Friday, February 27, 2009

The Writing of Undergrads

Words cannot express how relieved and outright thrilled I was when I began reading the second of two summer research funding applications I had to comment on this morning. Discovering that one of my students could write, and write well, may well be the highlight of my week.

I have somewhat-accidentally acquired two undergrads to mentor in the coming. Undergrads are a bit like puppies; you give them a smile once, and you can never get rid of them. It started out just having them run a project for me, so I could devote time to my various writing projects; then, before we even got approval for the project, they both asked about summer projects, and summer funding.

In general, this works out very well for me. I was committed to two non-dissertation projects, and they're each taking over one, in what seems like naturally fits - they were already interested in the projects. So I can step back into a supervisory role on those projects, and focus on my dissertation. But first, in my incredibly hectic pre-sister-visit week, I had to help them write their summer funding applications.

One the one hand, we have a rising junior. I actually worked with her when she was a high school senior, on a related project. She's great as a research, but definitely not as a writer. I've struggled through several rounds of revisions with her already, getting frustrated at either her resistance to comments or inability to make use of Word's track changes features. Her writing is, well, what one expects of someone with only two years of college who is not an English major. It should be possible to work with her, and I'm dedicated to teaching writing skills, but it will be work.

On the other hand, we have a rising senior, who is hoping to do a senior thesis based on his project. I had never seen his writing before, and it was with great trepidation that I opened his draft. The level of expectations for senior thesis writing is a step above that of even student grant application writing. If his writing was terrible, I'd be in the position of wondering if a senior thesis was possible; if it was only passable, I'd have given myself two students who would need extensive help in that area. Which explains why I felt my heart lighten as I read a paper with organization, clear descriptions, even humor. Oh, there were plenty of typos, but those I can just fix, I don't have to teach.

The prospects of mentoring over the summer suddenly seem much better. I've lucked out for the second year in a row in getting a senior thesis student who is intelligent and knows how to write - meaning my job is to help them with the actual research, not understanding simple concepts or putting together a well-formed paragraph. It gives me something to look forward to about next year.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Knowing When To Quit

Slightly over a year ago, my advisor and her former post-doc realized that there was an error in a published paper. They insisted that the finding was valid, especially since the error was found in the process of replicating the results; I insisted that the statistical significance of the results had changed to the extent that the paper would never have gotten published, and the editor should be informed. This was incredibly stupid of me.

It wasn't stupid to think that the editor should be told; I stand by that bit of ethics. But it was definitely stupid to think that I could get two professors to admit they were wrong. We got a letter to the editor drafted - and then it had to be a brief report, so they could explain all the interesting reasons they were wrong. And then my advisor sat on the draft for five months, until I demanded to at least give the *#@%A thing a due date so it wouldn't always be the lowest priority. And the the due date came - and went. My advisor has a grant deadline. Our co-author has "a number of pressing deadlines". Having a due date doesn't even give them an artificial sense of urgency.

I find myself faced with the options of continuing to drag them, kicking and screaming, into telling the editor they made a mistake, or giving up. I chose to give up. The alternative is just too stressful; I've spent a year trying to convince them to do the right thing, and I don't have anything left to fight with. Their reputations matter more than their science, and there's nothing I can do to change that.

Frankly, I don't think our research is important enough that it matters, and we did replicate the results. My advisor and her former post-doc can survive with their reputations intact, in everyone's eyes but mine - and, after all, why should they care about the opinion of a lowly graduate student?

As for me, I have one more year here. Fighting with my advisor over this will only hurt my career prospects. I just need to get the dissertation done, get the PhD, and get out. If I have to publish my dissertation results - well, at least my advisor is likely to be interested in those. And then I'll never work with her again.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Outside Member

Why are we required to have someone from a different department on our dissertation committee?

I decided it was to have someone on your committee unrelated to your field, so that you would keep your dissertation accessible to people outside the department. In that vein, I decided I should contact the one person from outside my department I've taken a class with, asking if he knew of anyone in his department who'd be interested in sitting on a committee in my topic.

My advisor seems to think the "outside" requirement is just a formality, and I should find someone with similar interests. This does not appear to be possible. I've cruised the faculty listings on various related departments, and it just so happens that my topic is really only investigated in my department. No outside expertise is really relevant. There was one person who looked like he was interested in the topic...but that turned out to be an old website from 2002; the person has moved on, and the department hasn't updated its website yet.

