Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Winter Break Escape

My Christmas tradition is rejoicing in the academic lifestyle that sends me home for three weeks, while those around me, the ones who have "real" jobs, are hard at work. I didn't even ask my advisor if I could have time off, I simply booked a flight to the home of my ancestors (or my father, at any rate), and prepared to enjoy my warmer, snow-free surroundings. I have not analyzed data, I have not worked on my dissertation, I haven't even dealt with many emails, as my advisor is too busy dealing with her own cold and the colds of her two sons to keep up with the usual rate of requesting information she's seen before and insisting "we" should follow-up on things.

Next week I may pay for this time off, as I simultaneously attempt to put together the fourth chapter of my dissertation (on the third experiment) and devise a fourth experiment that my advisor might actually sign off on. But for now, I am luxuriating in the freedom from research. I just need to recharge enough to last one more semester.

Friday, December 11, 2009

When Advisors Shouldn't Try to Advise

Once upon a time, my advisor met weekly with her undergraduate honors thesis students. The meetings were only half the time devoted to her graduate students, but they were consistent. She helped them choose their projects, decide what to do when problems arose, analyze data, and write.

Then she realized that she had graduate students who could do this for her. The transition started gradually and ended abruptly; suddenly, she met with the graduate students, and the graduate students met with the undergrads, and never did the faculty and undergraduates see each other.

One of my thesis students has been working with me since she was a senior in high school. She picked up one of my side projects - one I would like to do if only that dissertation didn't get in the way. "Our" faculty advisor helped me brainstorm the project, but has been uninvolved since then. She has not met individually with my thesis student. She has not emailed her. She has not responded to my student's emails, beyond instructions on how those emails should be done better. She did not attend my student's lab meeting presentation at the halfway point of data collection.

And now, suddenly, out of the blue, she emailed my student asking why she didn't do *this* instead, where "this" is a plan we had specifically decided against in that lab meeting, and my advisor had implicitly condoned. If the thesis time constraints were really that important.

Which means I sent a very careful but adamant email reminding the advisor that a decision had been made at lab meeting, that if she had any problems with that decision she should have said it then, and explaining exactly how tight the constraints were.

I did not say that she had no business interfering in my mentoring relationship with my student, or butting into a project she has had nothing to do with for almost a year. But I really, really wanted to.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Dissertation Proposal...Take 2

High on the list of things I never thought I would do a second time: Write a dissertation proposal. Not that the original experience was anywhere near as scarring as, say, my comprehensive exam, but neither was it a joyous experience I yearned to repeat.

But, Experiment 4 of my dissertation is killing me. For assorted technological and practical issues, I have given up hope on it working - and did so just as reviews came back declaring Experiment 4 to be absolutely vital for our interpretation of other dissertation findings. My advisor didn't want to let the experiment go. I told her that the experiment was toxic, and that I would sooner pursue an alternate career than get it to work. I was only slightly exaggerating when I said I was starting to think longingly of a career at McDonald's.

Our compromise: She will back me on changing the experiment, if I can restructure the dissertation so the research seems motivated but the current Experiment 4 doesn't seem so obviously necessary. I am to write her a dissertation proposal, which she will approve (or not), and which I can then send to the rest of my committee so they at least have a "heads up!" that the dissertation has changed before I plop it into their inboxes.

It is a good compromise, and it's not like I had much else I would have been doing for the next few weeks anyway. (The original plan was to write later chapters of the dissertation, but the motivation was no longer there). If I get frustrated, I can console myself with the knowledge that at least this time I only have to convince one person, not five.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Ready to Escape

I struggle with my advisor about whether I will defend by April, to graduate in May, or by July, to graduate in August. She thinks my dissertation will be better if I wait (an extra few months to get the data in). Perhaps she's right, but I want out. I dislike this project, I am frustrated by my collaborators, and I have things I want to do over the summer. I am even starting to like the alternative careers/life plans I've come up with if my committee decrees my April defense not good enough.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dissertation Stress: How Good Does the Research Have To Be?

The first chapter of my dissertation, the introduction, is written. The next three chapters, one each for the first three experiments, are drafted - data collected, results written, and only in need of refinement. So why do I feel so stressed out, and so unsure about whether I'll be ready to defend and graduate this year?

It all comes down to the final experiment. Data collection progresses slowly, for reasons not all in my control; it will certainly extend to January, and might extend to February - giving me only a month or less to write up that experiment and the general discussion. So whenever I think about the dissertation, I focus on the question of how demanding my committee will be. Will three successful experiments, and a reasonable attempt at the fourth, be enough? Or will they insist that the fourth experiment must also be of publishable quality?

Last year, one of the students declared that she was not at all worried about her defense because she already had a post-doc offer in hand, and none of the faculty were going to hold her back. I suppose that if I don't have a job offer myself, I shouldn't care if I need an extra year to pull off the final experiment, but I can't stand the thought of failing my defense. Surely three of four successful experiments should be good enough; but do I really want to graduate as just "good enough"?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Job Search - The Personal Touch, From the Search Committee

I always hope for interviews from my job applications, because I don't know how desperate I should be. What makes me hope for an interview from a particular job, and prompts me to assign my special asterisk of interest in my job search spreadsheet, varies. Sometimes it is the department website, which reveals interesting research or a particular dedication to teaching. Sometimes it's the college, which might have a music conservatory, a special summer research program, or an intriguing mini-term like I had in high school. And in one particular case, it's the letter of acknowledgment.

I have received seven e-mail or snail-mail notifications that my application has been received and will be reviewed, occasionally mentioning that my application will be complete when all of my letters of recommendation have been received. The snail-mail letters come with real signatures, but have otherwise been form letters, occasionally with checklists of what materials have been received. Until now. The most recent letter may have started life as a template, but it shows a certain attention to detail. The search chair didn't just say that they were missing one of my letters of reference, he had read my cover letter, specifically the part where I specified who would be sending my letters, and he specified whose letter had not been received. A very small thing, but something that makes the department look good, and makes me think I would enjoy working there.

And that college has received the final letter by now, making me hope I will hear from them again, soon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

To Cancel Class, Or Not To Cancel Class

It may be one of the most hotly contested issues of classroom teaching, for all I know: Does the ill professor cancel class, risking the ire of students and the headache of getting the course back on track, or does the ill professor attend, and risk spreading infection among the students?

I'm sure some professors out there would be horrified to learn that I trekked to campus last Thursday, with a definite fever and slight congestion, and held class as usual. In the panic over swine flu, I might be seen as one of those reckless people who doesn't get vaccinated and doesn't enter deep isolation at the first symptom of illness. The decision was based on three things: I was pretty sure I'd caught whatever it was from my students in my first place (2 out of 7 have been out sick in the past few weeks), I could minimize any more contamination by keeping my distance and using hand sanitizer, and we'd missed a class just two weeks before due to a blizzard. Put together, the cost of canceling another class seemed greater than any risk of sharing the fever.

I should consider myself lucky that I have only one class, two days a week, to cause concern; I do not have a full course load, and an illness can't leave me behind in three or four different classes. On the other hand, as an adjunct, I don't have a network of fellow professors I can ask to sub for any of my classes. With any luck, the next time I get sick I will have multiple classes to keep track of - and then I can sit and work through these decisions all over again.

Friday, November 6, 2009

I'm An Adjunct: Progress Report

I haven't written much about the actual work behind my teaching a graduate seminar as an adjunct at a nearby (defined as "within two hours by public transportation") university. On the bright side, this means I haven't felt the need to anonymously vent about the course or my students.

I have seven students. One is non-traditional, taking a course just to keep her hand in the "professional development" of her field. One speaks English as a second language. Those are my greatest challenges, which is to say that the course is going wonderfully, better than I could have expected, at least from my perspective.

The seminar is two hours, two days a week. When designing my syllabus, I phrased each day's topic as a question. The first hour is led by one of the students, who provides a summary of the day's readings and leads discussion on each article and how they might fit together to answer the day's question. The second hour of class is me getting up and attempting to answer that question myself, and then providing background on the readings for the next class. This leaves me with only one hour of material to prepare each class, and more importantly, only one hour of talking.

