Design

Since I was a kid I’ve always been a tinkerer.  So naturally, when the time came to pick a major/career I decided on moon captain giraffe wrangler.  Because this isn’t a thing yet I went into an applied science/engineering hybrid.  Basically, there’s a lot of physics coupled to a lot of ‘practical’ design as some people call it.  At that point, I realized that all the theory I loved learning about could be used to design the things necessary to take my giraffe and I to the moon.  I quickly specialized in turning imagination into reality.  Having an equation to draw on the board to explain nearly every single design decision became something I wanted to instill on every person in my old industry group and something I wanted to teach students.  I come up with a lot of wacky ideas and corresponding patents, but without being able to turn those things into a reality I knew that I wouldn’t be able to help the people that needed them.

I’ve written about academia and the applied sciences or engineering.  The people who were teaching me never designed anything and brought it to being a tangible object outside of the lab, and so I had to learn myself how to bridge the words of the tangible and theoretical.  When I was applying for faculty jobs I touted this a lot.  I wanted to be the one other PIs call on when they have something great that they want to bring outside of the lab.  At the time I thought this was awesome, but I feel I’m being taken advantage of sometimes.  But it’s pretty rewarding and there’s a lot of variety so I deal with it, and do what I said I would upon coming into academia.  I feel like maybe only one of these will actually be something that will make an impact (it’s an application to help the 3rd world), but it’s still cool to see PIs looking beyond the lab, and I’m glad I got to be a part of this.

Design is a diverse field.  There are these new areas that 10 years ago wouldn’t be considered ‘design’ in the sense of seeing a problem, understanding the problem, creating a solution, then testing the solution.  These are more around conceptual thinking or solving large socioeconomic issues.  I have nothing against them, but I’ve never been a fan of think tanks that don’t actually do anything.  I’m more of a purist so I think that design should result in something tangible that can change the world, regardless of profit, nonprofit, open source, etc.  There’s this new department here that has PIs from every walk of life and it’s fascinating because I get to learn about a lot of different things, but my gosh, some of these societal things, while I feel could benefit society, the cynic in me thinks this is a waste.  But being the good person I pretend to be, I smile along and do my part.

Name brands

I went to decent schools for my undergrad and grad experiences.  These are well-respected in certain areas, but they are no MIT or Caltech.  I got into great schools, but for financial reasons (for undergrad), and for familial reasons (for grad) I ended up going to closer state schools.  I regret letting the familial stuff stop me from going to the school I wanted to for grad school, but I finished and did well.  I had to differentiate myself to show I can hang with the best by proving myself since I know I wasn’t going to go in with an immediate aura of greatness.  So I published a ton in great journals, got grants and fellowships, and experimented for days on-end to get over my inferiority complex.  When entering industry, I didn’t have to fight that hard since I had a good background and found a good job.  Then while in industry I had to start all over: playing catch-up with colleagues from better schools that started at better salaries.  Ultimately, a lot of luck and work ethic allowed me to thrive.  When applying to faculty positions I knew I would be at a deficit, but highlighted how great of a researcher I would be (and have been) rather than heavily relying on the “Education” lines in my CV.  I ended up getting a faculty job at a school that actually rejected me for my PhD.

These are some observations I’ve had: the probability of finding a good student, employee, researcher are much higher when they come from a name-brand school.  Much higher.  When I see a good name on the school I immediately have higher expectations.  Correspondingly, it would make me more likely to bring them in for interviews.  It gets their feet in the door.  When they come in, the level of rigor by which I judge them is the same, but it gets them in the door.  And the way they respond is one of two ways: pompous as hell, or crazy down-to-Earth.  This is typically a 50/50 split.  Other candidates are usually just nervous or down-to-Earth.  The pompous ones really rub me the wrong way.  So much so, that I started to develop this overall dislike.

Correspondingly, no one looks at the smaller school people.  I’ve seen people say, “this person is the best candidate, but we should go with this other one because they went to “Name-Brand University”.  This has happened in recent faculty searches (my current favorite is from a run-of-the-mill state school), and it happened in industry.  Maybe because I didn’t have the best pedigree I wanted to give everyone a chance, but I think it’s in my nature to give everyone a chance.  I push for the best candidate based upon performance, but others frequently care about the pedigree.  I understand it’s helpful from so many aspects, but the pompous ones won’t be good collaborators, and I want someone who has an amazing proven track-record and interesting ideas.

Look, early in the career a good name will get your foot in the door, but you have to learn humility and work ethic.  Early in one’s career it can be all about work ethic, intelligence, knowledge, and how you use it.  Later on, it’s politics, your personality, and even more luck, though you better not let the intelligence slide.  Don’t rely too much on the name-brand on your sweater; let it be an afterthought.  If you don’t, you’ll be passed by people who live in the moment and know how to get things done when the boss asks.  People want you (if you’re great), not your school (even if it’s great).

