Friday, April 30, 2010

Workload planning

It's that time of year again, when we have to commit to our workload for next year. I thought I had everything worked out - teaching a small upper level (mostly grad) class in the fall and a not quite as small upper level undergrad class in the spring (same one I just finished). This seems reasonable and made some sense. My fall class is somewhat experiemntal, although it will be substantially re-worked from the last time I offered it with the idea of eventually turning into a new permanent course. All good, right?

But this morning, a new option miraculously appeared before me. One of my senior colleagues teaches a broadly defined course, which has a section that overlaps with my spring course to some degree. Given our backgrounds, I would be more qualified to teach that portion (about 4 weeks) of the class than she. Based on this, the offer was extended - Would I rather teach my fall course or be teaching free in the fall and teach my spring course, plus contribute to her spring course?

It would mean getting nothing else done for the first four weeks of the spring semester, but TEACHING FREE IN THE FALL!!!!!! Granted, my fall course is not a huge commitment, but it IS a teaching commitment (of which even a small one is not that small). Now I am left to ponder whether I just write off the start of spring semester and have my fall freedom or if I maintain a baseline of teaching time suck throughout the school year. I can't help but think the former would be so much nicer...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What is an MSc degree?

An MSc degree is a funny thing, because it means very different things to different people. There are as many different philosophies about what skills should be learned during an MSc as there are advisors overseeing students in these positions. Yesterday I had a conversation with a senior colleague (SC) about a student that SC is supervising and how SC would never take on another MSc student again because they have to be handed a project and can't take a long view. This struck me as odd, because I have never seen an MSc student as a PhDlite, but after talking with SC for a while it was clear they did.

For me, I see an MSc as an intro to science. I don't mean that in a condescending way or to imply that a BSc (including undergrad research) doesn't give you a feel for science, but an MSc degree is the first time many students have some ownership of a project and need to plan things. At the same time, I don't generally give an MSc student the kind of leeway to figure out what they want to do, as a PhD student might get.

Part of my reasoning is based on time (you can't spend a year of an MSc degree kicking the tires of various projects) and the other part is that it is very hard for a student at that level to see both the forest and the trees. A masters project needs to be tight enough to fit in the time frame, yet contribute to the broader picture and I don't think it is fair for us to assume that students fresh out of undergrad can identify a project of that nature and execute it in 2 years. There is also the issue of funding. A PhD student can pursue a couple of topics, and thus stray a bit more from the projects the lab has funding for, but an MSc student needs to keep their focus on the project at hand, which is often one that moves the lab forward along the lines of on-going projects.

In the end, I think an MSc degree should provide students with a solid background in critical thinking, science as a process and give them ideas as to what the next step is. For many, that will be getting employment related to their field with an increased appreciation for, and ability to perform, the science behind their job. For others it may be that they want to go on and tackle a PhD, but the MSc degree put them in a place to know what questions they want to ask and how to get at them. From that perspective, I don't see the MSc as a truncated PhD or a consolation prize, but a unique degree in it's own right that can be extremely helpful for those students.

Another one of my SCs uses the thesis of MSc students as the basis of manuscripts, but modifies them for submission themselves rather than have the student do it. The paragraph above is also the reason I do not write my student's manuscripts for them. Yes, I will edit them and work them through the process, but the students are responsible for the initial draft and all revisions, based on feedback. Writing is a critical skill for students to learn and if they want to continue in science I want them to know what the submission process is like. Obviously, if a student finishes up and decides not to pursue a publication, I will do it myself, but I have only once seen this happen over my time in academia.

In any case, I would be curious to hear how others see the MSc degree.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Last one

Today is my last lecture. Better yet, it's a short lecture because I have to pass around the class evaluation. It's been a long semester and I'm really happy this class is over... at least I'll be really happy when I catch up on all the sleep I need. I have, however, managed to submit four grants this semester, generated some good data and get my MSc student in a position to graduate this summer while recruiting another student to start in September. I've planned and booked four summer trips, served on two defense committees and three comprehensive exams, written a manuscript and revised two others, given two invited seminars and run our departmental seminar series. Oh, and co-convened a local conference for over 100 people.

This was the craziest semester I've endured, but the teaching was the hardest part for me and the one area where I felt I could never get ahead. Preparing two 1h15m lectures from scratch a week, sometimes on subjects that were a bit of a reach for me, was feeding a hungry beast that was never satisfied. Every time I got one lecture done I had to either give that one or start on the next. There were far too many slides put together between 11pm and 1am, only to be revised when I got up at 5:30am. When all is said and done however, I think it can be broken into a few categories.