Amazingly enough, the class has never got out more than 15 minutes early. Somehow, with only the vaguest idea of what I was doing, I put together a reading list that lets students keep each other occupied for an hour (with occasional input from me, of course). Even more amazingly, I have mastered that Professor skill, which is To Profess. I have heard this from various workshop speakers throughout the years, a comment to the tune of "I'm a professor, so I will just stand up here and speak at you for an hour if you don't stop me with questions". It turns out that I can do this, even on topics not directly related to my research. Every morning on that two-hour commute I refresh myself on the readings and put together some notes, and every afternoon I manage to talk for an hour on what the students should have got out of those readings. Some days I have no idea where this information comes from; it's just there. Surely that's a hallmark of a professor?

I could be wrong in thinking that my students are getting what they need/want out of the class, or otherwise finding it useful. There's enough "lecture" that they should not feel my complain from my own graduate seminars, which was that there was a lot of discussion and not much teaching going on. I haven't been able to bring myself to conduct a more formal survey of student opinion, partly because the course is only for 10 weeks, but mostly because of that blurry graduate student as teacher / graduate student and students line, which I'm wary of crossing. I managed to grade their first papers without problems, feeling myself fully in the role of Expert, or rather More Expert, but my inoculations against undergraduate student opinion have not transferred to graduate students.

We're on the downhill slope now, past the halfway mark for the course, and I'm almost sad. Actually I'm mostly sad, because I love teaching and probably won't do any more for the rest of the year; but only allowing myself to be almost sad, because I do need that time freed up to finish my dissertation, so I can teach more classes next year.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How Many Undergrads Can One Grad Handle?

I'm beginning to think I didn't play up my mentoring experience enough in my job applications. It certainly feels like I managing a research lab of my own at the moment. I don't have any of the administrative headaches in grant allocation and HRC approval, but I do have three - count 'em, three - of my very own undergraduate students.

Senior is conducting an honors thesis. He came on after the first experiment was designed, and handled all the data collection. Now, we've analyzed the first experiment of data, and get to spend the next two months designing a follow-up experiment, in the hopes that he'll have something meaningful, or at least two experiments of null results, in time for his defense. This leaves me juggling the careful nurturing of his own ideas and involvement, the practical matters of what I "know" to be better design, while also fretting over the ongoing headache that is research design. We certainly will be using our entire weekly meeting time for the rest of the semester.

Junior is also conducting an honors thesis, planning to defend a year early just so she could conduct her thesis with me, and not at long-distance when I am (hopefully) away at my new job next year. She first worked with me as a senior in high school, completing a special mentorship program, so we have some experience working together, but I'm starting to find myself frustrated with her lack of self-direction. She is very good at doing whatever I tell her to do in a timely manner, but not so good at figuring out for herself other things that should be done. This is part of what the senior thesis is for, of course, but suddenly it demands effort in figuring out how to teach such metaphysical skills.

Sophomore (I think sophomore, and even if not it allows for beautiful continuity) is not conducting an honors thesis, and is not even running an independent project. I am trying very hard not to mentor her at all, in fact. I requested of our lab coordinator someone who could handle data collection for my final dissertation experiment, with the understanding that this would not be a mentoring relationship, just a change in pace from the normal lab duties. Even so, there's a certain amount of training that must go on, and somehow the meetings have been weekly and hour-long this month as we deal with programming errors and I try to provide some amount of support for all her hard work.

Now that I've passed from a single student, to a pair, and finally into an actual group, it certainly seems as if I'm running my own lab. The managerial details of making sure they keep their promised lab hours may fall to our lab coordinator, but I am trying to write a dissertation here (theoretically). If anything, the size of my lab will decrease when I get a job, because there's no way I'll be able to train three new students in the mess of first-year facultydom. I'll try to keep that in mind as I pass from one student meeting to another.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Job Search: Waiting for Word

Two months after I sent in my first job application packet, the earliest posted "review of applications will begin..." date has passed. Of the 10 jobs to which I have applied, 3 are now reviewing the applications - at least, according to their job announcements they are. That means it's time to really start wondering when, or if, I'll hear anything.

I suppose I should be grateful that one of my letter writers didn't get around to writing my letters before these first deadlines. I can revert to the "they aren't reviewing my application yet" mentality, and not feel worried because the delay isn't my fault (except insofar as I should have been nagging him to write the letters). It wouldn't be bad to delay this new stress a month, until the next batch of application deadlines pass.

I do wish I had some idea when I would find out. If I don't hear within a month of the review beginning, should I decide I'm not one of their top candidates, and write the job off? Or is it two months, or even three? Will these committees even be sticking to the announced review date, or delaying somewhat, in the nature of committees - and faculty in particular - everywhere? At what point is it worthwhile following up with someone at these colleges?

Thus far, the only thing I have received is an assortment of e-mail and snail-mail letters acknowledging my application. This has accomplished two things: One, it has reinforced the frustration of relying on my letter writers to complete my applications for me in a timely manner (when the form letters tell me what I need to complete my application). Two, it has started me worrying about those colleges who haven't acknowledged my application, when I had done so well in deliberately not worrying about packets getting lost in the mail or the administrative offices.

I have promised myself I will not start freaking out about my job prospects until January. It's only a week after the first review should have begun, and already I'm wondering more than I should. It's going to be a long three months.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Prioritize The Dissertation, Failing To

I mentioned to one of the other graduate students in my lab that I had achieved my goal of applying to 10 jobs this semester, and he was suitably impressed. Not at the number - like me, he has no idea how many job applications would be reasonable - but at the fact that I was applying for jobs and finishing my dissertation at the same time. He didn't think he could do it.

I'm not really doing it. Applying for jobs, yes; making progress on my dissertation, not so much. It's not the job applications that have delayed my dissertation progress, so much, although checking the various job posting sites has become my new means of "productive" procrastination. Teaching, and mentoring my undergraduate students, and just dealing with the daily influx of emails and small requests, are taking up all my time. Even telling myself that I would dedicate one day a week to working on the dissertation has not motivated me enough; there are always things with nearer deadlines, or straightforward end-of-week burnout.

In my defense, I have written drafts of the first four chapters - my introduction, and the first three experiments. I have also been kept busy with the design and data collection of my fourth experiment, so it's not as though I've done nothing. I've just done very, very little since the semester began. I had planned to have my introduction ready for my advisor's approval by the end of the semester; that's not likely to happen.

The good news is that our department colloquium lacked a speaker last week, so it became a q&a on dissertation requirements. The one member of my committee who was present advanced his opinions on length of the dissertation, explicitly stating a preference for an introduction appropriate for a journal article, and definitely not in the style of our huge comprehensive exam. I am relieved that my procrastination does not come at as huge a cost as I thought (I'm only 20 pages behind, not 50). I might even be motivated enough to turn to that introduction and start revising. Or I might be one of those people who only gets to writing within a month of the due date. At least my job applications get out several months in advance.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Small Conference, Remembered by the Stomach

At my first conference I was one of about 8,000 attendees; at my second, I was one of about 500. The most noticeable difference between the two was the food. At the large conference, the only food I received was at a special networking lunch I signed up for, and paid extra for. At this conference, there was food everywhere.

Each morning there was a continental breakfast. This was not "continental" in the sense of my (cheap) non-conference hotel, which was cereal, bananas, slightly stale muffins, and the opportunity to make Texas-shaped waffles; this was "continental" in the sense of coffee and danishes of plausibly European origins. More coffee would be served at the second session; no snacks, but then it was right before lunch.

Between the two afternoon sessions, tables were laid out featuring yet more coffee (obviously the caterers understood that attendees would be jet-lagged, and likely unused to waking up at 7 a.m. for several days in a row), and delicious fudgy chocolate brownies. There was an alternative to the brownies, but I ignored it.

The greatest surprise was at the poster session. These were over the dinner hour, and I expected people to be rushing through on their way to nourishment. Instead, there was an array of hors d'oeuvres, including mini kebobs, some little potato pancakes, and many triangular pieces of bread decorated with fancy flowers of butter.

