Tuesday, December 3, 2013

bubble phds looking for postdocs

Like most faculty, I'm pretty regularly bombarded with emails from people looking for graduate student and postdoc positions in my lab. One thing that has really started getting on my nerves are grad students and postdocs looking for a postdoc position in my lab like I just have money to through around. For qualified people, which most of them are not for my research, I usually reply back saying that I don't have funding, but that I would be happy to help them apply for external fellowships to work in my lab. What boggles my mind is the standard reply  that I receive back: great, what are some fellowships that I can apply for? Umm, you are about to get your PhD or already have one, you want to get a postdoc position, and you haven't bothered to look at fellowship options and you can't be bothered to do some research on your own? How about writing me: I'm looking for postdoc positions and I'm planning to apply for such and such fellowship so that I could work in your lab. Would you be willing to be my mentor or be listed as a potential supervisor. I'd be all over that.

When I was applying for postdoc positions, I was told to offer to write fellowship applications when I applied for positions so that I didn't look like some moocher that just wants money. Especially in engineering, where postdoc positions are relatively short 1-2 years normally, the last thing most faculty need is to pay a person to be in there lab that is actively looking for another position, because that is what most engineering postdocs are doing. They are thinking about their future independent research and applying for faculty jobs, not devoting all their time to their current project.

I'm more than happy to help you get your own money, but at least try to make some effort. You are not the hot shit that you think you are where I just absolutely have to hire you to work in my lab. Why aren't faculty telling their students about how to do these things?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Editorial Discretion

After a nice start to my career as the PI on manuscripts, I've recently run into significant road bumps. For some reason, all of my manuscripts are being rejected by editors without review. Now, I know this is common practice for glam mags, but since when is this the case for society level journals? I'd like to think that I have pretty good judgement for where I'm submitting the work. I regularly read and review for these journals. I know the other readers and people that publish in these places. When I presented these results at conferences, I've gotten some very positive comments from top people in the field about how cool the work is. So what gives? Am I being penalized for being a new PI? Are solid, interesting, reproducible data now not enough for decent journals? Have they become complete slaves to the impact factor? Or is my work derivative and inconsequential and no one is willing to tell me in person? My "mentors" think I'm cool. Who else can I ask about these things?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Stupid Karma

I shouldn't have written that last post. I've had nothing but bad luck since then. Two papers rejected, a cold, issues with students in the lab, and several other things that I've managed to block out of my mind. That's life for you.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Time for an update

For those of you that follow my blog, you might have noticed that I tend to blog less when things are going well. It's been a month since my last post and things are going really well. Somehow after the miserableness of year 3, things magically improved. I'm teaching my undergrad class again this fall and for the first time, I feel like it's running smoothly and that I'm really comfortable with the material. It could be that the better time slot and smaller class size are making all the difference, but whatever the reason, things are working on that front.

Research is humming along as well. We have multiple papers currently under review and several more in the pipeline waiting for me to polish up. I shifted focus this year away from grant submissions to paper writing and I feel much better. I'm still putting in some grants and have three pending right now, but not the 7 that I had wasted my time on last fall that had not got funded anyway. With the funding rate, and now even government shutdowns, I much rather write papers, which I actually have control over instead of the crapshoot of getting funding. I've also been able to unload some of my service obligations.

I've finally embraced the attitude of either I'll get tenure on my terms, or I'll find another job in 3 years. If you're unhappy before tenure then you'll probably be unhappy after tenure, because nothing in your job description changes.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Annual Slowdown

After a fairly productive summer and even a rare enthusiastic outlook toward the fall semester, I've fallen into the start of the school year slump again. Adding teaching into my activities seems to throw everything out of whack. It tips the scales toward having my "to do" list growing instead of shrinking, which in turn leads me to lose enthusiasm and productivity drops to the bare minimum of putting out the each day's fires. In previous years, my productivity starts to recover and increase exponentially as the fall proposal deadlines approach in October. We'll see how the rollercoaster plays out this year.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

K-12 Education Rant

I've been involved in several outreach programs as a faculty member, as well as discussions about their effectiveness. As someone who made it out of the urban low socio-economic status, I'm personally pretty invested in these programs. Which why this for me is by far the most charged, uncomfortable set of meetings to attend. A lot of these outreach programs are run by academics, first with no education or sociology training at all, second it's mostly people from affluent backgrounds and/or internationals that have never themselves visited or lived with the people that they are trying to help. To top it off, as a white male, I feel pretty uncomfortable really adding to the conversations because society has created such a strong bias against this group and since usually no one in the room knows my background.

