Sympathy/empathy and the -isms

I not only consider myself as a feminist, but in general I’m in favor of equality if you deserve it. If you’re mean, you don’t deserve equality. I had an unsavory discussion with someone that is considered in a position of power and it left me a little bitter. This was in reference to a few topics that I don’t like arguing because they never go anywhere, but I’ll just say it’s around people who are victims that get blamed. The majority of these comments have come from white males, but not all. I don’t think it’s entirely because they’re white males. I think it’s because they come from strong families and have aggressive personalities.  By strong I mean parents that instill certain behaviors, with plenty of money and opportunity to ensure a successful adult.

Now, I have a friend who has studied a lot of philosophy and there’s this topic he and I have discussed about empathy. He says that it’s tough to have empathy because no one can truly experience the exact same scenario. But society interprets empathy as a nearly similar experience. For instance, my father died, so if someone else’s father dies I can experience empathy. Whereas, without having the exact same upbringing and similar experiences I can’t truly have empathy. We just have a commonality. I’m not going to say if he’s right or wrong, I’m just relating this to another discussion we had.

In a real example, there were cases of messed up researchers performing psychology research on students in which they would berate the student and observe EEG waves or fMRI. The students are free to leave, but usually won’t because they listen to authority or feel they will be letting someone down. In a recent conversation I was told, “The students should have just left. I don’t feel bad about the psychological trauma they experienced.” Likewise, given the Hollywood stuff lately, some people are saying that the person is free to leave at any time. Yes, the women (and some men) had the right to leave, but without really being in their heads; understanding what they are thinking and their past experiences we can’t assume it would have been easy to defuse or walk away from that situation. In general, I assume that no one is like me. And, I’m not correct all the time, but I am correct here. No one is exactly the same, and I can’t assume reacting rationally is always easy. Some think they are experiencing empathy for someone else, but without having lived the same life, especially considering socioeconomic differences, we can’t have the true-est form of empathy. Now, there are some situations that can be argued with, but I’m not here to argue, I’m just here to explain how I go about my interactions with people. I’ve noticed some more jaded members of the ivory tower making strong assumptions about students and the ways they should react in certain situations. Whereas I feel they should be approaching the students with a blank slate and taking in information to build a picture of how this person is.  That being said, some students are entitled shitholes and should be treated as such.

My department’s students are relatively diverse, but the faculty are not. I’m noticing a huge disconnect and a complete lack of understanding that these students are different. Now, I’m not asking for any kind of crazy accommodations, but people need to at least be aware that not every student is going to handle adversity in the same way. That maybe a sexist comment in front of female students is not what should be said, that working on a Sunday when you’re of certain religious beliefs shouldn’t be forced on the student, and that if there’s a student isolating him/herself in social situations that happens to be a different race that maybe they need a little crutch if you can help it. I don’t know why, but lately especially I’ve been very annoyed with people not understanding that not everything works the way that it did growing up with a silver spoon in a WASP household.

Industry has a lot of this, but there’s a built-in mechanism of public perception that can sometimes compensate.  People are usually (eventually) held accountable to the point where they over-shoot the political correctness (whereas you can’t get fired from the ivory tower).  People over-trying to act like people are equal, rather than just realizing there’s unconscious bias and that we just need to treat people the same.  I know that’s much easier said than done, but I personally like to start from the thought of they’re equal on a metaphysical level, but as different from me as can be.  And knowing this and going into every situation with as much respect as possible is the key.  And for some reason the white dudes I’ve been interacting with lately just don’t fucking get this.

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Flipped classroom

There’s this topic that’s making the rounds here: the flipped classroom. I’ve been approached with this because the university wants me to record some of my lectures to roll into the flipped classroom implementation, and then offer my class next semester (I have one in the Spring and one in the Fall) as a flipped one. If you’re not familiar (neither was I), this is the idea: I video record my lectures and borrow videos from other sites (think Khan Academy) for a whole semester. The students watch these lectures before class (BORING) and then we work together to apply the material during the designated class time to do homework and activities to reinforce. This is as opposed to seeing the lecture in real life (instead of the video), then applying the knowledge after class. I guess there are other models like this, but this is the gist that I got. I’ve been told that more students pass classes and there are fewer ethics violations as a results of this. Now, as a person I’m pretty skeptical of almost everything in my life, so I put some thought into this.

