Scientists As Non-Technical Writers

Occasionally it occurs to me that, in terms of my job as an academic scientist, I really still think of myself as junior. Intellectually, I know I am a full professor and I am not getting any younger, but I don’t really feel that I now truly belong to the most senior segment of the professoriate, the segment that produces the leaders of federally funded centers and the writers of textbooks.

A little while ago, I reviewed big center grants for a federal agency, and this is the first time I ever thought I could totally write this type of grant (which is not to say that I should or would). Center grants are really different beasts than single-investigator or small-team grants, and much hinges on the capability of the PI to bring everyone together (which I think I could); however, even more hinges on the perceived awesomeness of the PI. I am a theorist and a woman, yet any center (unless it’s one heavily focused on theory, and those are exceedingly rare) would involve me and a whole bunch of experimentalists.  People expect a senior male experimentalist at the helm, or  a male young-gun experimentalist, or perhaps a senior woman experimentalist. To lead most centers, I would probably have two if not three demerits as the PI — female, theorist and perhaps not sufficiently senior. Sure, this may be my impostor syndrome talking, but I don’t think I am imagining this.

Anyway, I think I will be trying my hand at leading some larger proposals in the next year or two, even though they are likely not to get funded. I will try hard to think of it as practice for bigger and better things, and not just as a ginormous waste of time.

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For reasons of intradepartmental service, I recently had the pleasure of reading the CV of a senior colleague. The colleague wrote a well-regarded textbook a couple of decades ago, when he was about my age or perhaps even younger. He’s not in my subfield, so I don’t know if that text was really necessary and novel at the time, something much-needed to fill a void in the education of graduate students. What I know is that the book has been broadly adopted and has sold nearly 100,000 copies.

I teach courses from low-level undergrad to upper-level graduate, and I provide detailed hand-written lecture notes for all my courses. Occasionally, people ask if I plan on writing a textbook for the course.

As for the low-level undergraduate courses, I don’t think I have enough original to say about these basic and well-known topics that hasn’t been already said in one text or another. I certainly don’t see that there is a dearth of undergraduate texts in my field — on the contrary;  too many people have already spent time writing textbooks that very few students outside of their own classrooms will ever buy.

When it comes to graduate education, there is a small number of texts available and I have things to say, but I feel that my most original thoughts fit just as well into journal publications. I don’t feel that it’s worth my time to write a textbook, that there is a pressing need for it, or that there is a sufficiently large market for it. I am also fairly non-committal in terms of what I teach: I like changing up my lectures, especially at the graduate level, as I see fit, in response to both new field developments and to class composition and interest. New discoveries lead to new homework problems, projects, and additions to the course readings.

In other words, I could write a textbook or textbooks, but in all honesty I can’t say that the world really needs one (or three) from me, so I cannot justify spending time on this endeavor… Although I would probably really enjoy the writing.

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Another thing I have been mulling over: scientists as non-technical writers, i.e., as writers of fiction or popular non-fiction.

I know a few successful examples off the top of my head. Daniel H. Wilson, the author or Robopocalypse (being presently adapted into a movie) and Robogenesis, has a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon (although he seems to write full time these days). Paul McEuen, an accomplished Cornell condensed-matter physicist and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is also a recognized fiction writer, whose thriller Spiral was welcomed with positive reviews. Jennifer Rohn, who blogs at Occam’s Typewriter, is (to paraphrase her own words) a cell biologist at the University College London by day and a novelist, pundit, and editor by night. She has published two novels (Experimental Heart and The Honest Look) as well as shorter pieces. This year’s Hugo Award winner in the novel category, The Three-Body Problem (can’t wait to read it!) was written by Cixin Liu, who used to work as a computer  engineer at a power plant.

There are people who write non-fiction that is based on their experiences in their main line of work. There are Harvard’s well-known Stephen Pinker with The Sense of Style and a particle physicist Lisa Randall with Warped Passages. M.R. Nelson wrote the short and delightful Taming the Work Week and Navigating the Path to Industry based on her years of working as a manager in the biotech industry. Academic examples are also Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded and Karen Kelsky’s book, The Professor Is In, based on her blog (I admit to not being the biggest fan).