This is an incredibly complex problem that has to be carefully approached. There is no quick fix pedagogical change or one size fits all answer. Charter schools and privatization of education became all the rage a few years ago and is still one of the big movements, however as the data starts to come in, the results show that the groups that are furthest behind and need the most help aren't being served and that their situation is not improving, but instead the gap just keeps getting worse. This 2011 Time Magazine story makes some good points, but also muddles the terminology of reform versus privatization. I'm a big supporter of reform, but not privatization. Of course that is just one aspect of a very large national problem.

One movement that I am very supportive of is what Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, is trying to organize: http://profoundlydisconnected.com/ He accurately states that our society has made blue collar work incredibly uncool and unpopular. There are hundreds of thousands of job openings in this area, but no one wants to do these jobs and my generation and younger have no idea how to do anything with their hands. I have male friends that can't put a spare tire on their car or change the oil, yet alone have ever touched a saw to cut a 2x4. Politicians are making a big deal about bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., but no young people want to do these jobs. The workforce that can is almost at retirement age. Generation Y would rather be a barista or work at Trader Joes than be an auto mechanic or electrician. Across the country, shop class and auto repair is being cut from high school. Even in colleges, because of costs and fear of accidents, most undergrads and even grad students can't build their own parts for lab experiments. Of course as someone at a university, I feel like I could never take a public stance saying that not everyone should go to college. A good percentage of the population should be going to vocational schools and apprenticeships during/after high school. Germany realizes this and has one of the most skilled workforces in the world. Other European countries have a two college system as well, where some people go to university while others go to a trade school.

Maybe after tenure I can really start to contribute to some of these things.

Non sequitur: I've recently come across several people and even some big organization websites posting links to articles that are several years old because they just discovered them. The problem is they don't look at the date and think that it's fresh news. I saw a post yesterday, from a certain university, saying that new NRC grad school rankings were out, and touting how great their programs are. The link to the NRC rankings clearly shows that these are the 2010 data. People, just because you just found it on the internet doesn't mean that it was just posted that day.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Summer Update

So it's been a while since my last post. Like most TT engineering faculty, I've spend that last few weeks working on my NSF CAREER proposal. My place makes a huge deal about getting this grant specifically. You get three attempts before tenure. I don't have the numbers in front of me right now, but I remember last year I saw the breakdown and out of all the CAREER grants that were funded (which historically is close to 15% funding rate, except this year thanks to the sequester, we're probably looking at closer to 10%) only 20 percent or so of PIs get it on their first attempt. Which makes me feel a bit better about not getting mine funded last year. The general consensus is that you don't apply for this proposal in your first year and I know quite a few people who didn't apply in their second year, especially now that the Engineering Directorate offers the BRIGE award and the requirement there is that this has to be your first NSF award as a PI. So, I was working on my CAREER award, and also another big proposal that is due in August. Fingers crossed. Other than that, things are going pretty well. I got some new meds that, at least for now, have gotten my depression back under control and I'm a productive member of society again.

Results keep trickling in, new ideas and directions are presenting themselves, and patent disclosures are getting filed. One of my new aims is to build up an extensive IP portfolio that I can use to approach companies to give them more incentive to fund my research. So far, the tech transfer folks at my uni have been pretty receptive and supportive. Although, as full disclosure, the companies I am talking with right now all want to see the publications that show the data more than the IP. So gotta get rolling on that...

