deadline (and the paper was at least sent out before April), but the Lead Department GTA application was submitted the same day I started requesting signatures. I can't quite imagine how bad it will be when I'm trying to coordinate a five-person dissertation committee.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

It's Not the Receiving, It's the Reporting

The first of two attempts to get something publishable (i.e., meaningful) out of my master's thesis was a submission of a much simplified version of the thesis to a conference. The challenge was that the only discipline conference to submit to didn't just take poster abstracts on a first-come first-served basis (that was the conference I wanted to submit to when the research was in early phases, but which my advisor vetoed). Instead, you have to submit a six-page paper that would be published in the proceedings of the conference. Pros: reviews of the paper to be read, and more prestige than the normal poster presentation. Cons: submissions are actually reviewed, and get rejected.

At submission, I was of the opinion that the paper was much more interesting and convincing than it had been when written up as my thesis, but was still full of enough only-marginally-significant results that we weren't quite sure how to interpret that it certainly wasn't going to be worth trying to publish elsewhere (although my advisor will veto that opinion as well). The reviewers seem to agree: official verdict is rejection, but there was enough mixed opinion that we go four reviewers in three rounds instead of the two reviewers mentioned in the form response. Individual opinions range from 1/5 (unoriginal fishing expedition) to 4/5 (cautiously recommended as a talk, not just a poster).

I'm not any more upset about this than I was about my abusive FCQ commenter. Perhaps I'm going through an unemotional even-keel week, but I prefer to think I've finally matured to the point that I have realistic opinions of my work and appropriately healthy respect for other peoples' opinions. I can disagree with some of the comments (since when is considering three factors that have reasonable explanations for contributing to something "fishing"? would it be science if I picked my favorite theory and didn't even consider the alternatives?), but overall the comments are in line with my own opinion (not that I would tell my advisor this) of "somewhat interesting results but not at all impressive".

So I'm not bothered by the rejection. What I actually am bothered by is the expectation that my advisor won't let it die. I have no intention of mentioning the status to anyone else unless asked, because I don't need or want whatever consolation comes with manuscript rejection, but I have to notify my co-author. And she'll want to comment, and try to revise and submit it somewhere else, and I'm just done. I'm not particularly interested in following up on the research. I spent two and a half years on the topic, I was incredibly dedicated and fascinated at the time, but interest can only be sustained for so long. I have been forced onto bigger (if not better) things by the requirements for my comps paper, and I would much rather spend my time on the impending research and consign the master's work to the It Is Not Worthy annals of science.

The only question I want to deal with is whether I want to attend the conference as audience. It's an expensive prospect, since funding in my department is generally limited to people who are presenting research. But I've never been to a conference before, and it might be an important piece to figuring out what I want to do. If it's exciting enough, it might even tip me towards research over teaching. There is also the question of how important attending and presenting at conferences will be on my yearly progress reports, since I won't have a chance to present a poster before even next year's progress report is due. I don't want to get a letter or equivalent black mark for not working with the broader scientific community, just because my attempts to do so have been rebuffed.

Monday, April 7, 2008

What Students Think - FCQs

I delayed in looking at the comments on my FCQs. First I delayed two months from receiving them to even looking to see if there had been comments. Then I pulled out the 8 extra-graphite scantrons (out of 34 submitted, 46 students) while very carefully not reading anything. The I munched fresh chocolate cookies and watched a scene or two of "Noises Off" before casually reaching over to the very short stack and beginning to read. Reading itself took less than two minutes. Procrastinating and aftereffects took much longer.

Random movements of the universe were favorable for me. The first comment on the stack was the best: "Could be more enthusiastic, I think most of her humor was not understood by the class, but a very good teacher." Contrary to expectations, most students seemed to note that the prompt called for "constructive comments to your instructor", and did not spend just complain. I need to slow down, speak more clearly, pay more attention to student comments/questions, and "cheer up", but "assignments were well-prepared and graded fairly". I obviously made progress: "Once she finished her outside work (dissertation?) it was a complete turn around for the better"; my defense coincided with figuring out what I was doing, and it was developing a plan that made the difference.

But, There's Always One, or so I'm assured by friends who don't teach. There was the One who complained that there was too much work - I tend to agree, although I'm hesitant to accept the opinion of someone who thinks 1/3rd of a 4 credit class is 1 credit, and I'm a bit proud that the lab had more work than the lecture (no readings, four non-cumulative multiple choice and short answer exams). But that wasn't the real One. The real One was the Outright Negative One: "I think she is a pompous TA and needs to tone it down. If she ever became a prof (god forbid) nobody would go."

The delay, chocolate, and movie worked: I wasn't exactly upset by this. Considering, disturbed, even bugged, but not really upset. Obviously this person missed the part of the instructions where it said complaints should be directed elsewhere, since the teacher is the only person to read the comments. Or perhaps they did, and the attack is all the more personal; not couched as "you" directly, but intended to be read by the subject.

Naturally, I wondered who it might be. The obvious candidate, the girl who complained vociferously to many people about getting a D- on the first assignment, wasn't there for FCQs. And then I realized that, completely fortuitously, I'd never thrown away the informational index cards I had all students fill out the first week of class. I pondered upon the ethics of comparison, and ultimately decided that peace of mind gained from some idea WHY mattered more than an implied promise of anonymity. It's not as if I'll ever see this student again, or could have any impact on his life.