What went well: Overall, I think I got across what I wanted to and kept the students interested to a decent degree. I made up some new labs, which worked but need some tweaking for the future. I managed to find my groove for lecturing and now that I have a course worth of slides to work from, I think the next time I offer the class will be much better.

What went less well: I thought I was going to be able to coast by using the materials given to me by the prof who formerly taught the course, but that was a giant fail. There was just no way I could lecture the same way they did and I had to throw everything out and start anew. I also realized how much the labs needs modification and there are a few things that need to be better organized to make the concepts more clear to the students.

What we will never speak of again: The few lectures in the beginning when I tried to force myself into teaching from the other persons slides. The second test that the students bombed to an epic degree. The in class texting, which I gave up on dealing with halfway through the semester.

Obviously, this experience means I will do a number of things differently next year. Hardly surprising. I'm glad I got through it, but most of all I am ready for the summer.

Friday, April 23, 2010

It gets easier....

I just caught myself about to do what has been bothering the shit out of me for the past couple of years. Our friend Hermitage is having some trouble with a paper at the moment. When I read her post, my knee-jerk reaction was to say "I know it sucks now, but it gets easier", but when has that ever made anybody feel any better? I have been hearing that non-stop for a couple of years, whether the context is having a new baby, grant writing, starting a lab, teaching, dealing with new administration, whatever. It's an easy thing to say, but just as easy a cop out for giving real advice. If I cared about what this will feel like in 3 years, I would ask you about that but I'm getting kicked in the stones right now. If it didn't get easier, no one in their right mind would actually do this shit (including having kids).

I'm guilty of saying this too, but I vow right here that I will resist the urge to relay this useless bit of advice from now on.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Oops

Of all the ways I could be reminded that I am giving a seminar tomorrow in another department, receiving the announcement of my talk through the college listserve is probably not the best. I guess it's time to start putting that together then.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Open position, to be filled ASAP

Due to a recent retirement, the Department of Science at Employment University is looking to fill a vacancy that puts the department in violation of the Universal Unwritten Academic Rules (UUAR). In order to avoid risking sanctions for non-compliance (of Article 57-8.4), this position must be filled immediately:

Job Title: Seminar Napper

Requirements: Must be a >50 year old white male who likes to sit in the front row of auditoria, enjoys napping and can smoothly transition from REM sleep to clapping. Must be short enough to fit in our department's main theater chairs without too much head bobbing and should not snore too loudly (occasional transgressions will be overlooked).

Preferred skills: Candidates whose responsibilities for teaching and research are either light or languishing from a lack of activity, are strongly encouraged to apply to increase the number of seminars attended in this capacity per week. Candidates who ask the same question relating to their own work at every seminar, regardless of topic, will also stand out to the committee.

Compensation: Free coffee, tea and snacks for every seminar attended. On occasion, a cheese plate may provide additional attendance incentive.

Applicants should provide three letters of reference that will attest to their utter inability to remain conscious for an hour at a time in a darkened room. Evidence of this, including video or personal seminar notes that scrawl off the page after two lines, should be included in the application package. Interviews will be conducted during the upcoming departmental seminar.

Please forward application packets to:PLS, Department of Science, Employment University

Monday, April 19, 2010

Lessons in Frustration

I recently gave my second test of the year. The students did not do well. Even the students who did well on the first one posted only mediocre scores. It was a blood bath.

Part of this is undoubtedly my fault, but I went out of my way to avoid any subjects that were not discussed at length in class. I was not out to trick them or ask things that are only in the book, I kept it lecture-based and right from my slides that I provide them. While clearly I need to be better at getting some of these concepts across to them, there has to be some level at which I can feel like I have done all I can. I mean, they are the ones who are supposed to be learning, right?

As a case in point, I had a question on the exam worth 10 points (the exam was out of 90 points and only two questions were worth this much) that asked the to explain a method and how it works. I had covered this method in class the same week they performed in lab. As a follow-up, I discussed it again in the context of their results during the class after the lab. Based on all of that coverage, I figured it was fair game to ask about and have it worth so many points.

Virtually no one in the class got better than half credit on that question. WTF? They did it with their own hands! They walked through the whole procedure and the answers I got could have been the same answers they would have provided before I introduced it to them. To make matters worse, they were incredulous that I would ask a question about something they did in lab (and class, mind you). The class material and lab is planned out to be in concert and all of them felt that the lab was helpful for their understanding when I asked about in the mid-semester evaluation. But... they shouldn't need to incorporate the class concepts with the lab exercises?

I'm now struggling with how to go forward. I'm not going to hold their hand here. I will do m best to provide them with organized lecture material to help them understand the concepts I want to stress, but how much is on me?

