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Scientific Status Quo July 12, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, feminism, research, societal commentary, work.
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A couple days ago, @katiesci posted this opinion piece from Science by Eleftherios Diamandis on getting noticed.  I was rather frustrated with the article because the way to get noticed was apparently to put in a lot of face time (which is probably decent advice) and to publish like crazy (also not bad advice), even if it means you have to work unrealistic schedules and foist all of your childcare duties onto your spouse.

It was this last part that got under my skin because it’s so much a recapitulation of the status quo: you can’t do anything else and be a scientist, forget balance if you want an academic career.

I have to admit I jumped to a pretty lousy conclusion when I read the following:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

I can’t presume to know the dynamic between the author and his wife, and it may be that she was perfectly happy with this arrangement.  Academic couples tend to understand better than others how frustrating this career path can be, and I know there were several occasions where either my husband or myself was bringing the other dinner/microwaving in the lobby or lunch room to help ease the stress of deadlines along with an empty stomach.

But what about the people for whom this is not an option?  Most of the people I know get very upset if their spouse is putting in more than 60 hours per week.  Are they just supposed to give up?  What about people who are physically unable to work those types of hours?  Even if you are physically capable, it’s bad for you in the long run and turns out to be rather useless.

If anything, this just reinforced that to make it in science, you don’t have to do good science, you just have to be willing to give up any semblance of a family life and turn into a squeaky wheel.  I’m not sure what the author intended to convey, but reading this piece was rather disheartening.

Instead, I’d rather have heard about how the author’s wife did it: how is it she was able to work less hours than him, raise their kids, and still manage to have an apparently successful career?  At least, that’s the implication at the end of the piece.  To me, it sounds like she was able to handle a very unbalanced load successfully, and unless it’s, “don’t sleep,” I would think she may have some advice worth sharing with the rest of us mere mortals.  If you happen to be from Science magazine, could you please let her know?

 

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A reason to celebrate! July 9, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, pets, research, work.
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This is a pretty special week: Teradog’s Gotcha Day was on Tuesday.  Three years ago, we welcomed him into our family, thinking it was only going to be temporary.  The truth is, we’re foster failures.  Despite Mike’s insistence that he was just staying for a couple days, we ended up staying for a month before Mike asked about whether the rescue group had found him a new home.  I said they hadn’t been looking but I could contact them, if he wanted me to.  By that point, he didn’t want me to because that giant ball of fluff and love had steadfastly attached himself to Mike’s hip.

We weren’t sure how long he would be around, which was the really scary part.  The vet couldn’t figure out how old he was (his teeth were in bad shape) and said he could be anywhere from four to ten years old, his teeth indicating the high end of that range.  We took the median, seven, which is getting old for a Newfoundland.  He was also in very bad health.  However, he’s doing very well now (except for a bit of arthritis) and is happy, healthy, and generally content.  We’re hoping he will be around for a while longer.

Happy Newfie!

Happy Newfie!

Today is another anniversary: I will have been writing at this blog for five years.  While that’s generally a happy thing, you may have noticed that things have been rather quiet the past couple months.  That’s because, after five years and not quite a month at my job, the research center I’ve been working for has turned into a support lab and all the research staff have either been terminated or will be let go as soon as funds on their respective projects are gone.  Because of this, there hasn’t been much to talk about.  I’m spending a lot of time in front of the computer, working on my thesis, hanging out with my critters.  While it lends itself to a lot of cute puppy and kitty pics (and often kitty AND puppy pics, probably snuggling), there hasn’t been a whole lot of narrative material there unless you’d like me to get into the specifics of drooling and sleeping patterns of Newfoundlands.  The only thing I am sure I could do on a fairly regular basis is complain about how certain programs are a pain to use, but I’ve already done that (probably ad nauseum).

IMG_4717

All of this boils down to today being a good day to celebrate changes.  Change is generally a stressful thing, but it’s all in what you make of it.  And there’s certainly worse things to do than to hang around with domesticated bears.

Wheel of (PI) Fortune January 13, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science.
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I came across an article in Science from last summer discussing chances of being a PI.  It included a calculator so that you could look at your various inputs (number of publications, first-author publications, etc.) and see what probability you have of becoming a PI.  (I’m going to state the caveat that this probably is most accurate for biological sciences given that’s where the algorithm is presented, but I didn’t see that stated specifically.)  Apparently, the dependency is most heavily weighted on two factors: number of first-author publications you have as well as highest number of citations on a first-author paper.