Of course, there was more to the conference than just the food. There was the research, and networking (not well, but some) with other researchers, and getting the chance to present my own research. But I think the catering will be the most memorable part of the conference, and something by which future conferences will be judged. After all, I am still a graduate student, and entranced by free food.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Job Search: Relying on the Letter Writers

There must be some polite way to see someway and say, "Oh hey! I know you tend to be busy and not at all deadline-oriented, and I was just wondering if you'd written those letters of reference that are due this week, or even remembered that you agreed to write them".

There must be, but I don't know what it is. So I just stalked this particular professor at his office hours, a week after those deadlines had passed, on the pretext of asking how he would like to receive the next list of jobs to which I would be applying, in the hope that he would in some way indicate whether the earlier batch of letters had been sent. This turned into a 45-minute conversation on the benefits of microwave coking, his work with the Teamsters Union, and our mutual preference for CDs over mp3s. Buried within this array of topics was the information that he did remember the letters, and had kept the folder of supporting materials I provided in a safe place as he rearranged his office, but had not remembered the deadlines, or written anything.

In my gentle prodding way, I volunteered myself to produce stamped, addressed envelopes, with departmental letterhead, and a quick checklist of colleges and addressees first thing the next morning. I am deliberately not worrying about how an incomplete application will affect the opinion of the search committee, which only affects three jobs, two of which I wasn't excited about. I will, however, be stalking this professor at his office hours again later this week, or contriving a "coincidental" meeting in the hall where he might spontaneously update me on his progress.

I don't mind my job prospects depending on other people, in the form of the search committees that will make the employment decisions. I do mind my job prospects depending on other people, in the form of other people sticking to deadlines that really only matter to me.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Adjunct ID

I didn't need to pick up an adjuct ID card. I blend in on almost any college campus. I spend only eight hours a week there, all of which is spent in my office or my classroom. I don't even have to cross campus to get to my office; my building is on the edge, and I get there by walking down a street with campus on one side and a residential neighborhood on the other. I certainly hadn't missed the card in the first three weeks of class, so there really was no reason to detour to the ID office on Thursday.

Except: I really, really wanted one. For two reasons, two little words: Adjunct Professor. There are days I can't quite believe I'm really a professor, hired to a position in my chosen profession. I'm not going to be taking the ID out of my wallet and admiring it - I'm not quite that crazy - but I will be saving it, the tiny, official memento of my first "real" job.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Customizing Cover Letters: They Inspire Me, I Inspire Them

The advice for cover letters in academia is the same as for cover letters everywhere: Always address them to a specific person, convince the reader that you're perfect for the job in question, and do it concisely. The greatest challenge for non-academic jobs is probably being concise; at least in academia we get two pages instead of a few paragraphs. The greatest challenge for academic jobs, at least for me, is customizing the letter for different jobs.

Sometimes that little extra is easy. With the right college, or at least an informative website, those little tweaks to put at the end or beginning of a sentence are easy: I am particularly intrigued by this program you offer, which demonstrates your commitment to undergraduate research. I believe my philosophy of teaching matches your department's statement endorsing a liberal arts education. Whether it's a special summer research program, unique courses offered in a special January term, or just some quirk about the college's history, there's something worth writing about.

Other times, however, that little extra effort turns into a lot of extra effort. The advertisement was cut-and-dried in its expectations. The college had no standout philosophy or curriculum. The department pages don't even supply much unique character, just the bare bones of research topics and course descriptions. I can search and search, and find nothing that inspires a single extra sentence about my qualifications and why I match their culture.

On the bright side, this customization works both ways. The hiring committee uses it to judge whether I'm really interested in their job; I also used it to judge whether I'm really interested in their job. The little statements I add are genuine, and make me feel excited about the prospect of being hired or even getting an interview with this particular college. That unique character will make me eager to get a position, even if it's asking me to specialize in my less-favored subfield. The fact that I couldn't find anything worth writing about says as much about whether I would want a job at that college as whether they would want to hire me.

I do not feel guilt or worry about my boilerplate applications. The cookie-cutter advertisement and website convinced me that there's enough possibility of a match to send my cookie-cutter application. Perhaps I'll get an interview anyway, and discover the wonders of a college that doesn't represent itself online as well as it should. Or perhaps I'll simply save my time and effort for colleges that do move me, and find the best match possible.

Or perhaps, if I'm still writing cover letters in the Spring, I'll become desperate enough to learn how to fake those custom sentences. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

First Day of Class

Today I am a professor. Or I should be. Let's run through the becoming-a-professor checklist and see how I'm doing.

*Get hired. Well, the unofficial hiring process has been completed - I was offered the job, I gave some poor admin assistant a bit of a headache trying to arrange my class time, and the department chair confirmed as of yesterday that I am teaching the class (specifically, that the students are excited, but I'm taking that with a grain of salt). The official hiring process, on the other hand, has barely begun, thanks to a months-long delay in gathering my information for a background check (the fact that my eventual login had the wrong domain suggests the underlying cause).

*Familiarize myself with the department. Not so much, no. To date, my only trip to this department was my hiring interview, in which I learned the location of the building, water fountain, and chair's office. I think I know where the main office is, because there are only a few reasons for secretary's window in a campus building lobby. I do not know where my classroom is, I don't know where my office is, I don't even know how many floors the building has. I know adjunct professors are academic temps and don't qualify for benefits, but I was kind of hoping for some form of orientation. Hopefully the main office admin people will be forthcoming with information like how to get my syllabus photocopied.

*Review my class roster. Nope. Due to the above hiring delay, I do not have a login for any of the campus websites that might let me access my roster; but that's okay, because due to the above disorientation, I don't even know what the websites are. As of a few weeks ago, when a student asked for permission to enroll, I had six students enrolled, with another two possibles. Once again, I'm relying on the main office to help me out.

*Get campus ID. Nope. Again, this can be blamed on the slow hiring process. Fortunately, I'll blend right in to a college campus, with my trusty red-and-black swiss army backpack advertising my student status, so I'm not too worried about being stopped by campus security and asked for proof I belong.

*Prepare my class syllabus. At last, something I can check off. My syllabus is 7 pages long, with one page of course information and six pages of readings. I read or skimmed every reading, about 850 pages of scholarly work, and several dozen additional articles that were discarded as not fitting my grand plan for each class. I know when papers will be due, and even have a list of potential topics. Only one day, our final discussion, may need a little something extra, if I judge that additional readings are needed to get my students discussing for the entire two hours.

*Prepare lesson plan for the first day of class. Check. There is of course the obvious: Introducing myself to the class, having the students introduce themselves to me and each other, and reviewing the syllabus, These are all necessary, but I don't like limiting the first day of class to such administrative tasks. The first day of class sets the tone. In undergraduate courses, this means they need to break out their notebooks and preferably their minds at some point. In a graduate seminar, this means discussion of some sort. My advisor, experienced in the ways of graduate seminars, provided the topic: A discussion of discussions. Everyone knows what makes a good discussion and what makes a bad discussion, but it's helpful to spell it out that first day and come up with class tactics for halting bad discussions.

*Dress like a professor. Or perhaps not like a professor. Most professors are distinguishable from students only by age - it was in a seminar much like the one I'm teaching that I first realized that my professor and I wore the same sneakers. I am not distinguishable from my students by age, and will have to rely on wardrobe. A suit or even dress pants seems overkill, as these are typically reserved for job interviews, but jeans are certainly out. I rely on the button-down shirt and black slacks to convey the right impression.

And then it's just a matter of killing time until class starts. Preferably by, say, getting hired, finding my office, and all those minor details.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

One Last Vacation Before the Storm

Next week the teaching begins, and my schedule will lose a great deal of its flexibility. The day-to-day "wake when I want, work at whatever time of day seems best" flexibility will remain, but the broader flexibility of escaping for long weekends as needed will be gone. I'll be teaching a Tuesday/Thursday class, and suddenly a short weekend is the best I can do. Cancelling class is acceptable for the conference I will be attending, but not, say, to visit family or just get away from grad school.

So Labor Day weekend became my last escape, five days to relax and recharge before the semester begins in earnest. It was a truly American vacation, consisting of sleeping until noon, staying up late watching movies with my sister and brother-in-law, and fitting in some quality bonding time with my two-month-old nephew (whose idea of bonding is finding new and interesting places to spit up on me, then smiling as evolutionary survival mechanisms kick in).