I'm thinking my plan will prevail. The only other student in my area who has a committee picked the outside member as the only person outside the department she'd taken a class with, which is more or less my plan (except I want to use that professor to network, instead of outright asking).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Choosing Your Dissertation Committee

Friday morning I attended an amazing talk on things to consider when picking a committee, for any thesis or dissertation. I left the talk actually enthused about the committee selection and my dissertation. Partly this was due to the speaker, an Anthropology professor (totally not my discipline) who came with few notes and 34 years of experience as a professor, and was just vastly entertaining to listen to. Mostly this was due to the points he made. I just have to share them, or at least my interpretation of them.
  • Never forget that your committee is a means to an end. You have to have the ends in mind (perhaps the job you want to get after you get your PhD) to construct the means. If your end is getting your career to a good start, getting the job you want, then the best person to ask may be someone who is a great name in the field, and whose recommendation from them will open a lot of doors. If your end is just perfecting your research so your dissertation will be published quickly, then the best person to ask may be someone who has expertise your advisor doesn't have.
  • Ask yourself "What is the purpose of having this person on my committee?". If you have the attitude "who can I get?" and are just trying to fill seats, you've already lost. Don't select committee members because they won't interfere; select them because they'll be helpful and committed to you and your goals.
  • Your committee has to respect you as a young scholar. If they don't respect you, you can never argue with them.
  • You cannot be afraid of your committee. Where there is power, there has to be trust. Your committee has power over you, and you have to trust them not to abuse that power.
  • All catastrophes on a committee are caused by either lack of communication or forgetting that this is a means to an end.
  • The worst catastrophe is breakdown of communication with a committee member. This is particularly true if that committee member is your advisor. If it gets to the point that you cannot or will not take the member's advice on your dissertation, you're screwed; either you have to get that person to step down from your committee, or find some way to restore communication.
  • The second worst catastrophe is discord between committee members. Two members on your committee give you conflicting advice and requirements, or have irreconcilable views on your dissertation. Again, you either have to restore communication or get someone to step down. Never be part of a "triangle", where they're giving you competing instructions and not talking to each other; get both of them to sit down with your to resolve the conflicts.
  • When picking your outside member, go for one of two extremes: Expertise your advisor doesn't have, or somebody completely unfamiliar with your area. If there's no department that can offer additional expertise, then use the outside member to show that you can speak to a broader audience.Offer to introduce the outside member to the rest of your committee, so they've all met before the defense. With the outside member, it can be okay if their role is just to read the work and show up with a few questions.
  • You should never go into a defense without knowing the outcome. Meet with each committee member after they (should) have read the paper, and before the complete meeting, and ask "Is there a fundamental problem with this thesis, or a reason that this defense should not go forward?" Even if they haven't read the paper, and fake it, saying "No, it's fine" - that's a commitment of a sort.
The last point applies more to applying to graduate school and selecting an advisor, but was also good to have in mind when discussing the committee
  • The quality of your relationship with your advisor/committee matters more than the quality of your program. Having people who will work with you, support you, and network for you will get you further than having graduated from the top program in your field with faculty who don't care about you one way or another. This is primarily excellent advice when applying to grad school or picking an advisor, but is important to keep in mind when selecting your committee members as well.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The World Revolves Around My Advisor

Most of the time my advisor and I get along fine. At grant deadline time, I swear, she turns into an ego monster. The first time we tried to submit a grant, her unrealistic demands - and attempts to lecture me on my "issues" when they were mostly caused by her - led us to the ombuds' office. I suppose I should look on the bright side; this time, she announced grant plans a mere 3 weeks in advance, so I only have to put up with it for 3 weeks.

There are four students in our lab preparing to defend a senior honors thesis. They are required to provide the thesis to their committee a week in advance of the defense, which is two weeks from now. They have started to give their theses to my advisor, in what will turn out to be one of two direct roles she has on their work (the other being comments on their practice defenses). She has known for weeks that she was going to start getting thesis drafts now. And she just sent out an email saying that it "makes more sense" for her to give comments back after the grant deadline. This gives the students a few days (no time, in one case) to incorporate her comments.

