Archive for: August, 2010

Grad students, get writing!

Aug 25 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Over at Academic Inspirations, Dr. O brings up a great point about dissertation writing:

On the contrary, grad students should be continually writing throughout their thesis work, one results section at a time. For papers, if possible. If not, then for practice. Writing is an art, and it takes lots of practice. You understand your data and results better when you have time to write and reflect on them. Speaking on those results is important too, but unless you can convey your message on paper, you're doomed.

So grad students, start writing now.

Yes, yes, and more yes. For some of my students, I've had to structure them a bit, coaxing them to get me a draft of a manuscript--even if the results aren't all in yet--but such-and-such a date, just so that they get in the habit of writing about things while they're fresh in their minds and they don't procrastinate and put off starting the manuscript for another month (or 6). Grad students, it's a great habit to get into RIGHT NOW--write a bit every day (or every week, if you're like me and prefer to vomit papers up in larger chunks)--just get into the habit of doing it regularly and you'll be way ahead of the game when it comes to your thesis or dissertation.

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On the night shift...

Aug 24 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Must be "feeling like a college kid" week here in the household. Yesterday I was mulling my drinking habits (which are, essentially, identical to those of Progeny, minus the chocolate milk) and today I'm practically pulling an all-nighter trying to catch up on work. Glaring zit, check--minus the serious self-esteem issues, I could be 19 again.

I've always been a night owl--I hate getting up with the sun, and feel much more productive in the late evenings. This hasn't always worked for me. During my post-doc, I had to get to the campus by 7AM to grab a parking spot, and I lived an hour away and had to drop off Progeny at the sitter's--so not many late nights for me (and as such, several years' worth of poor sleep, both due to baby issues and trying to fight my preferred sleep pattern). Now that my schedule is more flexible and Progeny sleeps through the night (and well into the morning or afternoon, if I'd allow it), I can reclaim my late nights/early mornings and get some work done to the snoring of the dog instead of the crying of the child.

However, clearly this isn't optimal. I could try to do more work in the early mornings, before getting everyone up and off to school/work in the mornings--but every time I set my alarm for 5AM when I know the only pressure to get up is coming from me (rather than a scheduled meeting, appointment, etc.), I know that inevitably I'll push the snooze button a few times and then say "fuck it" and shut the damn thing off, finally rolling out of bed several hours later. I could try to get more done in the evenings before Progeny's bedtime, but that's mom-kid time that I'd have to miss out on. I'm already scheduled throughout banker's hours, so I can't figure out how to draw more blood from that stone. Next option--altering the space-time continuum, I guess, or changing the earth's rotation to tack a few more hours onto the day.

Or, more practically, taking on fewer tasks? Definitely one of those weeks where it seems it would be preferable to change the laws of physics than to turn down one more box to check on ye olde tenure evaluation.

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Monday confessional: Starbucks who?

Aug 23 2010 Published by under [Et Al], [Life Trajectories]

It's that time of year again, when summer is winding down and thoughts turn to prepping courses and greasing the academic wheels. As such, I'm frequently asked by colleagues to meet for coffee or drinks to discuss teaching opportunities, course design, etc.

I have a terrible, dark confession. A secret that generates jaw-drops and strange stares from those who happen upon this secret knowledge.

I don't drink coffee. Or beer. Or alcohol, period (for the most part, besides an occasional glass of wine--only white, can't stand reds). I've tried to like coffee and beer, I really have. Certainly in college, beer was plentiful and cheap (or, more commonly, free). I kept being told "you'll acquire a taste for it. Drink up!" But the smell and taste still are nasty to me, even with my beer-snob partner constantly asking me to try new micro-brews and other fancy-schmancy beer labels. For coffee, I tried to like that starting in high school. Working in a restaurant, everyone was caffeinated to the gills and constantly chugging coffee. I tried it black; I tried it with milk; I tried it with flavored creamers of all types. No dice. Even as a chocoholic, I still can't stomach any type of mocha or coffee-chocolate blend. I even scrape off as much coffee flavoring as I can from the top of my tiramasu.

This inevitably makes being an academic awkward for me. Yes, it shouldn't be a big deal (and in the big scheme of things, it's not), but I always feel weird when I approach the counter with colleagues and ask for a soda, or water, or hot chocolate, instead of a latte, espresso, or beer. I feel like I should be sitting at the kids' table with my sippy cup, watching the adults drink their glamorous, grown-up drinks. And don't even get me started on conferences that serve *only* coffee during breaks. If I don't think to bring along my own water bottle while rushing off to the first session, I'm stuck being parched until I can duck out for lunch and grab a non-coffee beverage.