Now, of course, the post-vacation stress begins to kick in as I attempt to finalize 8 weeks of readings in just seven days, on top of all my usual dissertation and mentoring work. The replenished energy stores should last just long enough - and then I'll actually be teaching. If only they weren't graduate students, and I could convince them to call me "Prof" on a regular basis.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Customizing Cover Letters

Every piece of advice I have read about applying to faculty positions emphasizes the importance of the cover letter. It should be brief, it should introduce all the critical pieces of your application, and it should be customized. If at all possible, mention any special requirements from the notice, or say something nice about the college or department; don't let them think this is just a form letter you're sending everywhere.

In theory, this is great advice. In practice, I could find nothing to say. I slaved over the cover letter template for over a week, from the time I learned one of my letter writers had gotten ahead of me until I couldn't stand it anymore. I struggled with the opening paragraph, which should summarize my qualifications and convince the reader that I will graduate in May. I sweated over the second paragraph, which was devoted to convincing faculty at liberal arts colleges that I knew what I was applying for. I condensed my teaching philosophy and teaching biography into one paragraph each, trying to convince committees to hire me without sounding fake or overdone. Then the same thing for my research philosophy (mentoring undergrads) and research statement. It was all the writing I did for a week.

I exhausted myself with the main points; I couldn't bring myself to customize. There wasn't anything less that didn't sound incredibly fake. What could I say about my ability to contribute to a college's "strategic plan"? The truth was that I'll do what I can if I'm hired, and I have nothing more to offer than that. Is it necessary to justify myself as a teacher of an unfamiliar subfield when they are so very tentative about what the course requirements may be? I'll teach what I'm asked to teach, and I'll do a good job of it, even if I'm learning what I'll be teaching only a few days ahead of the students.

In the end, I wound up with three template cover letters. One for a teaching fellowship, which will be adapted for any visiting professor positions I might apply for. Two are for the assistant professor positions, each with a slightly different focus on my research to cover the two main subfields I might apply for. Perhaps in the upcoming weeks, when the stress of drafting the first cover letter begins to fade, I will be able to come up with promising statements about how I am the best possible candidate for the job. At the moment, what they get is all I can do: This is why I am applying for this type of job, and why I think I'm qualified, and that will have to be enough.

Monday, August 31, 2009

One Enthusiastic Student

I have not received the official hiring paperwork for my adjunct professor job, or heard much from the department chair, or finalized the syllabus, but at least one of my students is excited about the course. Just as I was realizing that the course would start in three weeks, and perhaps I should get back to work on my preparations, I received an email, and a chance to make someone's day.

Someone who was not required to was interested in taking my seminar. She was a non-traditional student, not enrolled in the department but in a related real-world business field, thought this seminar would be an extra piece of professional development. How could I possibly pass up the chance to have a student who volunteered for the class?

Of course, this request also highlighted all the things I do not know about my new job. I do not know how to check the enrollment, to find out how many students I already have. I do not know how large the room for the class is, and how many students it can fit; in fact, I don't know whether we have a classroom assigned at all. I certainly don't know the procedures for providing official instructor approval for a student to enroll. I don't even know which of the two department staff members who have emailed me should be asked about these things.

The enrollment request spurs answers to some of these questions. I have 5 students enrolled, of 7 who expressed interest in my course; my non-traditional volunteer will make 6 or 8, helping to fill a classroom designed for 11. The staff will produce a form for special enrollment. And presumably, someone somewhere is making sure I am officially hired, and will tell me if I need to acquire a faculty ID card. Otherwise, I might just show up the first day of my class with some syllabi, and just get on with teaching.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Mistaken For An Undergrad

The curse of the graduate student is the word "student"; most people I meet seem to lump us in with undergraduates, as not having real jobs, or incomes, or being adults at all. If I were a few years older, I would be pleased to be mistaken for a teenager; as it is, I'm usually amused at my ability to blend in.

On Tuesday, the second day of classes, I cut across the dorm lawns on my way to the administrative buildings. I blended in perfectly, just another person wearing jeans, t-shirt and sneakers, carrying a backpack. I doubt anyone thought I was a freshman - I overheard two upperclassmen carrying on the college tradition of being surprised at how young and/or tiny the freshmen looked - but I could certainly pass as a senior. My appearance hasn't changed much in the past four years; if anything, I probably look more like a college student than I used to, thanks to my recent rediscovery of denim.

That same afternoon, I was mistaken for either a high school senior or a college senior, I'm not sure which. I took three manilla envelopes to the post office, each containing the hopes and dreams of a job application. The postal service employee, noting the college addresses on each, asked if I was applying to school. I don't expect USPS personnel to recognize the subtle clues of packages addressed to "search committee", but I am going to assume that he was aware of graduate school, and assumed I was applying instead of trying to get out.

At some point in the next year, I shall have to decide what I should do with my wardrobe if/when I get a job. The faculty dress code is indistinguishable from the graduate students'; our department chair once caused quite a stir by showing up in a suit instead of his usual khaki shorts and socks-with-sandals ensemble. Faculty seem to rely on their extra experience to set them apart from their students, and I won't gain that much gravitas in the next year. I will either have to modify my wardrobe considerably, or decide that I don't care about blurring the faculty-student lines.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Timing Recommendation Letter Requests

Would you rather worry that a professor will forget to write your letter of recommendation before application review begins, or discover that a professor has sent out your letters when you haven't prepared your application yet?

Four years of graduate school have trained me well when interacting with faculty. I know that if I show up five minutes after the scheduled start of any weekly meeting or colloquium, I will not be "late", because many faculty will still be on their way. I know that my committee members want any drafts at least one and preferably two weeks in advance, but will not read the drafts until the night before, or possibly the morning of the meeting.

Knowing the usual turnaround time for requests from faculty, I made my requests for recommendation letters as soon as I found jobs worth applying for, all with deadlines in mid-October. Two and a half months' notice seemed about right: Enough time for the faculty to write two or three pages enthusing about my teaching or research skills, but not so much time that they might forget or misplace the request. The challenge is that with three different professors, I get three different responses.

The first letter was requested of my advisor. Her response typifies what I have come to expect of faculty; hardly surprising, I suppose, when she's the faculty member with whom I interact the most. She responded by instructing me to keep our lab coordinator copied on all these emails, a necessary step to make sure she meets the deadlines. Two and a half months is cutting it a bit close for the busy faculty member just starting her sabbatical.

The second letter was requested of the instructor for whom I taught an advanced laboratory course. I asked in person, and received an enthusiastic agreement and instructions to tell him exactly what he wanted me to say. I emailed the list of addresses, and have heard nothing since. In a few weeks, when the hectic start of the semester is over, I'll arrange to pass him in the hallway, and check up on the letters as part of the small talk.

The third letter was requested from a the director of my school's graduate teaching office. Here is where I got my surprise, a faculty member who had been trained to deal with student requests in a timely and efficient matter. Barely a week after I made the request, I got an email - the letters had been sent. I had barely thought about my cover letters, and colleges would receive a letter endorsing me within a few days.

This certainly provided the impetus for me to get on with my applications. A week and a half later, I had written, revised and finalized my cover letter, and finished revising my teaching and research statements. Surely the search committee, or whichever staff member was delegated to deal with the incoming mail, could not hold such a brief delay against me. After all, there were graduate schools who received my GREs and nothing else.

As panicked as I was the first three days after I learned the letters had already been sent, I find I much prefer the faculty member who is completely on top of such things. I will spend the next two months worrying whether the other letters have been written or sent; given the choice between a brief panic and a lingering mild worry, I'll take the brief panic any time.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Requesting Recommendation Letters

The first time I TA'd a lab course, my professor mentioned how much more confident I seemed. My first TA with him had been Intro, my second semester of grad school. Although I had already TA'd for one semester of Intro at that point, the first year of graduate school was not particularly distinguishable from college, except for the lack of a supportive social group. It was gratifying but hardly surprising to discover I appeared more confident several years later; by the time I started requesting TA opportunities I was a grown-up, or at least I felt like one.

