Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sometimes I forget

There are times when writing a blog of this size seems like an open conversation between myself and the couple of dozen people who comment. I have no problem with that, but sometimes I forget that it's possible to toss out a post that you think is relatively innocuous and prompt a response you weren't expecting. Certainly that was the case when I touched off a lively debate about the merits of postdocing not too long ago, by suggesting ways I had seen people have very productive and fun postdocs. Clearly part of the response was my fault because, as Dr. Becca correctly pointed out, one could read the post as "if you don't do what I say and you're in a shitty postdoc, it's your fault". That is really the last thing I meant to put out there, but when you write a post in 5 minutes between other obligations, sometimes it's not well thought out and comes across to others in a way you never meant. Sometimes I forget that mentioning the words "postdoc" and "fun" in the same sentence in the science blog community can be like wearig meat pants at the pound.

PLS prepares to post on the subject of a happy postdoc experience

There are many postdocs out there who are in exploitive situations, where they are being milked like data cows by supervisors who care little for what happens to their carcass after they are done as a "trainee". To me, that type of "supervising" is unconscionable, but it doesn't mean it's not rampant. But, the point of my original post was to provide points to consider when choosing a postdoc that might aid in ending up in, at the very least, a tolerable position during what I view as an important career stage. Sometimes I forget "drive-by commenters" are almost always the ones who post the most emotional response about a topic because they pluck a single post out of the whole, cherry pick a few phrases they disagree with and launch into tirade.

Artist's rendition of a drive-by commenter.

Hey, that's fine. It reminds me to read through what I'm writing a little more critically rather than just hitting the post button after I finish typing. The flip side of course, is that simply calling someone else's points "propaganda for the system" based on your own reality is not exactly productive. To claim that another person is trying to falsely generalize based on their experience and then project your own experience to a group of people is a pretty basic flaw in logic.

Whatever you do, don't look it in the eye!

What I think is important here, however, is to bear in mind the fact that many of us want the same thing - to find ways to improve the postdoc experience. PiT already beat me to the punch with a good post on ways in which individuals can help make changes for themselves or other postdocs, so I won't belabor those points. Suffice to say that complaining without doing anything will be dismissed by others as empty blathering. If you're passionate about making a change to the life of postdocs, then do more than writing myopic internet content. To look at the real stats behind postdoc salaries, for instance, and claim that this is not your problem is to blame shift in a very convenient way. I'm not saying that postdocs have control over their salary (unless they chose a position based only on that), but in many cases PIs also have very little control. Not every lab is a biomedical factory running on multiple NIH grants.

If that doesn't appeal to you then at the very least, as a PI, break the cycle. Those who vociferously complain about how horrible being a postdoc is, only to turn around and treat their trainees the same way, either have learned nothing or have consciously embraced the exact thing which they fought against. Many of the PIs who blog are very aware of the training responsibility we have to the next generation of postodcs, whether you decide to call that "nauseating altruism" or not. Every trainee has their own goals and one of the PI's responsibilities is to do what they can to place that trainee in the best position to succeed. In the real world even a good PI will not be able to do this 100% of the time and even successful trainees will no reach their goals 100% of the time. Does that mean that all PI's are just out for themselves and to find more trainee wood to throw on the fire of science? If you think that is the case, why are you aiming to be a PI? If you are an unhappy postdoc, will you treat the people in your lab better or will you see it as a rite of passage that they suffer? The fact of the matter is that improving the postdoc experience takes commitment IRL, not just virtual opinions.

[Update Biochem Belle just added a post about types of postdocs that readers may find useful.]

Friday, February 26, 2010

Data paralysis

I just got data. Not just any data, but a motherload of data. The amount of data that makes you look at it and think "Did I really order this or did they send the wrong thing" like if 400 pairs of socks showed up at your door after a night of drunken online binge shopping.

I'm fucking giddy about it all, but on the other hand, I have no idea where to start. Like a contestant in the biggest burger eating contest, I can't even pick this up, let alone find a place to sink my teeth in. This is not something someone should get at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. It just isn't.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A breath of fresh air

I'll be honest, I haven't posted a lot this week because this has been a tough week. For a lot of reasons, blogging has just fallen off the map in ways it normally doesn't. Today in particular, I hit a wall where by about 2:00 I wasn't useful to anything. I tried to edit a paper and ended up staring at it, with nothing to add. Part of the problem is just working too many hours and the other is not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

By 4:00 I was fried and called it a day. My wife was able to get off at 4:00 and we went to pick up th Wee One. Emotionally and physically burnt, we stopped at day care and it changed my day. Today was one of those rare times when everything fell in to line and the Wee One was in a great mood when I wasn't and it changed everything for me. Parenthood is a difficult journey, but there are times when you forget all of the tough times and there's a shining moment where you think to yourself, "this is why we do this".

