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.