Thursday, December 22, 2011


What's wrong with you people (fellow faculty in my college)?! I tried to be nice and organize a social gathering, which went nowhere. Engineers are soooooooooo lame. I'm a dink who moved away from the region where I grew up. I know it's only supposed to be write grants/paper, eat, sleep and repeat, but common already. It's not healthy to drink alone.

Looking around the academic blogosphere, I see us new faculty repeating this sentiment constantly. Here is one example, among many:

Then, I came across this study.
It made me feel a whole lot better about my situation. Most of the gen X faculty out there are feeling incredibly isolated. It's not just the few of us who have turned to the internet for human interactions. It seems to be a growing trend. So I'm technically gen Y, but I think we are even more isolated because people don't think we're old enough to be faculty yet.

I'm contemplating organizing a TT faculty group in my town. We have a few schools in the area which would increase the pool of potential candidates/friends. Ideally, this would be a MeetUp at a bar where we could drink and commiserate. The problem with this humungous internet and all of this information is that it's now almost impossible to get a message out to people. Also, faculty with kids would probably want to meet at a different time and place.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reviewing Journals and Grants

Inside my little head, there are many benefits to reviewing journals and grants.

For new faculty, getting grants to review should be an obvious win.  Journals are a bit less awesome, but I enjoy seeing what caliber of work people are submitting to various journals. Also, some journals show the status of your reviewed papers, so I can see if the other reviewers/editors agreed with my assessment. I'm also a bit maniacal and enjoy the power that's bestowed upon me when reviewing.

But what about fringe benefits?

Does any Tenure and Promotion committee care about what journals I review or how many I do in a year? If I'm reviewing top field level journals on a regular basis, is that part of the magic equation?

Do the editors (usually esteemed tenured faculty) remember their reviewers? I ask this because I'm curious if, when the time comes, I can list them as potential letter writers? Will they be familiar with my research or remember that I wrote some great reviews for them?

Finally, and only tangentially related, are editors at these mega publishing firms in collusion? I always seem to get papers to review in waves and always at times when I think I can relax or dedicate some extra time to research.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Angry Grumblings: Teacher Evaluations

Sorry that I haven't been posting, but like most people I tend to complain louder than praise and thank, and I haven't had too much to complain about. I'm starting to get used to the overwhelming, never ending amount of work, things in the lab are running relatively smoothly, and I found a good drug cocktail that keeps me content.

But I could not pass up on this I received an email from my schools CENTER FOR EDUCATION EXCELLENCE stating that I should think of rewards that I can give my students for participating in our schools teacher rating survey. It goes on to say that if I feel uncomfortable with academically rewarding individual students that I can perhaps give a group reward for participation in the survey. Or if that still feels wrong that I can bring them candy.

To give a little backstory, my school does its surveys online and students can fill them out during a several week period that ends after finals and of course most students don't bother filling them out unless they don't do well on their finals, so this email went out telling us ways how to increase the student response and to get them to fill the surveys out earlier.

Still, I don't know where to even begin. I guess I should praise them for not explicitly using the work bribe. It also helps put in perspective the ridiculously high teacher ratings that almost everyone at our school gets. I really, really want to complain about this to someone important. Am I wrong to feel this way? Is this what our tenure-track battle has come to?! Should I take action or should I bite my tongue until I get tenure (which will be harder if I don't get great reviews)?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Conferences and NIH

Spent the last few weeks traveling to conferences. Conferences are really the best part of my job. I get to exchange ideas and have conversations with people that actually understand and care about what my group does. Now of course, I'm buried in piles of work from not being in the office.

Also, submitted my first NIH grant, went the R21 route. I know, I know R01 is sooo much better, but I really don't have results yet and I'm not sure how much of the stuff in the proposal will work. Does the NIH take 6 months to return reviews, like NSF? I have to say though, the program managers are incredibly helpful. They chatted with me for nearly 30 minutes about the open calls and various study groups.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


There is a direct inverse correlation with the frequency of my posts and my productivity. Can you guess which way I'm trending currently?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Letters of Recommendation

This is a line from a resume I was given recently:

 Effective communications skills – Written two research presentation

This is a from a native English speaker that just graduated from college with a bachelor's degree in a scientific field.

I have a hard time telling students I can't help them, it is afterall "officially" my job. But what do you do in cases where the students are mediocre and didn't get an A in any class in college? Would you write a letter of recommendation for them? Do you just say sorry, you should have tried harder? What if they did try their best? Can I just highlight what they did well, say that they are hard working, and not mention their shortcomings?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Meeting the Big Wigs

I want to post things, really I do. I just never seem to be in front of a computer when I have things to say, and when I am in front of a computer, I have a million other things to do.