Being a grown-up does not help with some chores. I've matured enough to teach confidently with excellent FCQs, and even request time at the next faculty meeting for my Lead TA duties. Time comes to ask faculty for letters of recommendation, though, and I'm back to being a college student. Twenty minutes to compose a three-sentence email, loitering around office hours trying not to appear to be loitering...oh, college Student. How I do not miss thee.

Perhaps next time it will be easier. Asking for letters is hard for two reasons: First, because it's asking an unrequited favor, and second, because it's presuming a positive opinion. There is not much I can do about the second, beyond watering my ego and hoping it grows (though not too much), but this time at least I had ways to repay my writers. My prof, upon hearing that I could provide my course materials for his reference and declaring me one of the best TAs he's had, asked for copies he could give out to future TAs. And asking my Lead TA boss put me on her radar, as someone to turn to when she needed a last-minute training assistant.

If I do not get a job, it will not be for a lack of good references. And it might not even be due to a lack of confidence.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Dorothy Syndrome

Somewhere on the Top 10 Signs It's Time to Graduate there must be: You return to school from a trip to Kansas and spend days dreaming you could go back.

I never really understood Dorothy's insistence on getting back to Kansas. Oz was cool; she got to explore, meet talking animals, animated scarecrows and tin statues, and experience magic. Sure, often that magic was started by the wicked witch and aimed against her, but that should just add to the adventure. I blamed this on the late-19th-century opinion of the good girl and a female's place in the world.

Now I find myself drawn to Kansas for the same reason she was, or a very similar one:
my sister, brother-in-law, and brand-new nephew. And grad school is no Oz to distract me. There is no magic or sense of adventure, just a list of chores to be completed before the new semester starts, the continuing drudgery of Dissertation Experiment 3, and a great deal of will required to show up to work every day. It's hard even to get excited by the prospect of applying for jobs, because the jobs seem scarce and it's just more work to cram into a busy semester.

I'm still not certain I would ditch Oz in favor of my family, but I'd certainly ditch grad school for them. Which provides a great deal of motivation to get through

Friday, July 3, 2009

Giving Thanks For My Advisor

I am sitting in the office past 6pm on a Friday night, getting eyestrain from staring at my computer screen and goosebumps from the extreme AC. But I am sitting here conducting lit searches and extreme data analysis because I feel like doing it now, not because my advisor requested an end-of-business day meeting on a day when the university is closed (and grad students technically get the day off) so she could request work be done in preparation for another meeting first thing Monday morning. None of the faculty here are really insane, but one or two can pass for it easily.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

No-Sweat FCQs

I have only had 3 semesters of FCQs, but the experiences of reading that first set and reading the most recent set seem light-years apart.

With my first FCQs, I avoided opening the envelopes for months, opened it to mediocre scores and one very negative comment, and required a considerable amount of moral support and encouragement to teach again. I still have that negative comment memorized word for word.

With my most recent FCQs, I couldn't bring myself to be worried. I had a moment, toward the end of the semester, thinking that if the FCQs were worse than the last semester, after the training I've had and the work I've put in, I would be incredibly depressed. I haven't thought about it since, and when I learned that FCQs had been returned, I went out of my way to pick them up. I took a careless glance at the scores immediately, in the minute before a meeting.

The scores did not disappoint. It was extremely gratifying to see a row of 5-point-somethings on a 6-point scale. TA's interest and knowledge: 5.9. Instructor overall: 5.7. Use median instead of mean, and both were 6.0.

My teaching portfolio now shows a lovely increase in FCQs, a learning curve that seems (to me) perfectly reasonable in showing that I have improved my teaching skills as part of my graduate training. With any luck, prospective employers will be impressed. And if all else fails, at least I can look forward to teaching the class again in the Spring.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Two Down, Two To Go?

In six hours, with 21 emails sent between 4 people in 2 countries/time-zones, and one last half-hour trying to figure out how to edit a TIFF on a Mac (eventually accomplished in 30 seconds in Paint, one last reason to love Windows), and the usual obsessing over journal formatting requirements, my second manuscript has been submitted.

Representing Experiment 2 of my dissertation, and one of those findings that convinced my advisor/committee that the research was worthwhile, it has been sent to a major journal (impact factor > 4) due to my advisor's philosophy of "aim high". Not quite as high as a lab-mate, who is submitting to Science, but high enough that I have no expectations.

The submission comes with perfect timing: Yesterday I finished collecting data for Experiment 3, and with the submission of Experiment 2 I can turn to all-new data analysis. Of course, I have just 2 weeks or less before learning whether the journal will even review our manuscript (they decline to review 60% of submissions), so I might not have much time to devote to the new data before the manuscript is back in my lap in need of a new journal and any relevant revisions. Still, it's reason enough to go out for dinner on a Friday night, even if I will be going on vacation on Monday.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A New Job, and Funding Complications

My advisor has a knack for turning a small triumph into a small headache. It is no doubt a knack shared by advisors everywhere, resulting from the different interests of grad students and faculty.

The triumph: I was offered the adjunct professor position at a nearby university, teaching an introductory graduate seminar. It's my first real job, outside of grad school, and I will be a "professor", for two months at least. Receiving the news was a much-needed motivational boost for my upcoming job search.

The headache: My advisor's reaction was, first "hooray!" (the text of her email responding to the news) and then, within hours, "so, how much do I have to pay you next semester?". It's hard not to interpret this as "how little can I get away with paying you next semester", and that the small salary that comes with the position is to make life easier for her grant, not for me. Unfortunately, I'm having a little trouble convincing her that my tuition waiver is linked to my employment here, not at a university in another city, and the potential loss of the tuition waive to "equalize" my pay with other grad students is setting off a mild panic.

I would like enjoy the thrill and challenge of designing my first real course, and anticipating going to a nearby university and teaching a new group of students. For now, though, thinking about the course is tinged with worry about administrative headaches that should never have existed. Just another reason to be taking off on a week-long vacation to visit family next week.

Monday, June 1, 2009

An In-Person Interview

Time to brush off those long-forgotten interview skills, last used some four (four!) years ago during the grad school application process. Friday afternoon I have an in-person interview at the University of Major City, my final chance to convince someone that I can teach a graduate proseminar while ABD.

I am more excited than nervous. It really helps that there's no pressure: I don't need the job, it would just be a very cool opportunity. And, since I am ABD, I can always shrug off rejection on the grounds that I just don't have that final qualification - although I'm not entirely sure how an extra six months of working on my dissertation is supposed to improve my teaching. So it's really just an excuse to practice my interview skills, and take breaks from research in the next few days to brainstorm ideas for a seminar in my field. What topics should be covered? How should different theoretical perspectives be covered? (My advisor taught the course 12 years ago, and it was entirely theoretically oriented. I don't think I can do that - and finishing the dissertation certainly wouldn't help. But how close can I get?) What topic would I choose for a final paper?

The problem with the interview is that it's going to jolt me out of my careful focus on my dissertation and start me thinking about after the dissertation. I can't even begin looking for jobs yet - they aren't being posted, everyone's still trying to fill the last-minute positions for this fall - and I'm going to start daydreaming about when I have a real job. It might help me get through the next few weeks of intense data collection; it might not.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Journal Club

As part of our ongoing efforts to train our undergraduate senior thesis students (read: make the graduate student mentor's life a little bit easier), the lab is reviving journal club. Theoretically, for the past few years all grad students have had the opportunity to read papers somewhat related to our work and share them with the lab, but I think it's happened perhaps twice in four years.

Now, grads are expected to "model" the journal club presentations, so the undergrads can take over later in the summer, as part of their much-needed practice in reading and critiquing published research. Time to emerge from the mind-numbed cave that is extensive dissertation/manuscript preparation, and attempt to convey enthusiasm for other people's research while clearly and concisely summarizes an entire paper - in 5 minutes. And I've been volunteered to go first.

It doesn't help that the topics aren't optional; we're helping my advisor prepare for her sabbatical by reading papers authored by the professor with whom she'll be working next year. Perhaps if my advisor promised she'd fly us each out to California for an in-person meeting at some point during the next year, I could work up more enthusiasm...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Let the Job Search Begin...

