jump to navigation

Returning to the land of the employed June 28, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching.
Tags: , ,
7 comments

I’m so excited! I finally have something to post about!  And it’s not just cat and dog pictures!  Or discussions about comic book characters!

I will be starting a new job in the fall as an engineering professor at a small liberal arts college.

I’ll be honest: no one is more surprised about this than me.  Until recently, I hadn’t ever thought about liberal arts colleges as a possible career choice.  Over the past couple of years, however, I’ve gotten the sense that I don’t fit well into a lot of research universities.  Despite a lot of places saying they wan’t people who do interdisciplinary research, it’s become pretty plain that they still want you to have all your degrees in one field.  Grant reviewers don’t like grants that are too far outside their expertise, either, which makes it hard to get funding.

All of that pushed me to start thinking about liberal arts colleges, particularly since I have a strong interest in education and pedagogy.  That ended up being a good decision.

The program is brand new, so I’ll be setting up some classes and labs from scratch.  While that’s daunting, it’s also exciting, especially because of the educational aspect.  Designing classes around a student-centered, hands-on approach is going to be easier (I hope) than trying to remake everything.  I hope my students will be okay being guinea pigs.  I’m certainly okay with getting to play with lab equipment.  The classes will initially be pretty small, but I don’t think they’ll ever get huge.  (I’ve been informed the largest classes at the school are around 50-60 students, and those aren’t common.)

The down side is that the school isn’t in town, so I’m in the process of finding a buying a new place to live.  It IS close enough that I’ll be able to come home frequently, but a little too far for a daily commute.  I am therefore also in the process of trying to teach the younger offspring how to cook…well, something other than mac and cheese or toast.

Anyway, the pace of life has definitely picked up, but that’s a good thing.

Wheel of (PI) Fortune January 13, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

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.

Not married to my work May 4, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, research, work.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

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.

Responsive regardless April 24, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, research, work.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

NPR did an overview of a study showing that there is a bias in academia against minorities and women.  The study looked at response rates by professors to solicitations by potential students to meet.  The letters were identical except for the names attached.  They found that women and minorities received a different response rate than names that appeared to belong to white males.  They also found that the bias was greater when the faculty were at prestigious private schools or in fields that are more financially lucrative.

My response: “Well, Duh!”

In the comments to the article, some people were complaining about how many letters they get, particularly from Indian and Chinese students.  How could they be expected to answer every. single. one?!

While I admit I’m not inundated with such letters, I have gotten several.  As one of the other commenters mentioned, form letters are great for dealing with these, and I pretty much do that.  I also use an additional filter: “I currently don’t have funding for an additional student, but if you want to discuss what you’re interested in, we could look into avenues to fund such a project.”

It’s amazing how I never hear anything back.

But you know, I always do respond.  And I am hoping one of these days that I get a response back.

 

Cynicism and the academic market March 25, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, grad school, research, work.
Tags: , ,
1 comment so far

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.

I proposed November 4, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, writing.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

I’ve been a vegetable this weekend.  I had intended to fill out my ballot yesterday, but it had to wait until this morning.  I managed to get myself out the door for a 4 mi. run yesterday.  And then Mike and I went to dinner without kids.

But I have all this grading to catch up on, so it’s still going to be a long day.  (But did I mention that I voted?)

I’m a vegetable because I was involved in submitting a couple proposals last week, and I was seriously lacking sleep.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one going through this as there was something on twitter about advice for those writing their first proposals.  (Anyone remember the hashtag?  There was lots of good info there.)

This was quite the learning experience.  One of the proposals was for a very interdiscplinary project, and I learned one important thing: no one will get you their part of the proposal until the last minute.  I will say, however, that those I was working with did a great job on their parts…but it’s stressful and a lot of effort stitching things together at the last minute at 2 a.m.  I learned it’s also best if you can get a good head start writing stuff and letting people augment and/or correct their portions rather than just waiting for them to do it.  I will say that this is exceedingly difficult when you’re trying to write on an area of science or engineering that is completely outside of your realm.

The more important lesson was that I learned I enjoy writing proposals, despite all the stress.  It’s akin to blog writing:  “Hey, I have this great idea I want to tell you about.  If I do it well enough, you might even give me money.”  I suppose this is the same thing people think when they get into blogging: “If I become a famous blogger, I can retire off my advertisement revenues…”  Or something like that.

But seriously, I enjoyed sitting down and fleshing out the ideas, explaining how to best implement them.  I liked being able to convey why an idea is really cool.  And, well, I just really liked talking about my ideas.

Or maybe I just like the idea of a captive audience.  🙂

I also learned how useful it is to have multiple sets of eyes looking over your writing.  I do a good enough job of conveying meaning in my writing, but sometimes there’s a way to do it more convincingly and/or more elegantly.  I really liked some of the changes my co-authors made.  Sometimes they could do a much better job at capturing the essence of the message.

The best part of the whole experience, however, was that I was too busy to pay much heed to all the political ads that are now inundating me.  While I was really glad to have the proposals in and the deadline behind me, I’ll be even more glad when I can say the same about election day.

Projects as papers August 22, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, papers, research, teaching.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

While I was working on my MS, I read the book Getting What You Came For. (I highly recommend this book to anyone going to grad school, BTW.) I remember one section where the author suggested trying to take a class project or paper and making it into a publishable paper for a journal. At the time, it was a suggestion that totally made sense as I was in the process of deciding whether I should do that for one particular class project.

