Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Grant and Project Juggling

Several faculty in my department were recently awarded a big, collaborative grant - just under two million dollars across five "projects" over the course of however many years. My advisor is on this grant. My advisor is still in the process of attempting to renew the "main" grant under which I have been funded for the past few years. Although I had been guaranteed summer funding, and paperwork was complete, my advisor asked me if I would be interested in doing one of the big grant's experiments to lessen the upcoming budget squeeze.

It's not quite as incestuous as it sounds. (Actually, it could be more incestuous than it sounds. The part of the grant I'm being funded under is headed by my advisor's spouse). The project I'm working on is in my broader interests, although not directly relevant to my comps/planned dissertation work; the project also meets my stated end-of-year review goals of expanding the content of my research and my work with other faculty. So it is a generally interesting and beneficial arrangement, although it does put me in the position (horror of horrors) of most other graduate students out there, technically being employed to do work that is not related to my dissertation. I expect no sympathy for this. I'm not sure it's even possible to spend 40 hours a week on this project, so I'm at least partially getting paid to do my dissertation work.

All of this translates into projects in the very beginning (theoretical, comps), beginning (design, this project), middle (data collection, a mentee's project) and end (last data collection / analysis, my other project). I technically have a project in very end stages (attempting publication), although with any luck that will just be formatting rather than additional shopping around for publishers. It's not a bad place to be.

There's a PhD Comic strip for this, but I can't find the specific one and actually don't want to spend several hours re-reading the entire archives right now.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The March of the PRAs

Our Lab Coordinator (LC) is going to graduate school, so the next few days/weeks will be taken up with interviewing potential replacements. We only advertised locally, and still got a pile of applicants, and are in the middle of an interviewing marathon: three days in a row, we bring an applicant in for a four-hour interview process. I'm only involved for a half-hour of each, joining another graduate student in a team interview, but it's a very all-consuming process for the lab in general.

This will be the second time I've been involved in LC interviews, and the third time I'll be involved in the early stages of training a replacement. Since I worked in this lab the summer between my junior and senior years of college, I'm the only student (graduate or otherwise) to have worked with every LC to work here. So far that's four; by my expected graduation date it will be six.

I could see this as a strong connection to the lab, a badge of honor for the length of my tenure (although not unreasonably long for a dissertation). At the moment, all I see is four to six people who have spent a year or two in a given job and have since moved on to other things, while I have stayed here with the same people and the same non-productive research projects. It roughly translates into: they've made progress in their lives, and I'm still here. Granted, I'm here with a master's degree, and I get paid more than a PRA (once you factor in full-time summer appointments, anyway), but there's a definite hint of stagnation.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Lead TA Training, Day Five

The half-day finale comes just in time; I only have to put up with three and a half hours of training while muzzy-headed from my burgeoning cold.I remain entirely uninspired about the contents of my discipline-specific seminar, which is supposed to be a one-hour session in which I present tips to the new TAs about something in my department that will be hard to teach. Beyond repeating last year's session on statistics, I have no idea how to cross the various sub-disciplines.

There is a great deal of repetitive talk about things I could have figured out by reading the manual, a partner exercise with a guy who has no concept of "personal space", and a very long feedback form, to which I add a gripe about diversity training focusing on race and gender while ignoring potential problems with religious or political viewpoints. Then, freedom, my academic management skills having been improved to the best of the teaching program's ability.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lead TA Training, Day Four

The morning was dedicated to "microteaching", the shorter, group-based version of the videotape consultation. Everyone gives a five minute lesson, watches the video, and then the "students" provide I-Statement Feedback. Yes, this was the 15 to 30 minute session on how to give feedback in I Statements, such as "I felt confused when..." rather than "You were confusing". The good news is that I've already trained myself in this technique, and had to translate away from them to participate in the venting-against-bad-professors exercise. The bad news is that we were all recycling the lesson we'd just got consulted on the day before, so there wasn't much room for improvement. I did get a total-immersion experience in German, and a refresher on derivatives and the properties of light, as part of my student experience.

The afternoon covered a lot of managerial information about our Plan. We are being held very strictly to our 120 hours. Students who don't complete them get to work in the office during the summer. Students who complete them early drop out of existence. The director's rationale for not letting us do, say, 130 hours if we so choose, is that this might scare off anyone else who might take the position later. This to me is pretty stupid. ("I feel frustrated with the reasons behind this strict time requirement"). First, because it's unlikely anyone is going to take the position after me anyway; second, because it's simple enough to say that there's only 120 hours required and you don't have to do as much as I did.