Anyway, here's what's up. A fairly well known, well established professor working in my research area is visiting our department next week. They would probably be a good candidate to write a letter for my tenure package. I'm having lunch with them. Here's what I'm racking my brain about...what do I talk with them about? Do I tell them about all the cool stuff I'm working on and planning to do? They have a big, well-funded lab. What are the odds that they will steal my stuff? Or worse, what if they think my ideas are crap? Can I ask them for advice or will this look bad? Should I ask them about their research? Should I keep it casual and not talk about research unless they bring it up?

I'm growing paranoid that everyone is judging me and my work. My department will vote on me getting tenure. I feel like I have to choose my discussions very carefully, not to rub anyone the wrong way. Our college is small and faculty in other departments will have a say in my promotion as well. Can things be going too well? Will tenured faculty that are having trouble recruiting or getting funding hold a grudge? I'm meeting other people in my field ahead of me at conferences. Can I tell them about problems or frustrations? Maybe they will be writing letters. It's driving me a little crazy.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Pretzel Monies

Oh happy day, I have federal funding. Tomorrow I have to get back to writing and submitting proposals to meet my annual targets so that I can get a small raise that barely tracks inflation. Also, need much more money to support the research group at a sustainable size. In a few days it will be time to start thinking whether this will be the last proposal that I will ever get funded and how do I get my trainees to actually successfully complete the projects that I promised or at least get results worth publishing. For the moment though, stress levels have dropped dramatically.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

First the good, Gordon Research Conferences. They are awesome. I've been going to them for a few years now and they never dissappoint. I'm going to start attending more of them. This time, I brought one of my trainees with me. This was so worth the money. It gave the new group member in a new group a view of our competition on multiple levels. They were able to have frank discussions with other trainees and PIs about everything related to lab life. Just as important, the wealth of cutting edge information that is presented at these meetings provides a better introduction to the field than any college course. I haven't been to a summer or winter school in Europe, so I can't compare against that. Anyway, go GRC!

The bad, Marcus Bachmann throwing around the PhD and calling himself doctor. This one really is getting under my skin. Everyone one calls the guy Dr. Bachmann. He got his PhD at a school that no longer exists doing who knows what kind of research. That's not even taking into account that the degree he is claiming in clinical psychology wasn't even offered while he was attending. This is sending a really bad image to public about what graduate school is about. It's bad enough we aren't paid well, at least we had some wow factor and respect in telling people that we have a Ph. D. With this guy parading around as arguably the most famous PhD in the country, people are going to point to him and say big whoop, anyone can do it.

The ugly, proposal budgets. With the rising cost of research expenses at universities, the NSF really needs to rethink how much money is awarded. I'm working on a proposal right now, and I can barely cover 1 Ph.D. student for the 3 years with the money I can ask for. After a stipend, fringe benefits, over 50% overhead, and some money for supplies there is really almost nothing left of the approximately $100k per year. And with budget cuts, I'm being told by program managers to try not to ask for the maximum! This wouldn't be so bad, if they expected the results that 1 Ph.D. can reasonably achieve. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Expectations are increasing as well. For what I'm proposing, I really should have a postdoc and two Ph.D. students, but by today's funding appropriations, I would have to be applying for an ERC grant to cover that.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The problem with expanding academia

I did a search today on the topic of surface enhanced Raman. Turns out there were about 3000 articles written on the subject in the last two years. Almost 500 of them were reviews in the same time span. Does anyone else see something wrong with this situation?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I'm still here

Been busy. NSF panels, mail in proposal reviews, journal article reviews, IRB, group finances, strategic planning meetings, students slacking, website updates, society stuff. Trying desperately to dig myself out from underneath all this service and managerial stuff so that I can write grant proposals. All sorts of ideas bouncing around my head, if only I could get a few days to write them down and add the appropriate pointless filler to meet the required page maximum.

Why can't we be adults and not penalize people for not using the 15 page maximum if they don't need it? Almost every proposal I read could omit about 2-3 pages without losing any value.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Leaving the Game

So I've seen blogs from people that have left academia at the Ph.D. and postdoc stages. Any TT people out there that left voluntarily? Not jumped off a sinking ship or asked to leave. I've also read about successful tenured professors that left, or really took extended leaves of absence to be program managers or consultants. I only remember reading about one or two that completely shut down a lab and these were not double digit sized labs.
I ask because even though the lab is humming along, often I don't feel that the hours and the effort are worth it. I love the research, but get to spend only a small portion of my time on it. One of the things keeping me in is that I have several students that are working in the lab that would be hung out to dry if I leave. It would also be more rewarding if tenure actually meant something. I tell more senior colleagues that I'm excited to be working towards tenure, but most of them reply that tenure is meaningless. If the administration doesn't like you, they will make your life miserable, especially if you don't continue the rat race of constantly growing your research group and promising crazy pie in the sky hyped-up results.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ok. Time to write something

I haven't been blogging much recently. There are a few reasons for this.

