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.