Today was one of those days. The Wee One was happy on the car ride home and we had all sort of fun playing when we got home. Not much would have changed my mood tonight, but she did it in a way that is hard to explain. Now, sitting at home, the week doesn't feel as bad and I'm less concerned with the next two months. At least for an evening, I can forget work and focus on my daughter. Her smile melts me.

Alert your relatives, exams coming!

With my class exam drawing neigh, suddenly attendance issues and all other matters are cropping up. My class is pretty small and I already have 20% of the students as possible no-shows for the exam. Sports, deaths, illnesses... everyone has some reason that they may not on Tuesday, be able to get to the same classroom they have been getting to every Tuesday prior.

I will readily admit that creating all of the lectures and class exercises is tapping my will to live at the moment, but this kind of stuff is really testing me. I'm barely keeping everything together dealing with what and how to teach these kids and now there's rescheduling, possible make-up exams, medical notes, etc., etc. I'm not in any way saying that people can't have legit excuses for missing class, just that the amount of extra work for students that do can be huge. And, the oft stated tenet that there is a close association between major illness and exams is certainly ringing true.

At this point I can only hope that I don't end up getting really sick, because I don't know how much further I can fall behind on some critical things in my research and home life right now.

Monday, February 22, 2010

So how DO we mentor people for "alternative" careers?

There are several uncomfortable realities one must face as a grad student or postdoc in academia, and one of the biggest are that there are not enough TT jobs for everyone that wants one. In fact, there are far less. This reality means that many people who start off in the direction of a TT faculty position will end up in another career to use their skills. These are often referred to as "alternative" careers, based on the bias that every trainee wants to end up just like their mentors. In reality, much like the number of "pre-med" students at a university, a lot of people either decide they want to do something else or have that decision made for them along the way.

As is often pointed out, however, the mentors in academic science are almost exclusively people have taken the TT direction. If you want advice on navigating the road to this type of job, most of us will have no shortage of pointers. On the other hand, if you asked me the best way to go into science editing for a major journal after a PhD, I'm afraid I don't know the answer. So, as mentors, how do we adequately prepare our students and postdocs for appealing careers outside of the ones we inhabit?

I'll confess now that I don't have all the answers here. In fact, if you read often you'll know that I almost never have all the answers, merely opinions based on my observations. But I did pose this question to some early-career colleagues, who re-affirmed what I was thinking and added a number of good points. I would be interested to hear what readers in both the mentoring and trainee positions have found helpful.

The first point that was brought up is the overlap between what people need to accomplish to be considered excellent candidates for either a TT job or many other science careers. The ability to communicate orally and in writing, a record of good science (publications and/or grants) and critical thinking.

Another point that was made was the importance of communication with the public. While we probably don't stress this enough in science, generally speaking, the ability to explain science to the general public in writing or in a succinct oral synopsis is exceedingly important in jobs like industry, journalism, public policy, etc.

Networking. As a trainee who is considering or committed to a career outside the tenure track, it is essential to make the contacts that will help you get there. If your PI can help make those connections, great. If not, it's important to find a way to develop them yourself.

As a PI, I think it is important for us to not only be open to trainees pursuing non-TT options, but also to be able to steer them in the right direction to get the advice they will need to succeed. As long as (and here can be the sticking point) their career trajectory does not directly conflict with the production of good science in the lab and the completion of their degree.

As for how that works, I can only tell you what I have tried and happily hear what others have found works.
- Having trainees thinking of non-TT careers invite a person of interest for a departmental seminar.
- Putting funds towards conference or workshop attendance of interest to the trainee that will help with both their current project and future goals.
- Opening a dialog between a trainee and someone already established in their field of interest.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Monday through Friday

I came in early today (Sunday) to get some work done in order to spend the afternoon with my family. There's a stack of stuff on my desk and Tuesday's lecture is only in my head. I work in a new building, which has had some issues with the times it is locked - seemingly random and often not on weekends. This weekend it was locked, so I swiped my card to get access. Nothing. I tried all 5 card readers around the building. Nada.

Pissed off that I couldn't get into my office, I called security and was told that my building was not on "the list" to be open this weekend. I explained my situation and after a few "yeah, buts", the officer begrudgingly sent a security officer to let me in. I picked a spot of the building that was least windlashed and waited.

While waiting, I saw a grad student from another department approach the building from another side. I thought about telling the grad student about the card reader issues, but they were far enough away that I would have had to yell and this was not a student I knew at all. I figured they would get to the door, realize the issue and approach the door I was at. In a classic "Midvale School for the Gifted" moment, the student walked up to the one set of doors that has no card swipe, opened one and walked in. Feeling like a dumbass for making the leap of logic that all of the doors would be locked, especially the ones without the card readers, I stood in the cold wondering whether to go inside or wait for the security officer outside.