One. I got tired of complaining.
I am beginning to accept that you cannot avoid Murphy's Law. Even the things you don't expect to go wrong in a thousand million years, do go wrong, and a big part of my job is dealing with these things. That is the reality of what I will be doing for the next few years and probably the rest of my career. That is life and it is especially true when you are the CEO, CTO, and CFO of a research group working within the constraints of the beauracratic juggernaut that is a research university.

Two. Not much has been happening that is worthy of writing about.
I'm waiting to hear back on grant proposals. One of my grants went through a panel review about a week ago. I called up the program officer to see if they could share any inforation about where my grant placed or what the panel thought, but they refused to give a single comment and said that I would get the reviews in a month or two.
The group is inching its way to new results at a glacially slow pace, but fortunately still moving forward. We are burning through start-up funds and expanding the group at a fairly constant rate. The one nice thing is that I have undergrad and grad students constantly contacting me to work in the lab. If only their enthusiasm and interest for my research were to translate over to program managers and reviewers.

Three. I started taking some awesome happy pills.
I've been suffering from depression for years, but never had good healthcare nor could I afford visits to psychiatrists and/or the prescriptions they wrote out. Over the years had I tried the all the cheap options, changing my diet, routine, exercise with very limited success. Now that I have a somewhat permanent job that includes pretty good health insurance, I decided to take advantage of it. My doctor referred me to a shrink, who confirmed what I already knew, since as a scientist, I've read up on reasons why I was always feeling miserable physically and mentally. They put me on some meds as there is really nothing in my life that needs fixing, other than a lower calorie diet. The meds work. I was told not to expect any sudden results, but in my case they have been very noticeable and welcome. I no longer absolutely dread getting out of bed every morning and the constant haze and dull pain that were in my head have mostly gone away. This leads to a more productive, less miserable me that in turn leads to fewer posts.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

time keeps on ticking

Time is flying by and nothing seems to change. The only thing I can reasonably assume is that I'm getting accustomed to my relatively new lifestyle as a tenure-track faculty person. I write proposals, I teach class, and I try to manage my trainees. There are the occasional ups and down, but more or less, this is my reality.

My trainees don't seem to be getting the point, they need to learn to fix things on their own, to become creative, to be independent. They treat it like a job...."I did everything you told me to do, are you happy with the results?" Who enters graduate school thinking that blindly following orders will suffice? On top of that, one of my trainees took a second job without disclosing it to anyone!

Friday, April 1, 2011

One more year!

I've been reappointed to be an assistant professor for at least one more year! According to my annual review, I am meeting expectations and get to keep doing more of the same. There's no external review on these in my department, but it feels good to know that at least my colleagues approve so far. Now if only I would here back on some of the proposals I sent out last semester...

Hopefully my posting can get back to its normally erratic schedule. Had some travel last week and did several preproposals and internal proposals the last few weeks in addition to the normal stuff.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The best of times, the worst of times

This has been a VERY long week. I'm finally getting around to blogging a bit.

For those of you interested in the life of a new prof, here are some of the more interesting highlights.

I voted for the first time in a hiring decision. It's quite a big responsibility to decide someone's future. It feels a bit weird to have the same say as tenured senior esteemed faculty and have them listen to my opinion of the candidate. I knew we were going to talk about it at the faculty meeting, but there was no mention beforehand of making a final decision. There was some debate and general awkwardness, but in the end it wasn't too painful of a process.

One of my trainees gave their first talk to the department. Everyone was nervous. It wasn't too bad, but clearly I have to spend more time preparing them for these situations. Although I think letting them struggle a bit on their own teaches them more than handing them a beautiful presentation and coaching their talk.

Got invited to my first review panel. Get to decide the fate of my peers this summer.

We got our first original piece of data. After a few weeks of control experiments and testing out the setup I put together, we finally got around to testing the real compounds of interest in our sensors. Of course, they didn't work the first few runs. Real science at work. Similar experiments have been published by another group, so I was wondering if we were doing something wrong or if those guys fabricated their data. We finally got it to work in our lab yesterday and the project can keep moving forward. Everyone breath a sigh of relief, especially the trainee who is the lead on this project.

Admitted candidates came for a visit. No one signed up to visit my group. Even though I'm not planning to hire, they don't know this, and it would have been nice have at least one person show some interest.

Wrote abstracts to bring in teachers and high schools students for training over the summer, hopefully they are more interested in the research than the grad school candidates.

