Collaboration with the old

If you read my stuff on my previous blog it should come as no surprise that I didn’t like my advisor.  I’ve come to now realize that the opinions were misplaced.  He’s still selfish, and I won’t forget the things I didn’t like.  But being in his spot now, I totally get it.  There are times when I realize that I have to weigh the students versus me, and I have to come out on top sometimes.  But alas, I’m torn.  I still dislike him, even though I understand now why he behaves the way he did.

So now that my tenure packet is out (I submitted early…using my industry experience as ammunition), he’s realized that we can work together, collaborate if you will.  I kept a distance because I dislike him, but also my tenure advisor said it’s a good idea to distance oneself from the advisor.  So I distanced myself, but he knows as well as anyone else that my packet is submitted.  And this week he reached out to me wanting some collaboration.  The thing is-I felt partially like he may have used me in grad school to fill gaps in knowledge, results, etc. that he doesn’t have.  And at the time I didn’t care for the distraction, but now I’m glad I got the experience.  So I’m worried that he’ll be pushy and want lots of stuff and I don’t know what I will get in return.  There’s literally nothing except maybe a passing authorship I can get with him (which I acknowledge is payment in itself).  The research isn’t in my focus so it wouldn’t help me keep the lights on, so the only dial I have to turn is asking him to get on future grants to utilize the technology I’d be providing.  Which I’m definitely in favor of, but again, it’s out of my particular research interests.  In fact, I think it’s useless (though I wouldn’t tell him that).  How do I know it’s useless?  I worked on it in industry early on and there was no clinical benefit.  I won’t tell him because I still have to keep corporate secrets.  The problem is if I say ‘no’ I could see it hurting me, but if I say ‘yes’ I don’t want to be roped in with him again.

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Twitter

In general, I’m not a fan of social media.  I have an Instagram to show off the art I make to my sibling, but I don’t actively do anything with it.  No liking, hashing, connecting, etc.  I literally made it so they could see, because they asked me to.  So I post, and I never log in again until my next post.  By age, I am technically a millennial, and very computer savvy, so it’s not that I can’t….I just hate everything about social media.  Everything.  It takes a decent amount of muster to stay connected even in the blogging community, and I don’t really consider this social media in the ‘traditional’ sense.  To keep in touch I text, call, video chat, email, and hand-write letters.  No one else needs to know anything besides what I’m telling individual people.

So another prof told me today that ‘Prof. Person’ has a Twitter and it helps get more exposure and helps them connect more with colleagues and students, and that I should consider doing this.  I found this kind of insulting.  I’ve been approved for $1.4million in funding in just the few years I’ve been here.  My first PhD student defended over the summer, and my next two will be in the next year.  They all have amazing jobs lined up.  Not counting the first year, I’m averaging 6 papers a year (now the impacts aren’t the greatest, but one per year has been in a very high impact for my field, journal).  I’ve also been submitting five patents per year, and I’m in communication with two groups about creating a start-up with some tech.  You’re saying this isn’t enough, and I need Twitter?  So I thought that maybe this is a service activity.  But then I looked at my service record and I’m definitely more involved than the average.

So I checked out Person’s Twitter.  It’s a lot of complaining about journals, touting themselves in areas that I don’t find impressive, and some personal crap.  In five years they’ve graduated one PhD student, have two decent funding grants (say $250k approval total), and, not including the first year, get three papers out a year with impacts about half of mine (we’re in the same field).  Now she is more social than I am so it’s easy for the department to give her public exposure to recruit students, and she does get good teaching ratings (mine are in the middle).  But that’s some fucking gall to tell me that’s the area I need to improve on.  I know that we are in a social media world, but I have exposure, people are recognizing me, and I’m getting shit done.  I’m probably taking this harder than I should be…..

