Friday, January 30, 2009

The Dissertation Starts

I have (finally) officially passed comps. My advisor added her third and final signature to the comps form in our meeting this afternoon, and I have sent it off to the administrators. I've just realized that I forgot to make a copy before doing this, but I haven't had any paperwork problems before, so I refuse to be paranoid about it.

I also have a dissertation topic. This came down to deciding between my comps paper and my published paper. With the comps topic, I have extensive theoretical background but not so much as a single experiment design. With the published topic, I have 2 experiments with significant results, but only the barest awareness of the theoretical background. With either topic, I have a piece of my dissertation completed; the difference is which piece, introduction or "meat". Given that I am nearing the end of my fourth year, with department expectations about graduating in 5 and graduate school rules about graduating in 6, my advisor and I agreed that the safer option is to have some "meat" ready. It's easy enough to conduct lit searches and write an introduction on a deadline, and it's ridiculously optimistic to try to collect data and find significant results on a deadline.

Now we move into the last stage of graduate school: Dissertation. I have the rest of the semester to get up to speed on the theoretical background of my topic and design a plausible series of experiments that can continue to test these issues. And to find at least one person outside my department I can ask to be on my committee; that may be the worst chore of the next few months.

I think the hardest part of the proposal will not be convincing my committee it's meaningful and possible, but convincing myself that my one successful line of research won't turn out to be a complete dud once I start trying to get results. These two studies were just additions to my "real" research, because they could be done easily enough. Will they still be successful once I'm actually depending on getting meaningful results?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Perils of Cool Research

A fellow graduate student thinks it's cool and begs for this analysis and that analysis as if I had any chance of understanding the task/data as well as he does (he's writing a review paper; I barely know how it works).

My advisor thinks it's cool and wants to write a brief report to get the results out fast, fast, fast.

Our collaborate thinks it's cool, and related to research his master's student is doing, and wants to combine the data set with *her* research to write a real paper on.

Everyone thinks it's so cool that I had a full dozen emails on this topic sitting in my inbox this morning. New emails, mind you; this count doesn't include the handful of emails left over from yesterday's post-presentation rush.

I sent my advisor a brief, slightly panicked email. When our paths crossed in a department meeting this afternoon, she offered comfort and assurance that we'd "sort it out". It sounds like a platitude, but it was actually very reassuring. I almost miss the days when I was embarrassed to discuss my research and its lack of significance.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I Am So Cool

Or at least my research is. In the eyes of one of the other graduate students in my lab. When that research involves an unexpected result with task he himself has been using heavily. But my presentations have rarely, if ever, inspired others to write emails talking about how awesome my research is and how I should try to publish it right away. I'll take what I can get.

My advisor has similar opinions. One brief report accepted, and now she wants to start on another - and neither have anything to do with my dissertation. When will that get done?

Monday, January 26, 2009

No Work Weekend

I did not work this weekend. I didn't do anything particularly exciting, either - the warm snap is over, so temperatures were well below freezing all day Sunday, and still are - but I didn't work. This wasn't even a choice; I was just out of things to do. There were exactly two things I could have done, both of which would have required my presence in the lab (see comment about weather, above), and neither of which was in any sense urgent. So, I tried out a new recipe for a chocolate custard, I listened to the Hitchhiker's Guide original radio series, I cleaned, I read most of a very interesting if not convincing book about the future of religion, I began writing a review of said book, I continued writing an essay I started last semester for the heck of it...In general, I lived the life of a normal person, assuming the normal person boring and snowbound and lives alone.