I will say that this does have a few advantages. Though Diet Pepsi was once my beverage of choice, I'm now pretty much caffeine-free, and have never been one of those "don't talk to me until I have my first infusion of caffeine" kind of person. I've never been a morning person, but that's a separate issue from my morning beverage of choice. I've also never had to worry about drinking too much in front of students or colleagues, or wondering if I acted stupid the night before due to "one too many" drinks. However, I do sometimes worry that others feel I'm judging *them* for their coffee or alcohol habits, or that I'm being a "prude" for not downing a few pints along with the rest of them. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, I guess.

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Hook 'em while they're young

Aug 18 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This is all sorts of awesomeness:

When Shivani went off to Princeton, Dr. Sud was like many professional women who interrupt their careers to raise kids: should she return to her former career or try a new path? Then Shivani said to her, “Mom, why not help other kids like you helped us?”

She went to Dr. Carl Harris, then superintendant of Durham Public Schools, and out of their joint vision, she says, Scientifica was founded. This unique program exposes Durham Public School kids to scientific research being conducted at local universities and companies. The kids are mentored by students at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill and are given the opportunity to conduct research during summer internships.

The link to the program is here, noting "Durham Public Schools encourages highly motivated students in Grades 8 through 12 to discover the world of science, pursue a career in this field and succeed in their career — and in life. Scientifica is designed to harness the resources offered by Durham’s many partners in the scientific community to significantly improve students’ exposure to science."

I'd love to do this in my current town--or even better, where I grew up. As I noted, I had pretty much zero exposure to science and scientists while growing up, and would love to be able to introduce HS kids to that kind of experience. I've done it individually by hosting a handful of high school age kids in my lab for summers, but nothing on the magnitude described here; if only there were more hours in the day.

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How did you end up in your career?

Aug 17 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Life Trajectories]

Interesting new post on benchfly sure to start some discussion with coming posts on the glut of PhDs in academia, and the scarcity of jobs. Before all that comes, though, Alan says:

It’s very possible that only a small fraction of us actually start out with ambitions of a career in academics. If this is the case, then perhaps the scarcity of available academic jobs is not a troubling as it may seem. So dust off the cobwebs and try to remember the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed days of your early research experience in lab – what were you thinking in those days?

For me, it starts way back before the lab. I'd always loved science, but come from a tiny place where I never even realized people *were* academics as a "job." I didn't know any researchers or professors. I don't think my parents had any friends with these careers either--certainly none I've ever met, or that they have ever mentioned to me. However, my mother and grandmother were both teachers. Having younger siblings, I also was the family "teacher" throughout my childhood. I thought perhaps this would be my future as well. As

I fell more in love with science during high school, I was pushed toward medicine, as if there was no other alternative. Truthfully, I stumbled into research during college, since a year-long research project was required as part of my degree. When I found out that I thoroughly enjoyed research, I still hadn't quite made the jump to the possibility of research-as-career. That didn't really occur until my boss asked me what my plans were after graduation. By then, I was already mulling grad school, but still didn't quite understand what it really meant to be an academic.

Long story short, as an undergrad getting into research, I certainly wasn't thinking about how to get an academic job, or what a game of chance that may end up being. Even in grad school, I honestly hadn't thought much further than "I'll do a post-doc afterward" since I knew that was a necessity for an academic job in my field. I think it really wasn't until my first meeting with the professor who eventually became my post-doc advisor that I had any real clue about what I needed to do to end up with a tenure-track research job, and the realities of that happening (or, not happening).

The more I read blogs in this area, the more I cringe and realize just how naive and uninformed I was for way too long, and yet I managed to stumble into my current position nevertheless.

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Vacation guilt

Aug 11 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

As Scicurious very sensibly noted last week, it's okay for scientists to take a vacation. The world won't end, your research won't be ruined, students will survive for a week without you, and that departmental meeting you're missing isn't really that critical, right? Yet every time I leave, even if it's for a conference, review panel or something else that's not actually vacation, I practically twitch with guilt and unease.

Part of the problem is that I still have no full-time person in the lab to oversee everything in my absence. For a variety of reasons (which I'll cover someday), I've been able to keep the lights on and publications flowing with tiny grants, but haven't yet landed anything big enough to pay for much more than supplies and a bit of hourly labor. So, while I have some fabulous grad students who have worked in the lab long enough to be independent, there still really isn't anyone "in charge" when I'm not around. I worry constantly that something bad will happen when I'm gone and there won't be anyone around to deal with it.

The other issue is that vacations aren't relaxing anymore. Granted, the last real "vacation" I had--where I actually went to a destination with the sole purpose of taking a break, and ended up actually doing only that--was as a high schooler. Since that time, any time off has been spent traveling to visit family members back home, almost always coupled with assignments to finish or papers/grants to write. Yet no matter what or how much I do when I'm traveling, I never feel caught up when I return home. It's days like these when I almost long for my waitressing days of yore, when I could at least leave the job behind and not worry about playing catch-up when I returned to work. How do you out there do it? Unplug totally? (Not an option due to issues with Progeny's biological father, unfortunately--need at least a phone on). Leave the computer behind, lab be damned? Middle ground?

