Professorial Nuggets: The Overcommitment Edition

I have been extremely busy, hence the scarcity of posts. I have been wanting to post on a number of interesting topics, but the time just isn’t there… And then I forget or the impetus to write diminishes for whatever reason (mostly due to sleepiness), and then there are more pressing things to tend to anyway…

I have been overcommitted. I say no to a lot of things, but I am still overcommitted. I need to implement even more stringent criteria as to what I do and don’t do. For instance, I make a point of reviewing for journals where I often publish, but not much outside of those unless it’s the work of authors I know. Well, it turns out that I can get 5-8 solicitations in a single week from the journals where I publish often combined with others that consider the work of some of the colleagues from the field. Before you know it, instead of writing papers in my precious no-face-time blocks, I am spending all this time reviewing other people’s papers.

A lot of people request stuff from me, and the problem is that many of these people cannot be entirely ignored  if  I want to be collegial (which I do, mostly because I may need stuff from them down the road). Even if I end up not doing what they want, I often have to spend some time reading something or participating in some meetings or talking on the phone before I can say no lest coming across as a dismissive jerk. I wish people would try to filter when and why they ask for stuff. But self-interest trumps consideration, as is understandable.

There are some service tasks that I committed to, but they turned out to be time-wasters despite having started as interesting or potentially impactful. I think really hard, but end up not being able to find a single saving grace when it comes to doing these tasks; I really resent myself for having taken them up.

I have been teaching a new (to me) large undergraduate course. It’s been fun and challenging for both me and the students. It’s a considerable amount of work and I have no TA (I do have a grader for homework). A large number of adorable terrified undergrads means I have to hold a lot of office hours and I always have someone in my office. None of this has helped with my workload.

I have been privy to the information about some people’s tenure cases. While I knew of the following issue from research and diversity training, after the experiences of this year, I can tell you firsthand that people sometimes write really weird $hit about women in external letters of evaluation (letters are solicited without the candidate’s input from roughly a dozen prominent people in the field). I have never seen anything like that written for a male candidate. It’s not even necessarily negative, but it’s weird, overly personal, such as analyzing the inner workings of the (mysterious female) psyche.

I keep reading and hearing of people writing 10-12 grant proposals per year. How? To whom? I have 2-3 divisions at the NSF where I can submit unsolicited proposals, and they are all due at the same time, once per year, in the fall. I wrote two different brand new grants in parallel for the fall deadline and could not recover for weeks. I recently (a few weeks ago) finished a massive renewal application of one of my large grants to a different federal agency. I don’t think I can write more than 3-4 new, different grants in a year by myself; first of all, there aren’t that many places to send to, and second, there are only so many good disparate ideas I can write up per unit time; I suppose I could do more if they were revisions, but with so few places to submit to and so few submission windows per annum, I am not going to recycle a grant with a low chance of success just pro forma. Plus I actually have to teach and advise students and write papers… And travel, and do service. So writing 10-12 grants per year, is this a biomedical thing? Or an experimental thing? How is it even pulled off amidst all the other work? I don’t know many of my physical science colleagues writing 10-12 grants per year, perhaps only the NIH or DoD-funded folks with humongous groups.

Large center grants get on my nerves — specifically, being asked to participate in grants for large centers, which almost never get funded. These grant writing endeavors are always last-minute, dramatic, and not creative at all. I know all the cool kids participate in them, and I have done it a fair number of times, but I cannot make myself go through the pointless motions again. I am all for collaboration when it’s organic (first we realize we want to do something together, then seek funds), rather than how the teams are often assembled, which is scrambling in response to a funding solicitation.

I crave the time to work on my science. I reread one of my single-author papers from several years ago. It is really cool. I never get to do that any more.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you keep your workload manageable? What do you say no to? What frequency of grant writing is appropriate for your discipline? Center grants — yay or nay?

Infrastructure Blunderbuss

After a mad dash to the deadline, I recouped (read: did weekend chores) and am now heading out of town.

For your viewing pleasure, here’s a great segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show. The whole segment is longish, but if you only have a few minutes, at 17:15 starts a hilarious trailer for a faux upcoming blockbuster Infrastructure, featuring stars such as Edward Norton and Steve Buscemi.

And two great songs from Jack White’s album Blunderbuss, because it’s Monday and Jack White is awesome.