One interesting thing to note is that the chances of becoming a PI are better for men than women.  When I was going through the various examples, it seemed like men generally had about a 12% better chance than women but it seemed to range from about 12% at the greatest and decreased with additional qualifications.  The lowest difference I saw for people with the same qualifications was about 8%, but that was with the very highest qualifications.

Being of a somewhat practical bent, I decided to take this for a test run using both myself and my husband’s publication records.  The thing that was a bit shocking for both of us is that the heavy weighting on first authors and citations on first author papers meant that, despite the fact that he has more publications than I do, my publication record actually is better in terms of chances at a PI than his.  I have more first-author publications, and I also have more citations on one of my first-author papers.  For most people who know us both professionally, I’m pretty sure that’s not what they would expect.

Despite my ‘better’ publication record, his chances at being a PI were still better than mine…by 8%.  Given that delta seems to be close to the delta in general between men and women, it indicates to me that bias could be pretty significant factor in getting funding, especially early on in someone’s career when they’re low on some of those first-author publications.

Fortunately, I can happily write this off as a thought exercise given both of us have been PIs on our own projects.  I’m glad I didn’t know the odds going in, however.

New Year’s Goals: The 2015 FCIWYPSC edition January 1, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, grad school, personal, religion, research, running, work, writing.
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I’m not doing resolutions and haven’t done them for a while.  Goals, however, are another story, particularly when they’re of the quantifiable type.  While some of these are large goals (like with running), I break them down to weekly and daily goals, as well.

Writing this out is helpful because not only does it provide me with some accountability, it helped me realize I was bogging myself down with too much.  I had to cut a few items.

These are the things I think I can manage with some consistency:

  • Career/Work: Publish at least one paper and attend at least one conference.
  • Career/Dissertation: Set a minimum amount of time to work on my thesis each week, though the weekly total will vary if there’s a holiday involved.  (I do some version of this, but I think I need to make my planning a bit more specific.) Also, attend one conference this year.
  • Family time: Family play day once per month.
  • Marriage: Keep up with the weekly date with the spousal unit.
  • Self-care/Religious: Center down (or if you prefer, meditate or pray) for at least ten minutes a day, not necessarily all at once.
  • Self-care/Sleep: Stick to a consistent (and early) bed-time at least 4 days per week.
  • Self-care/Physical activity: Run or walk 500 miles by the end of October.  I did about 200 outdoor miles this year but didn’t keep track of treadmill time at all, so I think this is doable, especially in light of my next goal.  I’ve also learned I like to ramp down the activity around the holidays (too much to do), so that amounts to about 11.5 miles per week.
  • Fun goal: Do half-marathons in two new states this year.  Two down, 48 to go. I’m hoping to cross Wisconsin and Michigan off the list this year.  (And I’ve already registered for one of them.)
  • Misc/Blog: Post on the blog at least twice per week.  (I do that on average, but sometimes there are long gaps in between.)
  • Misc/Email: I will keep my main mailbox below 3000 messages.  That may sound horrible, but this is 1/5 of what it was just last week.  I need to either delete those messages, read them, or unsubscribe from all the spam I’m getting…probably mostly the latter.  Lots of unread email makes me overwhelmed.

So do you have any goals for the year?

Double your fun, double your standards June 26, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism.
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I had an extremely bizarre experience recently.  I’m sure others have had similar experiences, but I still can’t help but wonder what surreal world I’ve stepped into.

It’s basically dealing with an optimization problem.  All of engineering really is that, of course.  In fact, much of life is.

I’ve been trying to understand all the factors that deal with a particular widget, and one of my colleagues has spent a lot of time trying to basically tell me that I’m overblowing something I saw as a concern or potential problem.  They broke it down numerically for me (making sure to be rather condescending in the process).  After enough time, I became convinced that this thing I initially thought was important was not and most certainly not worth the brain power I might waste on it.

At least, it wasn’t important when I thought it was important.  In fact, the more I thought about it, the more silly it seemed when someone else would bring it up as an issue.  Based on this information, I made a decision about how to deal with this issue with the underlying assumption that the factor we’d been discussing was not important.  Isn’t that what this colleague was trying to get me to do?

The result was that this colleague got very upset with me about this decision, implying (though not directly saying) that I’d made a big mistake.  How could I have been such an idiot?