The old industry group

I still collaborate with my old company, but with completely different groups.  My old group would not have been conducive to this.  I had a great relationship with the group, but what they’re doing doesn’t always mesh well with my research interests.  Having industry contacts came hugely in handy because I have been able to easily reach out to the people I know that can cut checks to fund my research.  As funding is getting tighter and tighter from federal agencies I have to lean more and more on industry.

I recently visited the old facility where my lab in industry was located.  I did the meetings and demos required, and I feel I did an okay job of keeping the funding rolling.  We’ll see in a month or so.  The questions are always so different when I visit companies versus a conference.  Companies want to know when they can take on the project and turn it into something profitable.  No one else gives a crap.  But it’s neat to see how things grow and how projects I proved out when I was there are turning into actual products that will soon hit the market.  Seeing them grow is a cool feeling.  I enjoyed it then, and I continue to appreciate a project ramping up.  But while I was there I thought it would be a good time to check out the old stomping grounds.   So I called up who I groomed to be my replacement and found out that she left.  I’ll go into the reasons in a second.  So I texted an old employee and they were gone.  So I texted another one and she said the new group leader didn’t want me there.  I’m an outsider and they have company secrets to protect.  I said that I understood and offered to grab a drink and dinner later.  She was more than happy to accept on the invite.

At dinner, she spilled the beans.  The new guy is a hardcore ‘get products out’ kind of guy.  Smart and incredibly cocky, and doesn’t really have a scientific attitude.  He likes to just make things quickly to impress higher-ups.  The rest of the team are more classically trained where they understand the theory really well.  If a new problem comes up they (like I) like to do the math to get a handle on the problem then build a device to how the theory stands up.  The new guy isn’t so strong in the theory so he makes up for it by just building tons of stuff, trying everything, and being happy when it’s good enough.  I built the team to build it the best way possible, tying in physics with medicine in new ways and we were very successful because of it.  My replacement recruited this new guy in because he seemed to have a nice knowledge set to help her manage the team.  But apparently, he took over hardcore and stroked the ego of the higher VP of the company to start usurping responsibility from my old number 2.  So she left, the next up left as well, and the remainder of the team doesn’t like his attitude.  It’s sad to see my old team falling apart because of one overcocky pseudo-psychopath (according to my old employees).  A lot of the team will never leave because they have pensions and families to think about, or aren’t as marketable.  So this new guy will definitely be very successful because of the way I set up the infrastructure of the group.  This is a regular occurrence.  A (usually) guy comes in, acts incredibly aggressive, chirps the loudest, gets their way, then riding on the shoulders of their team gets all the credit, raises, etc. and goes home happy while the other employees that can’t really go elsewhere have to shoulder the burden until they retire.  Welcome to the business world.  Seeing stuff like this makes me much happier to be in academics.  We have our problems here, but nowhere near as bad as what I’ve seen in industry.

Money

When I was in industry, money was something on my mind constantly.  Money for myself, money for my department, money from profit, money spent on stupid shit, money I donated, money I gave to the government, etc.  There was so much talk about money.  Slowly, my personal want of money became my most important goal and definitely didn’t like myself for it.  I liked that the stuff I was working on was saving patient’s lives, but slowly that part became less important.

Eventually, I realized that my own scientific goals, and not feeling like I sold out, became more and more important.  This made taking the 75% pay cut worth it.  Though I did move away from a very expensive metro to a smaller city, so the 75% isn’t as painful.  Still massive though.  I dropped a couple of tax brackets.  I don’t donate as much, but I don’t spend as much or worry as much either.  The one good part about the obsession with money is I got very good at handling it, from a laboratory perspective.  This has translated well to academia (though it doesn’t hurt that I’ve pulled in some nice funding).  I can usually budget in my head on the fly where things are going and how much we can spend on which things.  And how much risk to take depending on the awards or publications we’re trying to get.