I decided on going in and calling the security office to keep the officer from coming down but he had already arrived and met me not a minute later. I explained how I got in and he let me know that the building is locked to everyone on the weekends because they don't expect that we work overtime. "You work Monday through Friday" he explained.

Oh, officer, wouldn't that be nice? There wasn't much point in explaining the hours I actually work, but I'm going to have to make sure that it's clear there needs to be a way for those with card access to the building to get in "after hours".

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What to expect in the first year

Obviously, there has been some discussion around these parts about becoming new TT faculty and how prepared people actually are. With that in mind, I thought I would provide a Top Ten list of things that I wasn't as prepared for as I thought I was when I arrived in my job.

10. Walking into an empty room and knowing you have to turn it into a functioning lab in relatively short order is a bit overwhelming. In a lot of ways, it is a fun challenge, but remembering EVERYTHING takes some serious work. It helps if you walk around your postdoc lab and list everything you see, right down to the tube racks and brushed in t he sink. Ordering things will consume you for the first couple of months.

9. Balancing finishing up postdoc projects with launching a new research program can be difficult. It's easy to drop your past and concentrate on the new stuff, but getting those last few pubs out the door helps mask the productivity gap of setting up a new lab. Also, doing this sooner than later means you will have to spend less time searching through old files trying to remember things that were fresh 6 months earlier.

8. Meetings take more of your time than you can imagine. Even from the very early stages it is worth picking a day or two during the week and removing them from your schedule so that nothing breaks up that day or days. It doesn't seem like it right away, but after a few months you'll be asking yourself "why I can't I get anything done during the week?" and the answer will be because you don't have any blocks of time longer than two hours. I know the idea of it seems ridiculous, but it happens.

7. Trainees are enormous time-sinks in the first 6 months. You may or may not have grad students or a technician starting in your first year, but whenever they do show up it is surprising how much of your time becomes dedicated to making sure they do things you want them done and keeping them on the right track. This gets better as more people join the lab, but one needs to be careful of the game of "lab technique telephone" which can occur if you have trainees teaching trainees.

6. Politics. Some places will be worse than others, but figuring out where people stand and being sucked into numerous discussions on how your university runs is also a massive time suck in the beginning. Steer clear of as much of this as possible, but you can't dodge everything unless you start wearing a Teflon suit to work. Then people might give you a wide berth.

5. Everyone wants a piece of you. While you still have that new faculty smell, everyone wants their pound of flesh. You'll be asked to give seminars in the relevant departments or nearby universities and maybe even some guest lectures in classes. You'll be asked to attend different events by administrators so they can show off their new hire and the university will try and "orientation" the shit out of you with events and training sessions. Other faculty will want to blab on for days about "how things are here", etc, etc.

4. Nothing in research works in a new lab. At least, this has been my experience. Everything will be slightly different than the environments where you learned the techniques. The machines will be different (even if they are the same models), the water will be different, the tilt of the Earth, whatever. It takes time to trouble shoot everything in the new digs and the routine protocols you once performed will have to be tweaked.

3. Where once you had one or two grants to apply to per year, now you're chasing the world. As a postdoc there are a couple of grants that one can directly apply for. Maybe your PI asked you to help with other grants as well. As a new PI with your own ideas to fund and in need of money, you'll start applying for far more than you thought. I sent in 7 grant applications in my first year. That's a lot of writing, a lot of adjustments and a lot of rejections only to start over again. You don't carry that kind of load as a postdoc.

2. Making a name for yourself takes a lot of exposure. As a new PI, it's important to get the word out quickly that you've started your own show and you're moving forward with new ideas. In addition to letting people at your university know who you are, you need to do the same at the international level. Publications from you new lab are not going to come out for at least a year or two, so you have to get out to meetings and work the conferences. You have to network for yourself now, so start booking flights.

1. You're the boss. You now control your fate in a way you previously have not. Your ideas are under the bright light, your writing has to fund the lab, your personnel decisions will make or break you and your blood, sweat and tears will determine everything in the next 5-7 years. You'll have some support, but ultimately it all comes down to you. Your trainees depend on your success as much as you on theirs and their jobs and careers are in your hands. Somehow this reality didn't really sink in for a bit, despite postdocing with a pre-tenure prof who was very open about the ups and downs of things and I'm not sure it can be fully realized until you're in the position. One can be aware of it, but living it is different.

I'm sure others will weigh in with things I've left off the list, and this is in no way comprehensive, but all of it combines to make for a pretty crazy transition from being a trainee in a lab to calling the shots. It's easy to look over this list and think, yup, I know all that. The problem is that it's the cumulative effect (not necessarily additive, btw) that makes being pushed into the deep end so jarring.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From the commentariat

Last week I posted my thoughts on ways in which people might actually make their postdoc a fun and rewarding experience. I know, what a jerk, right? Several commenters came by to rant about how all postdocs are horrible and exploitive and I learned that I have been exalted to "privileged" status because both my wife and I were willing to move for that phase of our lives and we actually enjoyed our time in Postdoc City. Oh, the humanity!