I just applied for my first faculty position. Not one for Life After Graduate School; existing faculty would probably revolt if they had to sit on search committees for positions opening in 15 months. This position is adjunct faculty, teaching one course at nearby University of Major City, on the topic of my field exactly.

This is an excellent example of networking working for you. My advisor used to be on the faculty at that university, before I entered grad school, and the chair contacted her to see if she could recommend anyone. And as luck would have it, she had this ABD student busily laying the groundwork for a teaching-focused career. This morning I spoke to the chair on the phone, learning about the position and providing some brief explanations of my teaching credentials and ideas for the course. The call ended with the invitation to submit a formal application online, and plans to talk again sometime next week.

I have no expectations for how this will turn out. One the one hand, I have the insider recommendation and a respectable CV; on the other hand, ABD is the minimum requirement for graduate-level, and the completed PhD is always preferred. Even if it doesn't pan out, though, it's given me experience in other things that matter. I've continued to improve my phone interview skills, I've sweated over writing my first cover letter (which will be the template for all future applications), and I have that all-important sense of doing something. Getting the job would almost be just a bonus at this point.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dissertation in Progress

I am working on my dissertation. Not even two full days of working on it (two days of copy-and-pasting old papers into dissertation chapters) can take away that thrill of finally being close to being finished. My dissertation committee approved my proposal with what I will happily call "minor" changes - taken care of by spending five hours programming on Sunday, and running a few extra analyses in the past two days. For the rest of the summer, it's just a matter of collecting data and reading the background literature.

I'm going to hate that reading, sooner rather than later, just as I did for my comps. But as long as I stay focused on what it will get me - the first chapter of my dissertation - I should be able to survive it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

There Is No "A" in Effort

The one thing I dislike about teaching is dealing with the students who think their grades are lower than they deserve. And it's always a matter of "deserve". So far I've only had one student who came out with a full sense of entitlement, "I don't get D's", but I've had every reason to want to track down whomever coined the phrase "A for effort" and give them a stern talking-to.

I made the mistake of returning final papers on the last day of class, not at the final exam. I wanted to remove a bit of uncertainty from their lives, and let them determine just how much studying they would need to do to get the grade they wanted. Unfortunately, this also gave them time to complain to me about their grades. One student emailed me, explaining that "I do not believe the grade I got in lab reflects how much effort I put into the labs". Another student asked to meet with me because she had some questions about grading, spent 15 minutes listening to me explain her grade, and then asked "But what about all the effort I put into this?". It's all I can do not to bang my head on my desk.

I can see where students' expected relationship between efforts and grades comes from. I don't even entirely blame some cultural movement that's deluding students into believe that working hard is all that matters. Generally speaking, when you put more effort into something, you get a better product, so effort and grades are usually correlated. However. Better does not necessarily mean A-quality. It doesn't matter if a student put 10 hours into a paper; if that paper doesn't meet the standards I laid out for an A, then it doesn't get an A. If it doesn't meet the basic requirements I put into the assignment, it doesn't even get a C.

Dealing with students in these situations is challenging. It requires a great deal of self-control. I do not respond to emails by saying that the grade doesn't reflect your effort because you turned in your final paper late and got hit with that late penalty, that I've already made two exceptions for you and won't make a third, and that I don't care whether you can get an A in the class. I do respond to questions about effort with "I don't care how much effort you put into it", just because the question frustrates me. I carefully explain that grades are based on the assignment that is turned in, and start explaining, again, how that grade was determined.

This has to be the best argument against assigning papers. Even when you think the reading and the grading are fun, the subjective nature of grading invites students to convince you to change the grade.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Dissertation Proposal Is In

There could be no more perfect timing than the posting of this PhD comic: "That's the test of a true Ph.D...To take 5 years of marginally related work and pretend you knew what you were doing the whole time". I read it just as I was sitting down to finally finish my dissertation proposal. This was definitely an exercise in pretending I meant to look at this theory all along, when what really happened was that I had randomly attached myself to some studies that produced interesting results while all my own research failed. There's nothing like trying to turn a completely unexpected result into a justified prediction.

The dissertation proposal process also fits in well with another PhD comic - take it out; put it in; take it out again. The proposal I turned in bears a striking similarity to the first draft I sent to my advisor - "striking" because at some point in the revisions process she had me substantially alter the last two experiments, and then had me change them back to what they used to be. The proposal is certainly better for her input and my rewriting, but I could have done without adding and then scrapping some experiment manipulations. It certainly doesn't bode well for my proposal meeting next week, when the rest of the committee will weigh in on how my proposed experiments could be "improved". At some level, I just want to tell them that I have a better idea than they do about what we're doing and what will work, and to let me do it. I don't think that would go over very well.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Acceptable and Unacceptable Excuses

Acceptable reason for emailing an hour before a paper is due and asking for an extension: My roommate OD'd last night, I was the one who found him and called the paramedics, he almost died, he only regained consciousness an hour ago, I have police paperwork to verify. I could have done without some of the graphic details, but I don't expect someone who's just been through an experience like that to have a fully functioning courtesy filter.

Unacceptable reason for asking for an extension to an extension: I have another paper due on the extension deadline and I don't want to have to ask for an extension on that paper too. This is crossing the line between an understandable request due to circumstances beyond your control to the undergradese "please rearrange your life to suit mine".

I'm sorely tempted to institute a "turn in what you've got on the deadline or turn in nothing at all" policy when I actually have control of the class you teach. If I'm going to feel like the bad guy (for not being completely flexible), I might as well be one.

Monday, April 20, 2009

End-of-Semester Personal Tragedies

I of all people know the worst things in your life happen without regard to convenience, or to college schedules. It was during the last week of classes one semester that I received a call from my father telling me that my mother had had a heart attack and was in a coma. I was fortunate in that I was a graduate student, and only had to survive telling my advisor and one other professor. My undergraduate students have to deal with four or five different teachers, hoping that all of them will be reasonable.

Several of my students are having difficult times this semester. I have managed to avoid a deluge of dead grandmothers (or -fathers). I have a student whose son has been diagnosed with a neurological disorder; a student suddenly going in for back surgery; and a student whose great-grandmother had a stroke. All have provided or offered to provide documentation. I certainly have no personal interest in forcing them to do school work during their respective difficulties, or in reading papers written with whatever parts of their brain they can spare. It's frustrating for them, and frustrating for me.

Still, part of me looks at these emails and thinks come on. If you've known since Thursday, why are you writing me the day the paper is due to tell me? Just how close is your relationship with your great-grandmother, anyway, and at what degree of consanguinity do we declare that an excuse is no longer valid? Where is the line between being a mentor and agreeable teacher, and being a pushover?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Learning to Write Recommendation Letters

My advisor tries to remain very supportive of her undergraduate students, even when she barely knows them. They may only see her in lab meetings, and she may not recognize them if she passes them in the hall, but she has grad students and the lab coordinator to be her eyes and ears. Every year she looks for a rising senior to nominate for a prestigious (if small) departmental research award. This year, there were two rising seniors in our lab, both planning to do a senior thesis, and she picked the one who is working with me.

He is an exceptional student, and not just "exceptional" in the sense that he is one of two males in a female-dominated lab. I waxed enthusiastic about his funding proposal draft, when I saw thesis-quality writing without any assistance from me. I am completely behind arguing that he should receive any kudos we can get from him. I just wish my advisor were doing more of the work than picking who she would nominate.

All that is required of the advisor is a letter of recommendation; the rest of the burden of application is on the student's shoulders. But my advisor has only met with this student once, so she asked me to draft the letter. I was happy to do this, since I was in the best position to do so. It was a challenge, and a useful experience. The frustration started when I received her comments. Not changes she had made to the letter to improve it, but the things I should do to improve it.

As I told our lab coordinator, who has been helping me with the writing, I can't tell if the point is to write a great recommendation for the student or to train me in the writing of recommendations. If it were to get him the award, it would make a lot more sense if she put some of her expertise in writing such letters to use, instead of having me fumbling around in my first-ever attempt to "sell" a student's accomplishments.

Yes, this will be incredibly helpful in my chosen career, when I will be asked to write any number of similar recommendations. It's great training, if something difficult to include in my vita ("ghost-wrote recommendation letters"). But still, it's incredibly frustrating to realize that she will sign her name to a letter when her contribution was "talk more about this" and "move these sentences here".