And since I was on YouTube, I couldn’t miss this oldie but goodie by his old band The Raconteurs (because deep down I am 13)

Reader Question: Recent PhD Grad Seeks Advice on Job Hunting

Reader E has a question for the blogosphere. I am retelling the original email to better anonymize the case (as per E’s request). I think I managed to capture the gist of the experience; E, if something is incorrect, please let me know.

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E completed their PhD in a physical science field at a tippity-top university (ranked 1 or 2), it seems quite recently. The first three years were spent on experimental work, while E was supported on a fellowship (I am guessing NSF); by the end of the fellowship, external funds for the continuation of the project did not come through. In the meantime, the advisor took a part-time position elsewhere and has been largely unavailable to E. At the end of the fellowship, E was advised to leave due to lack of funding, then it was decided E would switch gears and do computational work (I was unclear how that was funded, I am guessing on advisor’s other funds or perhaps a TA-ship). So, E spent the last 2.5 years learning how to do computational work with the help of another senior person (not sure if another faculty or postdoc/researcher), because the advisor does not have expertise in computation.

While E completed the computational project successfully, and defended their PhD recently, they don’t feel like the PhD experience has made them competitive for jobs. “While I produced several articles (2 journals, 1 proceeding), I wouldn’t call any of them career producing (the best was a mid range journal).”

I feel like I learned how to apply a very narrow set of computational skills to an even narrower problem. I have a hard time showing employers (postdoc, industry, gov, etc…not picky at all at this stage…have a growing family and need a job) that my skill set would be beneficial to them. My advisor has no way of helping me get employed (knows no one in the computational field…) and my mentor [the person who helped get E started on the computational front] is too busy with new professional developments. I would like to know, do you offer students (without a network to rely on) and struggling to get employed how to sell themselves? I would love to stay in science, but accept the fact that it is very unlikely that someone will take a chance on me.

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I will leave this open for blogosphere discussion. But I can get the discussion going by sharing what I do with my students.

I tell this to all of them, early and often:

This is not MIT or the like, and I am not famous. Just getting a PhD from here with me as advisor does not magically open doors. I tell them that I am very good at what I do and we will do good science together and that they will be well trained to be good PhD scientists and communicators, technically strong, who can write and present their work. But, I tell them that I also really want them to be able to get jobs when they are done. So they are encouraged from the get-go to get an MS in another field of their choice in addition to the PhD, and to take classes in other areas. I seem to be unusual in this respect, as I recently found out — most of my colleagues seem worried about productivity and want their students focused on research 100% of the time. I don’t. After the first 2-2.5 years, the students are done with classes for the major, and the resulting lack of class-induced structure to their days and weeks can be disorienting. I strongly encourage them to take 1 and sometimes 2 classes per semester in whatever they want until they are done; not only does this increase their knowledge base and potential employability, but I strongly believe is helps productivity on their main projects (alternatively, they TA when they are senior; regular contact with chirpy undergrads is good for the grumpy senior grad student). Nearly all of my students have taken the opportunity to get an MS in another science or engineering field while doing a PhD in our field (and also they get a “MS in passing” in the major, but that’s rather trivial for a well-performing student, just a bit of paperwork).

I also have some (not many) connections in industry (e.g. my grad school buddies and other people who were students when  I was), and now that I have placed some students in industry, they could (and do) further help other students. From my standpoint, all I can do is help as much as I can with the connections I have, and otherwise let the students know early on what the lay of the land is, and then let them figure it out for themselves. I am about to graduate a student who has a job lined up at a major software company. It has been a great experience: he interviewed, they gave him an offer, he asked and they agreed on a start date several months into the future, so he will both finish his project and his dissertation without a rush, and will then start at his great new job.

My industry students seem to do a few interviews to get a job, but not many. 1-3 is the norm before first offer. I had only one student several years ago who had like 12 interviews before the first offer, and eventually landed at a company that he had always dreamed of working for (I helped there by forcing him to go give a talk or two at venues where I knew the company would be having representatives). It has never been an issue that my students can’t get interviews. The student who is about to graduate, the one I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is part of an international community, and he appears to have access to a lot of job opportunity announcements through the network of his compatriots. Kudos to him, I say!

