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...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

April Showers

April always showers me with work, not rain, and this year it's started raining all the way back in mid-March.

April is the end of the semester. Officially, the last day of classes is May 1st, and there's all that "final exam" stuff, but that doesn't mean anything to the graduate student. Only the run-up to the last day of class matters. It's always a combination of papers I need to turn as a student, papers I need to grade as a teacher, the yearly progress report, and whatever milestone has to be met by the end if the academic year - this time, my dissertation proposal. I foolishly offered to give my department presentation that first week of April. And to top it all off, this year I attend my very first conference ever, complete with two poster presentations, April 1-4th. It's almost enough to set off a mild panic.

On the bright side, my posters are beautiful (barring complications in the poster printing process), I've already gone several rounds of revisions on my dissertation proposal with my advisor, I don't care about my grade in my one class (I need a B- to get the Cognitive Science Certificate, and no paper is that hard anymore), and I gave myself two weeks to grade my student's final papers. Next week is Spring Break, and I will spend it here, at the office, using this as my last opportunity to prepare for the April deluge.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On the Job Market?

At various career workshops I've attended in the past few months, certain questions are standard: What do you intend to do once you have your PhD? How confident are you that you can get this job? The answers are just as standard: I want an academic job, and I'm not confident at all - because of the economy.

About a week or so ago, this despair made the New York Times. And the general sensation that the job market will be tough was laid out in stark statements.
Public universities are bracing for severe cuts as state legislatures grapple with yawning deficits. At the same time, even the wealthiest private colleges have seen their endowments sink and donations slacken since the financial crisis.
As much as I, personally, love the concept of a trim and balanced budget, I, as an academic, see it as cutting of my job prospects. I might apply for several dozen jobs and be lucky to get a single interview. And could I possibly handle the uncertainty of being given a job "pending funding approval"?

Staying in grad school isn't really an option either. First, because I want out; second, because my advisor's funding (and the department's) is just as tenuous. She may or may not be able to put up funding for one more year.

I'm certain I'll find some job - some of the people getting laid off are no doubt taking the change to finish some college degrees or take extra courses to bolster their resumes, and may be heading to community college to do it. But if I start teaching at a community college, could I ever advance away from there? It might be better than doing nothing for a year, or doing something completely unrelated to academia, but it might be hard to compete with people coming straight out of the more prestigious schools. I just have no idea.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Reprint Requests

This morning I found not one but two emails requesting reprints of my in-press article. This was at once incredibly exciting - I don't care if it's only two people, someone outside my lab is going to read about my research! - and incredibly surprising. How the heck did these complete strangers even find out about the paper?

It turns out that the corrected proof is now available online, and no-one told me. Again, this is incredibly exciting, and I will have to refrain from constantly prodding Google Scholar to see when I'm searchable research (with a specific title and author name; I'm not too ambitious here).

Now it's time to perfect the generic "thanks for your interest, here's a copy" email. I am new enough at this to be obsessed over every word and punctuation mark.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Passing Notes in Meetings

I was highly amused to have my advisor pass me a note during a meeting yesterday. It required a bit of acrobatics, and some assistance from an intermediary, since we weren't sitting that near each other. I accepted the note with some flashbacks to grade school, when such blatant note passing would have resulted in extreme teacher displeasure.

In this case, the professor started it, and the post-doc giving the talk wasn't about to call her on it. In fact, the note was extremely helpful - I knew the presentation should related to my research somehow, but it wasn't obvious, and her note explained it. And just to make it vastly entertaining, it was written on the back of her lunch receipt. I may just keep that for posterity.

Besides, NPR said just this morning that doodling can be useful during boring meetings. Note passing is a step up; maybe it's even more helpful.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Seeing Myself Teach

My university offers a teaching certificate - possibly to make you look good on the job market, possibly so you feel that all that effort you put into your teaching was worthwhile - which requires two videotape consultations. A lead TA, trained in the consultation process, comes to your class and videotapes you; then, within 24 hours, you watch a small chunk of the videotape and come up with a teaching "issue" that you can work on. Seeing yourself displayed on the TV, in the unflattering amateur camerawork, is a universally horrifying experience. Choosing to have the tape recorded to DVD for posterity is optional.

After my first videotaping, I didn't even considering getting the DVD. Why in the world would I want a record of that? It was my first semester teaching (my third as a TA, but the first two had involved nothing more intense than answering emails and proctoring exams), I had no idea what I was doing, and at the time half of my life was dedicated to finishing my master's thesis. The consultation was very constructive, but the class itself had not been pretty.

