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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.

Responsive regardless April 24, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, research, work.
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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.
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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.

I proposed November 4, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, writing.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

You ought to… February 15, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, grad school.
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I was discussing some of my career aspirations the other day.  After talking a bit, the person I was talking to lifted their index finger in that way people do when they’re trying to be thoughtful.

“You know, you really ought to get a job at a community college.”

I was floored.  The person realizes that despite the fact I could have stayed here and finished my PhD in just a couple years, I chose to go someplace else and spend two years apart from my family because I didn’t want the stigma of “only been at one school”.  Why would I do that if I wanted to teach at a community college?  In fact, why would I go get a PhD at all? I could start teaching at a CC after finishing my MS and not put myself through all that.

I’m not saying this as a slight to community college teachers, either.  I went to a community college for a couple years and had some of the most awesome teachers I’d ever met there.  It’s just that 1 – it’s not really where I want to go and 2 – I don’t think I could handle it.  Given the choice between research or technical work and teaching general ed-type classes, I’m pretty sure research would win out.  I’ve learned that I can live without spending hours in front of students or grading papers, but I can’t live without the mental stimulation that doing technical work provides.  Further, I’ve had the opportunity to teach in high schools as well as general ed labs for non-science majors.  I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I like teaching labs for circuits, optics, and physics.  I love teaching, but I’ve also learned that the material I like to teach is not suited for just an average student.  I like math and theory, and most community colleges are not going to be offering the kinds of things I would love to teach, at least not at a high level.

Now realistically, if that was the only job available, I’d take it and try to be a totally kick ass teacher that makes their students want to be great scientists and engineers…or whatever else they want to be.  I just am not convinced that’s a good first career choice for me.

Anyway, this whole interaction was very disappointing because it left me feeling that this person either has little faith in me or really doesn’t understand my interests well at all.  I do realize they had no intention of making me feel bad, but I still felt slighted.  It was all the more disappointing given that this person, in the past, has been very encouraging of my career goals.

Ass. Prof. January 31, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, societal commentary.
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I was conversing with my favorite barista today, and she asked me how things were going.  I took this opportunity to complain about someone who has been getting on my nerves.  She looked at me sympathetically and said, “It’s a professor, isn’t it?”

I almost spit out my drink laughing.

She asked me what students thought of this person.  I had no idea, so I whipped out my iPhone and did a search on Ratemyprofessor.  I’d never seen such a low score. Not that I take RMP seriously at all, but I have to admit the descriptions of this person as a teacher were an awful lot like my interactions with hir on a peer level.

I have to wonder, though, why it seems like profs seem to fall to the extremes of personality.  Based on the conversation with the barista, it’s obviously not a secret.  I realize that being intelligent and creative can create a sense of superiority, especially if you don’t often have the opportunity to hang out with people who have the same level of intellectual facility or background knowledge.  On the other hand, if you take the stance that you’re always smarter than the other person, how do you ever find out if someone else has a good idea or a different approach?  (Or is it fear that they will have a good idea and you won’t?  I’m not sure.)

There are also a few who manage to make it through without becoming asses.  Somehow they manage to feel confident enough in their abilities to put their egos aside and give other people a chance. Believe me, I really appreciate them.


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