Regarding passing and ethics violations, my thought is if we’re allowing everyone to work together then there’s no need to cheat, so I don’t really trust that. For the passing, my thought is that if they’re doing the work together they’ll get the same, hopefully correct, answers so of course they should be more likely to pass. But that’s me being critical. Maybe the tests (which I’m guessing are done solo) are showing higher scores? Part of the idea behind different teaching methodologies is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method. So to combat this, they create a singular type of teaching methodology to fit all.  Clever.

From my experience, the most difficult-to-comprehend topics required the instructor in front of the class, and allowing us all to have a dialogue to ask questions in the moment. What if a student is watching my lecture and has a question? My guess is they have to write it down, then when we have an in-class exercise, I can answer. I have nothing against this method, but I prefer a dynamic conversation during the first lecture then if they have issues during the application of said work, they can either work together or come to office hours. What I envision is students “learning” via my videos then me having to re-teach. It puts the owness on them earlier rather than later, and all it means is that I can’t have a group conversation about, say, an issue that all of them are having. I know I learned when sitting in a lecture and taking information in, taking diligent notes, and asking the professors relevant questions during class. Then I would take that information and learn deeper on my own. On top of this, I worked a bunch of jobs in college and I guarantee there would have been times when I would not have had time prior to a lecture to watch the lecture. I would often have to carve out a giant chunk of time to do a bunch of classes’ homework all at once at the end of the week.

Plus, the screen time. Don’t we stare at screens enough? This sounds like an online class with mandatory office hours. When I lecture I do use a decent amount of supplementary videos to further emphasize my points, and post more links to videos on Canvas. I mentioned the only way I would do this is if class was even more optional (I don’t take attendance). The education gurus telling me how to teach didn’t like that comment. If I was teaching more introductory classes, maybe I wouldn’t care as much as those topics are far easier to grasp, but something about an advanced topic being an online class doesn’t sit right with me. Again, I’m sure that I’m incredibly wrong, and there are passionate flipped classroom people out there, and I don’t mean to offend, but I haven’t heard a good case for it (though I’m willing to listen). I’m sure that I’m just being a crotchety person set in my ways, but I’m just not a fan.

The lab tech

About six months after starting at U of Phindustry I had enough extra cash to hire a lab tech.  Those unfamiliar a lab tech manages a lot of the day-to-day (inventory, equipment maintenance, etc) and usually has their own project so maybe they get a paper or two out.  I hired an amazing lab tech.  She was quick to keep everyone in line, and has produced amazing results; getting two full manuscripts out in as many years.  She also liked it because she’s a university employee she gets university perks like cheap tuition.  So she’s finishing up her MS and she’s looking for jobs.  Now those of you doing especially wet-lab research, to get a 100% dedicated researcher with accountable hours, is amazing.  This person puts in at least 40 solid hours each week and they’re highly dedicated to maintain employment.  This person might be walking around with a BS and just a few years of experience, but they hold a position of authority, which doesn’t sit well with the students, but they need this lab tech so they deal with it.

Now, as this superstar begins to look for jobs I am, of course, helping them however I can.  But this whole time I’m legitimately worried I won’t be able to find a good replacement.  If there’s one thing I learned from industry it’s that everyone is a cell on a spreadsheet and can be replaced (all the more reason not to give up your life to your company), but with my tech I’m horrified at who else is out there.  I will put the job posting out there in about two months and I’ll update on the search, but finding a twenty-something with lab tech experience under their belt and a drive to get a bunch done is tough.  From my past search either I can’t afford the experience, they aren’t experienced, or they’re kind of lazy with a past filled with experience but no results.  I’d love her to stick around and get her PhD, but she’s certain that’s not the career path for her and I can’t blame her.

My students

I go back and forth on my students. When I first started I had recruited a few MS students and a couple PhD students. Since then I’ve more than doubled and threw in a post-doc and a handful of undergrads. The first MS students are since gone. Now, when I first started I could walk through the lab or office area and they were all having wonderful conversations that got everyone thinking and working together. Now, it’s relatively quiet either from absence or just everyone is focused. Albeit when I first started we had two primary projects, and now we have a few more, so not everyone is working on the same thing so there’s not a lot of working together other than the ‘can you help me with this?’ type of conversations. This got me thinking about categories of students and what I’ve learned from them. Obviously this is my own experience, and I’m hiding their identities to protect them. Stereotyping isn’t always nice, but I don’t care; this is the truth, and that’s that. Also, I just want to say that I really love my students. I invite them to my place a few times a year, I buy them lunches and coffee when they’re working late to help me hit deadlines, and I’ve helped place every one of them that have graduated in my lab in wonderful jobs in industry. So if I type anything negative, I’m not sorry for it, but just want to preface my stream of consciousness with that disclaimer.