Clearly some people can be both gifted writers and accomplished professionls. I like writing, as evidenced by nearly 6 years of blogging (has it been that long?) and I have been enamored of the idea of even more writing. Sure, I have no time, but the lack of time never stopped me from doing anything; I do have ideas and zeal. It’s the fear of suckitude at a scale grander than my small blog and the fear of of contributing meaninglessly to the legions of the unread (and the undead) at a great sacrifice of time and energy — both of which should be channeled into my family and my day job — that generally serves as a powerful antidote to the impetus to write more.

I will say, though, that many books and publications related to the life in academia, like the CHE and IHE, don’t resonate with my experiences. For instance, while I understand and am sympathetic to the plights of adjuncts, we simply don’t have them in my college at all. We have a handful of full-time teaching staff with MS degrees. They have long-term contracts, good salaries, and benefits. They are beloved teachers who are involved in developing the curriculum and fully partake in faculty meetings. Once in a blue moon, when there is a need to staff a course last minute, those are covered either as teaching overload by a member of faculty or teaching staff, or by a highly qualified senior graduate student who’s mere months from graduation and who would like some teaching experience.

Academia is very heterogeneous and I understand the mainstream publications are tailored towards non-STEM folks and non-R1 universities and colleges. No one should shed a tear for a well-compensated tenured academic at a large research university.  But I will say that people reading about academia in mainstream outlets probably have almost no idea (or worse yet, have a very unrealistic one) about the world that my colleagues and I live and work in. Maybe that’s not a loss, but maybe it is.

Notes from the Road 7

** Oh, jet lag. You are such an a$$hole.

** Since I can’t sleep like a normal person, I have cleared my “to review” folder. I feel very virtuous. Accepted one paper after they had done an excellent job revising; recommended major revisions for the second paper in a first review; rejected the third, where I was referee No 4 brought in to see what’s what (the paper is steaming pile of crapola, and the first three referees said as much, I have no idea why it wasn’t rejected after that first round of review, as no one had a good thing to say about it; the authors went though the revision, which revealed some clearly nonsensical statements and possibly even made it worse).

** Why can’t we have awesome pastry in the US? Why?! The wonderful flaky-layer pastries that I am buying here at a local supermarket for pennies is better than I can get even at the fancy overpriced specialized bakeries in my neck of the woods.

Oh, pastry, how I love thee. How I miss thee. You might even be worthy of the horrible jet lag.

** Again, there is shit people work on here that they would never, ever be able to work on where I am. They would never get money for it. I feel a combination of self-righteousness, envy, and relief that at least somewhere someone gets to do the fun esoteric stuff that has been beaten out of me long ago by grant reviews.

** Sometimes (all the time) I think European colleagues think of me, and the few other Americans at this conference, as freakin’ baboons, prancing around, trying to animate the audience, having pretty figures and movies, trying to educate and entertain, not being serious scientists. Then you have a typical European presentation in my field, with slide after slide of a freakin’ derivation.

** In the interest of science, I have been (discreetly) oogling men in the streets and at the conference in order to answer the following two burning questions:

Burning Question 1:  What does it mean to be a casually well-dressed European man and why is it that a casually well-dressed European man sticks out in the US like a, well, not a sore thumb but more like a glorious shining beacon of style?

According to my observations, there are several elements to being a well-dressed European man.

a) First, physical fitness. It’s important, because some of what follows cannot be pulled off with a beer gut.

b) Good quality shoes and belt. Really, really nice shoes. Like these:

You know, shoes that are purchased for fun and whimsy and not just to be a workhorse. I rarely see American men wear anything other than black leather shoes even when they are dressed up. Why? Maybe because a pair of goddamned Guccis costs $950, that’s why.

c) Well-fitting pants. American men wear jeans or the “relaxed fit” slacks with a crease, that annoying staple of business attire. European men know to wear non-denim slim-fit pants, that look like the best of jeans, but are not jeans; rather, they are grey, or dark blue, or black, and in a soft fabric whose name I don’t know.

d) Button-down shirt, fitted and tucked in (that’s where the fitness comes into play), belt, and no tie.

The tucking-in seems to be a lost art in the US, unless one is going to the office or a wedding/funeral, and then the tucking in is applied to a button-down shirt and topped off with the inevitable tie. Apparently, no tie — no button down shirt or tucking anything into pants in the US. Which is a shame.

e) The really dressy dressers seem to be into having fancy watches (in case you miss he’s wearing the expensive Guccis, you can’t miss the 2-lb wrist watch that could pass for Thor’s hammer). I don’t care for the watches, but I understand it’s patriarchy-approved male jewelry that doubles as a status symbol.