Such events do not occur often. There's usually something I should be doing. But the only thing I could possibly have been working on is my dissertation proposal, and since I haven't official passed comps yet that would be jumping the gun. My advisor has been sitting on the revisions for two weeks, and I have no intention of wasting this excellent excuse to take a break from the entire "progress towards the degree" idea. This is perhaps the last chance this semester or in my graduate school career when I will feel on top of things - the lab I teach is planned for weeks in advance, everything for research progress is pending e-mails from my collaborators, and there was just nothing that couldn't fit into the coming work week. Eventually I'll fall behind again, so I decided to enjoy it while it lasted.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How's My Teaching? FCQs

Today my FCQ scores arrived in my department mailbox. Almost exactly one year ago, after a semester teaching the same lab, I looked at the large envelopes with some mixture of anticipation and dread, and chose to stick them on my office bookshelf to go unexamined for some four months. This time, I rushed to my office to open the envelope.

It's not that I expected vast improvements in my scores, although I could certainly hope for them on the grounds that I had been more experienced, and had spent more time designing each section. It's more that the entire teaching experience had been more positive this time around. I was the senior TA, helping out a new grad student who hadn't even taught before; comps had its downsides, but my overall stress levels were definitely far less without a grant proposal to help with and a Master's thesis to complete; and teaching was something I knew I wanted to do, instead of something I should be trying. It would have been terrible to find that my FCQs were the same, of course (they weren't likely to get worse - that would require active dislike on the part of the students), but I'm feeling very optimistic about teaching this class for a third time, and would remain hopeful.

Fortunately, the scores are all a great deal better. Still near or slightly below department average, but a full point better on the six-point scale. My "instructor overall" rating has improved from 3.4 to 4.5. The score itself might not be much to brag about, but the improvement is. I could obsess over sampling size (only 13 of 22 students returned FCQs, and I only had one section instead of two), or I could focus on research showing that the best predictor of FCQ scores is whether your students like you as a person and would be willing to go on a long car drive with you. I don't really care either way. This has been the best possible start to my day.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Rise of the Machines

I have been stunned by the department copier. Not because of stapling and collating, which is simply how copiers have "always" functioned. Because the administrative assistant typed my email address into the copier, pushed a button, and by the time I was back at my desk across the hall, I had the .pdf of my form waiting in my inbox. The .pdf doesn't make the "foom" sound (and I missed the new-email "ding"), or look as impressive, but I found myself completely amazed nonetheless.

All this stands in complete counterpoint to my much-less-thrilled amazement that the journal publishing company, based in the Netherlands, of all places, requires a full-page document of refusal to pay $700 to have a figure published in color - a document that could not be modified on the computer, and had to be printed out. Perhaps they were aware that my department copier must be able to make new .pdfs in under 10 seconds. They couldn't really have wanted me to pay to snail-mail or fax something from midwest USA to the Netherlands.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Working the Fees System

I shell out almost $1K a semester in student fees and (admittedly, heavily subsidized) health insurance. The savings of the previous semester are entirely wiped out in one check to the Bursar's office, as the university recoups some of the money spent on my paycheck. Working the system is just one way of saving money in the current economic situation.

The tuition and fees system seems completely incomprehensible. For tuition, you pay an extra dollar amount per credit up to 9 credits, at which point you can add another 9 for no additional charge. For fees, you pay an amount determined by some combination of the number of classes as well as the number of credit hours, up to 7 credits, at which point you can add another 12 for no extra charge. It makes far less sense than the abacus or slide rule to me.

But, there is an obvious way to make the system work for you, at least when it comes to flexible things like dissertation hours. Say you need to take 28 credits in four semesters. The balanced approach would be to take 7 in each semester, but this would be foolish. Then you pay maximum fees in four semesters. Instead, you can spread them out 6, 6, 6, and 10. Then you pay maximum fees in one semester only, with no extra charge for those last three credits, and save over $300. A small sum by some standards, but massive savings to the graduate student budget.

This is one of those examples of how procrastination can be useful. Think of the money I would have given the university if I had instead felt compelled to actually do the work my advisor had sent me.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Let the Headache Begin

Of course, there had to be a downside to getting a paper accepted for publication. The headache of pre-publication paperwork turns out to be it.

There has been no training on how to handle the technicalities of being first author. Up until today, this has consisted entirely of keeping on top of who's turn it is to edit the manuscript, submitting the final documents, and forwarding emails; none of this is something I needed a great deal of training for. Now, however, the paperwork is rolling in.