Then came a comment from Girlpostdoc. I started to respond before realizing that her comment had absolutely nothing to do with my post. It helps when commenters stop to read the post before flying off the handle, but I thought we should discuss the comment anyway in it's own thread and we can try and stay on topic here.

Let's take it point by point.

This advice is truly superficial and frankly misleading. Something happens to people when they get TT jobs, it's like a switch goes off in their head and they all of sudden have to become part of the clique. In doing so, they forget where they came from or what they witnessed.

Didn't you notice we all have the same rings?

Believe it or not, I really did have a good postdoc (all 4 years) and was in a multi-lab research group that included a couple of dozen postdocs who, if they were having a horrible time, never let on to me or anyone I knew. It's not a unicorn, there are people who enjoy working together and I still regularly chat with most of the cohort I had significant overlap with. I even collaborate with a couple of them and the labs I left.

The advice I provided were suggestions based on numerous observations of people who found really fun and productive postdocs. Unless by "misleading" you mean "not leading to a miserable situation", then guilty as charged. My advise was based specifically on "where [I] came from or what [I] witnessed"

More germane to this discussion is what TT faculty "learn" that gives current postdocs the impression that some of them "forget where they came from or what they witnessed". Hold that thought.

You, like many others have bought into a mythology that pervades not only science but the arts. The myth in the arts is that in order to produce a great work of art, one needs to suffer. Come on. There are plenty of cases where that is completely false.

The same mythology is now being built up in the sciences by people like you. If you want the priviledge of being a "scientist", you need to be accept poverty and expect to be bullied.

Postdoc pay isn't great, but I'm pretty sure that "suffering" is taking it a bit far. A little perspective here is encouraged. If you look at the median US household income you might decide that ~$40K is not too bad. One can make the argument that $40K is not commensurate with experience, but there are financial realities of grants that one needs to consider here. I know that postdocs don't care what they cost their supervisor, but that has a very real impact on salary.

Salary is only part of the equation. Say a postdoc is making $40K. At my institution, if we are putting in a grant with a postdoc we have to include money to cover family insurance unless we have a postdoc committed who is single. Family benefits = 61% of salary, or in our hypothetical case, $24K for the year. Add to that the indirect costs to the grant, which in most places is around 50% and it looks like this 40K (salary) + 24K (benis) = 64K x 1.5 = $96K per year. That might not be a big deal if a lab has a few NIH R01s, but for an NSF funded lab, that's a big fucking deal. Go to the NSF stats page, pick your favorite program and look at the median payout per year. It's around $150K and that includes indirect costs. So, as a postdoc, you eat 2/3 of a median annual budget. At $50K a year, the cost to a grant jumps to $120K. So, for those of you who ask, "why can't I get another $10K? for my labor?" realize that it's not that your PI is trying to screw you, it's that she's trying to run a lab off grant funding and a postdoc already costs 2/3 the total, before grad students, supplies and travel. If you want to get paid to sit in an empty room, maybe you can get that extra $10K. Just food for thought.

After 6 years, I have earned the RIGHT to be considered scientist. I don't know what you people in cell and molecular biology do during your degrees, but in Ecology and Evolution, as PhD students, we came up with the questions, designed the experiments, wrote scripts to analyze our data, and yes of course wrote the manuscripts. We even wrote grants to get money to do the research. All of these things are what scientists do. Thus, I am a fucking scientist.

I don't expect to have both money and independence immediately. But fuck if I don't get my independence in a postdoc then pay me the big bucks and I'll do whatever the fuck I'm told to do. But I won't be paid a secretarial salary just so I can have the priviledge of being a fucking monkey. That's just bullshit.

Now we're heading into Wackyland. I completely agree that anyone who does the above is a scientist and I have no idea where I said anything to the contrary. Girlpostdoc, you are a scientist. Of that I have no doubt. That said, it's time to reign things in here a bit Entitletor. One thing that needs to be clear is that no one cares what you think you are entitled to when it comes to jobs, resources or respect. This only gets worse once you are faculty, so it's a good idea to get used to it now.

The second mistake you make is assuming that it is still training. It is not. As a postdoc, I am collaborating with my supervisor. I am training and teaching him, as much as he is training and teaching me. I come with expertise and the postdoc is a chance to exchange our expertise. Making the mental switch from student to collaborator is crucial. I believe that is what defines a successful postdoc.

Welcome to crazy island, population 1. First off, if someone could point to where my post would have spurred this response, I would love to know. But since we're here, let's get something straight: A postdoc is still training, but it is completely different from the training a grad student receives. If it's not, you're in the wrong lab.