Burning Question 2: Are US male geeks more or less or differently geeky than European geeks?

I would say European geeks are fitter on average, especially northern European and not-quite-middle-aged geeks. There are some very good looking colleagues aged 30-40 that I don’t think I have seen many counterparts of in the US; even those who are unmistakably geeky are still of normal weight. And everyone seems well rested, much better rested than the US counterparts. Maybe I am just catching everyone as they have returned from vacation; maybe they eat better; maybe they work less than US folks (perhaps, in part, because they have more administrative support).

Graduate students are on average also fitter, wear less facial hair, but for some reason more pony tails (!) than what I see in the US.

[I am really not a fashion snob (more like a fashion slob). I know Americans praise functionality and comfort over all else, and that’s a  thing I really like and embrace because I honestly hate shopping for clothes.]

**  Scalzi’s “The End of All Things” was enjoyable. For the fans of “The Old Man’s War” universe, it won’t disappoint. It features 4 novellas and unfolds via Scalzi’s recognizable push-plot-through-dialogue technique (I am sure there’s a name for said technique in literary theory, I just don’t know it). I loved all the political machinations.

I am currently reading “Robogenesis,” a sequel to the “Robopocalypse” that I quite liked. So far, I think “Robogenesis” will be even better, I am almost crapping myself with horror and anticipation.

Although it might just be all the pastry…

Notes from the Road 6

Oh, yes. I am overseas again.

This time in a lovely nordic country. Riding on a train earlier today, I noticed how much the landscape looks like the American midwest. But I had forgotten how much cobblestone is still beloved in many parts of the Old Continent.

On my return overseas trip a couple of weeks ago, I was upgraded to business class (yay!) but there was a couple across the aisle from me, and the woman (nearest me) was sneezing, blowing her nose, and coughing her lungs out for 10 hours straight. Of course, I got sick when I got back home, and was out for a week with jetlag and a bad cold.

This time, I sat next to a German gentleman, who had the misfortune of his touch-screen not working and the stewardess constantly overlooking him for refreshments! Poor guy.

But I am not looking forward to all the jetlag, again.

After I come back, I have two more trips and then I get to stay put for a while and write proposals.

But, for now, “The End of All Things“!

And curse you, Europe, and you eschewance of  air-conditioning.

Grouchy Academic Thoughts

Time flies.

An up-and-coming professor who had just made tenure when I started graduate school is now at the tail end of being mid-career and is starting to talk about what she will do when she retires.

A talented researcher employed at an institute, who, as a visiting scientist a little more than a decade ago was giving my male graduate-school contemporaries hilarious and largely misguided advice on dating, has recently purchased a small bachelor-sized house on the outskirts of a large European city and is counting days until retirement.

People go from up-and-coming to past-their-prime in the blink of an eye.

We are all working and thinking hard and the time goes by and then we’re done. I know so many smart people who will die not having left much behind them, not because they didn’t work hard or do everything that they were supposed to do, but because they are human and being human means being largely and inescapably irrelevant in almost every way imaginable.

The world I live in is full of very smart  and hard-working people, so full that it makes me think that being smart and hard-working is no big deal. I am afraid it is becoming more and more difficult to remind myself that people who are quite as smart and quite as driven are really relatively rare in the grand scheme of things. Even so, most of them don’t amount to much more than passing their genes along, just like their less-calculus-savvy brethren.

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My kids are growing up fast. They will grow up soon and move away.

Kids start cute and magical and full of promise, and then become…  grownups. Grownups are neither cute nor magical. And they sure are full of… well, definitely not promise.

I wish they could stay cute and magical, always.

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A little while ago I received a big grant, with what were the best reviews I have ever received in my life (you bet they are going straight into my feel good folder). And then yesterday I got a rejection of another grant (effing 13th of the month).

I have another trip, and then another, and then it’s the NSF fall proposal writing time again. Sigh.

