Thursday, May 18, 2017

A new adventure

Semester is over! I love my summers. The escape from committee work makes academia bearable. I've been spending time in the lab recently and remembering how much fun/frustration it can be. This obviously is not the best use of my time, but my group has gotten small with several graduations during the last year and projects still need to move forward. What I'm really excited about though is that I'll be on sabbatical, so I won't be teaching this coming fall/spring, and more importantly, I won't be on almost* any committees! It'll be my first break from that in seven years.

* I say almost because my department has started spiraling toward dysfunction, and so there are a few things that I'm sure will remain on my plate, or that I'll have to get involved with. Tenure has definitely made me feel like a citizen with responsibilities to the department/college/university, which would be fine if all of my tenured colleagues equally shared this notion, and were willing to sacrifice a bit for the greater good. It's fascinating how a few bad apples can dishearten an entire group.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

New Frustrations

So I haven't posted much since getting tenure. As most faculty in science/engineering will tell you, life only gets harder after tenure. I've become even more busy. Just as stressed as always because students still need to be paid, supplies still cost money. In fact, even more stressed because I no longer qualify for most early investigator opportunities. I got two separate proposal rejections yesterday. How's that for a kick in the nuts.

I started working on a post a few weeks ago while at a conference, then never got around to finishing it up. So I'm doing it now instead of grading.

I've observed multiple instances a conference recently that highlighted how much science is not a meritocracy.

First, I attended an event that was hosted by one of the more specialized societies to which I pay an annual membership. I wasn't "classically" trained in this field by one of the few select old men that invented the field, so I'm already looked at as an outsider. But what really grinded my gears was that the board members didn't recognize my name. Normally, one would not expect board members to recognize names, except that I've run for a board position multiple times at this point. Obviously, I didn't win, but my name and brief bio were one of a handful of candidates. And this is a society that has less than one hundred members.

Meanwhile, there are golden boy new professors that are winning awards without yet even accomplishing anything. They don't even have a signature publication as a PI that they could point to, but they reap the benefits of having been trained by one of the big-wigs in the field. They are introduced and promoted within the community and immediately part of the old boys club.

A separate scenario involved my students. One of the big-wigs came into the room where students were giving their oral presentations. He sat through two mediocre presentations from new PhD students from his former students lab, and then got up and left when my student got up to give their talk. First, this wasn't the big-wigs former student, it was his academic grandchild he came to support, and then he couldn't be bothered to listen to even one talk from someone that he's not affiliated with.

How am I or my students supposed to get big-wigs to recognize the value of our work if they are walking around with blinders on?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Proposal Submission Complaints

I spend so much time filling out and correcting ancillary files for my proposals that I don't actually have time to actually write the research strategy/project description.

Folks at other places, do you write your own consortium arrangement, consortium justification, budget justification, etc.? If there is a mistake found by your grant admin, do they correct it or do you have to fix it and send them the corrected version no matter how small or unimportant the change?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Career Pivot

So I officially have tenure! I really should take a day to celebrate. Party planning for me is a chore though, so I'm not super eager to have an official bash. My department wants to celebrate, but it's the middle of summer and most folks are gone. So an admin scheduled a party without checking if I was available. Some random faculty/staff are available that day, about a third of the department most of which I'm not particularly close with. I actually have meetings all day on the other side of the city, so I have to cancel my own party now. I'm trying to explain tenure to my parents. Anyone out there know the word for tenure in other languages?

I see my career as a game. I've played it pretty well. I'm not in the best position, I'm not at an R1, but I'm definitely doing well. Mostly I play fairly defensively, not gambling too much and planning carefully. But I also have a tendency to get bored. So I recently made several moves and started to position myself for the next round. Lot's of things are in flux, hopefully I haven't missed something that will end up dropping my status in the game.

I'm focusing a lot of my time on my start-up company, and I have to say it is so much more fun than my academic job. I like the students in my lab, but everything else about academia is annoying at the moment. I'm trying to position myself to just run my lab at the university and work on my company. This is a tricky maneuver though.