It was bizarre for me to have to repeat this person’s arguments back to them to explain the basis for my decision.

This has left me wondering, though, what happened.  Why did something unimportant suddenly cause so much uproar?  One potential explanation is that this was because I made the decision and not this other person.  It’s quite possible that this person is a control freak.  However, if they are not, this leaves me feeling like the more probable cause is that there is a double standard.  This factor may or may not be important, but its importance depends on who is bringing it up.  The times I’ve brought it up, it’s been downplayed multiple times.  However, when it came up this last time, it was someone else who brought up the issue.  When this other person brought up the issue, suddenly it was of high importance and, because of that, I’d made a bad decision.

Unfortunately, the whole scenario reminds me too much of the experiences I’ve had where I’ve said things and people have ignored me, but as soon as a male says them, everyone will agree and jump on board to accomplish or deal with whatever it was.  (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you can read about it here.)  It doesn’t matter what the topic is or how technical the issue is, it happens all. the. time.  The only thing I’ve noticed is that some individuals are much more prone to doing this than others…and the one who did it this time has done it to me frequently in the past.

This leaves me with a quandry: how does one work effectively with people who obviously don’t take you seriously and probably never will?

Reviewers say the darndest things June 11, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, research, work.
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I’m not sure what happened this year, but as the feedback from this past fall’s proposals have come in, I’ve been a bit flabbergasted.  It seemed like last year, the feedback was a lot better.  There were a lot of suggestions for improvement.

This year’s comments were…stupid.  There was nothing constructive about it.  There was nothing that could be used as suggestions for improvement.

Aside from the commentary I mentioned yesterday about my marital status, there were lots of other fun oddities to pick on.

I think the first thing that was frustrating were the contradictory comments.  Reviews like “excellent detail” coming alongside “too technical.”  Some of that is to be expected.

What I wasn’t expecting was a resubmission from the previous year having stellar reviews in comparison with the first year (totally nailed the broader outcomes, which were cited as rather weak the previous year)…yet the ratings didn’t change at all. Huh?

Next there was the reviewer who obviously pasted some of his/her review from another proposal into our review.  Ironically, I think this reviewer also commented on formatting issues in the proposal.  (I apparently didn’t notice that Word puked on a reference.)

Then there was the reviewer who cited some ‘scientifically based’ concerns about a chemical that we were using.  There were supposedly health issues associated with use of this chemical…which had nothing to do with what we were doing.  Worse yet, he was completely wrong.  One only need to look at the CDC website to find toxicity info saying that the claims the reviewer were saying had been “well established for a decade” had never been proven and were probably related to something else.

Finally, I’m really beginning to wonder how many reviewers actually read the proposal at all.  When you’re inundated with questions that were clearly addressed in the proposal (including the above mentioned toxicity issue), you gotta wonder how effective the skimming really is.

Maybe divorce is the answer… June 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, feminism, research, science, societal commentary, work.
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I think I am going to change my name.  It’s very annoying.

My last name, anyway.

If I had it to do over again, the one thing I would’ve done when getting married is to keep my maiden name.  Hyphenation was not the best idea by a long shot.

This has been an issue (a lot) because I worked with my husband for so long.  I suspect it will die off as we are no longer coworkers.  However, one of the most bizarre things that has come up is that I recently received some reviews of a proposal that we wrote before he changed jobs.  One of the reviewers noted that as a co-PI, I had the same last name as the PI and so a conflict of interest was a possibility.

Huh?

My university has a clear and very detailed conflict of interest policy, and I’m not clear how this applies.  As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with conflict of interest as these policies are almost exclusively focused on outside financial obligations.  I checked with the funding agency, and that was all they had listed for conflict of interest, as well.

If he were supervising me or vice-versa (that is, one of us was a subordinate), such a scenario would violate internal policies to the university.  However, even if he is PI and I’m a co-PI, we both reported to someone else.  Further, a PI isn’t necessarily a supervisory role.  Do faculty members who collaborate on research supervise each other or collaborate?  (My experience says there are very few faculty who view their role as co-PI is that of being supervised by the PI.)

In any case, it’s a completely ridiculous comment to make on a proposal review because we could have been two completely unrelated colleagues who happen to have the same last name.  I can think about some of the areas of research I do, and I know of several groups of researchers, particularly in Asia, where many members of the team do have the same last name.  I never once jumped to the conclusion that there was a problem with this.