I understand the need for grant money. I want to get paid over the summer, instead of scraping by on loans and a possible TA. I will obligingly drop everything to get her seemingly insane requests done in a week, including a frantic round of pilot experiments to see if things might work. I'll even grant that it might not be possible for her to find a single hour for reading an honors thesis before the grant gets submitted. I just think it's the height of selfishness to say "it makes more sense" when it's really "it's more convenient for me". The world does not revolve around her, and her concerns are not the only ones that determine what makes sense.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tips on a "Post-Academic" Career

The "So what are you going to do with that?" career seminar was very fancy. I expected your basic auditorium with a podium up front, and it turned out to be a bunch of circular tables with napkins, pitchers of water, and a full spread of cheese, crackers, fruit, and mascot-shaped cookies. Perhaps this is meant to give us a hint of the post-academic life.

Our speaker, Susan Basalla, gave us some insights into her own career choices, things she'd heard about while writing the book, and tips on how to proceed, including
  • You don't have to explain why you didn't finish your dissertation. Your employer is one of the 99% of the population who would never have considered starting one, and so has an excellent built-in understanding of why you decided you didn't want to finish it.
  • If turning your CV into a resume doesn't hurt, you aren't cutting enough information. Employers don't want to know about your publications and conferences you attended, they want to know what's relevant to their job.
  • An academic job search is passive; a non-academic job search is active. For an academic job, you send out all your credentials and wait for the call. For the non-academic job, you tailor your arguments, follow-up with the potential employer, and are hunting throughout the year.
I think the biggest thing I took away from the seminar was that non-academic job searchers are lengthy processes. Networking is important - most people she spoke to had gotten their first job because of a contact, not a random application - and takes years to come to fruition. I'm not sure I'm cut out for that level of uncertainty.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What Are You Going To Do?

My advisor asked, in passing, what my post-dissertation plans were. Do I have any idea what I want to do? I was spared from having to answer then by the seminar she was on her way to attend. But I know I'll have to have an answer sooner rather than later. My advisor didn't blink at the notion of me doing 3 more studies and finishing up my dissertation in the next year, which means it would almost be time to start applying to academic jobs.

I know I don't want to be a "real" professor. The 2-hour lab meeting we had discussing the 3rd round of submissions to get the lab funded drove that home. I know I'm capable of pulling together diverse research ideas and connecting them into a fascinating series of questions someone will agree is worth funding - but I don't want to. I don't want to have to do it on demand, I don't want to feel the pressure of getting funded to continue my career.

The first alternative is teaching. I like designing presentations and activities and assignments; I even like grading them, somewhat. But as I was just reminded today, in reading "Charlie's" comments on ScienceWoman's blog about teaching, my experience of the teaching field is limited. My students know I'm a student myself, and that I'm not seeing much of their tuition money; I also only have to deal with two small sections of one class, not a real teaching load. I never considered it to be a glamorous job, but I'm not all that sure I can handle dealing with adolescents for a living.

The second alternative is the non-academic route. Here the challenge is that there are just too many options, and I have no idea how to go about finding them. I don't know; what else would you I with a PhD? And do I really want to 9-5 job with no semester breaks? Fortunately, I have a chance to get some more information. The author of "So what are you going to do with that?" is leading a seminar on non-academic careers, which I am about to go attend. Perhaps it will show me a new career path. Perhaps it will convince me that the hassles of teaching aren't as bad as the hassles of the corporate world.

Perhaps I will just move back in with my father after I graduate...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How Tough Can It Be?

Alice of ScienceWomen's post on advice for surviving the dissertation is having the opposite of intended effect on me. I felt quite on top of my dissertation up to a moment ago; there's a bunch of background reading, but I already survived that for my comps, and the rest of it is just do the experiment, write it up. Reminders to form support groups and pay close attention to signs of depression are making me apprehensive.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Different Worlds, Different Accomplishments

My sister's big achievement this week is getting married. I've known she was planning to elope for a few months now; Wednesday my dad called me to tell me the wedding was scheduled for today. I haven't heard confirmation of the wedding, but then I haven't heard anything about it going wrong either. All of my siblings have now been the principle in a wedding. I feel no pressure at being the unmarried/unattached one; I'm the youngest, and I don't want to give my dad a heart attack.