Honestly, I don't think these students have any idea how to study (At least two have told me this), which leaves me feeling like I'm teaching in a foreign language sometimes. By the time I see these students, they are in their last year or two. If they don't know how to study it doesn't really matter what I tell them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fire Away!

A little while back I decided that I had the funds to recruit a postdoc and that I should do so. My first inclination was to talk to a few PhD students I knew who were finishing up soon and whose experience would translate well to the work we are doing, without being completely overlapping. After some discussion with a couple soon-to-be graduates things fell into place with one of them, who will be starting this summer.

In preparation for the new hire, I thought it would be a good idea to sniff around my institution to see what is required for hiring a postdoc and I wasn't surprised at what I found out.

The good news:

Postdocs are a recognized category of employee. Health care benefits (the same I get) are required when hiring a postdoc and there is vacation, sick and maternity* time for these employees. A 30 day warning of a layoff due to funds drying up is also required.

The bad news:

1) Despite there being a category of employment for postdocs, they have no advocate. Like most institutions, both grad students and faculty are unionized here, but postdocs get squeezed between the cracks. Their "advocate" is, by default, someone whose primary job it is to advocate for the grad students.

2) The only things required to hire a postdoc are a willing body and some state and federal tax forms. NO CONTRACT IS REQUIRED. That means I can just bring someone in, have them fill out a few forms and lock them in a lab with no indication of expectations or guidelines on which to fall back on in case of a grievance. That's the kicker, right? When things go well maybe it's easy to not have any sort of record of expectation and no one cares, but what if things go poorly? What if something in my personal life goes down the toilet and I start getting all crazy and start firing people? Everyone has heard that story, no? Without a contract of any kind there is nothing to which a postdoc can go back to and say "I have upheld my end of the bargain!" There is no recourse, which takes us to Bad News #3.

3) Postdocs come in on a 12 month "probationary period", which is code for "can be fired arbitrarily". I asked our head of HR directly what it would take for me to fire a postdoc and the answer was "call me and I will either come over and facilitate that conversation or do it for you." In the first year postdocs have no protection and after that "it just takes a little longer" if one wanted to fire someone without documenting cause. Now, there are certainly times when the termination of employment would be justified and with the appropriate documentation that is just how things go. But what I described above is for if I wanted to walk into the lab one day and tell someone to clean out their desk.

Having at several institutions during my career, this doesn't surprise me a bit. But as a postdoc there are ways to protect yourself to some degree. Almost any PI with some sense will write out a contract because it protects both of you, but in reality the PI isn't the one who needs the protection. For that reason, postdocs should ask to have a contract written up at the start of employment. It should outline not only the performance expectations of the PI, but also what the postdoc can expect from the PI. No one tells you how important a signed document like that can be when you start a new position fresh off your Thesis Experience. Whereas you hope to never need to use it, you need to request it if your PI does not bring one to the table on day one.

Admittedly, I never signed a contract as a postdoc. I had an offer letter, but nothing beyond that. I had no idea that I should request one and hindsight is 20/20. I was fortunate to never need that contract and my supervisor was really good about communication, but that doesn't mean things couldn't have gone differently.

More important than the contract, however, is something that postdocs can't do anything about on their own and that is getting a person or office in place to handle all things postdoc related from the postdoc's side of things. Some larger R1s have this type of thing, but the vast majority of institutions only pay lip service to it. It requires the demand from PIs to get the wheels turning, and one might guess that PIs might be less than motivated to put a structure in place that takes away some of their power to make personnel decisions.

As a PI, it's easy to say that a postdoc office isn't worth your effort because you treat all the postdocs in your lab well. However, I think it's critical that we recognize the fact that a big part of the disgruntle factor of postdocs is the very fact that they can be dropped like a sack of potatoes. If you do treat postdocs in your lab well, then there is nothing to lose from pushing for greater university recognition in the form of dedicated postdoc advocates and it may turn out that they can facilitate some things (visa issues, a sense of community, etc.) that either you currently have to, or can't, deal with. As with most things, there's a high cost up-front, but they pay-off will be worth it.

I'll let you know how it goes here.


* I don't know how well this policy works in conjunction with granting agencies yet, but I am trying to find out.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The joys of home ownership

We have really enjoyed owning our home, but you have to take care of somethings when you have a home that you previously did not. House renos aren't the only thing you can now be a part of!

We have a skunk under our shed. It's been there for at least a year and he's digging the bejesus out of our lawn looking for grubs. I want thins thing out from under our shed. Now. But trapping a skunk is not something I've done before. I can see trapping it pretty easily, but then what? I see the scene playing out like this (especially the end), with me in the part of Steven because my wife is too smart to be the one outside.