"His" because features of letters ruled out every female in the class. I probably identified the person, although there is no reason "why" to be found. Just a student; not one that skipped or failed an assignment or got a bad grade, not one that came to office hours, no one who got any comment in class - although I think I suppose his name wrong sometime late in the semester. Just a student.

Does it matter? The comment doesn't qualify as "representative", so there's no ethical argument against leaving it out of my socratic portfolio (teaching resume) or yearly progress report. No one else ever looked at the comments, and I doubt anyone would do a lot based on just one comment anyway. I don't think it's going to impact my decision to teach. I don't think it will even affect the way I teach. I received one carefully phrased request to give more consideration to student questions, and that will remain in the forefront of my mind. Being called full of myself in the same sentence as a parenthetical request for religious intervention in my career prospects lacks clout. Nothing will change that wasn't already going to change, except perhaps a more jaundiced view of FCQs.

It's not worth having future FCQs filtered for abusive comments; the entire teaching experience can qualify as a unique trial-by-fire, sink-or-swim experience that won't be repeated, so it doesn't necessarily follow that comments for any other class would be as outrageous. I don't even have any reaction to wondering what this student would think at learning that I will be the Lead GTA for the entire department next year. Having worked myself through the intriguing puzzle of handwriting (this person does all r's capitalized, this person all r's and n' one else seems to use a three-line I for the personal pronoun but a one-line I for everything else), it just doesn't seem to matter.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Searching Science

I can't quite imagine what it would have been like to conduct a literature search before the age of the Internet. It must have been a combination of browsing through hundreds of Tables of Contents and "treeing" through the references (they cite this paper, so I should look that one up too). Many hours would have been spent in the library stacks.

If I need to conduct a literature search, I first decide on which of many databases I will use. Google has its own Scholar function for searching through academic resources, which will pull up long lists of references on relatively obscure topics, complete with "Find It At *U" links for the vast majority of results (when I'm on campus, of course) so I can download the .pdf file.

Only once has the Internet failed me - that I'm aware of. It was a matter of more old-fashioned searching. A paper I found online cited a very relevant study, which I wanted to read for myself. It was from 1988, in a relatively obscure journal. This isn't necessarily a problem; I have a .pdf of an aritcle published in 1985, and 1989. But this article does not appear to exist on the Internet - the abstract is all over the place, of course, but the article itself has eluded me.

So it's off to the library for me. For just one of the 93 articles I have listed in my comps references, the article has been protected and *U has a print-only subscription. So I have to find the Science Stacks, and use the call number to find a specific shelf and a specific volume. I'll actually have to photocopy the article (or, heck, scan it and create my own .pdf). And while I'm there, I might spend a moment's silent contemplation in awe of how hard finding articles once was.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Motivated by Nostalgia

The graduate school application process of my lab coordinator and assorted prospective students recently prompted me to examine old emails from my own applications. The intent was simply to get a time frame for when I heard final rejection or acceptance to various schools. The effect was rather different.

I had remembered spending something close to a month agonizing over the decision between two specific schools, the Excel file of pros and cons, the emails requesting more information about programs and research possibilities, the careful phrasing of both the positive and negative emails to convey my decision. I hadn't remember just how heavily I had been courted to those schools and one other.

In one of the emails sent during that decision making process, my current advisor wrote of how much she hoped I would come to work with her, of how she'd thought in recent lab meetings that it would be so great to have my perspective on a lot of the discussions that were coming up. Excitement at my acceptance almost radiated from the monitor. Just over three years later, it seems a bit unreal. The first question that comes to mind: what would my advisor think looking back over these emails? Have I lived up to such expectations? Have I simply progressed into the not-quite-taken-for-granted state of a long-present student? From my advisor's perspective, are there any regrets at having admitted me?

It's certainly hard to imagine that I could have managed to live up to the implied expectations; I just don't have brilliantly insightful commentary to produce at every lab meeting. But it's impossible to have any real idea. My interactions with my advisor are limited to participation in a two-hour lab meeting every week and a 40-minute individual meeting every other week or so. There are plenty of emails, complete with enthusiasm for various ideas and results, but I can't help but feel that any conceptualization my advisor has of me is woefully incomplete, with little idea about how dedicated or motivated I am. It's difficult to assign "on" time to a specific three hours of the week, and if lab meeting day happens to be the longest day of my week, then I certainly don't cut an impressive figure that semester.

Still, it's inspiring - or at least motivating - in a way. Graduate school contains plenty of pressure to get things done, but rarely in a personal way. The only person making sure I'm getting my comps proposal completed by the appointed deadline is myself; my advisor didn't even know when the deadline was (although she did ask me to remind my year-mate). There's some amount of support, but by this point we're supposed to be quite self-sufficient. I work in the standard windowless office, and I have a better-than-standard-but-still-busy-and-absentminded advisor. It's hard to think of myself as anything other than the necessary lackey.

I suppose those emails are the first reminder I've had in a long while that my advisor chose to work with me as much as I chose to work with her. I'm normally quite skeptical about the American tendencies to worth enhancement and carefully constructed "constructive" criticism. At the moment, I'm much more understanding. I still think modern culture goes overboard, but I can't deny the motivating factor of having an explicit statement from your boss that you're a great person and they have high positive feelings and expectations. I can't say I'm much more enthusiastic about my graduate career at the moment, because aching ribs caused by an overly enthusiastic and entirely uncontrolled teenage boy of a karate partner have a significant damping effect, but there is a certain amount of determination and even dedication to my lab that wasn't present before my brief trip to the past.