My big achievement this week wasn't really an achievement; it's just that I received the official letter declaring me a Ph.D. candidate yesterday. This changes almost nothing, just the fees I'll be charged next year, but the graduate school knows. I feel a great deal of pressure; suddenly there are looming questions about when I'll be able to defend my dissertation and what the heck I'm going to do afterwards.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Don't Be Afraid of the Staff

Perhaps it's all the fantasy novels I read as a teen, when "staff" was a blunt instrument wielded effectively to decimate an opponent. Perhaps it's the association with professors, the other "real adults" in my world. For whatever reason, I am always loathe to intrude upon the world of the administrative staff in my department. I avoid it at all costs.

In fact, I avoid it a bit too much. Several months ago, the teacher training program decided to advertise more, specifically by giving all the lead TAs big posters to put up in the department explaining the program and the workshops. That poster has been sitting, rolled up, in my office, for months. The "ask building manager for permission" task has been cycling through my daily to-do for weeks. It always seems that she's out of her office, or it's lunch time; the real answer is that I just didn't want to. Scary administrative staff, and all that.

In fact, she was incredibly cheerful and helpful, showing me the exact spot I had thought would be natural for the poster, joking around about the merits of sticky tape and tacks (as building manager, she is naturally concerned with whether there is peeling paint or tiny holes in the wall). It seems ridiculous to have put it off this long.

This does not necessarily mean I'll be eager to contact the staff in the future. I've also ready several non-fantasy stories featuring department secretaries as the best source of information, gossip, and the pulse of the department. That's scary in itself.

Monday, February 9, 2009


The proofs are here! Buried among the 23 emails waiting in my inbox after a weekend away (most of them written by my collaborators on a new project, on Saturday morning of all times) was the expected email from Elsevier with a copy proofs of my very first journal article!

My dad wasn't sure that electronic copies of the published article would have the impact of a print, of the journal itself. I wasn't sure myself. Speaking functionally, of course, the electronic copies are much preferred; I rarely stray from laptop reading these days. Speaking emotionally, from the ridiculously juvenile glee of seeing my name in print, the electronic copies have plenty of impact. There's the header reading "article in press" in big capital letters, and a small image of the journal cover above the title, and my name with the fancy footnote of university affiliation....

The most important thing is that it looks very much like a real article and not just yet another paper I've written. However much time the copy-editors had to spend on the formatting makes all the difference.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sick Days

Graduate students don't get sick days. But, no one wants to catch whatever it is you've got, including your advisor, so we do get days where we can be off campus and skip meetings. I should consider myself fortunate that I haven't had to rely on sick days too often. I caught strep throat my second week of graduate school, and I was getting over a cold when I "defended" my first-year project, but my rare colds have all coincided with days I didn't have to be anywhere anyway. Until this week.

I should still count myself fortunate in the timing. I didn't get sick until I'd met my teaching obligations, the two group meetings I had to miss wouldn't miss me, and by the time I had to miss my class I was too tired to care about whether my professors noticed. I had two writing projects that let me feel productive when I was feeling okay, and nothing so high-priority I had to stress out when I was feeling drunk on decongestants.

And hey, I should be recovered just in time for the weekend....when the lovely warm weather is supposed to turn into snow.

Monday, February 2, 2009

No-Work Weekend, All-Work Week

Last weekend I took the entire weekend off guilt-free, because I had absolutely nothing to do; my e-mail inboxes were empty, any research tasks were in the hands of collaborators, and I was three weeks ahead in my lab planning. I had a normal life for two and a half days.

This weekend, I still kind of took the weekend off, but with plenty of guilt. There were any number of things I could have been doing, should have been doing, but I was seduced by a sale on the "Chuck" Season 1 DVD, and couldn't quite pry myself away from my TV. I still got something (one, tiny thing) done, and I'm not behind - but I'm not ahead any more, either.

Much as I said in my response to ScienceWoman's poll on taking time off between semesters, and in the graduate school survival kit I gave to a friend, I refuse to stress out about my failure to get work done. I have no home life, and can make up for it by just working 10- to 15-hour weekdays. And even if I don't make it up, there's no point fretting about it now.

Still, I do need to develop a strategy for getting work done on days when I have no meetings or classes or any reason to leave the apartment. That's the downside to a studio apartment; it's impossible to have one productivity area set aside.