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.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Seriously pissed

There's a journal out there that used to be my go to journal for reading and publication when I was a grad student. I liked the journal and the community. Then at some point a few years ago, the journal decided it needed to keep moving up its impact factor. They started becoming more selective and started changing the focus of what they published. They are going from engineering to more bio that happens to use engineering. Now most of the manuscripts I send to that journal get rejected without review. Ironically, they get published in lower impact journals and get more citations than the impact factor of this journal. While annoyed, I didn't mind too much, but my students care about the impact factor of the journal they publish in, and this one of the top journals in the general field of my research. I try to convince them that paper citations are more important than journal impact factor, but everyone knows that's not totally true.
I was pleasantly surprised when I was invited to submit an article for a special issue that this journal was putting together. I put together a manuscript that fits into what they are interested in and submitted. It was rejected. Now I'm really pissed. My students are going to be depressed. Who rejects invited contributions?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Near Tenure Reflection/Update

When to celebrate tenure and start calling yourself associate professor? My school allows faculty to see the voting results and summary at every stage, so I know how things are going, and I have to say, it has gone great so far. There are a few more approvals in the process, and the title won't go into effect until next school year.

No one complained about too little funding from the material I am allowed to see, which was my main worry. I really wish I could read the external letters to find out what my peers in the field think about me. Where do I stand in the eyes of full professors at other institutions? Am I in a position to move in the future? I'm not unhappy at my current place, but I'm by no means thrilled. The issues at my place primarily affect my research productivity, and I would be potentially willing to trade that for a different set of issues at another place.

Looking back, I don't think I would have done anything differently. I worried too much about teaching my first year, but going back and saying don't worry so much would not have changed my behavior. Some of my summers weren't as productive as I would have liked, but I'm sure everyone in academia wants to be more productive than they are. If I manage to get tenure with the level I worked at, then at least from a rational perspective, I didn't really need to do more work.

Anyway, back to the grind: writing, writing, meetings, writing, meetings--nothing really changes.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Update: Christmas edition

It's been a while since my last post. Life has been crazy busy. Things are going mostly well though. Learning more about start-up culture, and it is definitely a culture, almost a cult. I like the general high level of energy and excitement of people starting and working for start-ups. Mine is having its ups and downs, but continuing to build moment. A word of advice though to faculty out there: you have to keep a discerning eye regarding what should be commercialized. I've encountered a few loud-mouth professors that think every project they have is a start-up that is ready to go. This is definitely not the case, people! One was sharing how the industrial mentor he was working with was an idiot. According to this professor, the industrial mentor, who had started several successful companies, was the one that didn't know the market or the value of the technology versus the professor who has never held a job in industry. Hilarious!
In other news, my tenure package is moving along smoothly so far. 2015 was productive on the student and publishing side, but not so much on the funding side. I'm looking forward to 2016 and balancing my priorities some more. I've been handed my first real college and university level service commitments. I'm learning to hate administrators and figuring out how to undermine their ridiculous initiatives.
Finals week was insane, but now my grades are in, and I'm drinking away those memories while small children scream and run around me as I visit family. I have a nagging feeling of how I should be doing work, but the start of the spring semester is still a few weeks away and I need to purge before I dive back in.