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.

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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.

Industry employees versus grad students

So another faculty member was complaining that they only really get four years with their students to get good progress. Chalk a year to training and really we would only get three years of productivity. In industry, my average employee stuck around for five years, and this is about the industry average from my experience. But what I demanded from the employees was WAY more than I demand of my students. So I started thinking about my students and seeing if they’d cut it in my old fast-paced industry group. In general, the answer was maybe (with some serious upspeak). Predicting success is difficult. It could just be that the environment wasn’t suitable, or maybe that the person matured (or immatured) quickly. A few things I notice though:

Theoretical knowledge:
These students are fresh from their studies. They know their shit. At least in their fields. I’m in an interdisciplinary studies type of department and a lot of these students came in with a broad degree, and correspondingly they know a little about a lot. I’ve stopped recruiting these students. I want students that can set up a PDE related to an experimental phenomena we’re observing, then be able to solve it and compare their models to the experiments. A lot of the broad students can’t do this. But that’s unrelated to my students. My students came from a traditional field in which they know their shit. The academic infiltrators on the other hand know the business and know how to make things. Professors like to think they know how to design things, but they’re wrong. You lean to design and really build from practicing in the field. These are the students I put on projects related to equipment (if that’s what they’re interested in). They take a little longer to get back into the idea of basic science, but I give them tests before they can join the lab (ooooh, posting the questions here would be a fun post).

My industry employees are similar to the infiltrators: a decent amount of lost theory, but they can build. It’s crazy how quickly so many of them lost their theoretical knowledge though.

Work ethic:
The students work 30 hours a week in the lab. Maybe they work from home, but I am passing some kind of ethical boundary by following them home to check. I have one student that is a single mother. I give her a pass, but she’s more computational so she can do her work while breast feeding, which again, I won’t check, but she’s made comments alluding to it.

My industry employees were crazy dedicated. When you’re getting bonuses and stock options based upon performance, that’ll keep you motivated. They were always nose to the grindstone and they worked so quickly you could actually see their progress day-to-day.

Personality:
I have these BBQs at my place a few times a year for all my students. The students are cool, but we’re so different. I will play the occasional board game or video game and we get on kind of the same level, but it’s painfully obvious I’m not on the same level as them.

In industry we were all around the same age. We had a lot in common, including life and work interests, and the comradery was definitely there. I still text and talk with all of them. Next to the giant pay cut, I miss the comradery the most. It is definitely lonely in the tower.

Productivity:
I love my students, but even with weekly meetings, not much gets done. I know academic research is slow, but this is painful. I don’t like to micromanage, but I need to find a way to hold them more accountable, and make sure things are happening.

With monetary incentive my employees worked hard. Very hard. We got so much done. They easily got in two years, what one of my students takes four years to do.  Maybe if we paid students more and were allowed to terminate if they’re bad?  That seems like a slippery slope though.  But maybe that’s just the businessperson in me talking. Ultimately the colleague that was complaining to me shouldn’t be whining about the time they get, but the quality. I just have no idea how to light a fire under these students. Again, these students are awesome, I think I just have to figure out to to wind down from my past life.

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.

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.