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.