Last year I took on/was-volunteered-for a new initiative by my department to recruit more underrepresented students in.  I suspect it’s because I look and talk differently than the rest of the people here.  My only caveat to leading this was that I wanted to develop the initiative from the ground-up myself.  The goal of this is that there are a lot of kids graduating from local high schools all around our metro that 1. Aren’t coming to University of Phindustry, and 2. Aren’t majoring in STEMs.  The surrounding area is mainly white, and the minority students that are here are already coming to either my school or a neighboring one.  However, the neighboring one doesn’t have the type of program I’m in, so I have that working for me.  So I split this into two focus areas, women and minorities.

To get women interested I have focused on getting them into my field specifically (more of applied than theoretical).  If I can do this then the only local school is mine.  The neighboring university doesn’t have a good applied program.  Ultimately, if the kid is good enough to get into MIT they’re going there regardless.  I specifically focus on recruiting girls interested in STEMs, just not sure which area they want to enter.  Once I have them excited about my field I get them into the university to do some research for pay.  The money comes from my grants.  The majority of the recruiting is focused on girls so correspondingly more of my time is spent on this.  And this has been working very well.  Every single one of my recruits has come into my school and are getting involved in research already this semester (though none in my lab).  If this is successful I’m going to write an outreach grant so I don’t have to use my own grant funding for these ‘employees’.

For minority students, it’s a little different.  A lot of students have no idea what to do for their lives (shit, I still don’t).  So I have to recruit very broadly.  Instead of going to science fairs I start with community centers.  I have to sell them that science and math are cool.  And the vast majority like the technology but hate the science.  I don’t have time to convince everyone, but there is a subset of interested kids.  Especially when I mention that they can get paid.  But I can’t keep them interested.  I’ve tried taking them on tours, showing technology, getting amped, bringing by students, having local events, and talking to parents and I just can’t connect.  There has been just one student interested.  I’m visiting a program a little ways away that has had good success since there’s a conference there next month, so hopefully, they’ll shed some helpful tips.

Thanksgiving criticism

I don’t always visit my family for Thanksgiving because I have a hypercritical parent. Things I’ve been criticized so far in these two days:

1. My lifestyle (they just don’t like how I live)

2. My relationships

3. My photography hobby

4. My drawing hobby

5. That I read too much

6. My backpacking habit (they think it’s dumb)

7. Quitting my high paying corporate job to ‘teach’

8. My eyes (allergies make them a little puffy)

My siblings defend me, though most of it they just give weird looks since a lot of the criticism doesn’t make any damn sense.

I’m thinking about next year writing a life proposal ahead of time so I can just get parental review comments rather than having to hear it when I show up. It would be cheaper than a flight 🙂

To all of you who celebrate, I hope you are having a great Thanksgiving with only minimal family drama and plenty of full bellies!

Fellowship application

I had two high-profile fellowships that carried me through grad school.  It paid for some supplies, my stipend, etc., but most importantly, how to write a grant and development myself as a researcher.  So I push all of my students very hard on their own fellowship applications.  It will take the financial load off of me, but also allow them to lay out their plans as a graduate researcher and teach them some writing skills.  So far no one in my lab has been able to get one of the high profile ones, just a few smaller ones internal to the school that do take the load off of me, but they’re also relatively easy to get.

A couple months ago a new post-doc started in my lab.  She had a decent track record, and a high profile fellowship that she had sent me as part of her ‘application packet’ to me; proving she knew how to write from a grammatical and grantsmanship standpoint.  So we’re laying out what I want her to do and some funding opportunities for her post-doc.  She came up with her first draft, and I cannot believe how bad this is.  Horrible, really.  The aims are disorganized, the hypothesis is missing (!), and there’s no methods!  None!  So I brought her and told her that her previous fellowship app was so well tuned, and this one is quite poor in comparison.  I understand it’s the first draft (that I’m seeing), but this is straight-up bad.  I asked if there was something misunderstood, and she told me that this is what she did in grad school.  She sent a really rough and crappy grant to her PI and her PI spent the next couple months redesigning it completely to make it look as great as it did.  She didn’t even do any edits after receiving it back.