Of course, it’s obviously my fault for the name, so I should probably fix it.  Do you suppose it’s cheaper to go through the legal name-change process or to just divorce and quickly get remarried?

Not married to my work May 4, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, research, work.
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A few weeks ago, I posted about the difficulties that go along with working with my husband.  That is no longer an issue…not because I’m not married anymore but because Mike has since changed jobs.  He’s back to working in industry, and enjoying all of the fun of a more stable job.  (As an aside, he must be type A because all of the anxiety about the job situation at work has now transferred into unfinished remodeling projects at home.  I suspect we’ll have an entirely new house in about two years.)

We are adjusting to spending a lot less time together, and I’m getting to hear all about the joys of an industrial job.  He has me convinced that is not the route I want to go.  The primary reason for this decision is that, by leaving academia, I would no longer have unfettered access to research journals.  That sounds like my personal idea of hell.

Married to my work April 13, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, personal, societal commentary.
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In the past two weeks, I have been introduced as Mike’s spouse twice in professional settings.

I usually view this as something akin to the Kiss of Death: the person receiving this news is likely to consider me an appendage to my spouse and therefore rather useless.  It’s not that I mind people know I am married to Mike.  He’s very competent and he’s a nice person, so I’m certainly not ashamed of it.  It’s often the reaction I get that bothers me.  We have both noticed that some people will make a point of talking to him and ignoring me entirely, even when the project is mine and has nothing to do with him.  (Of course, people do this even when they don’t know we’re married…)

In the first case, I found this rather interesting because it had a couple oddities relative to other introductions of this nature.  First, the person I was being introduced to had no idea who Mike was, and in fact, never did meet him.  I’m not sure why my marital arrangement was the first thing that came up, but I just sort of sigh and roll with it.  Second, I think one of the people we were with was more annoyed about the way I was introduced than I was.  While I just sort of shrugged and carried on as though nothing happened, shaking hands with the visitor, one of the other people who knew me repeated my name to the person two or three times.  As much as I’m resigned to this sort of thing, apparently other people are not, and my inner voice yelled, “Huzzah!”

The second situation was very unnerving.  Mike and I coauthored a paper which was accepted at a fairly selective conference.  The introduction to our presentation explained that we were a husband and wife team, and I inwardly cringed.  I was expecting the fallout to be very awkward for me.  What was odd is that, for the most part, this didn’t seem to make a difference to anyone.  Or maybe they already knew so it didn’t matter.  Mike has had a paper accepted there before, and I was invited to give a presentation last year, so we’re not complete strangers to this group of people.  With perhaps one exception, there wasn’t any noticeable difference in the way anyone treated him versus me.

While the “being married to my coworker” thing has it’s problems, it seems like some people aren’t letting it be as big an issue as it used to be.  It’s kind of nice to be considered a colleague and not an appendage.

It’ll make my day when people regularly introduce him as my spouse, though.  (It has happened once or twice, but not nearly as often as the reverse.)

Cynicism and the academic market March 25, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, grad school, research, work.
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I recently had someone ask what I was planning to do after I graduated.  I’ve had this question asked of me before.  When I responded, “I’m interested in a tenure track position,” I have, more often than not gotten the “Yeah right.  Let me know how that works out for you” response.  Not in so many words, of course.

This time, however, I responded that I was interested in a TT position, and added that I knew it was highly unlikely.  The reaction to that was, “Not necessarily.”

I was appreciative of the comment because I think, without reading too much into it, it was meant to be encouraging.  However, I still have to stick by my stance that it’s pretty unlikely, mostly because I think it’s not best to be wed to the idea.

The data seems to back me up on this one.  There was a study done on those who make it into TT positions in political science, and the conclusion is that there are very select schools from which everyone is trying to hire.  I don’t have any direct info for my field, but this seems like a reasonable proxy.  The conclusion is that 20% of TT hires come out of a half dozen elite colleges.  And as your school goes down in ranking from there, so do your chances of getting hired.  I’ve also seen numbers, at least for physics, that only 1 in 10 grads finds a TT spot.

Just looking at these numbers makes me think that I would be rather stupid to count on getting a TT spot.  So as much as people may want to be encouraging (and I do appreciate it), it seems like I should try to stay pragmatic and keep in mind that there is life after academia.

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