Okay, it was only one email. But what an email! Do you want to pay $700 for your figure to be printed in color? Heck no, you have to be kidding me. Do you want a "marked PDF", or 25 free offprints? I don't know - I'll be able to get a regular PDF copy as soon as it's available online, so I can't see the point of a "marked" one, but (aside from my Dad's desire to hand out copies of my paper like Halloween candy), I'm not sure that there's a point to paper offprints either. (How cheap are these journals that they think throwing together a PDF negates the traditional cost of 25 copies of the article?)

I've been having a relaxed, stress-free, relatively productive week. There is no logical reason for this email to ruin my day. I think the problem is that it's just the start. The road to publication will continue as a long, drawn-out process with occasional tasks coming at unpredictable times. I hate getting emails I can't just deal with immediately and delete.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Why Research Professors Need to be Able to Teach

I have reached the point as a teacher that it is sometimes painful to be a student. Not because of any requirements of the class, but because some of the professors assigned to teach graduate courses are so clearly the stereotypical brilliant scientist who can't present to save a life.

One of the professors co-teaching my only class this semester clearly falls into this category. After slowly and awkwardly dispensing with the typical course announcements, he began his lecture with a long, sometimes convoluted story about the importance of Galileo's discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter. Registration to this course may be offered through five different departments, but not one of them has anything to do with astronomy. It wasn't until we moved on to the history of understanding the function of the heart (and in case you hadn't guessed, none of the departments has any interest in anatomy, either) that he finally managed a clear statement of the point, which is that humans use metaphors to understand complex ideas. At this point, about half my attention was devoted to wondering at what point in the lecture his apparent need to cling to the whiteboard shelf for support would result in the destruction of the dry-erase artwork behind him.

What seems so terrible about this is that it isn't just teaching. In fact, most of my teaching skills have been built by my advisor's insistence on decent presentations of our research in our lab meetings, defenses, and annual department presentations. Make sure they know the point you're going to make. Repeat the point so often even those dozing in the back of the room might pick it up. Explain how every piece of data you're throwing on the screen supports that point, and explain it explicitly. Professors at an R-I like my school are research scientists first, teachers only to keep the graduate students occupied, but by dint of research presentations you'd think they could pull together a decent lecture on automatic.

In this case, I distinctly remember being impressed by this professor's research presentation a year ago. In retrospect, however, I was no doubt impressed by the research despite the presentation, not because of it. This professor has a "cool" or "sexy" research topic, and he had cool toys with him to show off as demonstrations of that research. He can impress people with his research just by the nature of his research; he doesn't have to "sell" the importance or convince people that it's interesting. While he has obviously chosen a great field to be involved in, it has done him absolutely no good in terms of his presenting skills. Sooner or later, he's going to need to sell his research, and he won't be able to. It's not just for the students' sake that research professors should still be decent teachers, it's for the professors' sake as well.

Meanwhile, I will attempt not to wince in sympathy or zone out staring at birds outside the window while he lectures.

(And he never quite leaned back far enough to smudge the dry-erase artwork. It was actually quite fancy doodling, so I doubt it will have been erased in the past 48 hours. If it's still there, I might have to start taking mental bets on how long it lasts).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Apparently "accepted pending minor revisions" really is meaningful. The first two rounds of submissions to this journal took just over three months each, first coming back "revise and resubmit" and then coming back "minor revisions". The final round lasted less than 24 hours, with the final, official acceptance hitting my inbox a full hour before my advisor's one-word email ("Great!") acknowledging that the final submission had been made.