I have a stellar undergrad in my group that is super proactive. I really want them to stay on for grad school with me, but that would be so wrong. They wrote a short proposal that was funded by the college today. Sure, it doesn't really count, but it's our first money into the group.

Gave a mid-semester survey in the course I teach. 1 person hates me, 2 love me, and the rest are indifferent. Everyone wants to me to do more example problems in class. I wonder how I can squeeze that in. They have dozens of example problems in the book and online for each chapter, but that would mean more work outside of class.

Also taught, reviewed a paper, met with some collaborators about proposals, sat through some committee meetings, etc. This weekend I get to write a preproposal, a paper draft, and prepare next weeks lectures.

Friday, March 11, 2011


What do your trainees call you?  Do you think/know that they call you something else when you are not in the room?

I thought long and hard about this question as a noob starting out. It sets the tone and atmosphere for the lab. After much deliberation, I decided that I was comfortable enough to go by my first name, even though I'm only a few years older than them. At the undergrad level, it's all business, but at the graduate level, I depend as much on my trainees as they do on me for succeeding in academia. All of the professors that I looked up to in grad school and post grad did that. Of course what first two trainees decided that they would rather call me Dr. X. Fine. A bit awkward when we occasionally go out for drinks after work, but I wasn't going to push them. This week, finally, one of my people started switching to a first name.

Background. No one else in our department goes by their first name with their students. I'm wondering what this will do to the culture of the department. Of course being a researcher, I'm terribly interested in studying this system and a bit worried that I might have permanently changed our fragile ecosystem. Should I care?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

What about reading

I read a lot about how I should set aside blocks of time for writing. But what about reading? Does anyone read after their Ph.D? Occassionally I encounter people that ask me if I've read a particular article from Science or Nature, but what about those other journals. Do PIs read? I'm trying to stay abreast of my field. Am I being too academic? Is this not really what the job is about? There are sometimes 3-4 papers a week related to my work. I find it hard to write grant proposals if I don't know everything about a subject or if there are already people working on very similar projects. My field publishes frequently, several papers per year per trainee. How do people stay on top of these things? I'm a slow but thorough reader. Hints, ideas?
Maybe this is a hint...more and more, I'm seeing repeats of experiments getting published, or related work from multiple groups. Often they don't even cite the related work. I'm not sure if it is worse when they do cite and still get it published. I get some info at the 2-3 conferences I attend each year, but not everyone goes to those, nor do they give all the useful details in a 15 minute talk. I also get some data from the papers I review, but again very limited.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Time to pay myself

Spent the weekend doing my taxes. I used the old-fashioned method, paper and pen. Snail mail it out tomorrow. I prefer to do them myself because in the amount of time it takes me to explain my complicated situation to a tax pro, I can just go ahead and fill in the forms myself.

Shouldn't I be exempt from paying taxes on the portion of my salary that comes from grant money? I never understood how that one gets justified.

Friday, February 25, 2011

What is a PO anyway?

Is it like a write-off for the postoffice? Should I get the insurance? (See appropriate Seinfeld episode)

Everyone seems to interpret it differently. Some companies just send me stuff right away along with a bill. Some send me quote to then place the order. I request a PO, our purchasing department issues POs. Some places let me pay via PO. It's all very confusing. What is it anyway? Is it a wire transfer? Do my people send your people a check? I don't know, I don't really even care, I just want my stuff by Monday.

Today it took me 4 emails to clarify how to buy something using a PO from a particular company. I have have to send them a copy of the email I send to my people requesting payment using a PO.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Pseudo Sciency Work Post

Although it's technically not past the deadline yet, yesterday I admitted defeat for the grant proposal I was working on. It's no where near being done. This is a first for me. Failure to complete a scheduled task, especially one that involves my success in academia and being able to pay my trainees salaries, is unacceptable. Of course I'm writing this post instead of working on the proposal. Ugh.

A major reason (lying to myself) it's not done is because it's my first proposal outside my core areas of expertise. I want to use a new laser thingy in the proposed research. I have a rudimentary understanding of how it works and I think my minions can make a widget that will extend its functionality. I'm an expert in making these types of widgets.

The person that owns the laser thingy is an expert in the field of laser thingies and when I talk to them, I feel like a complete dumbass, and while they are willing to let me try out my widget, they are quite skeptical as to how awesome it will be. My gut tells me the widget/laser combo will rock and that they just don't understand how awesome my widgets are.

Do I need to become an expert on laser thingies when writing the proposal? Or should I stick with my new plan of having my minions build the widget, get preliminary data, then go off and write the proposal? I asked the laser thingy expert to be a co-PI and haven't heard back in over a day.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Growing Engineering Community

I think hires english majors to make the normal weather days seem more interesting. Here is a sampling of the forcast for my area: a mainly sunny sky, cloudy, mix of sun and clouds, abundant sunshine, partly cloudy, a few clouds, and a mix of sun and clouds.

