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.
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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.

Jeez, this sure is lonely and time-consuming

I’m usually of the attitude of taking life in-stride and having a grand time.  At least appearing that way.  At some point it’s tough to keep the facade going.  I feel like every year I’ve lived has been better than the last; a few decades going.  This year has been tough.

Back in industry this year things got nuts because of a couple projects that were priority projects and I needed to ensure things were good to pass on.  Then I took a crazy salary cut and left that life along with all of my friends.  Setting up my lab, finding students, getting into teaching, writing grants, etc. has been kicking my ass big time.  My personal life has taken a hit.  Though, living in a new town (a college town) with few friends right now makes his hit to my personal life a little easier to handle.  Then a close family death hit and I was traveling back and forth to handle death-matters.  Then I started to get migraines.  I haven’t had migraines for 5 years.  This eats into my productivity since I have trouble sleeping then I have to work longer to make up for it.  It’s a horrible cycle.  And having a small supporting network (my spouse) makes things tough.  I had no idea how lonely the professor-existence is.  And since I’m in a college town, the population diversity is practically non-existent.  Still looking for new besties. I industry I was surrounded by my peers so I made a lot of friends easily. Everyone here appears to be on an island. 

I was busier than the average person in industry when I ran my previous lab.  I travel less now, but it’s no comparison: I work more now.  A lot more.  I wish these personal things would’ve popped up when I was in industry since I had more free time.  I really can’t wait for the semester (and year) to wind down.  I know that winter break is a great time to get things done, but fuck it, I’m taking personal time off for a couple weeks.  I just need to get to the end of this year with minimal bleeding.  I knew this was going to kick my ass, but I never planned for these personal things.

So I’m not ending on a negative, I’ve gotten three grants: two reasonably big ones and one kind of smaller one.  Two are major nonprofits (hint: Federal agencies), and one’s from my old company.  In addition, mentoring my lab students has been so freaking rewarding and my students in-class are insanely well receptive.  They’re engaged and smart.  I haven’t developed any new collaborations I really want to continue to pursue, but there are a few prospects.  Earlier this week I got a World’s Best Advisor* mug (those that read PhD comics know what I’m talking about).  And this Thanksgiving I’m having some of my students and other students in our department over for a meal and some games.

Guess I can’t satisfy everyone…

I’m been a habitual people-pleaser. When I was young, whatever my parents wanted of me I have it to them: sports and school success. In college I delivered on both for my parents, and friends were always taking advantage, err, asking me for help. When I was working in industry the higher ups knew that my group would always deliver whether on a scientific study, new device, or just an outreach event. Stretching myself thin was something I became accustomed to. And I didn’t fail. Deadlines were always easy. 

 
This all ends right now. I am finding that I’m running out of time. It’s not that I’m doing anything complicated (so far, my industry work has been more complicated) but there are so many little crappy things to do. For the first time in ages I’ve turned down a task that a superior has asked me to do because I can’t be part of a sixth committee when I’m still in my first semester. It’s a committee that works on collaborating with surrounding hospitals. I’d love to, but just can’t. In addition, my department wants me to be the one in the department that submits to this internal grant to just show face. I’d love to deliver, but I can’t be the Phindustry of old and always say yes. I’m used to working all the time, but not used to so many small tasks. I’m going to have to get used to making only most people happy. This will be tough. Or be happy with subpar work. And that will never ever happen. 

 
On the plus side, my students are kind of taking after me and completing everything I give to them. I’m genuinely surprised. I don’t have kids, but watching every little thing they do and inferring how great they’ll be as scientists is something I realized I like doing. 

Industry funding

I wrote up a quick proposal to a VP at my old company proposing an idea that is relevant to the group he leads, however, it’s too early to result in a product in the next few years. But it should be able to result in a few patents and maybe some good animal studies. I had a call with him after he had a few weeks to look at it and he’s totally on board.