There absolutely should be an exchange of ideas and expertise between postdoc and mentor. When I look for a postdoc, I look for someone who has skills I don't. I don't need another me, I need someone who adds a new dimension to the work we're doing. I want someone who can bring in new ideas and take the research in new directions. At the same time, I have a mentoring responsibility to help the postdoc get to where they want to go. If that is a TT faculty position, I will do what I can to prepare them for that. I've been through the transition and TRAINING the postdoc to make that jump is part of the job.

I think it's telling that all of the talk about "I knew how to be a PI right out of grad school" comes from current postdocs, whereas almost all faculty bloggers will admit that the transition was overwhelming, more difficult than they expected and that they learned a lot in their postdoc that helped them. If you think this is a skewed sample, go find the newest faculty member in your department and ask them whether they found their postdoc valuable in becoming faculty. I would bet they will either tell you their postdoc sucked and they learned a lot about being independent and how to succeed on their own or that they got great mentoring that helped them anticipate some of the craziness that ensues in the first year.

Because, frankly, all of the talk by postdocs about how they don't need the extra training to be faculty sounds a whole lot like a bunch of one legged people discussing how to win an ass kicking competition.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Poor Guinea Pigs

I am not a great teacher. That's true on the same level that it was when I first got my driver's license and was not a great driver. In fact, I had far more driving practice than I have teaching practice, so there shouldn't be much surprise that I'm still more worried about crashing my class into a ditch than am I able to fly down the teaching highway while simultaneously drinking coffee and soothing a toddler in the backseat. I have no doubt that teaching experience will allow me to be at least a good teacher, but I'm struggling right now.

I've taken courses on teaching and TAed more than I care to remember, but teaching an entire class by oneself is not the same thing. I'm struggling to find ways to engage the students and wearing myself down trying to identify all of the content I want them to learn while not overwhelming the topic - simultaneously over and under thinking every lecture, only to turn around and start the process again right after class. It's exhausting and it makes it even more painful when I feel like I'm staring out at the most bored people in the universe at that given time or get through a lecture super early. As much as I dislike crossing campus in the throng between classes, making the quiet walk back across campus alone because I ran out of material 20 minutes early is far worse.

I guess the good news is that I care about the experience of the students, but I can't help feeling sorry for this first class they have given me to experiment with. There's no such thing as a class simulator, so learning with breathing and paying bodies is the only way to get better. There have been a few lectures where I really felt like I nailed it, but so far I've walked out of more trying to make a mental list of all the things I need to do better for that topic next year. For better or for worse, it's a long semester and I hope I'll be a better teacher at the other end.

Friday, February 12, 2010

In defence of the postdoc

Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk about postdocs, whether it's why people do them, the purpose of them or why some think they suck. In my field there is pretty much no getting around doing a postdoc if you want to do the whole TT thing, and frankly, I think that's a good thing. No matter how much you think you know about research and being a PI by the end of your PhD, the time as a postdoc is valuable in learning how much you really don't know. On top of that, being a postdoc should be one of the most exciting research times of your career.

The biggest complaints I hear about postdocing are 1) Money, 2) moving around and 3) lack of independence.

Money. This may be unpopular, but if you are in this business to get rich you might as well leave now. Yeah, PDFs typically make $35K - $50K, depending on the field and that isn't a ton of money given the training they have had to that point, but get over it. You're being paid to do research, and in most cases, have no other distractions. Assuming you have picked a research topic you enjoy, this is a pretty good deal. Personally, I would seriously consider the pay cut to be doing just research at this stage.

Moving around. Yup, the academic lifestyle can be somewhat nomadic and that can put a strain of relationships and make for difficult logistics. Because of that, a lot of people try and limit their geographic search, sometimes unreasonably. Personally, I would (and did) take the opposite approach and look for a postdoc in a completely unfamiliar place where you might never chose to settle. Why? Because a postdoc can be a lot more than just a job experience. I have numerous friends who are doing postdocs all over the world and the happiest of them are the ones that chose a place totally different from what they were used to. Maybe this wouldn't work in all fields, but there are plenty of excellent labs in other countries and you would be amazed how helpful international experience can be for collaborations. Not to mention that being in an unfamiliar place encourages one to go out and explore. Getting out of the lab for fun can be a good thing.

Lack of independence. Now I know that lots of people get into situations where they feel taken advantage of or where they are stuck doing projects they don't care about. That is why it is critical to do your homework ahead of time and know enough about the supervisor whose lab you are joining to determine if you can work with them and get the mentoring you need. Don't just take a position in any lab doing something remotely close to what you like. Talk to other trainees in the lab! Talk to former trainees. Is the lab a good place to develop as a scientist? That information can be FAR more important than the project. Put yourself in a place to succeed.