Types of students I’ve had so far:
The golden student (or child if you’re into playing favorites): this is the student I can trust with the largest array of tasks and know that I can leave them alone. I have great scientific discussions with this student, and this is the one I will fight the most for because I know they’re not just incredibly smart, but incredibly driven. They enjoy their work, and want to ensure they do a good job, in addition to graduate in timely manner. I can give these students a variety of work, and they get that done in addition to their own, while getting their own grant applications in. I’m certain they hate me because I subconsciously hold this student to higher standards.

The I-need-to-graduate-now student: These students want to start making money now. And they want to do the minimal amount of work necessary and consider themselves to be the most important. They’ll get their letters, but won’t be as prepared as a student that puts in the full amount of effort. They’re focused on one task, which is great for getting focused tasks done, but I’ll hear whining if I ask them to do anything that may delay them getting their letters and their sweet paycheck.

The other academic infiltrators: These students came from industry to get an advanced degree then go back. They’re all MS students, but I wish I could get them to move into a PhD program. These are pretty driven students, with a great amount of practical experience, though like a lot of industry folks, they lose a lot of their theoretical basis in the ‘real-world’

The foreign national: So I have a US passport, but I am not from the US. I understand being different, so I try to help them acclimate by starting up group conversation unrelated to work. Gets everyone to loosen up. These students love being here and are okay taking their time. So long as the language barrier isn’t too harsh a lot of these students are paid for, are hard workers, and enjoy their time in America. Don’t build a wall.

The problem child (I chose the word child for a specific reason): Ugh. Arguments for days, work quality isn’t great, and work ethic isn’t great. I have other things to say, but I don’t want to exude that negative energy. I know the type now, and I’ll be sure not to recruit this type.

The cool grad student: These students are chill, enjoying taking their time, and taking their off-time very seriously. Fun to have and they get their work done. For the most part this is the ‘regular’ grad student profile.

The cool undergraduate: This student just wants some experience and a letter. Nice students that are willing to do some dirty work the other students don’t have time for.

The uptight undergraduate: While I’m not the biggest fan of the term ‘type-A’, these students are it. Neurotic and kind of kiss-assey. These students will go places, but they’re crazy awkward. They’re smart, but for reason can get great work done. Maybe because they’re in a rush?

The sexist/racist/whatever-ist: So that only lasted 3 months. Firing my people in academics is way easier than in industry.  In industry there’s HR, performance reviews, tracking tasks, one-on-ones.  Here, I had one warning discussion then cut the cord.  They’re someone else’s problem now.

Hours they work:

When I went to grad school I had previously been in a National Lab and an industry post so I had work hours I was used to: 8am-6pm with the occasional long night or weekend. I had that in grad school, but with more long nights and weekends. While, I have a couple showing real dedication, most are around from 10am-4pm Monday-Friday. Those that have projects involving live specimens will come in for an hour here or there to check on samples, but apparently this is commonplace for most of the labs here. Maybe it’s the mentality of the university. I don’t want to be a mean person and give them hours. They’re adults, and if they don’t publish they don’t graduate, but their slower pace hurts my productivity, as well. Maybe I’m just used to the faster mindset of when I ran my industry lab and the consequences for failure or delay were more severe. Either I need to change my expectations, be a time-bully, or start doing things myself (like I did with the industry-sponsored project).

How the group has changed over time:
When the group was small there was a very tight dynamic. Everyone seemed friendly with each other, and there were fewer conflicts. With more people I’ve been having to deal with a lot of social dynamics that I had to deal with in industry, but for some misguided reason I didn’t think that a less mature group of people would be better. I’ve reached my tipping point for how large I want this group to be, and I sometimes wonder how PIs deal with large groups.  I wonder at what point a group can’t maintain a tight-knit-ness?  I mean if there’s two people they will be tight, even five can have good comrade-ery.  But if the group has 100 people some people won’t even know each other’s names.  There’s something between five and 100, I’m sure, I just prefer a smaller group.  I feel we can get more done with five good people rather than 10 okay people.  Also, just the management alone is crazy.  It would be cool to get double the amount of papers out, but not at the expense of having more fun.