I did get to find out about what other departments do. Some leads will spend their entire flex hours putting on the mandatory seminar for graduate students over the course of the entire year. Some (like me) have 60-70 hours (all that's left after the assorted meetings, plan updates, and other administrative duties are added up) to do whatever they feel like. I have no concrete plans as yet about what these will be; I used my planning time to create the Excel spreadsheet that would tell me just how much time I had to do stuff with.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lead TA Training, Day Three

An entire day spent on the videotape consultation, the established procedure by which we non-evaluatively guide teachers toward a problem in their teaching they wish to work on. The morning d r a g g e d . . . o n . . . f o r e v e r. I was far from the only person in the room who had been through one of these, so I didn't really need to watch one for an entire hour, especially not after two hours of reading the procedures in the manual and having lengthy and highly redundant discussions about them.

The afternoon was much better. I was one of a group of four who would take turns teaching and consulting. The teaching was quite exciting. The Anthropology lead brought a 30-million-year-old partial jawbone and some sample skullls to guide us through comparative morphology in determining what a species ate. The Art History lead had us trying to draw concrete objects and abstract concepts. Our Chemical Engineering lead had a prior engagement, so we also had an impromptu lesson on positive and negative perceptions of persuasion from a communications teacher with over 20 years of experience. I offered the first steps in deciding how to design an experiment. So the four hours of videotape consulting was well broken up by interesting content.

For two of the consultations I was stuck back in the observer mode of the morning. The first one - before I got to do anything myself - started dragging as well. There's a limit to how interested you can feel when you're deliberately inhibiting all the comments you want to interject so the two role-players have their own time. I literally leapt to my feet at the chance to teach. The feedback I got wasn't particularly memorable - we talked about ways I could work on planning alternative questions in advance (when prepared questions failed to elicit the proper response) and be more willing to pause the class for a minute or two rather than trying to talk and think about follow-up questions at the same time.

My turn at consultation apparently went well. The facilitator for my groups was none less than the GTP Director herself (i.e., my boss), and my feedback form contained points starting "excellent" or "good" (and one "friendly"), with no suggestions for improvement. This despite the fact that I was consulting someone who is close to my complete opposite as a teacher: someone who wanted to figure out how she could deal with her nervousness and worry about how her students were feeling during the class. I cannot quite conceive of having any difficulty telling someone to stop sending text messages during class. That's cold-dominant for you.

I had left the morning thinking I probably wasn't going to offer to do videotape consultations at all - the lead network exists as a "network", so other leads could help with any psych students trying for certification. I left the afternoon session thinking that I'd want to encourae all the students to do one, regardless of whether they wanted certification. Tomorrow we start developing our lead plans, and the process of trying to fit two semesters' worth of teaching activities into just 90 hours begins.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Lead TA Training, Day Two

I will say this for the week-long intensive: it may fall behind schedule as easily as anything else in academia, but it has a commitment to ending on time. Yesterday ended promptly at 3:30, despite being half an hour behind all afternoon; today we were running 25 minutes behind all morning and still got out to lunch just five minutes late.

Of course, that statement was typed before the director decided to make us do breathing exercises to open the afternoon. I refuse to do either the plug-one-nostril or the fire-breathing technique of relax/energize breating. If they want me to demonstrate I'm energized, I will get up on the platform and show off some kata, but I am not risking hyperventilation to feel my belly "pop" with each exhale.

Thus far, I have learned about no less than six personality, learning style, and academic leadership style inventories, and ranked myself somewhere on all of them. I am a cold, dominant, refelctive observer, abstract conceptualizer, fact-based, task-oriented, committed relativist, separated knower who prefers synthesis-based exam questions. There are at least two more inventories of one type or another to go, to round out the day.

The diversity workshop did exactly what I expected it would: It reaffirmed my belief that gender disparity is in the eyes of those who expect to find it. It is the woman who could spout phrases like "feminist ideology" who argued that women might be subconsciously cultured to preface statements with "This may be a stupid question" and end with "I don't know", where I firmly place this as a reaction to teacher attitude (i.e., whether I've been extra cold-dominant that day whether I'm staring blankly as I try to come up with a reasonable answer).

Tomorrow we may actually move on to the training in job duties. Hopefully.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Lead TA Training, Day One

This week is brought to you by the nine-to-five (well, 8:30 to 4:30) adventure that is Lead Graduate TA training. The good news is that I'm kind of getting paid (the job pays 6% time over nine months, a total of 120 hours, of which this is 30, but I don't get a paycheck until September) and the week counts as no less than 10 credits for workshops completed towards my teaching certificate. The bad news: aforementioned 8:30, "continental breakfast" of juice and bagels, many hours of latest pedagogical paradigm. Tomorrow, I believe, I get to sit through an hour and a half on "Diversity"; somewhere in the schedule is a section devoted to "I-Statement Feedback".