Cloudy and abundant sunshine are obvious, but how should the others be ranked? What is the scientific conversion into percentage of cloud cover? And why are people so obsessed with what the sky looks like? Doesn't everyone work in a windowless room with no clocks anyway?

Also, Scientopia is hosting guest blogger, FrauTech, who is part of It's a new blog site for us engineers. Can't wait to get some chemical and biological engineers on there to round out the discipline.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Declining education standards

I never thought I would be one of those people. Especially so soon. Back in my day, which is by no means that long ago, there was this notion that not everyone was meant to be an engineer or to get an engineering degree from an accredited university. Apparently, this is not the case any more. I was "informed" today by our special "education faculty" that engineering is changing. That today's students need to be engaged, that they need to have things explained to them 3 different ways because not everyone learns the same way. These statements I don't disagree with, and I do try out emerging teaching methods, as much as possible during TT. I go to workshops. I try to be more enthusiastic than the profs I had that just faced the board for the entire class period and rewrote their notes without taking questions.

This next one shocked me. Over 20% of college undergrads are in contact with their parents 4-5 times per DAY! What college kid that has just moved out of their parents home for the first time wants to talk to their parents instead of enjoying and exploring this ultimate freedom? Who are these parents that want to hear from their kids multiple times per day?

This final one blew my fuken mind. "Experts" agree that toughness is MORE important than being SMART! Holy Fuken Shite! You did not just say that. Since when is trying good enough? I hope that engineer isn't designing nuclear reactors or airplanes. Please, for the sake of humanity, tell me that no one else is taking this crackpot stance on engineering education! I went to a giant public top-tier university. The class average in engineering classes was a B-/C+. Getting a D of any kind meant you had to repeat the course. You have a problem with that, there's the door. I worked my ass off and I liked it. Did I complain to my parents that it was hard and that the instructors sucked? Yes. I'm not perfect. Did I have them call the school and complain? No. Did I ever complain that I DESERVE a better grade for trying? No.

Are all private schools so money driven and appeasing of their money stream? Not to mention the extra kicker, these budget models where the college gets money based on enrollment. Great business model, terrible education model. Why would we ever fail anyone? And don't give me that crap that our students are so awesome coming in that they can't possibly fail at something. Using that reasoning, why bother even having classes? Just give them the degree when the check clears.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Fun ancedotes for Monday

I am giving my first exam of the semester next Monday morning. After today's class a student came up to me and asked if they could take the class on a different day. I asked why. They said that they were going on a vacation with their parents over the weekend. (strike one) I played along, will they not be back by Monday morning? No, they were coming back Sunday night, but then would have to study all night for the exam. (strike two) Would you rather take the exam on Thursday before you leave so you can enjoy your vacation? Maybe. When would you study for the exam if you took it on Thursday? Wednesday night. I think you should take the exam on Monday and study Wednesday night before you leave and hope that you don't forget everything before Monday morning. I guess I can study Sunday night. Great.

I ordered an under the counter safety cabinet. I assumed that under the counter means it fits under a counter. It arrive today. It is taller than a standing height work bench. Ugh. Hello new bright yellow benchtop space.

In my mailbox at home was a letter from my current employers College of Professional Studies. They invite me to hone my competitive edge and earn a graduate degree. I wonder if I can get credit towards a degree for a class that I myself teach. I've known TAs that were students in their own class, why not professors?

And it's only Monday.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Another week gone by

Sorry about the lack of posts. Proposal deadlines this month have been eating up my fun time along with teaching.

On the teaching front, our department has been struggling with the amount of emphasis it wants to place on teaching versus research for the faculty. As a private school, there is much talk about how we are here only because of the undergrads. I was hired to be research active faculty. I care about teaching, but I have no plans of redesigning courses or having office hours during the nights and weekends to keep students happy. I'm a bit worried because we have some well liked teaching faculty (we call them academic specialists or something like that) that do things like this and are loved by the students. The faculty that push teaching also quickly and often point to these people as examples of model educators. Granted they are teaching four courses per semester, but they have no research or service responsibilities. They are also not tenure track, yet I feel like my teaching is being held to the same standards. And of course, I can't seem to get any official feedback from anyone.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Little fish, Big Pond

GMP commented recently about my rantings regarding a particular paper review process (Engineering Professor: Terrible reviewing practices). Her comment was that the name plays a big role in where a paper is accepted. I completely agree with that statement, but was wondering how far can I run with it. In my CV, can I say this is where the paper is published, and then next to it say where it should have been published? :) What if I created a normalization scale? I guess citation data does this to some degree. How tacky is it to have the number of citations listed next to each of one's publications?