Obviously, this isn't a fool proof way to a happy postdoc, but give yourself the best shot you can. Expand you research horizons with something different from your PhD and do it in a fun place, both socially and scientifically. A postdoc can be one of the best times of your career.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Playing tricks on my class

I've been thinking about trying something with my class and I would be curious to hear whether any of you have done something like it. Our class has a website where I post all materials for the students to download at their convenience. The lectures go up there after each class and any readings do as well. The one thing that the website doesn't allow me to do is find out how many times each document has been downloaded.

When it comes to class readings I'm fairly sure that half the class doesn't even download what I've asked them to read, let alone actually read it. I was trying to figure out ways to encourage them at least look the material over, as it would make my job in class a lot easier. Not much came to mind, but I did realize that I could reward the ones that do the reading by placing immediate incentives in the readings. The first thing I thought of was including a page at the end of a document I have asked them to read, which asks them to contact me by email to receive an extra point on the upcoming exam. In the grand scheme of things, one percentage point on the exam means little, but no one who reads that will hesitate to send me an email.

I know that is hardly a fool proof way to get an idea whether any of them are keeping up on the reading, but it might provide some incentive for a few, and if I point it out after the fact, perhaps more will at least look at what I post. Besides holding them to the readings on tests or making quizes to do the same, are there other good ways to "encourage" keeping up on class material? Should I even care, as long as they show up, stay awake and don't fail the tests?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I wonder....

....If undergrads ever think about their profs making lectures, and if they did, would my students picture me drinking a beer and listening to this turned up to 11?

'Cause that's how it's done.

Monday, February 8, 2010

NFL final wrap up

Well, well, well. I have to say that Super Bowl was much better than I had thought it would be. In a lot of ways it reminded me of the Pats/Rams SB in 2001, right down to the game icing interception for a TD. As an NFL fan, it was great to see the Saints win and take home their first championship. As a Pats fan, it was wonderful to see the Colts get thwarted in their effort to win a second title in four years. Just a win all around.

The SciBlogs NFL challenge was about as close as the game (until the last few minutes) last night. I chose a playoff format that I thought would discourage a tie going into the Super Bowl, but that is exactly what we had. Both DGT and Nat had 4 points going into the big game, but because I had our contestants pick the winner three weeks ago, they had to chose between teams that they had projected to be in the Super Bowl. Nat had forecasted a Chargers v. Saints SB and DGT had chosen a Colts v. Dallas. Each player had one SB entrant correct. Weeks before the actual game, DGT chose the Colts to win, but Nat picked the Chargers who had already been eliminated.

That set up the following scenario: DGT wins outright if the Colts win the Super Bowl. If the Colts lose, we go to the tie breaker. The tie breaker was the final scroe under Price is Right rules (closest without going over) I would apologize now to all my foreign readers who haven't seen the Price is Right, but they all stopped reading after seeing the title, so I think I'm in the clear. Anyway, both Nat and DGT were asked to pick a tiebreaker number on Saturday. Nat took 56, knowing both teams had prolific offenses. DGT took a page out of the Price is Right strategy book and bet on 1. Yes, 1. With that strategy, any score below 56 meant a DGT win and anything above meant Nat wins.

Well, if you watched the game, you now that the Saints won with a score of 31-17, for a total score of 48!

So, it is my pleasure to announce that the winner of this year's NFL SciBlog Challenge, in double overtime, is Damn Good Technician. The final Lombardi trophy of the year is below. Congrats DGT!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Just one more? It's wafer thin.

Lately I've really been wondering whether I'm taking a good approach to getting grant funding. The big question for me right now is how many projects is too many? It's one thing to be submitting a lot of grants and something entirely different to be submitting a lot of grants for different projects.

I have somewhat unusual training which has put me in a position to propose some work that others might not have the expertise or colleagues to make work. Now, obviously, I have yet to convince funding agencies that I can pull any of this off either, so there's a bit of a caveat here. But, the work I do and have done, combined with a reputation for being easy to work with, has turned into a lot of different projects.

I have one project that is entirely mine and I am the solo PI on the proposal. In addition to that, I have two other projects that I am the lead investigator on, but each has a co-PI. On top of that, on a recent trip abroad, a dinner conversation has developed into yet another proposal. It is in the works, but I will again be taking the lead on the project because I pulled together the people to make it feasible. That's four projects and I have another colleague trying to convince me to join another one that would be submitted in July.

Let's assume for a second that I can produce enough preliminary data to support all of these different projects, I'm starting to feel really stretched both mentally and from a resource standpoint. Granted, I am not doing all of the heavy lifting on all of the projects, but each one is different, with it's own issues and advantages.

The advantage to this approach is that inevitably there will be ones that won't get funded and I can cover my bases by having lots of irons in the fire. At the same time, how much is too much? Advancing several projects slowly is probably worse for me in the short term than advancing one or two more rapidly, but of course the situation is more complicated than that and certain lab resources are only available to me because I have my hands in a couple different things.