I think it’s impossible to get a job without some sort of network, but I it needn’t be your advisor and his buddies. Former group members are great, compatriots are great, checking websites of companies in the area or the companies you’d like to work with in general is great. In my experience, while job search is scary, it has always ended very well for my students and it didn’t take long. As advisor, I know that the last 6 months of their time here will be low productivity, because they are distracted and interviewing, and that’s fine; I plan on everything being done beforehand anyway.

As for postdocs, those are either awesome or awful in the physical sciences (I don’t have experience in the biomed world, but it sure seems to be a strange and scary place, based on the blogosphere). A great postdoc will propel you, an awful one will kill years of your life and, in some fields, might make you less employable in industry.
The worst part is you don’t know that postdoc opportunities are available until they are (i.e. notice of funding comes through) and then they are filled quickly and usually through personal connections (e.g. I will prioritize a student from a group whose leader I know and respect over a random other applicant).

Another issue: when it comes to advising, it seems to me that people with fellowships, especially graduate students but sometimes also postdocs, tend to have a crappy time disproportionately often. Unfortunately, I am guessing it’s the case of “well, I don’t have to pay the kid, so why not?” My rule is that if I wouldn’t work with a student/postdoc under the assumption that I am paying them off my grants, then I don’t take them (this doesn’t imply poor quality of student postdoc, but rather that they may be a poor fit for the group, or that I already have too many people and cannot effectively mentor another one). The same thing holds for the research topic: too often, people on fellowships end up working on advisor’s pet topic that may or may not be half-baked; they also end up being poorly supervised, because there is no funding-agency pressure that the advisor feels for regular grants. Obviously, that’s a recipe for disaster: before you know it, three years have passed, and the student has spent them on a poorly defined project with inadequate advising. Likely, it doesn’t help that most fellowship holders flock to tippity-top schools, which are competitive places and not known to be the oases of  warmth or fuzziness in student advising.

So, what’s the moral of the story?

E, I am really sorry for your experience. But, you got a PhD from a fancy school, and that won’t hurt in the long run.
Right now, pull all the strings you can — whomever you know, whomever they know, look at online postings, anything you can find. You don’t necessarily expect people to get you jobs, but rather to help point you towards jobs or places where jobs might be opening, and generally just meet people. It’s never too late to develop a network, and a network can be built in ways that you don’t expect: e.g. there are lawyers and doctors and professors and entrepreneurs among the parents on my kid’s swim team; sure, I know them because of swimming, but I know them now, and didn’t before, and if need be I could and would call upon our acquaintance in another context, and I would be happy if they did the same.

I also recommend consulting this great book “Navigating the Path to Industry” which helps exactly in your situation: finding a job upon leaving academia, as written by a biotech manager (the writer is awesome IRL and online, and sometimes comments here under a pseudonym, but I know doesn’t want to link work with personal blog, so I am not linking here).

Blogosphere, what say you? Do you have words of wisdom for E?

Ranty

I think I might explode with anger and frustration. I have a proposal due next week and I cannot get to work on it because I have to finish two nominations (including writing letters) for colleagues (no, they could not have been done sooner because everyone, including the nominees, waits till the very last fuckin’ minute to send me their stuff) and I have to sit in a meeting for a university-level committee all morning tomorrow and then I teach in the afternoon.

And this is the service that is actually not bullshit. And don’t tell me to delegate, because I am the delegate.

Sometimes there is simply too much work for the time available. And the time crunch comes about not from sitting on one’s hands but from constantly having to put out fires; urgent always trumping important, until it’s too late. 

So please, don’t give me advice on how to optimize my time. I assure you I have heard everything and am aware of all the tricks. Most “tricks” involve dropping stuff or dumping stuff on someone else. Or simply being an asshole, like some of my colleagues, and not give a damn if service obligations go to $hit.
I have already cut all that could be cut; this week alone I refused probably 6-7 review requests.

Absent dumping my work on someone else, it is the issue of simple math: there is too much work for the time that I have. And no, it is not my character flaw, or my inability to get organized or whatever. So please refrain from giving advice.

Where will I be all weekend? Right fuckin’ here, in my office, non-stop. Butt glued to the chair.

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Which reminds me: I received reports from a highfalutin journal. Of the three, one was very positive and 2 sentences long. One was blanket dismissive, also 2 sentences. One was misguided and factually wrong (an example of a little knowledge being a bad thing), but at least the person wrote several paragraphs.