My big project

For the first project I started here I wanted to go big: combining unique science driven by federal/nonprofit grants and designing an application based on this science while working with industry.  This project has been my baby (I wonder if it will get jealous of the new baby?), and it’s been on my mind constantly for years.  It was the first idea I had when deciding to make the academic switch.  We presented it in a big conference my first year then publishing a few manuscripts based on the work afterward.  The journal wasn’t great, but I was still developing a name.  After the first manuscript, I shared it with a collaborating company I used to work with and proposed an idea for an application.  I hadn’t submitted a patent yet, as I was willing to let them slap their names on this once we did initial work together (IP law…gotta love it).  They liked it and I was able to recruit one post-doc and an undergrad to do the work.  A couple of years later we implanted in vivo and got useful data.  Shortly after, we officially transferred the design to the company for them to run with it.  This was a huge milestone.  It allowed me to fulfill a deal I had with myself that I would find ways to successfully turn my academic research from manuscript to product.  I checked up recently, since I have another idea and the product is preparing for human studies since physicians want to try it in Europe, however, I’ve already been told that it probably won’t be marketed unless they find a different regulatory strategy for their largest market: the US (the FDA….gotta love it).  So I was a little bummed, but I was pretty pumped to see this happen.  When I was in industry, I launched multiple therapies that are curing people every day, but this just feels so damn satisfying.  I have other projects with potential, and I’ve been looking at the start-up route once/if I get tenure.  I grew to hate the business stuff right now, it’s nice to not hate it again.

And then there were two

As I’ve written before my department has been starting to bring candidates out and after this first round, we took a vote.  It came down to two people and that’s when the arguing started.  I was backing my candidate from industry who gave a great talk (I may be partial), had a strategy for funding, and worked on an area outside of mine that was also new and exciting.  I hadn’t even thought of applying their field in the way they planned on.  Not really the same field as mine, but I’m already thinking about collaborations.  This candidate went to a good sports school, but not so great academically.  They have been incredibly productive in industry though (handful of patents, and one product launch).  The other candidate is from a legendary lab for their PhD and has been spending the past couple years helping to run a company created by their advisor’s advisor, so technically they come from industry, but not really.  We were at a standstill and our department head doesn’t want to step in yet.  And so now I feel like a member of Congress trying to lobby for votes for the one I like more.  All the while, the candidate’s advisor has been calling in favors.  My advisor distinctly said that he would email once to anyone he knew in schools I applied to, but after that, it’s on me.

My last effort is to pull out our not-great statistics on placing students in my candidate’s industry even though students want to enter it, but I think it may upset some of the faculty here that work in that field.  So what I’ve decided is in the next meeting to just tell everyone that we need some fresh thinking.  Candidates like the other one come by every single year.  There will be another that does similar research and shows similar potential.  My candidate is not.  Especially right now with the economy so good: people aren’t interested in taking massive pay cuts right now while there’s lots of money to be made.  If nothing else, I just want to be done with this and let the department head be the new enemy.  I’ve pissed enough people off.

Categories

We’ve started bringing out candidates and I’m noticing some interesting candidates that are very representative of my experience on this committee.  I’ve also been going to the job talks for other departments to see how they do things.  The candidates can each to boiled down into just a few categories, which is sad because I like seeing disruptive people, but there’s still a glimmer of hope for the candidates I like.

  1. The popular one.  I have (and so has Xykademiqz and other bloggers) touched on this before, but every search has the candidate that does nearly the exact same research as their advisor and someone within the department.  They have a wonderful pedigree and have been trained to walk the walk and talk the talk.  Simply put, they are boring from a research and personality perspective: they do well in politics and they are working on a topic that is already flooded with researchers but will get funding because they have a lot of other factors on their side.  I will probably never collaborate with them because I prefer to work on completely new things rather than incremental changes of their past research.  No harm in the incremental-I just get bored really easily.  I can tell they have the best chance of all the candidates.
  2. The diversity one.  One of the postings we have is specifically asking for underrepresented groups to apply.  And more specifically related to racial groups that are underrepresented.  Nothing about females.  This candidate gave an okay talk, but from conversing with them they will never establish themselves as a big funding or big paper kind of researchers.  I was even told by the head of the committee that this candidate has a huge leg-up, but will ultimately become teaching faculty.  Not a bad thing, but kind of shitty when I want to develop new collaborations.
  3. The wild one.  This candidate has researched typical topics seem in academia (see The popular one), and comes from a decently respected school.  However, the research interests are not something our school already has much of a reputation for and what they want to work on are in their wheelhouse, but different than the average.  I like these candidates because they think very differently, are the most passionate about their research agenda, and they have more spunk and personality.  I’d much rather collaborate with these folks because they’re fresh-thinking and interesting.  However, these folks barely got the invite to even come out, and they aren’t a carbon copy of the other faculty members here so they aren’t interesting.  They also are, by far, the most interesting to have a personal conversation with.  They speak their mind and are genuine and funny on top of all of that.  Even if they don’t overlap with my interests, I still prefer these candidates just to break up the homogeneity here.

I see myself in category 3 the most, which is probably why I like them, so I guess I’m not so different from my colleagues that want similar people to themselves….