I don't know where the line is or how gray that line is and I'm sure there are no hard and fast rules here. I also know that if all of these projects were, by some miracle, to be funded this year (I can wait while you stop laughing) I might actually be more screwed than I am now. I won't worry too much about that last issue, but it bears keeping in mind. In any case, it's possible I'm stunting my own growth here by growing horizontally when I should be growing vertically. Hopefully I realize whether that is true before too long.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cooking for a busy family

I often hear two-career family people complain about their dinner options and what to feed their kids. There's always the rush home and the routine of trying to get kids fed, washed and in bed at a reasonable time. We have that problem, particularly because the Wee One goes to bed early (~7:00) and we only have one car, which often doesn't leave work until after 5:00.

But my wife and I also really like to cook and are not fans of packaged foods, for us or the Wee One. We have found that the most important small appliance in the house for our weekday cooking needs is the crock pot. If you don't have one and you find yourself turning to boxes in the freezer during the week, go out and buy a crock pot right now. The words will still be here when you get back. I'm serious, go.

Why is the crock pot an incredible thing? Because you can toss a few ingredients in it after the kid(s) go to bed. At that point you can either turn it on low o/n, leave it off for the day and turn it back on when you get home or you can put the whole thing in the fridge o/n and turn it on when you go to work. We tend to prefer the latter, but while you're figuring out how much liquid to put in, it might be a good idea to be home while it's cooking.

There is a misconception that crock pots are for cocktail weenies, Swedish meatballs or that undefinable cheese disaster that Aunt Helen brings to every family gathering, but that's crap. Dishes we regularly make in our crock pot include hoisin chicken, several curries, beef stew, pulled pork and the best damn spaghetti sauce around. If you are at all a fan of slow cooked food, you have no excuse to lack a crock pot.

Normally I cook by The Force, so I'm going to have to estimate the following recipes, but you can't really screw this up.

Hoisin Chicken
1 whole chicken (placed upside-down in the pot)
enough chicken stock to cover 1/3 of the chicken
3 tablespoons of hoisin sauce
Basil to taste (teaspoonish unless you like basil a lot, which I do)
cilantro to taste (teaspoonish)
4 crushed garlic cloves
Cover the chicken with the sauce by rolling it a few times
Put it on low for the day and come home to something tasty. Add Rice and a vegetable and you have dinner in 20 minutes.

Beef Stew
About a pound of stew beef cut in chunks
two chopped potatoes
three chopped carrots
4 crushed garlic cloves
1 cup of red wine (for the stew, two for the chef)
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
Rosemary to taste
Basil to taste
4 bay leaves
Pepper to taste
Salt to taste (don't overdo this one, more can be added later)
Stir and turn on low for the day. This is an all in one meal so it'll be ready when you walk in the door.

Both dishes take about 15 minutes to get into the pot, so I don't want to hear how you don't have time to make a meal. The crock pot does the rest for you, so let it do it's job while you do yours and make your life easier in the evenings.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why do I blog: Because DM told me to.

No DrugMonkey didn't tell me to blog, but I thought I would add my voice to the brawl discussion about the differences in blogging styles, which I won't rehash when one can find all the links in one post. DrDrA has done the same and I think the perspective from a couple of us "solo" bloggers is important here.

The questions posed by Nature Network's Steffi Suhr are as follow:

* What made you start blogging?
* Is a sense of community an important part of blogging for you, or do you prefer blogging 'solo'?
* Are there blogs you never look at? If yes, why (be nice and don't name names)?
* Who are you blogging for/who are you talking to?
* Do you think you may be getting people exposed to some science through your blog who otherwise wouldn't be?
* Do you think any non-blogger cares about any of the above things?

So, my quick answers are these

* What made you start blogging?
I've talked about this in the past and my reasons have changed over the lifespan of this blog. My problem blogging started with a family blog that for various reasons lost it's purpose. Having been introduced to blogging I started a new one about being a new faculty member, oblivious to the fact that many others were doing the same. Seriously. As I started to poke around a bit and linked up with others, my focus changed from just trying to be informative to those planning on starting a TT position to more of a give and take. Plenty of times I have asked questions of my readership and gotten helpful responses and for various reasons there are things that I ask here that I don't go to my colleagues for. So, while I started as an altruistic semi-narcissist, now I blog more for the exchange of ideas. Maybe that just leaves me with semi-narcissist, I don't know. In the end, it's the most productive way I've found to take a break from the demands of the job during the day. Others read news or sports or FaceBook, I do this.

* Is a sense of community an important part of blogging for you, or do you prefer blogging 'solo'?
As others have pointed out, these aren't mutually exclusive. I do blog solo, but am anything but, in practice. Between regular commenters and interactions with other bloggers, this is a community and it is important to me. Whether I would prefer that my particular circle be formally recognizable to others, probably not.