To all my colleagues who can’t be bothered to read the whole 4-page letter-type manuscript and who can’t be bothered to write more than 2 sentences: screw you. I always write detailed reports, especially if I don’t like the paper. I do so even if I do like the paper, so the authors would have some ammunition to fight the potentially negative reviews.

Screw you all, lazy referees. You are crappy colleagues. I hope all you receive in the next 5 years are blanket dismissals conveyed through 2-sentence reports.
You don’t deserve my time or my effort to read and understand your papers and write detailed reports.
And neither do you, unbelievably slow editor who actually lets not one but two 2-sentence reports through as actual reviews. Screw you, too.

Typesetting Grant Proposals

I am in a physical science field, addressing problems by means of theory and computation. I also work a lot with experimentalists.

When I write paper or proposals with experimental colleagues, since they all use MS Word, I use it too. I also use MS Word for a lot of small documents (writing homework assignments and tests, letters of recommendation, all sorts of administrative documents).

On the other hand, I write papers with my students exclusively in LaTeX. The students’ dissertations, which are largely based on their published papers, are also in LaTeX. There is really nothing like LaTeX for producing beautiful documents with a lot of math. And, of course, the publisher that is of greatest interest to physicists (the American Physical Society) prefers it — the beautiful REVTeX two-column template (REVTeX is a collection of LaTeX macros) is the gold standard of preprints, widely recognizable as the “template of the true physicist” (see arXiv, for instance).

I also write a lot of proposals by myself. This year is worse than average in the number that I have to submit. In the past, I have written grants in MS Word and I have written grants in LaTeX. And I have a confession to make: of late, I have been writing my grants in MS Word.

Grants are complicated documents, often bridging between disparate bodies of literature; they generally have strict formatting requirements and very high standards for readability and flow. Every grant writer will recognize the need to use the available page are efficiently, without cramming too much or wasting precious space.

LaTeX, in general, will let you format the document as you see fit, but will do so grudgingly. It always knows better than you what looks good, and it generally really does; it incorporates the best typographic practices, as it was meant as a tool that lets you focus on content while not dwelling over layout. However, writing proposals is where you need to have it your way because of the spacing requirements. I have lost a lot of time in the past wrestling with LaTeX to have the wrapped figure where I want it and not where LaTeX deems it appropriate, trying to reduce the white space around the figure etc. Also, excessive math (or virtually any math) has no place in proposals, even theory ones (typesetting math is what makes Latex superior).

While it doesn’t bother me in the least that I have to compile in order to look at the text when I write a paper, it bothers me a lot when I write proposals. The proposal is a work of both form and substance, in which text flow and layout are critical. Also, proposals are usually written (by me and the likes of me, at least) on a very tight schedule, and I find that just having one document that I can easily scroll down or up alleviates some of the tension. In contrast, when I write a  proposals in LaTeX, I usually have a master file and separate files for different chapters/sections  (which makes it easier to track content and edit), but — in the mad dash to the deadline —  working with source files in Latex  makes me feel disoriented and interferes with my work flow and thought process; none are good in a time crunch. So I go with the WYSIWYG MS Word.

So, yes; I am ashamed to say, these days I use MS Word to write proposals. *hangs head in shame, turns in physical scientist card*

I am actually a little worried about being judged for writing a proposal using MS Word instead of LaTeX during proposal review (the one I am writng now, in particular). There is a lot of “one true path” among scientists, from the choice of the operating system [e.g. real computational scientists would not use anything but Linux (Mac is acceptable, but Windows is only for the dimwitted)]  to programming language or any piece of software. I review a lot of proposals, and the ones from pure physicists, especially theorists, are usually written in LaTeX (with its recognizable Computer Modern Roman, a pleasantly plump font). I am seriously worried that my use of the Text Editor of Pure Evil will immediately dismiss me as not being a real scientist in the eyes of some who may review this particular grant. My husband thinks I am nuts for worrying about such things; of course, you’d think that the content of the proposal is what matters. But we all know scientists can be territorial, petty, judgmental, and dismissive (you know, just like other humans) and it is not inconceivable that I might be looked down up because of the non-LaTeXness of my proposal (not like my femaleness, apparent from the proposal cover page, will do much to help). Then again, it may be the nerves talking. I do tend to lose my belief in humanity and become more misanthropic than usual at proposal crunch time.

What say you, esteemed blogosphere? How do you typeset your proposals? Do you care about how people have typeset their  proposals when you review them?