The itch

Whenever I hear a story about someone staying at a job for 20 years I have mixed feelings.  On one side, that takes a decent amount of discipline.  On the other side, I can’t imagine working in the same job that long.  Even if the work gets mixed up, just being in the same place would be really weird for me.  Also, I either think the person has been treated very well by their company, or the cynic in me thinks they just didn’t try to move up and on; getting pay boosts and promotions along the way.  Let’s be honest, (most) companies don’t care about their people.  Everyone is replaceable and by staying in a company and not forcing their hand in compensation and job duties means you’re doing someone(thing) that doesn’t care about you a favor.  What’s best is to take care of oneself and oneself’s family and friends.  There are obvious charity cases I believe in, but giving a company the benefit of the doubt and loyalty when, for the most part, everyone is a cog regardless of what they say is not a good thing in my opinion.  They will always do what is best for their bottom-line, regardless.  Now, I’m certain I have these thoughts because I’ve seen the brutality that companies have from the inside, but in general I’m a cynical person.  The fastest way to climb the corporate ladder and get the largest paycheck the soonest is by job-hopping.  Not every year, but every few years.  There are people that climbed the ladder in a given organization without leaving, but that is definitely not as common.  Talk to most higher-ups at companies and they’ll give you a diverse background story at many different companies in different roles.

So this leads me to the itch. After a certain amount of time I don’t want to be in the same career spot any more.  Switching roles/groups/companies is a great way to get a raise, new responsibilities, and a fresh start.  A little variety is good for the brain.  I have never stayed in a role more than five years.  My average is ~3.5 years.  I stayed at my last company longer than five years, but not by much, and I moved internally between groups.  Now, in the academic setting as an untenured, but on the track, professor I’m probably going to be sticking around past five years.  This feels weird because I don’t really have the itch to leave yet.  So I did some self-reflection on why I’m not feeling the way I normally do after a few years and I think it’s come to this (ranked by significance):


  1. No direct boss.  I kind of have a boss in that there’s a department head, but for the most part I really only answer to myself.  I obviously take criticism, and work in groups, but there isn’t really a person in which I have to ask for permission to do something from.  I show up and leave when I want, and if I want to change the direction of my lab I can do so without issue.  I don’t have to worry about ‘making the boss look good’, which is ultimately what most peoples’ jobs are, and if I want to fuck around no one is telling me not to.  My decisions aren’t always the best, but I’m willing to accept my failures rather than have someone else judge whether a risk is worth taking.  I have never done well with micromanaging, and not having someone to answer to is pretty nice.  This fucking freedom makes me feel great.
  2. Being around students.  Being around younger people makes you feel young.  Also, having the constant change of students seems like the work environment is a little more mixed up.
  3. Vacations.  I’ve never taken so much time off in my life.  I’ve been taking three day weekends, the occasional week off if classes permit, and having the summers off from teaching is great.  I get so much more done because I’m so refreshed from having a good work-life balance.
  4. Scientific diversity and learning.  Being on a campus is great.  Seminars all over the place, experts in their fields, and great collaborators.  If I want to speak to an expert in a field I just call them, and they’re usually happy to get a collaborator.  I’ve learned so much since coming here.
  5. Scale.  In the medical science and devices field in industry you have to think about how to scale to volume.  Now, I had the privilege where I didn’t have to work as much on manufacturing or NPD (pre-manufacturing, in essence), but I still had to think about whether a new design could eventually make the company money.  And higher-ups decided whether pursuits were worth pursuing.  This hasn’t come up once other than when I have to teach it to students.  It’s great to just do the science I’m interested in and that’s it.
  6. Campus.  To be honest, I don’t like a lot of the culture on college campus like when a bunch of students are together and acting obnoxious (fine, I’m old…I don’t like loud noises), but seeing people sitting in the grass, enjoying the air and background noise of students working or playing frisbee is a pretty nice environment.  I’ll come down from my office and just take a break with a cup of tea and just disconnect and come back recharged.  It’s great.


I don’t know if these are the reasons I don’t have the itch, but these are my suspicions.  That being said, I feel like I could enjoy these at most similar universities out there…just have to wait until after tenure.