A student (undergrad) recently asked me why I would join academia when I presumably made so much more in industry.  I explained everything I just wrote above and he had a blank stare.  I explained there are more important things than cash, and that he will become very bored if all he’s looking for in a job.  Then he said something I wasn’t expecting: “Then looks like when I graduate I’ll have to get an MBA or go to law school.”  Did I just put him on a weird path by giving him philosophical advice?  I mean, if he’s happy down the line then good for him, but I thought I was giving him some greater-purpose shit and all he took from it was that he’s maybe in the wrong field.  Very weird.

Depression

Not an academic post, but this is something I care about.  If you don’t want to read about this stuff, then fine on ya.  Here’s some comics I like instead: https://xkcd.com/http://theoatmeal.com/http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/

So everyone who knows me personally knows I’ve been fighting depression for the past couple of decades.  On the surface when out in public I would look bubbly, be very productive at work/school, have friends I could joke around with, and behave as healthy as one could.  Then I would get home and my ex would be there so I had to keep strapping on the fake smile and laughter.  It’s a mask.  As soon as I would get alone time I would finally be able to just be depressed me.  And this would pretty much only happen in the bathroom or in the car.  I was always wondering when it would be too much for me to handle and walk away from this life.  About five years ago I started letting people know that are close to me rather than the silent battles I would constantly be fighting.  I wouldn’t just go exclaiming, “I’m depressed and hate everything and don’t want to be a part of this world!”  If the situation came up where someone would ask what’s going on if I wasn’t up to my usual bubbly self I would tell them that I have depression.  I try to make it normal to talk about this stuff.

There’s definitely a stigma from certain people after this, but I don’t give a shit.  The feeling of depression is almost impossible to describe to someone that doesn’t have it.  They usually think it’s just being sad.  Sad isn’t as crushing to me.  I wish I was sad instead of depressed.  It’s like someone with a migraine or a cluster headache describing what those headaches are to someone that has to pop an ibuprofen when they get a tension headache.  It’s still unpleasant, but everyone I’ve talked to that gets migraines wishes they had tension headaches instead.

Thoughts of suicide are definitely regular regardless of pharmaceuticals or therapy.  Though I don’t let most people know it’s that severe because I don’t want to get babied.  I have two close people who I can talk to about this and they remind me of perspective.  I don’t buy that “he/she is selfish because they ended themselves” bullshit.  When the pain is that bad, it’s almost impossible to have empathy for them.  When I see a suicide from someone I know I just think “I’m sorry for the friends and family, but I’m glad they aren’t suffering” because I know what the suffering feels like.  All the analogies about “losing sight of the horizon”, “feeling a crushing feeling”, or “feeling hopeless” don’t really do justice to the true feeling.  What I have found helps for me isn’t trying to explain to other people how I feel, or other people explaining how I should feel, or telling me jokes to cheer me.  What helps is knowing there are people there for me, that whatever I want is the right thing, and that what I’m feeling is really happening.  That I shouldn’t feel alone, and that people shouldn’t tell me to cheer up, or that it’s going to be okay.  Give me a hug, say you’re there for me and check up.  Feeling loved/wanted even if I’m not accepting it helps.  Being on an island isn’t good; this needs to be treated like any disease where a good support structure can make a huge difference.  We need to be able to talk about depression, and not just talk about talking about depression.  As human beings, we need to be there for each other and treat everyone as humans.

I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I know what helps get me over the next hump.  It’s Mental Health Awareness Day, so I thought I would put this post out there since I try to spread awareness throughout the year whenever I can, and I don’t really care so much about these special days for everything that exists in the world.  But I do know what it’s like to live with depression, and I hope that everyone out there recognizes the symptoms and maybe tries to do something useful.  Understanding that this isn’t just a mood is step one.