I do feel more powerful and influential now that I have tenure. I'm not sure if this is real or just my imagination. My institution is very volatile--constant changes in administration, new initiatives, new strategic plans, etc. I have two big plays to make at work: do I start organizing and leading multi-PI/center level grants and do I move my lab. I feel like there are few faculty at my university that like to take charge or know how to do so efficiently. I'm working on a big proposal at the moment and I feel like usurping power from the lead PI. They are just screwing things up left and right, but they are more senior than me. Separately, I may or may not have to move my lab space. I'm actually pretty happy with my lab space, but one person told me my lab will be moved and another person asked about moving my lab space. Yet there is no timeline and no one at my university can even confirm that my lab will ever move, so I may be developing a strategy for no reason.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

What does it mean to learn science?

What does it mean to learn science in school these days? I watched some high school student presentations this week, given by some of the best and the brightest students. They are all bound for top colleges. The presentations were about science but they were not science. The students came up with ideas for new products as part of a project in one of their science classes. I think it was chemistry, based on the types of products they proposed. However, they had absolutely no idea how the products would be made. "It will change colors" or "it will be a foam." Most of the "judges" applauded their great ideas, very innovative they said. I didn't say anything. One of the judges wasn't from the US, and they started asking the students questions. Here is a summary of the conversation: What will make it change colors? Answer: we saw someone advertise that they have a sensor that changes colors. Do you know the compound? Answer: No, but we know it changes colors when the pH of the solution changes. Next presentation, we will make this cool foam. How will you make the foam? Answer: We will use these two chemicals that another group has used. So they made a foam? Answer: No, their material had similar properties, but it wasn't a foam. So how will you make the foam? The American judges glare at the questioner and say: They will figure it out. After we walked away, one of the judges says: Don't stifle the kids' enthusiasm, we want to encourage them to invent and be creative.

This exchange bothers me on so many levels, but I kept my thoughts to myself at the moment because I didn't feel like being a negative nelly. First, if the students had done any sort of research, they would have discovered that what they are presenting was already done. If a simple Google search reveals that a product already exists, then you aren't innovating in my book. Second, how do you not even have a clue for how to make your product? Isn't that what you are supposed to learn in a science class? We're going to be a country of Steve Jobs wannabes running around saying make this or that, but we won't have a Steve Wozniak around to actually turn the idea into reality.

Saturday, April 23, 2016


So this week I received a letter in my mailbox at work from the Provost's office. The letter states that the Provost is recommending to the board of trustees that I be promoted to associate professor with tenure. Can I start calling myself a tenured professor or do I need to wait until the new school year starts? When do I throw myself a party? My schools leadership doesn't bother making any announcement or acknowledging this accomplishment.

My department is already treating me as a tenured professor. I really feel like they are setting me up for an administrative path, maybe to be the next department chair. I've had a bunch of new admin tasks hoist upon me this spring, could partly be because of me raising questions and commenting on inefficiencies of how the department is being run. I don't mind doing these things if they actually become enacted, which since I'm not chair, it's not obvious that they will be. I also seem to be pretty good at them. The question is, is this me? I've never seen myself as going the admin route. I'm not good at fundraising, which seems to be the most important part of my chair's job (also the only thing they seem to be good at).

I love science and engineering, but my funding levels suggest that I'm mediocre at these endeavors. What is the best metric for evaluating science/engineering accomplishment in academia? All of my graduated students have gotten great jobs in industry or gone on to top graduate programs. I publish regularly, but only in mid-level journals.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Idea for passive agressive submission

I recently had a paper torn apart by reviewers at a society level journal. This was a paper I was actually quite proud of, and even the editor sent me a separate note apologizing. If they were really sorry, they would have sent it to a second set of reviewers. The reason I thought my paper was appropriate for the sort've fancy journal is because they recently had published one on a very similar topic, using a very different approach that had far fewer results and far less value than what I had submitted. So my idea is to resubmit my paper and to ask the editor to send the paper to the reviewers that accepted for publication the other paper. I don't know who those reviewers are, so is there any reason for the editor not to honor my request? This also subtly points to the lottery of reviewing luck that seams to be occurring at this journal. I used to publish there a lot when I was a graduate student, back when it's publisher wasn't obsessed with impact factors. I want to employ this for glam mag submissions as well. Refer the editors to a paper in their journal that is similar and you know yours is clearly better than the crap they let in.