Two years

Every time I start to write something, I get swept up in something new. Often, I have an idea, start writing it on WordPress, save the draft before I post then come back and realize that A) I don’t like what I said, B) It was an incomplete thought I wasn’t wanting to finish, or C) All I have is a title. And that’s when I actually have the time. Most of the time I’m swept up in so many other things that I can’t find a moment to collect the thoughts I want to. Looking back at my unpublished posts was a trip because it gave me insight into different thoughts I had been having. And it’s crazy what a difference two years can make. I’m about to recount some stuff, the next paragraph kind of personal, and the ones after professional. So if you’re more interested in the professional, feel free to skip the next paragraph. It gets kind of real, so I really won’t blame anyone for skipping over. Not looking for sympathy at all, but sometimes one’s hands can cramp from playing things too close to the chest (or vest…whatever the phrase it. Honestly, I don’t care for vests unless you’re fishing I guess? But even then, what’s with all the pockets? Are fish that really particular? They can’t be any more particular than my students, and I don’t need to wear a vest for all of their demands. Maybe earplugs. But I can fit those in my pockets).

In two years I went through an immense amount of loss in my family and friends. I buried myself in work, and became a different person. Losing a father whom I was incredibly close to along with two long time friends can beat a person up. Compound this with a long-term relationship ending and all the messiness there, along with having to build up my lab, keep professional relationships going, along with keeping other friends and family happy that relied upon me and you get a very stressed out person. Life was closing in at a fast velocity, and given that the velocity gets squared, the energy required to keep it going was immense. That’s a physics reference if you’re in-the-know. Now, I concentrated on myself and healed a good bit, met someone new, focused on getting in-touch with all the good things, and doubled down on the work commitment to get me through the rough, and I feel better. Blah blah, insert inspirational line here about getting through the rough, let’s get to how my academic life had been…

I seriously turned into a professional during this time. I matured quickly to learn to cope. I bit off more than I could chew, and I definitely grew up, but I’m in a good spot. I secured a couple large public awards, one small one, and one big private one. Now to fulfill my specific aims I had to recruit this amazing set of students. And if you’ve ever seen the Avengers imagine the music as the student are all assembling and the BARELY fulfilling what I asked them to. I had to take on a decent amount of work on my own. Now, for the public money there’s always a little bit of evolution to the direction of the project. As long as we’re contributing to the knowledge-base and staying mostly on-track people are happy. My largest amount of money came in the form of a focused project from my old company. Basically it was my old job, but I got to do it in academia! Sounds fun, right? No no no no no.

Now, I blame myself for not preparing the students properly. I will not blame my students. Either I recruited wrong or didn’t educate properly. But typically a lack of skill can be compensated for with a drive to work a lot, but these students are not pulling the hours I thought they would. So I rolled up my sleeves and got dirty. I travelled abroad to meet with partners, I did all the design work and studies myself to meet these tight goals and to everyone’s satisfaction we got this project done. We’re waiting to publish because we had to do a couple human studies and these have to get disclosed in a way to protect corporate interests. I will take on this kind of project again, but I’m going to have to change the approach to ensure expectations can be met. I’ll make a post on this.

My lab finally has a decent cadence. We’re getting papers out, we’re presenting at great conferences, and I really do like my students, but I don’t like being such a grown-up. I used to mess around constantly at work, but these past two years have changed me. I’m still as immature as ever outside of work, but it’s like I can turn into a robot at work. I have to buckle down with my students, tell crying students that are about to fail a class that they’re not cut out for this, and not let all these ‘experienced’ assholes in the department walk all over me. It’s paying off, and I’m finally learning how to teach and research at the same time. And I’m focusing in on the types of students I want to hire. Overall it’s looking okay. 2015 was the worst year of my life, 2016 perked up, 2017 finally started to turn a corner, and I feel good about 2018. Hopefully no one else dies or breaks up with me, and the occasional high-impact paper wouldn’t be bad to have. I have some more ideas for posts, and hopefully I actually finish them this time around.