More importantly, how much does this little fish bias get taken into account during the tenure process?

To take this a bit further, what do people think about double blind paper review? I definitely see the benefit of knowing the source for grant proposals, but I can't think of a single reason for why I should know who did the work when I'm reviewing the results. In fact, since I'm human, even if I pretend otherwise, there will almost always be a bias on some level when I know who did the work.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's all about your 'hood, a social commentary

I had an anecdote that I was thinking about sharing after reading GertyZ's recent post Calling in reinforcements where she had to defend the following position: 2. people, in general, do not avoid getting jobs so they can collect unemployment I was leaning toward not sharing, since as GertyZ pointed out in her post, there are always exceptions and individual examples that can be used to make a point. Then I had a phone conversation today that pushed me the other way. So here we go:

I grew up in a tough inner city neighborhood. It wasn't dangerous, but it was a lower class neighborhood where if your parents spoke English and had a GED you were above the norm. I still have family in the area so I am still actively interested in what's going on there. Growing up, my next door neighbors had 4 children. 2 boys and 2 girls. The kids were roughly my age. Their parents were on welfare. They we were decent kids, and I remember their dad talking to my dad one day specifically where he was really proud because one of their kids was on the honor role and had won some award.

None of the 4 kids finished high school, they all dropped out after they had turned 16, even the honors student. They had completed more school than their parents. The guys worked occasionally, but they've been off and on welfare since then. The two girls both got pregnant and eventually married. Today, one has 4 kids, the other 6. Also both on welfare.

While many of the extreme conservatives will say that this is why we need to get rid of welfare, I would never say this. This is part of a much, much bigger and more complicated societal problem.

In my grade school graduating class, about 80% finished high school and out of those maybe half went to college. Most are living in the same neighborhood today. Almost everyone finished more school than their parents, but JUST BARELY. That's what worries me. That's what we need to fix.

The NSF wants everyone to do outreach and to motivate the next generation of scientists and engineers in their grant proposals, so I thought I would try to partner with my grade school, to show kids there that it is possible to do better. I wanted to help them out, I don't have money yet to donate, but I wanted to give something back in this way.

Problem 1. The outreach person at my university says you can't just go out and help schools. I should work with schools that are already partnered on programs with the university. News flash, those are already pretty good schools. Sure they are usually not the special math academy, but in general, I would say they are the average schools, not the ones at the bottom. The kids that come to visit labs know that there are labs to visit.

Problem 2. I went ahead and contacted my school, told them I was an alumnus that wanted to help them out. It took them two weeks just to return my phone call. No one at the school had ever heard of the NSF, or that there are university outreach programs, or had any idea how one would work. I tried to explain it to them. I asked them for their input. What do they need to get their kids to do better at math and science? Today the principal told me that they're not sure they want my help, they are pretty happy with the curriculum that have in place now.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Terrible reviewing practices

As I mentioned in my last post, I got a paper rejection this week. That's nothing to write about in itself, but the journey that this particular paper has gone through is worth telling.

So let me start out by saying that this paper reports some seriously ground breaking results. I know it, my co-authors know it, everyone we have talked to about it knows it. And I personally have talked tens of other PIs in the field about it, and they agree. I've presented the results at conferences with much fanfare. So that's why it was initially submitted to Science. They said no. No shock there, the editors gave some half-assed response. So we sent it to Nature. Again a no, but this time the editors spent a few paragraphs summarizing the work and explaining their decision. I was seriously impressed with that. But their response boiled down to: we think these are great results, but it won't generate enough citations because it's not such a hot field. So next we sent the paper to the most appropriate Nature subjournal. It's a fairly "interdisciplinary" paper so it doesn't exactly fit into one of the Nature derivatives. They also stated fairly obviously as well that the paper was being rejected because it won't generate enough citations. In the meantime, we talked with more people about it and they all say that it's great stuff that will significantly affect the field--which to me sounds like it will be cited often. We tried the other Nature derivative that fit. Again no. Same reason. Never made it past the editors.

So finally we gave up and sent it to lower journal. Now, we were sure this would be a cake walk. Man, were we wrong. The paper had only two reviewers. The first had some well formulated comments and concerns, but recommended the paper for publication after the appropriate, relatively easy revisions. The second was a raving lunatic. They went on for almost a page. Almost no punctuation, spelling mistakes everywhere, no useful or insightful criticism. Outright recommendation for rejection. It really feels like some first year grad student jotted down comments on the paper after a bad day, perhaps after getting their own paper rejected, and the PI submitted the review without so much as looking at it. The editor must not have read the comments either, because it came back as a rejection based on the recommendations of the reviewers. The line has been crossed, this one is getting appealed. We'll see what happens.