My second videotaping came almost two years later, with two more semesters' experience in teaching that particular lab. The consultation was still constructive - there's always something to work on - but I was more horrified by the sound of my voice (I hate the way it sounds recorded) than by my teaching. And if I succeed in my career plans, and become a full-time teaching professor, then someday I might want a record of what I was like "at the beginning". Not the absolute beginning - I will never regret not getting that first DVD - but with a minimum of experience and the carefree life of a graduate student.

Not that I have any intention of watching the DVD now. It'll be bad enough reading the student FCQs without throwing my own harsh opinion into the mix.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Begging the Outside Member

My life is too insular for this "outside committee member" nonsense. I have a hard enough time imagining two people from my own department who would be willing to write my reference/recommendation letters, so going outside the department is by definition approaching a (seemingly) random stranger and asking them to do me a favor. Perhaps it's just the impression my advisor gives of being completely unavailable to anyone outside my lab, but I don't have much hope for this process.

The first email request went out today. Now I will cringe every time I see that I have a new e-mail, wondering if it's the response. If/When the response does arrive, I will probably stare at the email in my inbox in mild terror, and avoid opening it for a day. This is exactly how I dealt with sending emails to prospective grad school mentors requesting information about their research. It's nice to know how much graduate school has changed me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Turning It In Late

Even as a former undergrad myself, I am baffled by the approach some students take to their assignments, and whether they should be turned in on time.

I returned from teaching my lab this afternoon to find that a lab assignment had miraculously appeared on my desk. This assignment had been given back to the students today, and my first thought was that I'd somehow left one on my desk. Then I noticed it wasn't graded, and my office mate confirmed that someone had dropped it off while I was teaching. A week late, without any comment.

What baffles me is not that the student decided to turn it in without even a note, or even that she thought she could turn it in after the graded assignments had been passed back and still get credit. No, what really annoys me is that this student was in today's lab. She didn't even try to talk to me, or ask me if she could turn it in now. She just went down to my office and dropped it off without a word.

I have no idea why this would appear to be a good strategy. If I'm going to refuse to accept it in person, I'm not going to go ahead and read it if it just appears on my desk. I'm not a scary person to talk to; in fact, my "no late assignments" policy has caved several times into "as long as I have it first thing tomorrow morning". (This is the result of a slippery slope: Students have to keep track of three pieces of paper to turn in for each assignment, they keep forgetting one, and if I'm going to let them turn in one piece a day late I might as well let them turn in the entire thing a day late).

Asking permission wouldn't have changed the outcome in this case; I'm not going to accept an assignment turned in after the first lab got their grades back; there's too much potential for cheating. But at least I wouldn't be sitting here in stunned amazement and the audacity and/or idiocy of my student.

Monday, March 2, 2009

How To Write A Dissertation

Last Friday I attended a workshop on how to write the dissertation. It was very general, in attempts to reach a broad audience. The speaker was from the humanities, where dissertation research is primarily done by going to different libraries. Still, some of the general points are good to keep in mind.
  • Choose your topic carefully. You will live with it for the rest of your life. It's possible to redefine yourself gradually over time, but as you go on the job market and prepare future research, your dissertation topic is going to determine your starting point, and thus your option.
  • Choose your advisor carefully. Remember that after a year into your dissertation, you will know your topic better than your advisor, and your advisor's role will be general encouragement rather than specific content knowledge.
  • Find out what dissertations look like. Look at one or two of the recent dissertations in your field, to get a feel for how long, how detailed, how close to a book they are.
  • Do something for your dissertation every day. Even in the midst of a busy teaching schedule, you have to make time to read that one paper or chapter you know you have to read. Doing something every day, even if it's small, will keep you focused on your topic.
  • Don't start writing too early. You have to have some idea of what you're going to say, or you're just wasting your time.
  • Don't start writing too late. The dissertation is not going to write itself; even when you know what you want to say, the mechanics of writing will still take time.
  • Don't start revising until you have a complete draft. You may find that sections you need to cut from an earlier chapter should just be moved to a later chapter. Having the big picture of what goes everywhere will help you figure out what needs to get tossed entirely and what just needs to be moved.
  • Broadcast deadlines and keep them. Asking your advisor to clear time in a given week to review a chapter draft is a great motivating tool to stick to your timeline.
  • Don't turn anything over to your advisor until you think you're done. Drafts where you know you need to work on a given paragraph or check for typos should not be handed out; the known problems will stick out to your advisor and you won't get feedback on the unknown problems.
Most of these instructions weren't particularly helpful at this point in my graduate school career; I'm very good at being organized and very practiced at revisions with my advisor. I do, however, take comfort in the instructions on not writing too early; that is now my excuse for not having actually written my dissertation proposal yet.