As exciting as that looks, I would like to get rid of this thing without spending my afternoon in a tomato bath in a kiddie pool in the yard. I've tried blocking the entrances to the shed, but the thing digs another. Short of getting night vision goggles and closing the shed up once the skunk goes out for the night, I don't think that will work. People have suggest moth balls, but I'm not spreading toxic chemicals under my shed and letting them bake in the hot sun. I know that special skunk traps exist, but there's got to be a solution for under $150.

Anyone dealt with this and have suggestions (what NOT to do is also welcome).

Friday, April 9, 2010

The admissions dance

My department doesn't have a rotation program where students are admitted strictly based on their application packets and then spend time working in different labs to figure out where they want to do their degree. There are pros and cons to that system, but it wouldn't work in my department for a variety of reasons. Instead, we do a mixture of our own recruiting and interviewing potential students who apply to the department, but we only accept students who are matched with a particular lab when they come into the program. Everywhere I have worked has been like this, and honestly, I like it that way.

One major drawback however, is the dance one has to do with the candidates. I typically interview 4 students and rank three. One of the factors that has to go into that ranking, however, is whether I think the student will come if accepted. This is critical because once you extend a letter of acceptance through the grad school, the ball is in the student's court. In an ideal case the student will accept and you can then quickly decline the others on the list. More often than not, however, the accepted student takes some time to decide. During that time I am left stringing the other students along, not wanting to tell them that they are not my first choice while hoping not to lose them right away to other labs. If my first choice declines I need to have a pool to go back to, which is why timing is critical and why the pool can quickly dry up if the accepted student delays too long.

I can try to impress upon the accepted student that a timely response is helpful, but I can't demand a response until the official university deadline. Of course, this deadline corresponds with the deadline of several other schools in the area and if the candidate waits until then to decline, I'm pretty much screwed. In this case I would probably be left with a decision between an applicant who did not get in anywhere else or not taking a student at all. Although it is possible to find students who turn out to be excellent in the lab after a mediocre undergraduate experience, the odds are stacked.

In the mean time, the music plays on...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Thesis committees

It's an innocent enough question - "Would you be willing to serve on my thesis committee?" - and an easy thing to say "Yes." to. At the time you commit yourself there is generally no work to be done in response to an affirmative answer and generally the students who ask this are those whose work you are interested in, on some level. Sure, it'll be great to help this student along and provide advice on their work as it is coming together!

On top of the desire to help the student, there is an unspoken understanding between PIs that service on one of their student's committees means that they will return this favor down the road. Depending on the project, finding committee members for some students can be a pain in the ass, so having this "debt" in your pocket is not a bad thing.

Before you know it, you've said yes to three or four people, without much thought for the consequences of this action. Then comes the end of the semester or summer and everyone thinks "OMG, I have to propose/qualify/graduate before the end/start of the semester! We need meetings! Here's 45 pages to read by next week, and can you have comments back to me?"

I have a busy travel schedule lining up for this summer where I will be gone for 4-24 day chunks, several times. It ain't pretty, but between conferences and collaborations, it is what it is. My colleagues have similar schedules, so getting three to five of us together at the same time is damn near impossible. This means that on the rare instances that several people on related thesis committees are around, those days are booked solid with committee-related activities.

The moral of the story is to remember that on the flip side of agreeing to be part of a thesis committee is a solid time commitment down the road, likely to be scheduled at a very inconvenient time. I am learning this the hard way.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Actual conversation: neighborhood edition

Elderly Neighbor: Nice to see you home on the weekend, seems like it's been a while.

PLS: Well, yeah. I had a lot to do at work over the last little while.

EN: You know, my husband used to work extra hours on the weekend when we were younger. He always wanted to bring in the extra money.

PLS: Um, yeah.

EN: I don't know how much they pay you for those weekends, but it aint worth it.

PLS: I don't get paid extra for weekends...

EN: WHAT? You should tell them you're not working one more weekend unless they pay you for it.

PLS:

EN: What in the hell would you work for free for.

PLS: It's complicated.

EN: Doesn't sound like it to me.

PLS: sigh.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tough decisions

Well, I think it's time to make the official announcement on the blog.

After all of the discussions how good postdoc life is and how teaching is sucking the life out of me I have decided to bail on this job and take a postdoc position in another country that I've always wanted to live in. My department and Dean are understandably upset and it took some time to make sure that all of my trainees can find PIs to work with so that they can finish their degrees, but sometimes you just have to do what's right for yourself.

I don't know where this will lead or how many postdoc positions I can string together over the next few years, but it'll be an interesting ride. I'll let you know how it goes...