What the fuck!?  Is this common?  For shit’s sake, I had to write my own letter of recommendation, let alone my PI doing my whole application for me!  Did he think he did her a service by doing all the work?  Students learn so much from this, but she came out of grad school unable to do this necessary task.  Did she think she actually did this work, and this is how the world works?  So many questions.  Ultimately, I just told her that that’s not how it works here, and I gave her some old copies of grants (including her own) to use as a basis for this grant.  I still can’t believe some PIs would do this.  It’s dishonest, and hurts the student in the long-run.

Publishing purgatory

It’s no surprise that I pull funding from industry.  I knew who to contact, whether it be my old collaborators in my company, or other companies or subcontractors.  And having these contacts and understanding the shortcomings of their work and how to quantify and publish it helped me land a healthy amount of funding from industry.  In addition, the economy is relatively strong so they’re more willing to cut more checks.  And whether or not I agree with their methods, they have the most amount of money, and because of profit-motives, they have (arguably) the strongest motivation to get their devices into the clinic.  Likewise, I have bills to pay and research objectives I want to get done.  And students that work on my industry-funded projects get into the ears of those that do the hiring for when my students eventually leave.  It’s great on almost every front.  Almost.

Now, the way that the funding goes is like this: I reach out to someone in industry asking if they’re interesting in Project A.  I usually ask this over the phone after I’ve documented internally that I’m interested in it, then follow up with a formal email for protection-purposes.  I explain that I know that other people in the field would be interested, they just don’t have the resources to often do basic things.  I focus on that since most groups in industry won’t touch ‘basic’ research because it won’t turn a profit quickly.  Once they’re convinced I put together a short formal proposal and then the back and forth edits start.  Once we’ve settled on proper scope and method, I bring them in or I fly out and we have some formal brainstorming then the contract starts.  I have dealt with three types of contracts:

  1. Their company owns everything, however, we can publish immediately.  This comes with usually a 5-10x markup that goes to the school to forego the IP.
  2. We own everything, but this typically comes with a really small amount of money and only really applies to core-science.  The company is basically wanting an academic lab to corroborate results so they can point to the results for customers to get on board with their technologies.
  3. The company owns everything, and we can’t publish without their explicit permission from someone there at VP level or above.  This also comes with the 5-10x markup.

I’ve dealt with one of each of these.  The worst is number 3.  This usually comes with more money, but also more pressure.  And the students that work on this are held in a publishing purgatory.  The VP at the company I’m working with (not my past one) is habitually slow to sign paperwork.  So my students have a couple great papers to publish, but we have to wait for the VP to sign off, and a patent to get officially submitted.  This has been taking months.  Today I reached out to someone else in a separate reporting chain to get the VP and lawyers off their asses, so we’ll see how it works, but I definitely won’t be taking option 3 anymore.  I wanted more research money, but this headache isn’t worth it.

“Just” a teacher

Unless you’ve been to grad school (and had a research focus) you don’t realize what exactly a professor does.  When I left industry, the majority of the people thought I was leaving to go teach.  And while, yes, I did partially leave because I want to teach, one of the largest factors (and the majority of my current time spent) is the research.  As a professor, I do research and make time for teaching and service.  And when I was leaving industry, the majority of people still couldn’t grasp that I was leaving to go do awesome research.  They all thought (and most still do) that I was leaving because I couldn’t handle the rigor of a lab and wanted to just teach students.  Most of these people were people that did only an undergrad so they mostly only saw the teaching side of their profs.  Or they went to schools that were more teaching focused.

So when I meet people and mention that I’m an ass prof at University of Phindustry I only get comments about teaching.  Now I don’t give a shit what they think, but I do research and build awesome devices; it’s tough when people focus in on just one part.  And it’s especially tough when they think I have a cushy gig because they think that my entire job consists of me teaching two classes a year.  Now, when I was an undergrad I understood very well that the profs do research, but when I was in high school I did not know that, so I understand that there is this disconnect in what’s done in the tower.  But even when I tell people about the rigors of research and even when there are articles published about my research a lot of people still don’t understand that I’m more than a teacher.

Now, I do love teaching (some classes), and I do love mentoring students (most students), so this isn’t a complaint.  And I like to think I don’t give a shit if they think that I am a hard worker or not.  After all, random people I meet at a party aren’t on my tenure committee, so their opinion about my work ethic doesn’t matter.  I’m conflicted.