* Are there blogs you never look at? If yes, why (be nice and don't name names)?
Again, oddly worded, but of course. Assuming that we are only talking about blogs relevant to me and that I am aware of, two things most limit the scope of my reading; 1)time, and 2)content. I only have so much time to devote to this activity, so I can't possibly keep up on all of the relevant blogs. However, there are those I read regularly that are well outside my field because I like the writing. I read to be informed or entertained, and if you're not doing that I can only hang on so long and I rarely go back to a blog after I've decided I'm not interested. I think everyone has a mental anti-blogroll.

* Who are you blogging for/who are you talking to?
Based on comments and domain names from hits, I'm mostly talking to other academics, who are mostly in the sciences. Certainly that's not the complete audience, but how many people outside of the science or academic scope are going to care about the majority of what I write about?

* Do you think you may be getting people exposed to some science through your blog who otherwise wouldn't be?
I think the best I can hope for in this regard is that I expose people in other fields to some of the researchy stuff I sometimes discuss. My field is small and if I write about something that makes a reader at least file it away in their brain, I'm happy with that.

* Do you think any non-blogger cares about any of the above things?
I would estimate that maybe 5% of my readers have blogs of their own. I think people at NN might see this too if they could look up the hits to their posts, but alas...
[update] I realize now that I didn't get what this question was asking the first time around. If I understand it now, I think it's asking whether non-bloggers care about all of this discussion about blogging. In that case, I would say that some probably care, but more those thinking about starting a blog than the average reader, who is probably quite bored by all this yak.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Better than finding $20 in an old coat

Yesterday I was going through old folders on my computer and pretending to organize things when I found something I couldn't place. I organize my "papers" folder by each manuscript and there was a subfolder that I couldn't match with anything I had published. I opened it up and found a manuscript I had been working on back at Postdoc U, which had gotten lost in the shuffle of getting a job offer, writing grants, moving and starting a new lab. Now, almost two years later it was just sitting there unloved in almost complete form. It's got figures, a reference section and even a title page. It appears that the discussion just needs to be shored up a bit and I can slap a stamp on it.

Now, for those of you wonder what the fuck is wrong with me that I could lose an almost complete manuscript for a couple of years, it's a minor piece that will end up as a note in a specialty journal. It's not like I'm sitting on a glamor pub here. I had thrown it together as an afterthought when I was a postdoc, then life ensued and within three days of one another I had a new baby and a job offer. Things got a little busy and there wasn't a whole lotta sleep happening. When I did regain an awareness of my surroundings I started working on a grant proposal to start a totally novel research program and I had to negotiate the terms of my job. Chaotic times.

I contacted Postdoc Advisor and let him know about it. His first reaction was "If you need the solo pub, take me off the paper and include my grant in the acknowledgements". As much as I appreciated that sentiment and his offer, I am not completely cool with removing the name of the person who provided all of the resources for the project. Maybe it won't count towards tenure, but I don't see that as a valid reason for removing him. Afterall, it was entirely done in his lab, so it shouldn't count as something I've accomplished here. We've bounced a few things back and forth yesterday afternoon and I can probably finish it this weekend and get it out the door.

Nice surprise during a week I could use it.

Week 2, getting a handle on shit

I will freely admit that my first week of teaching was a bit of a train wreck. Overall, everything worked out, but I was a mess. I was finishing slides the morning that I was using them and just generally doing everything at the last minute. Not the best way to put together a coherent lecture and I should have been better prepared. Easy to say in hindsight.

This week I think will be much smoother. My lectures for the week are almost completely done (Tuesday's slides are already on the web for the students to download) and I really spent a lot of time on the organization of how the material is presented. Last week I depended largely on the slides from the person who previously taught the class, but learned the hard way that we don't think or lecture in a similar way. I thought I could use the old slides as a good guide for content and pace, but that doesn't turn out to be the case.

This week I rearranged everything to fit the way I think about the topic for the week, which should help tremendously. On top of that, I've added a number of things that I think will be of interest to the students and found places to stop and ask them questions so that the class is more interactive.I actually saw a glimmer of interest on Thursday when I included a story applying what we were talking about. There were even questions! And not "Um, could you go back a slide?" but questions to learn more about the topic.

I mentioned in an email to a friend on Friday how it is funny that until now the teaching aspect of the job were always something that was going to happen some day and suddenly "some day" is today, and it's true. To me, teaching was that thing I was going to be forced to do at some point in order to do the job I love. It terrified me - not in the sense that I was scared to do the teaching or thought that I couldn't in any way, but more because it was an unknown entity. How much time would it take? Would I be able to keep the students interested? Would they learn anything?

Week two and I feel like I'm getting into the swing of it a bit. I've loaded up my schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays with everything related to teaching or meetings so that I have two days of hell and three weekdays that are mostly open. I think that was a really good strategy that is already working for me. Now that I have a better handle on the lectures I can get back to the stack of other things I have to deal with, without working all night and seeing my family in drive-by fashion.