It’s enough to fund one of my students for two years of salary/fringe, experiments, and development. The student that will be working on this has an NSFGRF though so I’m going to hire a lab-tech. The only caveat, is that I can get my names on the patents, but my old company will own all of the IP.  The only way University of Phindustry agreed to that was to charge a massive amount of overhead.  I remember going through this same exercise when I would fund academic research, but being on the receiving side is no fun.

I brought the VP by to see the lab and show him the equipment, talk ideas, and introduce him to the students.  Now, whenever I had to meet someone important I dressed semi-professionally.  My students came in shorts.  One had a sleeveless shirt. I jokeingly gave them crap about it, and now I’m thinking that I’m not in the casual mindset of an academic yet because a lot of people are telling me it’s no big deal.

 

Peer pressure

It’s no secret that part of the reason I was recruited is because funding is extra tight these days and an industry connection can only help (unless that industry connection is Bernie Madoff).  I’ve secured one small local grant from a nonprofit, but more importantly, a rather sizable (not R01, but pretty nice) chunk from my old employer (I’ll talk about this later).

There wasn’t any direct pressure on me before securing this money: the other faculty and higher-ups didn’t ever mention it, but they always dropped semi-subtle hints.  Now that I have the money coming in they’re asking all sorts of questions about institute and student sponsorship.  This is on top of other faculty members (my pseudopeers) pitching this or that idea to me hoping I’ll come on board and relay them to my old employer.

My concern in all of this is that if I don’t deliver the money as a co-PI for some other faculty members they’ll lost respect for me.  My pedigree already isn’t that of my surrounding colleagues and I’m certain some of them are thinking I was only brought in because I did reasonably well in industry.  So if I don’t deliver on the flood of cash for everyone, then maybe they will care for me even less (there’s some upspeak in that sentence as I read it to myself)?  I don’t really give a shit, because if I constantly cared what people thought then I wouldn’t have time to be so awesome.

I kind of wish it would’ve been more difficult to get this first round of industry funding so I could just say “Look, I barely got it, and they know me.  So don’t get your hopes up.”

The broad degree

I got my BS, MS, and PhD are in three different fields. My PhD is in a field that people refer to as broad, unfocused, and relatively non-engineering-like. But with the PhD you learn a lot of detail about your project so the broadness doesn’t matter as much. Plus, I have work experience before my MS, and my BS and MS are in pretty well respected disciplines (physics and a traditional engineering).

In industry, when I would hire, if someone had a “broad degree” for a BS, unlike more focused fields like electrical or mechanical engineering, they would come in and not be able to answer any of the technical questions I asked. Each person with the broad degree (I don’t want to mention it by name for fear of directly insulting people) had a little bit of knowledge in a bunch of topics, but not enough to be remotely useful. I’m talking about a criminal lack of basic math and physics. I never offered a job to any of these people.

So, I’ve been having a few first-year grad students coming to my office because they want an advisor that can help them get into the medical device industry. They come in with BSs in a broad field of engineering and when I ask them basic math and physics questions I’m learning the same things I learned in industry: they don’t know anything. This broad degree wasn’t originally a BS up until recently when colleges realized that kids wanted to get BSs in this field. The colleges are doing a huge disfavor to these students by allowing them to get a BS in this crappy field. I think this degree is fine once you have a solid foundation to build an MS or PhD upon, but the BS in this field is hurting students. I’m guessing, this is all to make some extra money off of these students. I understand there is a demand for a BS in this broad field, but if the students wanted a degree in drinking and road tripping to the beach does that mean we have to give it to them (I would’ve majored in that)?

I’m turning away every student that doesn’t have a solid math and physics background, but I’m concerned that good students are turning away from tradition engineering fields and physics to go to this broad degree and we’re going to end up with a bunch of incable engineers. I may get to the point where there aren’t any traditionally trained students to recruit.

That being said, so far I’ve recruited two students that I love, but these two have very solid foundations. Like building on wet soils versus solid rock. Terzaghi would have a field day with this.