Firing a lazy student

In industry, there was this great, capitalistic, recourse of “carrots” and “sticks”.  I’m sure everyone is familiar, but if you’re not then here you go (just a note-I had no idea what this was; it’s not really something that comes in my native tongue, but a year in industry and I learned).  What I’ve learned is that managing people, employees, other groups, collaborators, etc. is like managing an animal.  There’s positive and negative reinforcement.  And I choose to operate not only on the carrot side but a little on the stick side. In essence, if you have a mule pulling your wagon do you dangle a reward in front of it (the carrot), or whip the mule to keep it going (the stick)?  In industry, when someone does well you give them a nice bonus or raise and some public praise, correspondingly when someone does poorly they don’t get the raise and occasionally will get fired.  This delicate balance ensures that you, as a group leader, get what you want.  I’d love to think that all my employees were just great workers, but in actuality, I’m certain there is a drive to get paid more (the carrot) while also not losing their ability to pay their mortgage (the stick).  I’d like to think that I had a drive to just build awesome products to help people, but honestly, the largest drive was the money (the extra drive coming in or the threat of loss of employment).  One last thing of note is here in academia I have to hire immediately since I can’t take money from one year to the next.  So I end up hiring some non-desirables.  However, when I had an opening in my group in industry I could spend as much time as I wanted to find the perfect hard worker that is also as smart as hell.  A couple things have popped up recently.

Student A was an amazing producer, smart, and personable.  The past four months he has been sucking.  Bad.  His work ethic has fallen off, his intelligence is still there, but he’s also joined a ‘click’ with the neighboring lab so he’s not interacting much with his lab mates.  I reached out and asked if anything was going on, if they needed a break, etc.; trying to be the nice person I pretend to be.  Everything is fine, he just said he would work harder.  I don’t know if he’s just scared to talk to me, but let’s just assume he’s doing alright outside of the lab.  Now, when I was in industry I would give a stern talking-to to the person then put a small ding in their record that they could see, then eventually they would see their pay lagging and the risk of termination and buck up.  Even though I’ve stated I’m unhappy with him, his productivity hasn’t changed.  It’s one thing to get poor results it’s another to show up at 10am and leave at 2pm.  He’s a 3rd year so he’s too deep in to fire, but I long for the days of the stick.  I think part of this is that I also can’t offer the carrot.  I can’t give a raise.  But they can graduate sooner and with a better reference (after all, I am well-connected in the industry these students all want to enter), but that doesn’t help.  And without the real carrot, there isn’t a stick.

On the timing side of things I got a nice grant but I, like most PIs, have a year to get my first set of status reports out.  Which means I have to start working now.  Which means I need to hire a post-doc now.  In industry I could wait and wait until the perfect employee came through, but right now I’m looking for a post-doc.  And there are a lot more open post-doc positions out there than there are qualified post-docs to fill them.  I love a lot more about academics than industry, but not being able to fire people is not cool.  I know I might sound like a hard-ass, but I have no patience if someone isn’t trying.

Campus energy

With the semester in full-swing the energy on campus is contagious.  This one of the things I enjoy the most about being on campus.  The students walking around, playing games, studying, doing projects, sleeping, etc. gives the campus a lively atmosphere.  This is coupled with generally great fall weather where I am.  Eventually, the new semester glow will be gone, and I’ll be pining for the moments campus is empty.  But I know when the campus is empty I’ll be pining for the students to come back and inject some much-needed energy into campus.  The change in semesters keeps the environment around here fresh.

In industry, it was always the same environment, same types of deadlines, different project but same type of general procedures.  Even with sometimes the same project to work on over time just having the influx and outflux of personnel and change of scenery is so fucking welcomed.  I even notice my students have more vigor in them.  The ones that don’t get out much (more senior) have the energy because they’re racing to the defense-finish-line, the younger ones are spry because it’s a new environment, and the mid-stage ones are mostly slacking off (the recruiting class wasn’t hot a couple years ago).

On top of all of this my SO found a great job close to campus so we’ve been meeting up when our schedules permit since they’re out relatively early so I’ll take a late lunch.  We’re definitely in a spot where we have more free time than we used to and we’ve been spending it very well.  While being around younger people keeps you young there’s something about all this stuff changing that keeps it fresh and keeps the campus (and me) alive.