So there we are. I have no idea what the backlog on brief reports is at this journal, but at some point in the coming year I will be a published author.
It wasn't my idea or my design, but it was all my analysis and a great deal my writing. Even I can't be pessimistic at this stage. Now I can eagerly start anticipating the hectic proofs process, and hoping that in with the author reprints is at least one copy of the entire journal, with my name buried in the Contents list.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Yet Another First Day of Class

The final revisions (corrections of typos, revisions to awkward sentences, a handful of additional sentences explaining things in more detail) to my journal article have been sent. Seeing the official status of "Accept Pending Minor Revisions" did not make this any less of a stressful process; I'm still waiting for the editor to change her mind.

As of the first day of classes, I seem to be in pretty good shape for the coming semester. I have all the areas of research covered: old data to present (two different pieces of my master's thesis, at a conference in April), relatively new data to ponder (one set of data for me, one set for my honors student), impending data (an experiment that will begin in two weeks), and, assuming my advisor finds the comps revisions satisfactory, new studies to design for a dissertation proposal.

I could do with less of this work being focused on March and April, but obviously there has to be some trade-off to the semester system. I get an easy three weeks in December/January, to make up for the stress that comes with the end of the school year. It seems a fair trade now - we'll just have to see whether it still seems fair in April.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Holiday Grace Period

I was vastly amused by the latest PhD comic, on the holiday grace period. Possibly because I took advantage of this implicit grace period, skipping my weekly progress report the week after Christmas on the grounds that it was better to tell my advisor nothing than to tell her there was no change at all, not a single paper read in the previous week. I spent Monday morning in a whirlwind of email activity, so I would be able to say I had "followed up" with various people (mostly other graduate students who had obviously also been taking advantage of the grace period).

In my defense, I did have real progress to report on my comps paper. It's just that I had taken a slow, thoughtful process to the new sections, which involved reading a few papers and letting them germinate in the back of my mind for a week. This looks completely unproductive, but actually makes writing much easier, because the papers have had time to get to know each other before they must be connected on paper. So I spent Friday afternoon churning out the new section, and most of the past few days rearranging the entire comps paper to fit these new arguments. I swear, I don't think more than 3 paragraphs out of 35 pages have been left untouched.

It pains me to admit it, but the revisions are actually growing on me. I have become obsessed with the safety of my work, backing up changes to a flash drive every night and bring it to my bedside table. I am determined to find a way to make this a practical dissertation topic, just to make all this effort worthwhile. I've even, almost, begun to see how the topic could be considered interesting. This hasn't been the case since I proposed my comps some 9 months ago, and marks the real progress. All of which is only possible because I did very little work over the last few weeks, allowing my brain to recover from burnout.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Glad for Local Conferences

My first conference - first as both attendee and presenter - happens to be in the nearby major city. I won't be flying, or staying in a hotel, or doing any of those (I imagine) typical "conference" chores. I will be commuting by the free (with student ID) hourly bus.

At first this seemed pathetically anti-climactic. How am I supposed to feel accomplished if this conference is just a bus-ride away? Sure, it's better than the mini-conferences I've attended on campus, where it's less a conference and more a slight change of venue for the school day. But it hardly feels like an important step in the academic career. I'm sure this will change when I get there, and see how unbelievably huge the entire thing is as I man my posters in 2 of the 15 poster sessions. My advisor has promoted this conference to us as a chance to have the advantage of her "pointing people to our posters", since she no longer travels for conferences (and I'd better still not be her grad student by the time her kids are older enough for her to travel again).

The benefits of not having to travel only became apparent as I flew back from my winter vacation last night. The delay on the first leg of the trip didn't phase me; I had a 2-hour layover. The delay on the second phase was not pleasant, because I only had an hour and half to catch the shuttle away from the airport in the middle of nowhere. And after they got us on the plane a mere 45 minutes late, they left us sitting there for another 45 minutes while they sorted our luggage. This is a good reason never to fly through Atlanta, ever again. I cannot afford many $80 taxi rides home from the airport. It was only merest chance (and my moonlighting for my father's office over break) that I could afford one.

So when I think about my first conference being a local one, I will think less of the exotic travel I'm missing and more of the chaotic travel I'm missing. Nothing like a positive mood to start the new semester.