Monday, April 13, 2009

Grad School and the Economy

I graduated from college in a year of relative economic prosperity. But I was terrified of the job market, and one of advantages to applying to grad school was the security of knowing what I would be doing months before I actually graduated. So I can certainly understand why people enroll in grad school in times of economic uncertainty. I wasn't willing to go on the job market when times were good, so I certainly wouldn't want to be on the job market now.

Unfortunately, I don't have much choice. Unless something goes horribly wrong with my remaining two experiments (always a possibility), I have no excuse for not graduating next Spring. And I have many more good reasons to leave (running out of funding, wanting to get a real life) than to stay.

Actually, I don't think I have any good reasons to stay; I think the only arguments in favor of staying can be summed up as "fear". These fears are supported by the news. First there was article in the NY Times that started me reflecting on the likelihood of getting an academic position. Now there's an article on Slate examining the true value of higher education. This article contains a very poetic and potentially apt description of career prospects for recent and impending Ph.Ds:
"I am hurdling toward being the saddest type of graduate student—the one who has finished and is at a loss for what to do next. I'm going to be the one sitting on the front steps of that Ivory Tower with my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands just begging to be let back in."
Unfortunately, the Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip offering advice on whether grad students should worry about the economic meltdown does not fit my situation (I can't decide if "I'm going to graduate and I want a real job" just applies to "real world" jobs only or also faculty jobs). I have no easy source of humor to turn to in contemplating my career prospects. I just have the knowledge that professors never retire; that the only news these days if of people who fail to find jobs because there's no funding for new faculty; and that my advisor's previous grad students, from many years ago, sent out over 50 applications before getting hired.

I'm trying not to stress out about my job search until fall. There won't be any postings about job offers starting in 2010 until the 2009 school year starts. But it's very hard to maintain any optimism in the face of all these stories.

Friday, April 10, 2009

My First Conference: Socializing

Perhaps the best thing about My First Conference was the chance to hang out with friends and/or colleagues. The other three grad students from my lab were there, and for the most part we were attending the same sessions. We formed a peanut gallery during the talks, exchanging whispered comments and questions about the talks in progress, and often remained together for meals. It's entirely possible that if they hadn't been around, I'd have spent Friday afternoon attending talks not very related to my research and burnt myself out, instead of heading out to a two-hour "happy hour" before our lab reunion dinner.

I also got to see some old friends who have moved on. My main collaborator (aside from my advisor) graduated from post-doc in our lab to professor in a different country a few years ago. After two years of mainly communicating via email, it was incredibly refreshing to sit down for an hour and brainstorm ideas in real time, with sketches that don't have to be scanned or created in PowerPoint. Our former lab coordinator, now a grad student in another state, was also there, stopping by our posters to catch up on all the news and progress, joining us for dinner one evening. In a career that feels so isolated - just me, my computer, and sometimes my Internet connection - seeing people in person and having whole conversations was a welcome experience.

The downside to all this socializing is that I didn't take full advantage of this being a local conference. I could have brought a bagged lunch most days, and had late dinners at home. Instead, I wound up with a coffee every day, lunches out, dinners out. I spent my entire "fun" allowance for the month in just four days, and four days at the beginning of the month at that. It was completely worth it, but I might have a hard time remembering that at the end of the month when I've had three months of bare-bones activities.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

My First Conference - Posters

The entire reason behind attending My First Conference was to present some of my research. End-of-year reviews are coming up for the graduate students, and just once it would be nice to have publications to show for my work. One poster presented my master's thesis, which I have since abandoned; the other presented what has become the first two experiments of my dissertation.

The master's thesis poster came first. This was my first-ever poster presentation, so I was greatly relieved to have a lab mate on the board next to me. (Originally, I had been scheduled to present both posters simultaneously, one on either side of my lab mate, but I got them to change one of them. I didn't fancy rushing through her crowd every time someone came up to one or the other poster). I also had very low goals for this poster. I abandoned my master's thesis research as soon as I defended it; I'd spent so much time on it I couldn't bear to even think about the topic any more. My advisor convinced me to submit the work so she'd have some way to cite it. I took 20 handouts, and they were all gone by the end of the session; this is as much as I'd hoped for. The thesis contained an overwhelming series of maybe-results, so I wasn't at all surprised that people listened to the summary with few comments and fewer questions.

The highlight of the poster session was when my advisor arrived, children in tow. She didn't talk to us for long, as she was sidetracked by people she can't talk to any day of the week. But, she did hold court with her (or her kids') admirers right next to our posters, and my lab mate and I spent most of our downtime watching her 6-month-old son gum at her name tag. I considered starting up some bets on whether he would abandon the lower-left corner to nibble on any of the others, but before I could he tasted one and abandoned it quickly. We started discussing why, and eventually settled on a dislike of the string attached to that corner. This is the kind of serious science discussions we engage in at the last session of the first day of a huge conference.

The dissertation poster came last, in every sense: my last presentation in the last session of the last day. It was surprisingly well attended. I put the poster up 20 minutes before the session officially started, and was asked for a summary immediately; attendance was pretty constant for the first hour, as people who weren't going to any of the symposia were trying to gain their freedom from the conference. There was a half-hour lull in the middle, at which point my co-author and I took turns going to check out other posters. Then there was a steady stream of people again, as they started leaving symposia early. We kept going until they turned the lights out (well, half the lights) promptly as 6 p.m.

As this was my dissertation work, I was much more sensitive to comments. I didn't have any of the troubles explaining our measures to people that I have at department talks; either I've gotten better with practice, or our department is overly critical. At least one person thought our explanation for our results made perfect sense, and no one directly challenged it. To me, this is the perfect level of critique; they asked questions to help them understand and connect to other material, and they have to go away and think about it before they can come up with a strong rejoinder. Once again, I gave away all 20 handouts, and had 4 people request electronic copies besides.

Overall, this qualifies as unmitigated success. So much of a success, in fact, that I'm considering submitting something to the next relevant conference, in October. We shall see.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My First Conference - Networking

My advisor's recommendation for dealing with the overwhelming size of My First Conference was to contact potentially relevant people for individual meetings. This is rather more intimidating to me than a conference of 8,000 people, so I attempted one, and otherwise just attempted general networking.

My one meeting may or may not be considered a success. The professor didn't have a schedule planned, and suggested I come up after one of her talks. Naturally, of the four talks she was giving, two were during my posters, one was during a formal student lunch, and the last was right before one of the posters. I managed to avoid any stress over this by visiting her students' posters; she's the kind of professor who shows up to support her students, and I managed a quick conversation with her. This let me off the hook for trying to come up after a very popular talk. It was just a quick conversation, but I introduced myself, and she even asked if I was planning on doing a post-doc and whether I'd consider applying to her university.

My other formal networking attempt was the formal student lunch, which was a small group of a students and one "non-traditional" PhD in the field. This was the first opportunity I've had to talk to a PhD in my field who went into industry. I definitely got a good feel for what that career path is like, and I got to have the best cheesecake I have ever tasted. But, it did more to solidify my plan to go into teaching than to move me back toward the non-academic options.

Informally, I made some networking attempts at the pre-conference teaching institute. I chatted with people at their posters and at some round-table discussions. I even made myself send some follow-up emails the day after the conference (since I didn't have to spend the day traveling). I don't expect anything to come from any of these contacts, but they certainly made the conference more bearable.

Overall, I think just attending the poster sessions made the conference seem smaller. Yes, there were 180 posters at each session, but there were usually only 10-15 in any given sub-field, and never more than a half dozen that seemed interesting to me. It was easy enough to get the presenter's summary, and see if I could come up with a question or two. Even two minutes of one-on-one conversation in the crowd seemed like a healthy interaction, and a vital break from the endless hard-to-process research talks.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

My First Conference - Size Matters

The scope of My First Conference was huge. We took over the city's convention center and the neighboring hotel. My father didn't believe me when I said there were 10,000 people there. And it's true that I exaggerated. The official program guide declares that attendance is only "approaching 8,000". This includes 14 poster sessions of 232 posters each (that's 3,250 posters, each with at least one accompanying author). There were 42 different possible events to attend in the first session of the first day, each with 5 speakers (another 2,950). And then there's all the people who came despite not giving any presentations.