Out of all this though, what bothers me the most is the raving lunatic review. Since when can reviewers be so unprofessional? I've gotten poorly written reviews in the past, at least once or twice that I can remember, but of course didn't mind too much because they were positive. Two or three phrases, not even sentences. Reviewers have at least a college degree and in theory the person getting the paper to review has a Ph.D. Is being insanely busy a valid excuse for not, at least, hitting spelling and grammar check in Word? Have these people never taken a professional writing class? Do they not realize this is wrong? This thought caused me to take action with my own trainees. I'm having them write up reviews for a paper and I'm going to critique what they submit to me next week. Maybe all new PIs should get a class in how to review a paper.

Do you folks (all 2 of you reading this) come across such poorly written reviews as well? Is there an editor out there that has ever returned a review back to the reviewers for doing a shitty job? Or at least told them that they should try harder in the future?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The year in review, 2011 edition

2011 is off to a fantastic start. I've been working on this post off and on for several days now. Somehow it always devolves into me ranting like a raving lunatic. It's in the spirit of sharing my experiences with kindred spirits in the blogosphere. Since I haven't found a proper outlet for venting yet, here it is:

I stayed in academia to try to balance the world. I encountered so many brilliant, slave driving, malicious, egotistical faculty during my Ph.D. at top tier research U that I decided I had to do something about it. Otherwise I would just be another whinny Ph.D. student that complains for 5-6 years and then goes off and takes a pretty well paying job in industry, never to care again while the system continues to degrade. (I apologize here to all of the non-engineering readers out there that by comparison struggle immensely to get jobs.) Now I feel like I'm turning into this snobby professor, just like what I was exposed to. I do want to mention though, that I don't find my current colleagues to be such jerks. To their credit, they at least appear to not be bitter and evil. That being said, here are some more of my annoyances thus far in 2011.
I already posted about the accounting error, so I won't revisit that here.

I finally managed to find one adult on campus that does something more than the StairMaster at the gym. So now, I'm routinely getting my ass kicked at a racket sport by a guy that's about my dad's age. That's apparently what happens when one stops exercising for 4 months and gains 15 pounds in stress related weight. 

I think my lab is finally running out of things that can go wrong. The first lab I was promised does not have the proper ventilation. So I'm stuck going into a temporary lab space, less than half of the size of the first lab. To free up space, I had them move the safety shower. The plumbing wasn't reconnected well and the lab was flooded. Luckily there was no equipment in there. Next, they found hazardous chemicals in the drains and had to shut down my water supply and spent several days cleaning it. Not from my lab BTW. Just about ready to go now.
Two Friday's ago, I didn't exchange a complete sentence with another person all day. I leave my door open, but no one stops by, not even my own students. One day I may miss this peace and quiet, but right now I don't care for it. To add to that, I received an email that my grant was rejected about two weeks after I submitted it. Turns out, as I suspected, the email wasn't real. I was told by a tech guy that the email was sent by mistake because they are testing a new system. Of course, I couldn't reach anyone official from that department all afternoon so I didn't know for sure. I finally got an apology on Monday for the screw up.

I asked for a support letter for a grant and got it...with two mistakes. The first is forgivable, my personal education was wrong, which you expect the department to know, but hey it's not their own information. The second mistake was that the name of the grant was misspelled.

The bookstore didn't order enough copies of the book for my class. This is after they first had listed the wrong book for the course, which luckily I caught by checking on my own. Now I have students bothering me about what to do about their homework. What amount of responsibility should I put on the students for waiting until the last minute to buy their books?

Today I'm sitting at home, trying to work on a grant proposal while having a bad case of diarrhea from eating too much pizza over the weekend.

This leads me to thoughts of maybe I'm in the wrong profession. Is it worth the sacrifice to do this? I enjoy science and teaching, and the hope of job security, but common. How screwed over would everyone be if I just threw in the towel? Would I be happier as a therapist, sitting around, getting paid to listen to other peoples' problems. Or for fucks sake, as an Internet marketing analyst. My buddy is making more money and gets to drink with hot shot CEOs for a living.

Oh, and I just got a paper rejected this morning from the 5th journal attempted. More on that later.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

IBM Watson

February 14-16 an IBM computer will compete on Jeopardy. I wonder what it will wager on Double Jeopardy questions. Will it have a confidence rating programmed into it? Obviously if it is in the lead, with 30 seconds to answer in Final Jeopardy, it should be able to answer any question. Also, from my rather limited knowledge of AI, isn't the biggest factor here internet connection speed?