6 month update

So I’m 6 months into this new role and here are just a few observations:

  1.  I noticed this in industry, but at what point do those in authority become assholes.  I want to make a whole post about this, but to give you a taste: the level of asshole-ery is different.  The higher-up buttholes from my experience in industry are just pure assholes.  They belittle you directly, they ignore you, and they know how to game, though their knowledge speaks for itself.  But the good ones realize they need the right supporting cast.  The ones in academia I’ve experienced feel they don’t need anyone, everyone is expendable, and they’re too high up in their tower to address anyone below.  They belittle with no mercy because there aren’t really ramifications.  I’ve seen the ones in industry at least get in trouble when they overstep.  The ones in academia have yet to be punished.  Luckily, they’ve left me alone for the most part.
  2. My spouse and I live a fairly frugal life so we didn’t think the pay cut would matter, but this MASSIVE pay cut is felt.  Not necessarily in our day-to-day lives.  But we’re not saving as much as we used to.  And if we want to take a spur-of-the-moment trip to Italy, I have the freedom to now, but I’m concerned about using the cash.
  3. Students aren’t as bad as some of the (jaded) faculty members here made them out to be.  My students are fantastic and when you walk down the hallway you can always hear either fun or passionate scientific discussions coming from only my lab.  I also notice that I’m the only PI that spends a decent amount of time in the lab.  Not bugging the students, but because I get office-fever and feel I’m about to start writing “no science and no lab makes phindustry a dull researcher” over and over on my whiteboard.
  4. Teaching is exhausting.  I easily spend a few hours preparing for every lecture.  I’m hoping that next year this will take up less time.  Jeez, it’s freaking rewarding though!
  5. This financial management is tough.  In industry my budget was enormous.  Like comedically huge.  So we could just spend however we liked.  I have to be frugal here.  Though I actually kind of enjoy it because I get to try more MacGuyvering of my research equipment.  A skill I feel like I lost with every passing day with the large research budget.
  6. I had a past post about this: I miss my old colleagues.  They were my age and we had great conversations.  Doesn’t happen as much now.  Though there’s this weird phenomenon I’m feeling now where being around them makes me feel so young.  Screw moisturizing, just hang out with college kids (that could be creepy in the wrong context)!  It’s a cool feeling.

Freedom time

One thing people mention about academic freedom is the ability to work on what you want. I’m finding this to be 90% true, but what I’m noticing most is the freedom about my time. If I want to show up at 10am or skip away for a two hour lunch because a friend is visiting me I can just do it. No one questions me. I stay in contact with all my students and colleagues wherever I am (just like when I was in industry), but it’s so great to just up and decide to leave. If I want to work away from my office at the local quad or mall or whatever your local school calls the grassy area where the frat guys play frisbee, I can do it.
Ever since I was an undergrad I would eat my lunch while I was working or doing homework. This was just something I chose to do in order to get more done. When I worked before my MS, when I was in the lab working my my MS, when I worked before my PhD and my first couple years working on my PhD, I ate at my desk. Then I came across a study. I wish I could find the link for this, because in a small way I feel it changed my ways. Mostly. It’s a small thing, but I’ll get at why my new position relates to it.

 

This study followed people with different lunch habits. They qualitatively gaged their productivity throughout the day for people who ate at their desk versus those that went outside, and those that went to a restaurant or cafeteria. Those that went outside lived in a moderate climate where it was either too cold or too hot to eat outside for a couple months a year. Those that ate outside qualitatively felt more energized and felt they got more done throughout the day. I decided I had nothing to lose so started trying this. I went downstairs from my grad student office and started enjoying the out-of-lab world. Eventually, a labmate started joining me. We sat there talking, enjoying what’s going on around us on campus and eventually expanded it to a roughly 10 minute break around 10am and another around 3pm. Occasionally we would walk around campus for those breaks instead of taking a small food break. We both noticed instantly that we were happier and felt we got a lot more done.

 

When I went to industry everyone ate in a cafeteria, at a restaurant, or at their desks. I ate outside by myself for a while, and every once in a while I could get people to go to a local park. But eventually I gave in and just started eating in the cafeteria. Everyone talked work stuff and I was bored. Now I go outside to eat. Occasionally, a student will join me (did I mention how lonely a lot of these professors seem?). A couple times another prof or my lab tech (I’ll write a post on my new lab tech soon) have joined. I forgot how much better this is.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m working a shitload and I’m certain this amount of work and stress will eventually be the end of me, but I’m certain I’d have to work more to get less done if I wasn’t taking these decompression breaks.

 

TLDR; Go outside for your breaks. It’s good for your soul. Eating at your desk gives you crotchety madman’s disease.