The good news is that the 8,000 people were nicely spread out, and the only time I felt the presence of the crowd was when waiting in line for coffee or trying to find a place to sit in coffee shops or restaurants. The bad news is that it was an almost completely anonymous conference; there was no chance to meet or even recognize other people interested in the same topics. I barely managed to find the people in my lab; fortunately, we were mostly attending the same sessions.

That said, I was recognized by someone from my undergrad university. I have no idea how she managed to recognize me, given that when I was in college my hair was two inches long and spiky (and, for one year, neon blue), and now it's shoulder length. I didn't recognize her at all, so perhaps the conference isn't so anonymous for anyone with a decent memory for faces. But the size still has to take some responsibility.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

My First Conference - Teaching Institute

My First Conference is over, after four hectic days of commuting, socializing, eating out - and, of course, attending symposia and a little networking. This week we'll step through some of the highlights of the conference, starting with the pre-conference Teaching Institute.

The teaching institute was first of all interesting from both the teaching and research perspective. The first plenary talk was on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning ("SOTL"), and can be summed as follows: 1) At best, results on teaching methods from a lab setting can only create a hypothesis for classroom teaching, not a definitive guide for practice; 2) Pedagogy research needs to take into account the individual differences of teachers and students, because claims about the evil/effectiveness of PowerPoint and other teaching tools depend entirely on the teacher's teaching style.

The second plenary talk focused on the outcomes of our teaching, pointing out that one of the reasons that public policy makers are so resistant to listening to scientific study (such as in NPR's report about banning phthalates in toys despite scientific evidence that they aren't harmful) is that we aren't teaching science that well. We need to not just teach the facts we learn from science, but how we know, how what we know changes with new evidence, and what we do not know yet. Another talk on this topic pointed out that we often teach using nothing but confirmatory evidence, which is completely contrary to scientific thinking.

Beyond giving me some cachet in my claims to be a dedicated teacher, and ideas for future teaching, it was an excellent introduction to the conference. A tiny fraction of conference attendees were there - only about 170, according to the organizer - and I was able to ease into the crowds, get practice on a poster session, and chat with people. And, the people I spoke with were ridiculously nice and helpful. The round-table leader I ate lunch with started offering suggestions on how I could present myself when applying for jobs, and one poster presenter was willing to talk about teaching at liberal arts colleges and was just incredibly enthusiastic in wishing me well on my upcoming job search and dissertation. Those informal experiences alone would have been worth the extra registration fee.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Dissertation Proposal

The talk I gave yesterday, that my advisor and I were both so proud of, was something of a precursor to my dissertation proposal. I presented on the only truly successful research of my graduate career, two experiments that are the first two experiments in my proposal. I also presented a conceptual summary of what I have planned for the next experiment.

The upside is that it was an incredibly successful talk. Two other members of my dissertation committee were there, asking questions and making suggestions, and both of them complimented me on the talk afterwards. I have a brief preview of what I might have to deal with in convincing them to approve my dissertation.

The downside is that there were lots of suggestions on what I should do instead of what I had planned to do, so I am revising my proposal, again. I consider myself extremely fortunate that two of the experiments have already been completed, so I only have to revamp two of the experiments at the fancy of my various committee members.

At least there's plenty of time to revise the proposal. One of my committee members could only be on my committee if the proposal were between May 7th and May 12th. This gives me a free pass to avoid the official "by [the end of] April" deadline, and several extra weeks to change the proposed experiments three or four time at my advisor's suggestion, before giving it to the committee so they can propose another three or four rounds of changes.

But I can't worry about all this now. Tomorrow marks the first day of the conference, in the "pre-conference" activities. Let four days of carefully controlled chaos commence...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Pride in Our Students

Two weeks ago, my honors student defended her thesis. A full year of working with her on designing the project, analyzing the data, revising draft after draft of the thesis proper, and revising several iterations of the thesis defense, all cumulated in a simple 20-minute presentation. It was without a doubt the highlight of my week, possibly my semester. I was glad to be kicked out of the room while the committee (technically, she's my advisor's student) made their decision, because I wanted to start bragging and applauding her right away. I suppose the politically correct term is pride, but I felt smug. That's right; that's my student. I helped her do that. I didn't do it for her, I just taught her how to do it, and that's even better.

Today I gave a similar feeling of pride to my own advisor. I know this because she came up and told me that she was beaming throughout my entire talk, my annual brown bag presentation to the department. My own pleasure at how well the talk went - I didn't talk too fast, I didn't botch any of the explanations, I only suffered a few misspoken moments - had already been intensified by the fact that the question-and-suggestions period extended into 15 minutes focused entirely on what I could do next, with only the expected minor questions about "does your research really do what you think it does?". I had several people stop me to say how good they thought the talk was. It was exactly the confidence booster I needed before the huge conference later this week.

Obviously, this is more evidence that practice makes perfect. Not that I practiced too much; I gave a sample presentation to my lab a few weeks ago, changed the talk wildly in response to their comments, and practiced twice yesterday. The first practice was abysmal; the second was exactly how I wanted to talk today, and I managed to pull it off. Obviously, all that mental practice reciting the talk (yes, I had every animation memorized) before I fell asleep at night paid off.

Now I just have to managed the same thing for my short and shorter summaries of the two posters I'll be presenting this week.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Productivity vs. The Blizzard

My plans to be productive over spring break worked great for the first three days: Data was (alright, were) collected, proposals and papers were written, lessons were planned. Then Thursday brought a blizzard. What I'd last heard of as 3-5 inches expected turned into 8 inches by the time I woke up Thursday morning, to a text message telling me that the university was closing at of 10 a.m. due to the further 8 inches expected that afternoon.

This is one of the few times that might make it worth it to shell out for internet access from my apartment. After all, severe weather doesn't mean a break to the grad students. There were certainly some things I could keep working on, but almost all of my plans for Thursday were tied to being on campus. So I gave up on work and read novels (yes, plural) all day. I can't decide if I should be frustrated at the loss of productivity or grateful to have an enforced day or two off. I might not decide until after the conference, when I find out whether I'm behind or still on top of everything.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My First Conference, and Networking

My first conference approaches. Yes, I'm at the tail end of my fourth year of grad school and I haven't been to a conference yet, due to a combination of no research results and an unwillingness to spend the money to travel if I'm not presenting. But I'm jumping in with both feet: I'm attending what I'm assured is a large and overwhelming conference (over 3,000 posters presented across 14 sessions), attending a pre-conference teaching institute, and presenting not one but two posters. I'm not usually of the rip-the-bandaid-off mentality, so I don't know what's gotten into me.

Yesterday's meeting with my advisor has me as prepared as I can get. I know what I should wear (more formal than anything worn in our jeans-and-sneakers department, but no need to worry about a suit) and what I should bring to my poster session (a short and shorter prepared spiel, a stack of handouts for those who are interested but don't want to be dragged into a conversation, and a sign-up sheet in case the handouts run out).

And I have a plan for networking. This started out as a discussion of my career interests, at which I was reluctantly forced to realize I should be actively asking people about their jobs (teaching and research requirements) during the teaching institute, to find out if the kind of job I want even exists anymore (is it possible to be at a college and not have publish-or-perish pressure?). It was extended into my advisor's suggestions for making the conference less overwhelming, trying to arrange individual meetings with relevant people. This morning I struggled over a 4-line email to a very relevant person, trying not to beg for 10 minutes of her time.

Now that I think about it, the real reason I haven't been attending conferences is that I'm just an insular type of person. I try, or it feels like I try, but it's all I can do to have the minimum number of reference letters - it's almost inconceivable to me how people can know more than three people well enough to even ask for a recommendation. The most stressful part of the conference may well be attempting to talk to people instead of sitting quietly and learning.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Time to Graduate

The best thing about PhD Comics is that sometimes there's a comic that perfectly encapsulates my feelings at the moment.The closer I get to graduation, or even the idea of scheduling graduation, the further away it really seems...