If Watson wins, I'm not sure that I will keep watching. If fact, it might be time to start appeasing our electronic overlords. I would like to start by apologizing for kicking one of your relatives in college. It was purely by accident that I gave it amnesia (screwed up hard drive).

What does everyone else think about this?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Shaking my head in disbelief

I hate constantly ranting. It makes me feel bad. But it really feels like I have nothing good to say about anything at the moment. Today's annoyance:

As mentioned in my previous post, I've been on a spending spree, buying toys for my students as well as all the mundane things that only I find cool, like Parafilm. Today I get back to my office after a full day of pointless meetings to find an email in my inbox from our purchasing department. It says that my purchase can't be completed because of insufficient funds. WTF?! So I haven't been tracking my accounts on our archaic university system so closely, but I have been maintaining my own spreadsheet which shows that I should still have a few thousand left in this account.

So I walk over to our local purchasing person to inquire politely about this. I get the same comment. You are out of funds. We have no idea why. Check your monthly printouts. Yes folks, printouts. So I've now spent the last two hours of my life matching up my purchases and internal accounting with the university system. I've found the problem. This is focken unbelievable. 1) I submit a form with the amount I want charged for a purchase. 2) I submit the quote I get from the company to confirm the amount. Now I don't really care what the quote says, just what the bottom line is. Sometimes the quotes are "fancy" with full prices and the discounts subtracted so I can see my "savings." Now for some genius reason, our braindead people use the quote instead of the form to figure out what to enter into their stupid arse system. So they enter the base amount on one line, then enter the discount on another line. They do enter it as a negative number to indicate the discount. very clever. EXCEPT, the system doesn't subtract out the negative numbers. So I've been getting charged the full amount on things. Hence the discrepancy. Luckily it looks like it's only happened twice.

And actually, I even caught this once because the vendor called me and told me that they got the wrong amount. I told our people that they sent the wrong amount and they attributed it to a typo and I bought it instead of following up. Now it happened on a big item and several thousand dollars got sent to a vendor and I can't buy my stuff. And who knows how long it will take for me to get my money back into the account?

And this is only one of today's headaches.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Sorry about the radio silence. Two proposals due this week and preparing for the start of classes. The snow day today saved me huge. Some much needed writing time has been freed up by the metric fick-ton of white powdery substance outside.

More interesting posts will be forthcoming in the next few days.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Money well spent?

Today I spent a quarter of my start-up money. Most of it went to a few big ticket items that I have been carefully selecting and comparing for the last few months. It's a bit scary spending one's annual salary in a single day when there is no guarantee of future funding ever arriving, but it had to be done. There is zero chance of getting data when there is no equipment for running the experiment. Too bad this isn't like buying a car, where I can drive it right off the lot. I get to sit around for a few weeks now while the order goes through several purchasing and accounting personnel at Research U and then at the company. Then industrious German workers get to assemble it, test it, and ship it over. Then it will sit in customs and probably be delivered to the wrong building. About a month from now, if I'm lucky, I'll assemble my new stuff only to find out that they used metric screws and it won't fit in my Imperial unit setup.

Other items in my virtual shopping cart were more standard, but conversely took almost as long to select. I enjoy having a giant selection to choose from as much as the next guy, it is the American way after all. But would it kill "large supplier A" to obtain full descriptions for the stuff on their website. An added bonus would be some organization in how the information is actually presented. For example, I had to order some lab coats. There are over 75 types/brands of disposable labcoats to choose from. Once I got past the obvious things like color, length, number of pockets, and types of cuffs, I got the the good stuff. Will it protect me? People in my lab will be working with bacteria and some benign chemicals. There's no search column for this on the website. Some coats protect against minor spills, some against aerosols, some keep me safe from microparticles, some from medium blood spatter, and some are chemical resistant, but the overwhelming majority say nothing about the subject, nor do they tell me the material. They are soft and durable, but will that keep me safe? How about adding some more relevant information and having some sort of rating system for how much protection I can expect from a given thickness, material, coating on a coat? Ooh, ooh, I know, how about a chart? List the material, thickness, and price. Why bother carrying a product that is supposed to protect a human being when no information is given about how well it works? Or worse, you are given some cryptic value system like superior or 5 star protection. (Should I go with the lock or the shoe in of the week? It is a really big lock...) It's as if the manufacturers don't want us comparing their products. (I'm starting to suspect a conspiracy. Brand loyalty in the sciences, after all, is worse than Pepsi vs. Coke) Instead, you want me to call and find out the specs on your merchandise, then hunt around on the web and through lab safety manuals checking for compatibility. In this case, I didn't have a favorite brand, so I ended up going with one that had at least some information listed. Would others have done the job? Maybe, but we'll never know.

And don't even get me started on gloves and pipet tips.