Monday, June 3, 2013

Not Again

I'm feeling depressed again. No buzzing or ache in my head at least, just a general unhappiness. Travel has me eating unhealthy and not exercising, which doesn't help things. Summer is supposed to be research time, but instead I'm swamped with reviewing papers, reviewing proposals, and doing outreach. Oh well.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Stupid MIT

MIT can go f*%& itself. I just sat through a dinner with a few MIT alumni and that and their kids is literally all they could talk about. I'm sorry, I didn't go to your little brainwashing innovation fest. And by the way, having kids just to run an 18 year experiment is a piss poor reason to have kids. How about not creating more of your awkward retarded selves. I posted about this before I think. You just continue to reinforce my stereotypic view of your school, at least at the faculty level, of how self-centered and boring and elitist you really are. Thanks for looking down on me and my mediocre school. I chose not to go to MIT. Deal with that.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Power of the Internet

My group recently published a paper and my university's media department was cajoled by one of the other faculty in the department into writing a piece about the findings. It feels really great to have colleagues promote my research. (Unrelated, it's frustrating to have senior faculty tell me that I should have more funding by now based all of the results my group already has, I really think they don't understand how hard it is to get funding as a new PI these days). Having heard stories of faculty/media relations gone bad, I did some background research and read some tips. There are actually several good books to help scientists and engineers navigate through the world of reporting. One of the main tips was to have very clear and easily understood message. I knew this, but reading about all the example about how uninformed and what short attention spans the public has these days really drove the point home. I felt very much like a politician during the interview. I'm not so comfortable doing this sort of self promotion, but I think this is what faculty and the entire scientific community really needs to do more of to stay relevant in the U.S. I was selling what the future holds and the end goal of our project without over-selling our current results, which are still very preliminary. Of course very few people in the world would care about this particular set of results, so I followed another piece of interview advice, which is to focus on what this can lead to. Maybe 10-15 years from now, there is some tiny chance that our work can significantly change medicine. It's also a pet peeve of mine when I see researchers in my field say that they've done something, implying that no one else should study the problem, when they have clearly just barely begun to even think about the problem or only solved it one convoluted way. There's a guy in my university that claims to have done just about everything known to science. He would have you think that he invented nanoparticles, plastic, medical imaging, etc. when in reality he's made a few minor contributions to several fields.

Also, as a new TT person, I'm always a bit worried about stepping on other people's toes. I tried to be very explicit in the interview that this is not something we came up with out of the blue. Maybe this is more of an engineering specific problem, but I feel like most research has been already done or at least thought about before. This work is not an exception. There is a group that published nearly the same results, but using a different device a few years ago. We cited them and their paper clearly states that they are working toward the same goal as us, but they haven't publishing another paper on that topic or anything related since that initial paper that came out a few years ago. How much credit do I give this other group? Should I not care at all? After all, they could have gone out and promoted their results.

Anyway, I did a search this morning with some of the key words that I mentioned in my initial interview and I found multiple related stories written about complete strangers and small internet news outlets (I don't know what to call websites that have multiple professional writers, maybe internet magazines? they are clearly more than just bloggers). Everyone is very excited about what I'm selling as a potential life saving sensor in the future. This is really exciting, but at the same time disappointing that I haven't been able to get funding for this very medically relevant project. I'm tempted to cite all of the internet articles in my next proposal, pointing out that the public wants to see this research move forward. Would this have any influence on reviewers or program managers, positive or negative?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Summer Salary

It's almost summer research time and this year, I think/hope because of the sequester, I'm getting some strange emails from the administration. We've had multiple emails sent telling us to consider student funding and to put the needs of the students first when we decide on how much summer salary to pay ourselves and the latest one says that our requests are being reviewed and scrutinized by a department that is normally not involved in research finance. I don't quite understand what this means.

For those unfamiliar with the process, when you put in a proposal you have to justify your budget, including if you will be paying yourself any salary. There are NSF as well as university limits and rules about how much salary one can get paid. My university is primarily hard-money 9 month appointments and you are on your own to find summer salary. Almost everyone does research full time during the summer, except for a few strange faculty that are out of place and annoying, and these few give faculty a bad rep. Almost everyone does research full time during the rest of the year and also teaches. With the current unwritten limits on NSF grants, you are lucky if you can budget one month of summer salary for yourself, usually it's one half month or even less. So essentially, I'm doing research for free most of the summer because I like research and because I want to get tenure.