Recently some of my students conveyed that I am terrifying, apparently for saying things such as “This introduction needs work,” and “Your axis labels are illegible. I told you last time that letters have to be at least this size so they are visible when the figure is reduced to 3 in width,” and “Cut all that text from the slide, no one is going to read all that. Replace it with these three bullet points and put this figure in. And don’t forget to look at the audience when you talk, you’ve been looking at the screen the whole time.” That’s some traumatizing feedback.

I wonder how they would take the relentless stream of rejections (punctuated by acceptances) that are the staple of professorial life at a major research university.

Honestly, sometimes I feel that, half the time, what I do is write papers and proposals and then read the dismissive reviews written about them; the other half, I read other people’s papers and proposals and then write the dismissive reviews myself. Whether receiving or handing out, there is only so much criticism that can pass through one’s system before one permanently turns into a cynic.

It’s not that bad, of course, especially not for papers. These days it’s very rare that I will get a really negative review of a paper, the most negative ones are of the kind “Sure, this is fine, just not scorching-hot enough for this prestigious Glossy Mag venue.” But grant rejections still hurt, always.

One reviewer said the proposal is too ambitious and reads as my wish list, as I have no actual experience doing similar work. Apparently, having done related work since 2008 and having a number of highly cited papers (referred to in the proposal, using my own published figures in the proposal) does not count. Maybe because at the end of the day it’s “not transformative.” (Most work is not transformative at all, or at least not any more transformative than a whole bunch of other unfunded ideas, but it’s such an awesomely passive-aggressive non-sequitur word of rejection to throw at someone whose proposal you don’t like just because.)

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Never take something just because it’s free if you would never be willing to pay for it.

Words to live by… especially when it comes to student recruitment. I am advising a student who came in with their own external funds to do a terminal Master’s. I though I’d be able to get some useful research done with them; I was very, very wrong. Not only did nothing useful come out of it, they ended up being only a net drain on time, resources, and effort. Lesson learned.

I Heart Season 2 of “True Detective”

Yes, I do. I actually really like Season 2 of the HBO show “True Detective.” It’s a totally unpopular opinion, as evidenced by this, that (a good overview, but full of spoilers if you aren’t watching), and the other. While it’s not flawless (and what the hell is), I have thoroughly enjoyed it and am generally pissed at all the vitriol it’s been undeservedly getting.

I loved True Detective Season 1, even though, like pretty much everyone, I couldn’t understand half of what McConaughey was saying, as aptly captured in this hilarious spoof from The Spoon:

Season 2 of True Detective is coming to a close; this Sunday is the season finale, which I hear should be 90 min long. The Internet loves to hate Season 2. Even my DH has been grumpy about it until a few weeks ago. However, I have loved it from the get-go. First of all, the title sequence rocks. Second, Collin Farrell is knocking it out of the park with his performance as the deeply tormented dirty ex-cop Ray Velcoro; I really didn’t know he had it in him, but he is very intense and absolutely superb. Rachel McAdams’s performance is great, too; Farrell and McAdams are doing great jobs individually and also have great chemistry as the two leads who are broken people and kindred spirits, getting into progressively more serious trouble as the show unfolds. The two of them would be enough for me to watch. Taylor Kitsch is very good, too, as an ex-military macho young cop who can’t come to grips with his sexuality. Vince Vaughan was perhaps miscast as as a crooked owner of clubs and casinos with plans to get into the big leagues with an investment that fails at the show’s start, although he’s performed better in recent episodes; he is also tasked with delivering some of the most over-the-top ruminations in the show, which I am guessing is really hard to pull off with a straight face (see a great Seth Myers spoof).

I hate that everyone hates Season 2 largely because it’s not Season 1. Everyone is still fawning over Season 1 and can’t stop comparing the two, whereas they are really independent stories. Sure, Season 1 was really well done, and I admit that Season 2 has some cinematic flaws (for instance, the story appears somewhat diffuse, with lines that are not really in the service of the narrative yet don’t do help very much with character development, either), but the last four episodes have been very good and I am looking forward to the finale.

But I think the real reason why everyone is so much more gaga about Season 1 than Season 2 is the type of crime depicted. In Season 1 we had sexual abuse and gruesome murders of young women and children, with a dash of superstition; people looove identifying and catching evil serial killers of young women or children, a.k.a. the paragons of helplessness and/or innocence. The perpetrator is evil incarnate, a veritable monster, and that fascinates us.