The lead TA position is two-fold. First, a lot of training for me - pre-professionalism in committee work, presentations, etc., and actual teaching tips. Second, filtered training through me to the other graduate students in my department. That's the hard part of the job: convince continuing graduate students to check out the official workshops on the grounds of "unless you're going into business, you're gonna have to teach at some point", and convince the new TAs (including undergraduate recitation leaders for Intro) that they want to attend the discipline-specific skills kit workshops I think I'm planning. At the moment, I feel that I'll settle for getting them to actually read the emails I will be required to send out, rather than deleting them automatically. This may be accomplished by actuall writing emails, instead of just forwarding them with "FYI. -Me" added on top.

I have found out interesting things about the other TA training programs. There's the department that covers everything including "erase the board up and down, because if you do it left to right your butt will wiggle automatically in a distracting fashion", or the department that says "see the GTP if you want training". My department tends toward the latter. I wish I could have a few hours before the semester starts to run the toolkits workshop (when else will it be useful to discuss syllabus and assignment design), but I'm hopeful for getting ideas from training on how to work around it.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What A Difference A Year Makes

Let's reiterate the "you didn't really think I could do this, did you?" nature of end-of-year progress report/plans with a side-by-side comparison.


"Following completion of the doctoral degree, I plan to continue in the academic field. I prefer to enter a teaching-focused university, where I will teach during the school year with options to continue research either during the summer or on the side. Depending on the level of experience I gain with future TA positions, I may seek one- or two-year terms as Instructors to replace professors on sabbatical before I attempt to get a relatively permanent position as an assistant professor. I prefer to take on a teaching position where I will be able to teach [my field] and statistics, and where I can focus on teaching critical thinking and writing skills. I also prefer to take a position east of the Mississippi, in order to be within easier traveling distance of my immediate family."


"Following completion of the doctoral degree, I plan to continue in the academic field. I will seek employment as a postdoctoral researcher, preferably doing work that is related to my graduate research but branches off into new theoretical territory or skills. Ideally I would complete two two-year postdoctoral positions. At least one of these would continue in [my field], although a second may [be related field]. I have no strong geographic or technical constraints regarding where these postdoctoral positions are, although I would probably not actively search for positions in the Southeast. I prefer to complete two positions to allow more variety in travel before starting a relatively permanent position as an assistant professor. I will most likely seek positions with an emphasis on teaching and mentoring rather than research exclusively, as I have found my work mentoring individual undergraduates to be some of the most satisfying in my graduate career thus far and expect I will feel as strongly about teaching when I have more in-depth experience."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Rejection Junction

My advisor has announced an intention to give a "rejection" talk to the lab sometime this summer. This may or may not be related to a post (on my personal blog) linking the intense need for a vacation and the series of rejections I've received this past year. I'd welcome a discussion, but I'm not sure a talk would help.

Being told that it's part of the process, that it's common even for the big names, is nothing new. Being told not to take it personally is besides the point. I have not been particularly attached to any of my rejected applications - I didn't really need funding/to attend a workshop/whatever; my motivation could easily be summed up as "that would be pretty cool". It just doesn't matter how unattached or thick-skinned you think you are; a rejection is a negative event that puts at least a small dent in your mood and casts a mild pall over all future attempts. Without some clear breeze of an acceptance to clear the air, future rejections just pile up, even over the course of a semester.

At a guess, my advisor has lost touch with the sensations of uninterrupted rejections. Congratulations are handed out to some people in the lab on a fairly regular basis, and they are all shared by the Head Honcho. The advisor gets some kudos on any accomplishment, that "look what we've done; it was a success!" Except that it's harder for a graduate student to share in the success of another grad student; it's more "look what they've done; so why can't my stuff get published?". The rejection train (hence the Schoolhouse Rock reference in the title) already pushed me into "I need a vacation"; even with this morale boost, I'm not sure how much more I can take before I cross the line into "Why bother?".

It's probably not about thick skin or detachment at all; it's about needing to be successful. People who want to go into academia will keep going despite rejection because they're determined to succeed. I don't have enough ambition to care about getting published or otherwise showing off my professional aspirations. The rejection may hit less, than if I thought these things were all important, but there's less reason to bounce back.