So what really confuses me are these emails. Is the administration saying implicitly that I shouldn't even pay myself a little so that I can provide a month or a semester of additional support for a student that I didn't budget for in a project anyway? I know NIH is a bit different and cuts budgets on existing grants, but that doesn't apply in general at my university, and I have no problem adjusting to make sure that a student's stipend is covered if it's scaled back 5-10%, although you would think the university could use its overhead to make up that difference if it really cares. Are there actually people out there that pay themselves more than what they budgeted for summer salary? (Many agencies don't follow up to see what money was used for once the grant is awarded). Am I supposed to voluntarily take a pay cut for what was deemed as appropriate pay for my time for a proposal? Am I missing something here? The administration isn't cutting its salary. This feels like yet another way that scientists and researchers are getting screwed over and taken advantage of when we are already being pushed to our limits.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


So no surprise, I just got another NSF proposal rejected. I don't mind not getting proposals funded. Given the current funding climate, I am at peace with reviewers saying this is good or even great stuff, but someone else's idea was better. My reviews this time though, for the first time, are irritating as hell. These are for a resubmission that scored very well the first time I submitted it to this section and the program officer told me I should fix it up and try again. This time it came back not recommended for funding, also a first.

One of the reviewers listed in the weaknesses: the PI has limited teaching and research experience.

Are you kidding me? What does my teaching experience have to with anything?

Another reviewer explicitly stated that proposing a combination of three different technically challenging techniques, which has significant merit and potential is incremental.

I thought April fools wasn't for a few more days.

I'm seriously wondering if these retarded reviews are the result of a collaborator that I added to the proposal as part of beefing up the expertise needed for these experiments.

If NSF reviewers aren't going to bother to take the time to write an even somewhat coherent review, what is the point of this exercise? I had a similar half-assed review on my last grant. One reviewer lists 2 or 3 bullet points for strengths and 1 or 2 for weaknesses, the second paraphrases the points of the first reviewer and the third reviewer barely wrote anything and it didn't even make sense. I didn't mind as much because at least it scored well. Foundations and DoD proposals at least explicitly state that you won't get feedback. This leaves the NIH as the sole remaining source of constructive criticism for TT faculty trying to get their proposals funded.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Professor knows best, usually

At conferences and on the internetz I often come across people saying that their PI has no clue about the research or that their PI asks them to try things that have absolutely no chance of working. Yes, there are faculty out there that propose crazy half-assed ideas that will never work in a million years. I've met a few over the years, but the vast majority know exactly what they are doing. The question should be, do the PIs know the odds of an idea panning out and if they told you that there is only a one in a million chance, would you still do it?

A lot of my research involves trying things that may or may not work. Of course in an ideal world, the experiment would work, but often it involves steps that tend to fail or that don't have high yields. However, if my students were to start lying to me and just telling me that it simply didn't work, because no one can really predict if these high risk experiments will work, eventually the research would come to a complete hault and the group would fall apart. It's good to have an idea of the likelihood that an experiment will work, but just because it is unlikely doesn't mean you don't try as hard as you can.

I think a big part of the reason for this feeling is because trainees don't get enough of the story of why or how something should work. When this happens, they become technicians. Trainees are shy, and international ones are often afraid that they will lose their position and will have to leave the country. Hence no one asks questions and everyone is suspicious.

This is part of a disconnect that is in academia. I don't know if it's always been like this or if this is a new trend. A student should never feel that what they are doing will not work and not tell their advisor. There is a good chance that this negative atitude increases the likelihood that the experiment fails.

I try to have as equal of a relationship with my trainees as possible. If they think something won't work, they need to tell me so and feel comfortable doing so. Of course they also need to explain to me exactly why it won't work. This is the cornerstone of what someone with a Ph.D. should be able to do. You need to trust your knowledge enough to stand up and say this is wrong and why. PIs, for their part, need to have the time to explain to their students why it will work and potentially correct misconceptions.