In Season 2, we have multiple murders, prostitution, drugs, gangs and cartels, and rampant corruption. Everyone is drunk and coked up to the gills, and everyone is greedy, dirty, and generally disgusting. No one is angelic and no one is insane; there are no maniacal serial killers of young women or other innocents, but there are plenty of cold-blooded criminals. The milieu in Season 2 is probably much more like the real-life crime world. Ruthless greedy men get betrayed, tortured, or even murdered by even more ruthless greedy men, who range from low-life street pimps to high-earning corporate executives. There is a pretty disturbing scene of an orgy with high-end foreign-born escorts and corrupt powerful politicians, but apparently young women being drugged and prostituted to rich geriatrics en masse is boring TV. We only care when we see women raped, dismembered, and left in carefully stages positions that hint at ancient witchcraft, and even then we don’t actually care about the women, but about getting into the head of the deliciously twisted maniac behind the crime.

Season 2 of “True Detective” is grim and gruesome and totally worthy of viewing, even if it starts out wobbly and occasionally takes itself a touch too seriously. Don’t believe the hate.

Notes from the Road 5

After this post, some commenters have been wondering about my origins. There are many countries in Europe that would fit the description of tiny and inconsequential (whether or not their citizens are willing to admit it). Knowing which one specifically I am from would probably not bring much excitement or illumination to most of my readership.

Now, finding out that I am secretly Martian, or royalty, or a 60-year-old truck driver named Big Mike who suffers from hypertension and enjoys ballroom dancing — now those would be fun revelations!

I can also vouch that even finding the identity of a pseudonymous academic blogger is essentially anticlimactic. I mean, who could the person possibly be? Unless they are a Houdini-like master of deception (which sounds quite exhausting and I can’t understand why anyone would want to impersonate a professor), the person turns out to be who they say they are: another faculty member at some school, working in a field likely different from yours.

I mean, it would be a revelation to find out that a colleague from down the hall, who I am willing to bet doesn’t even read blogs, is in fact FSP. Or it would be fun to find out that CPP worked as a male stripper to put himself through college, or that DM spent his youth smoking (and dealing!) pot. But other than that, they are just people doing the same job elsewhere and in a different field. I think we are generally fine not knowing one another in meat space; it doesn’t add anything to the online experience. Besides, as a few bloggy friends who know me can vouch, and to paraphrase nicoleandmaggie, I am probably cooler online than in real life.

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I spent a lot of time with my former PhD advisor, and we had a great time and a lot of beer. The topics of inspiration and the passion for work and regretting the time spent or not spent on work or on family came up. He is still as passionate about his work as ever, in his mid-70s’, and he mentioned this quote from Steve McQueen’s movie “Le Mans” (I haven’t seen it):

Lisa Belgetti: When people risk their lives, shouldn’t it be for something very important? Michael Delaney: Well, it better be. Lisa Belgetti: But what is so important about driving faster than anyone else? Michael Delaney: Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.

Isn’t that a great quote? Science is important to the people who do it well. When you are immersed in the work, nothing else matters. It is hard for people who are not particularly good at much to understand it.

I am constantly guilt-ridden that I don’t enjoy homemaking or playing with my kids or other womanly pursuits very much; I simply enjoy working more. (Some people feel they should come to tell me that I shouldn’t have had kids in that case. If you feel the urge to say that, don’t; instead, ask yourself why you think only women with no professional ambition or drive are supposed to procreate, or worse, why you think women have to squash their professional lives in the service of family.) I crave the mental stimulation and, as much as I love my kids, family life doesn’t scratch that itch. Legos and plastic animals can get very boring very fast (especially by kid No 3); shopping for curtains or home decorating never even manages to rise beyond the level of tedious. Perhaps I am a horrible person, but somehow I don’t think the male version of me would ever obsess about this.

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I just got a resubmission of a paper to review. The first time around, I requested extensive edits, while the other referee accepted with minor revisions. In the response letter, I am amused by how the other referee was thanked for “his/her comments,” while in my case “we thank the referee for his comments… In his point No xx, the referee says…” The authors sort of recognize the existence of women referees, but us ladies must be the softie referee, certainly never the hardliner. Tee-hee.

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I am coming home soon, I can’t wait. En route, I came across this delicious overpriced latte with a gloriously firm head of foam: Latte