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More grad school and tenure track advice

Aug 07 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

More great grad school advice from Ambivalent Academic, via Professor in Training. PiT also has advice for young professors in this excellent post.

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'Round the tubes: work-life issues

Aug 05 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It's that kind of week--mulling over school starting back up (teaching for me, class time for Progeny) must have many of us in the blogosphere thinking about work/life "balance." Scicurious has a post up discussing balance and grad school, while Southern Fried Scientist writes about grad school advice. DrugMonkey also has a collection of posts on the topic from over at the LabSpaces group.

One more comment on this--like Janet, I think juggling is a better description of my life. Any kind of balance is too easily tipped by the next upcoming lecture I need to write, or grant application due, or kid's soccer practice that needs to be run.

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"Superwoman" discussion continued

Aug 04 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Thanks to so many of you who left comments or posted your thoughts on your own blogs. I was actually out on a vacation day yesterday with my partner (sans kids, a very rare occurrence which will be the topic of a future post). Apologies to those of you whose excellent comments were caught in moderation--not sure why that happened, but they're published now and I'm looking into my settings so moderation is not the default. Here was the original post, along with posts from Mike Dunford on seeing it from the dad POV in his new digs at The Questionable Authority, and Janet Stemwedel in her new location at Adventures in Ethics and Science.

In the meantime, since I'm already feeling guilty about not having time this week to stay connected here on Scientopia and meet & greet all the new neighbors, I'll point out a few great posts I caught today:

Is it Luck, or do I Suck? by Candid Engineer

First Defense and the Talking Jitters by Prof-like Substance

Grrrr by Professor in Training (this is sure to be my week starting Monday)

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On being Superwoman

Aug 03 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I’ve been fortunate to have mostly fabulous mentors ever since my undergrad research days. These have been almost evenly split between men and women; senior and junior level researchers; academics without children, and researchers with kids ranging in age from infants to college students. However, despite this, I rarely had any discussions with them about how they actually *do* it, as far as keeping it together, maintaining funding, and keeping some semblance of a life outside of work. But once upon a time, I did receive a book.

At the time, I was a bit more naïve than I am now. I guess the reason I’d not discussed any of these career/life issues much with any of my mentors was because I hadn’t considered the reality of how difficult my career trajectory would be; I didn’t know yet just how clueless I was about the kind of life I was choosing. The book was a collection of essays—dated at the time I received it, but still pertinent. They discussed the reality of being a woman in a scientific career, mostly with a very positive spin and “you can do it!” attitude. Most of the researchers were women whose names I didn’t recognize.

Until I got to the essay by Lynn Margulis.

I’d read her book "Acquiring Genomes" and knew the basics about her—she had been married to Carl Sagan, endosymbiosis, etc. So I thought, “fabulous, here’s how to do it.”

Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to drown my sorrows in a stiff drink.

I’m a pretty blunt person. I prefer honesty to euphemisms, and the truth to white  lies. As such, I’m still conflicted about Margulis’ essay all these years later, especially since now I'm a divorced single mom living in sin with a new partner and trying to make it all work.

In the essay, Margulis discusses her roles as a mother and wife, and how they’ve conflicted with her scientific career. She relates this to the movie “The Red Shoes”, where a prima ballerina feels forced to choose between her life as a dancer and the man she loves. Margulis opined:

At age 15 I was certain that the ballerina died because of a silly antiquated convention that insisted that it is impossible for any woman to maintain both family and career. I am equally sure now that the people of her generation who insisted on either marriage or career were correct, just as those of our generation who perpetuate the myth of the superwoman who simultaneously can do it all--husband, children, and professional career--are wrong.

She goes on to discuss how the idea of being a "superwoman" leads to "thwarted expectations, the helpless-hopeless syndrome, failed dreams, and frustrated ambitions. A lie about what one woman can accomplish leads to her, and her mate's, bitter disappointment and to lack of self-esteem."

I disagree with her blanket statement that no one can "do it all"—plenty of scientists can and do combine success in their career with very happy home lives, raising well-adjusted children within supportive partnerships. Are they the exceptions that prove the rule? I think of myself as an optimist, and most of the time I like to think that Margulis is just overly pessimistic, and extrapolating too far from her own experiences with failed marriages. Indeed, she attributes her own scientific success to twice quitting "her job as a wife." But there are definitely days when I feel like I can’t handle it, and that despite knowing intellectually that it’s impossible to be a SuperEverything all the time and something’s gotta give…and I wonder sometimes, amongst the stress couched in chocolate wrappers and stacks of papers, if she wasn’t on to something.

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