Personal post: Backpacking

As a youth I enjoyed camping with family.  You park at a camp site, unload all your things, then you can hike around, sleep under the stars, and enjoy nature.  At some point I decided that I dislike people and when I camp I want to get away from people as much as possible.  This happened right before grad school started.  I did this solo and with friends and it’s a great way to connect with nature, get some silent tech-free time, and breathe some fresh air.  Basically it’s a way to get away from all the noise or pollution in life.

Now, I’m a casual backpacker.  I don’t go cutting my toothbrush in half, packing the absolute minimum and cover 20 miles a day.  At best I cover five chill miles each day; taking in the sights, smells, and sounds (the three S’s) all around me.  Thoughts about grants, teaching, my students, and other things in life just melt away.  I bring a combination of freeze dried food (the Mountain House biscuits and gravy were not as bad as I thought it was going to be), homemade things (think lentils, oats, home-dehydrated fruit), snacks (nuts, dehydrated fruits, Snickers bars), protein pancake mix, freeze-dried coffee, MRE components, and vodka (I’m not the biggest vodka fan, but tilting a few in front of the fire is a solid time).  The MRE components and Mountain House are my comfort foods I save for when I exerted a lot of energy and just want something comfort-ey.  So I only bring a few of these and pack the healthier stuff for the rest.  If I’m in areas with lakes I’ll fish to supplement, but 1. I suck at fishing, 2. I suck at fishing, and 3. I don’t like the clean-up when the pathetic little fish that gets snagged by me has to be disassembled (is that the right word?).

For fire I carry this awesome Tesla torch, a butane lighter, some magnesium, and waterproof matches.  For light I have a really nicely bright flashlight, a headlamp/beanie, and an LED lantern.  I carry paper maps and a compass, but honestly, I just download detailed maps to my phone, throw it in airplane mode to conserve power, and carry an extra battery.  GPS with terrain data at my fingertips.  Side bar: seriously, smart phones are fucking awesome.  I am still amazed by technology.  End bar/note.  Obviously I have my mat, a cover, and this wicked warm blanket.  Then I have my bottles, knife, filters, cookware, and some other smaller things that are necessities like tent, stake, bear mace, gun, toilet paper, etc.

My last trip I headed out to some amazing high elevation and among the trees I found a clearing.  At night I sat with SO and stared up at the stars.  I could see satellites passing overhead and the occasional shooting star, and the wonderful milky way.  I sipped some tea and could hear and feel the fire embers nearby.  Down the way I could hear running water and some wolves (I think) howling with lightning dancing on the mountains to the north of us.  Times like that my mind clears up.  I can feel stress just falling off of me.  Though I think the stress just Peter-Pan’s me and just hangs out with my shadow, because it’s all back when I step back on campus.

That being said (typed?) I couldn’t live out there full time, and I bought an entire Chipotle burrito when back to civilization and ate that thing with a fucking vengeance.  It was the best burrito I’ve ever had.

Interview questions

So when a graduate student wants to join my lab I ask them a few questions to see what kind of person they are (one toxic person can destroy a group) and also how fundamentally sound they are in their science. For undergrads I just look at GPA. Some people have told me this is unfair, but I think it’s plenty fair. I thought it’d be interesting to post the types of questions (not the exact ones):

Explain what these symbols mean: J=-D∇φ, bonus for knowing what the equation is

Solve this for y: dy/dx=x

Imagine a hole in a cup with a telescoping rod. When we fill the cup with water, how do we ensure the rod can still telescope without leaking water.

Which melts faster given identical volumes of starting water: a frozen bucket of the water, or snow made from it?

If I have an overheating component, how do I fix it?

Which will produce a stiffer gold rod: an electroplated or drawn?

Drawn a stress diagram for a beam in bending

Explain how [insert-organ-here] works

If I have a hollow sphere with reinforcing fibers embedded in the wall, what directions should the fibers be oriented for strength

For this, I pick and choose based upon what I want the student to work on as their project. For instance, if they’re heavy on the computational side I’ll throw in some more math and maybe some more materials questions. Also, for some of the questions I really don’t care if they’re right. I focus more on how they think through a problem. A colleague said this was a way to scare the students off, but my thought is that I don’t care. These are adults that in probably a year will have to stand in front of a room of very smart people and give a focus research talk, after which, they will get grilled by a bunch of strangers. If they can’t handle a one-on-one and don’t know these simple topics that they will have to apply then I really don’t want them in my lab. For the undergrads there’s room for growth, for the grad students I want them to deliver.