Way too many trainees feel they can't tell their advisors things without reprecusions. Other PIs out there, what would you do if a student told you that your idea has a flaw in it?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Half way point (a reflection)

So I'm at the half way point in my TT position. Submitted my third year review material and am waiting for feedback from the higher ups. I'm curious to see what they say, I've heard this is the only time you really get to see what your colleagues think of you and your work and see if you have any enemies in the department before going up for tenure. Annual reviews evaluate productivity and don't really provide feedback at my place. Also, we don't go external for third year reviews, so I don't have any knowledge of what people in my field think of me, which will count for a lot when I go up for tenure.

Unofficially, I've done things right so far and am "on the right track," but that means very little to me. Similar to stocks, past performance is not indicative of future results. Yeah, I got some funding and some papers published, that doesn't mean that I'll ever do either again. The papers will probably happen, but I have less confidence in funding, especially now with this sequestration crap.

I'm not sure if I'm happy with my career choice. I've pulled multiple all nighters last month. I'm annoyed that I get paid less than I would in industry, have to work ridiculous amounts of hours, and have undergrads tell me that I only covered the material that was in their textbook. I can work on whatever I want, but really I can only work on things that have trending buzzwords in the engineering communittee, since those are the only things that have a chance of getting funded. That isn't too bad, I'm pretty good at repackaging research, but I'm constantly worried that my trainees can't do what I'm proposing. They are not me and I can't predict what they are capable of accomplishing. They definitely won't do whatever it takes. I'm at a place where the students will simply walk away if you start to push them hard. I'm debating about jumping ship. The funny part is that my colleagues are telling me that I'm doing well. There's no one I can really talk with about options and potential exit strategies. My mentor works like crazy and I've never heard them say that they enjoy what they are doing. I also don't feel like I can have a really heart to heart discussion with anyone in my college without hurting my prospects at getting tenure. Even outside the university, everyone I know is academic and can't imagine doing anything else. I also equate leaving with failure and can't really see myself leaving before I get tenure, since that is the prize in my mind right now.

The mix of teaching, research, and service is frustrating and exhausting. I only have a small sample size, but the TT folks at tier 1 places I talk to seam to be allowed to focus almost all of their time on research. My place says they want to be a top tier research university, but they put equal emphasis on all three. I'm chairing committees and picking up the slack for tenured faculty in other committees that I'm on. Not because they're lazy, our tenured folks are spread thin with even more committee assignments. I think individual faculty should be allowed to focus on one or two of these pillars and to have a department with professors that have strengths in each of these three areas. Why can't someone that likes teaching undergrads be valued for doing that and letting the people that like research work mostly on that? Anyway, that's where I'm at.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Where is college engineering education heading?

I tried to have a conversation about this with some upper level administrators at my school recently and I couldn't get an answer out of them? They quoted statistics about how society is changing and becoming more demanding, but didn't provide any strategy about how we are supposed to deal with these changes. Instead I was referred to education research on how to be a better teacher.

I agree that we need to rethink and revamp the approach of having a professor copy lecture notes onto a board for an hour 3 days a week, but there needs to be a line and we need to be doing what is in the best interest of society and companies that hire these future engineers to work on huge and often potentially dangerous projects.

Where does the song and dance end? Are we all going to end up as clowns that are paid to amuse and entertain students?

Do you really learn anything if you have a derivation shown on a page with a few answers missing?

How many people have/had handouts/worksheets on a regular basis in their upper level engineering courses? Is it really that difficult to listen and write at the same time? Do you want someone who can't handle this simple multitask to be responsible for an oil refinery?

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reviewing Ethics

Where do you draw the line for conflict of interest? I just received a request to review a manuscript on which one of colleagues is an author. This is an obvious no, right? I would never dream of asking someone from the same university to review a paper. Was this just an oversight on the editors side or is this not a real conflict? I would just ask the editor except that it's one of these automated replies with no option for correspondence.

I've also encountered very new journals from unknown publishers that encourage their editors to be sole reviewers on manuscripts. I feel like there is some conflict of interest there as well since the editors are under pressure to fill an issue with articles.

Am I just being a prud? Does the blind review process make these things ok? The NSF has rather strict rules about this when it comes to proposal reviewing.