Now, however, I’m not so sure it’s always doable. I have a few reasons for this. First, I compare the quality of the projects I did when I was starting my MS versus finishing. (For reference, I was only going part time as I was also homeschooling one child and had a baby along the way. My MS, therefore, took me five years.) When I first started my MS, a lot of my projects involved finding a paper from a journal and attempting to replicate the results. In one class, for example, I built an antenna and tested it. At that point, it was rather overwhelming to learn how to use this new equipment alongside the process of learning about the specific topics we were studying. I honestly think there was no way I was ready to produce something that would eventually be publishable.

Toward the end of my degree, I started doing ‘seed projects’. These were things that probably couldn’t be published based on what I had accomplished in the class but, with work, would definitely result in something noteworthy. I attribute this to progression in my understanding of the topics I was working with, more proficiency in the lab, etc. A lot of that competence came from doing previous projects, so I was building on a lot of the stuff I’d done before.

I find it interesting, therefore, when I recently heard about professors who use class projects as a way to generate papers. That is, the outcome of a student project is to be a publishable paper, and the student needs to do this in order to receive a passing grade. Looking back at my own experience, I think getting research of that caliber out of a class project would have been dubious, at best.

First, lack of proficiency is not easily recognized by new learners, and quality research is going to be difficult for someone who’s never done research before. The whole point of doing a master’s degree is to learn how to do that, and usually get at least one publication in the process.  Second, doing research quality work is probably going to take longer than a semester. Third, and slightly related, most students should be spending their time working on their own research, which they need to graduate. (I am making the assumption that the work necessary to generate something that is publishable is going to be considerably more than that of a standard class project.) Finally, I’m not sure it’s beneficial to all students. In some fields, a lot of students go into industry upon graduation, and forcing them to publish research beyond their graduation requirements really isn’t going to be helpful for them.

I do see one circumstance where it might be appropriate to generate a paper from a class project. I can see this as viable if the whole class is involved in writing it such that each student or group of students contributes a small chunk. This would ideally be easier to handle for all of the students. In fact, I see that as a wonderful way to get students introduced to research without the pressure to do a whole project themselves.

What do you think? Do the benefits of writing papers outweigh the down side? Are there aspects I haven’t considered?

Permanent position April 24, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, research, science.
Tags: , , ,
8 comments

The other day, I was talking with a professor who was asking about my employment situation.  After clarifying where I was at, he said, “But your husband has a permanent position, right?”

“Permanent insofar as he’s on soft money, too.”

One thing that’s become fairly obvious is that there has been a bit of confusion about our research center.  A lot of people don’t realize we run entirely on soft money, which is a very uncomfortable situation to be in.  It’s even more uncomfortable when both members of a couple are in that situation.

I recently read this article about the money trail in academia, and it got me thinking: what would happen if PIs were in the same situation as some of the rest of us.  That is, what if they not only had no tenure, but also had to bring in their own salary?  (I say this is the realization that, in some places, this is the case.)

I have a lot of thoughts on what may happen, but I’m going to put them in a separate post.  In fact, by the time this post has been published, I will already have my post written so as to be untainted by potential comments.  In the meantime, however, I’m curious what you think.  Do you think this sort of system would help or hurt academia?  Encourage or discourage competition, quality, efficiency?  Do you think this would motivate the system to change or would it just be more of the same?

Offending ethics April 12, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, societal commentary, work.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

I’ve heard about businesses that decide to cut costs by hiring newer, cheaper workers.  They then ask the older workers to train them in, and once that has been completed, the company fires the older workers.  On the same note, Fluxor describes a scenario where he is supposed to keep a team moving once they’ve all been fired and their offices have been shut down…despite the fact their product was making oodles of money for the company.

Academia isn’t immune from this.  We had layoffs a couple months ago, and several of the people who were let go had to train in remaining people to fulfill their job duties after they left.  It didn’t feel particularly kind to do that, but I will say that at least it wasn’t that any of us were happy to see those people go.

And sometimes you get stuck directly in a very morally questionable situation.  Mommy/Prof, talked about dealing with faculty candidates from her old department both here and here.

Of course, the list can go on and on with issues like conflict of interest (which can encompass many things) along with many other moral and ethical issues.

Has anyone ever ended up with an uncomfortable spot at work because of an ethical or moral dilemma?  Do you take the high road all the time?  Do you ever feel justified in not doing so?  Is it different if the impact is on someone other than yourself?

Bureaucracy in industry March 26, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research.
Tags: , ,
1 comment so far

A little while back, GEARS wrote an interesting post about how slow academia can be.  His argument is that industry is not really that faster, and is, in fact, rather short-sighted.

This post came to mind because I’ve noticed something in my experience with industry as of late.  If you don’t have something ready for production or there’s any question that the product may not pull in significant bucks, industry is actually slower than academia.

I’m sure there are exceptions.  For instance, I was recently talking with a person whose company really likes to be on the cutting edge and is willing to fund a lot of crazy ideas.  This company, however, is really a technological leader.  Most companies are, at best, fast adapters.  They want someone else to try out the cutting edge stuff and work out all the bugs.  Then everyone else will quickly jump on the band wagon and see if they can play catch up.

This is what happens when bean counters become responsible for all of your technical direction.

The other thing that bugs me is the characterization of academia as being bogged down by bureaucratic routines and paperwork.  I actually have to shake my head at that.  I realize that I may be at the university that is an exception, but my observation is that large companies are far worse in this regard.  In academia, if you have someone who wants to work on the project, they pretty much let you know, and once the money is in place, they’re ready to go.  In some ways, working with big government funding agencies is actually less painful than working with companies: they will give you a yes or no.  A lot of companies will hem and haw, say to get back to them once things are farther along (because they don’t want to invest in something that may not pan out), and then have to get the approval of the bean counters once they hesitantly decide that they might be interested in working with you.

%d bloggers like this: