Tidbits about learning less

One thing I have heard on more than one occasion from industry folks that have PhDs is that they feel like they’ve gotten dumber since entering industry. This is a reflection I had at more than one point in my industry career and something I can offer some sage wisdom about. This is just my experience, so I’m hoping it will be useful.

Big industry is built for one singular purpose: make money. While they might say that they have altruistic behaviors, I’ve been in many an upper management meeting and money is the most commonly discussed topic. This is why the EPA or FDA have to step in – while I believe that corporations might sometimes be too regulated, it’s because they have to be. They can’t be trusted when their sole motivation is money. Again, I’ve been there and the other nice stuff are byproducts of the profit-motive. This brings about my first point: your company is only interested in your science if you can turn it into a profit. And once you show some interesting science they will want to squeeze all the money from your inventions that they can. Because of this, you begin to overly focus on one small thing and you aren’t picking up other knowledge. What I did about this was switch groups. If you find that you’re not challenged intellectually then move.

In academia there are seminars all the time in all kinds of random topics. Down the hall from you there were people in a variety of fields that are usually down with chatting science. Likewise, you’re free to talk as much science as you want to. In industry I didn’t really have that much freedom to talk about what I was working on. It was usually secret (again, because of money) and most people were really out to do their best to climb that ladder and cash in. So I had to play it close to the vest, which meant a lack of scholarly feedback. The feedback was market-driven. Now, I did have a crazy research budget and I trusted in my own abilities, but without my peers to give me scientific feedback I could see having the feeling of getting dumber. I set up key collaborations to get this level of interaction. In this case I learned a lot, but after five years of doing this, I still felt like I wasn’t learning enough and that’s what I dipped.

Do you remember just reading paper after paper to get the handle of something? Just absorbing the information like a sponge. I never had time for that in industry. I would read a publication here or there to get a general idea of something I was trying to understand, but then I had to apply it immediately. If you want to learn new stuff, then talk to you old PI and see if you can become a journal reviewer. This will force you to read and stay involved in the community.

Ultimately, I think it doesn’t come down to getting dumber, but just not learning as much. The academic environment was built for scholarly activity so it makes sense that the greatest acquisition of information happens here. But there are skills that I had to learn in industry like what doctors actually want to use (I’m in the medical field) and how to build tangible things. My professors would all teach me how to build stuff, but there really is nothing like ‘real-life’ experience. Honestly, if we had faculty from industry that taught us industry-related things then I probably wouldn’t have learned as much from industry and left sooner. That being said, I loved my time there, but I’m incredibly happy that I left. And if you feel like you’re not intellectually challenged then find something else or just be happy being overpaid in industry to not learn.

Open note tests

Since the day I started teaching I decided I would make tests completely open-note. I try and design my exams and quizzes to test how you can apply knowledge rather than how many equations you can pack into your brain. Or sometimes I would straight-up leave the equations on an extra sheet. I have nothing against profs requiring memorization since in the field they will sometimes have to apply their knowledge without access to Google, but for me I learned the equations fluidically: they just committed to memory after I used them enough. This is kind of the same reason I’m against multiple choice tests. Multiple choice doesn’t test knowledge. I know not everyone thinks like me, but I do prefer prioritizing comprehension over memorization. With the university deciding now on split classrooms between online and in-person (the students are having split shifts), students will treat them like open note tests anyway. Tests will be 100% administered at home.

The university wants me to use some software that allegedly uses AI to determine if students are cheating by looking at eyes darting around or something and records their screen. I really don’t like this invasion of privacy for my students. So I’m actively fighting against using it and I’ve been told now twice that I’ve been speaking out of turn. I know that if I were a student I wouldn’t want my screen being recorded and my camera on and tracking my face movements. I don’t know who this company is paying off in my administration, but it always bewilders me when these admins or some teachers can’t think of what the students might think. Why are we treating these students like they’re all just not cheating because they’re being watched? I trust that the students I’ve trained personally are ethical students and researchers because I instill these principles. And rather than watching them all the time and letting ‘AI’ determine if they’re cheating, why don’t we make the tests uncheatable? And this can work in non-math-based courses: I’ve made exams that test biological principles that require a thorough understanding of the topics. Or make the tests so dense that the students don’t have time to look things up. Watching them take a test in their personal home doesn’t seem like the answer to me.

First day back

Being on campus was bittersweet. I had to leave the little one at home for the first time. We’ll call him Slimer. Slimer is quiet, but when he looks up at you with his hazel eyes it’s tough to not want to be around. I want to be one of those parents that’s okay with getting a sitter or leaving them with the gparents so I need to be okay with telling those hazel eyes goodbye for short period. I’m still so concerned about my career taking a tumble even though everyone says I’ll be fine. I may already be overcompensating by the amount of work I’ve been doing from home. I don’t think I’ve ever read and edited so many papers in my life in the span of a week.

On campus my students had a bunch of gifts waiting for me in my office. The other faculty didn’t really care or notice I was gone (welcome to the solitude that comes with the ivory tower). Like I anticipated, the proactive students had good progress and the less motivated students were behind. I’m mainly glad that no one went down a rabbit hole and wasted resources. The slow ones continued on good paths and made good decisions, they just didn’t work as much so they didn’t make much progress. I told them that I wanted to know what slowed them down and put in some hard deadlines for papers, results, conference submissions, etc. So we’ll see if that lights a fire. But overall it was really nice to be back on campus. I was working my ass off right until the last second so everything would be set for the semester (hence the lack of posts). I have a few meetings next week with collaborators (one from industry that provides me funding), so there’s some prep and data I’ll need from students.

Overall, I worried more than was necessary about my lab and Slimer. It’ll take some time to balance these new roles, but thank you to everyone for the reassuring words!

Working from home

This semester I am not teaching. Not because I bought out my teaching load, but because a stork dropped of this baby and need to take care of it for a little. I haven’t been to campus since the semester started. My current plan is to go in once a week for the next month then see what we can do about scaling things up and/or if I can bring the little one in as an office-mate. S.O. can only take so much time off so they’re using their paternity leave to cover the home base during my weekly visit to ensure my students haven’t burned the lab down. So far, email, Google Hangout video (what will I do when Google gets rid of Hangouts?!?!), phone calls, and text messaging have filled in the gaps okay, but there’s nothing like being on the front line to really guide the research properly. Already in planning, I will miss the next big grant deadline I wanted to hit, but I’d rather wait a cycle and put in a better application since I only get three shots. I have enough funding, and the loss of recent industry funding is kind of a blessing because it’ll force me to focus and slow down a little, which is something I’ve been wanting to do.

What I’m most concerned about at work is that my less motivated students will drop in productivity a lot.  They don’t have the highest amount of motivation, and I’m already noticing their emails have dropped off, as have the quality of emails.  I don’t care if the students are there 40+ hours per week.  I just want to see results.  And from what I’m hearing they’re not even around enough to be getting results.  These were the students where I had to tell them everything from the direction of the project down to the minute details of setting up their experiments. I asked the senior students and my post-docs to check on them, and the only reports from them are that the unmotivated students aren’t around much. I know that it falls on me to have better set them up, but they’re green and I didn’t have as much time with them as I would have chosen. During my campus visits there will be stronger words for them.

In the meantime, I hope everyone’s fall is going well. I hate being stuck at home, but this isn’t a bad reason to be here. There’s a lot of quiet for now with not a lot of excessive crying or demands. I think slowing down is going to be beautiful, I just hope that my lab productivity doesn’t take such a dip that I can’t ramp back up if I decide to pursue some new research interest. I do miss being on campus at the start of the semester. The leaves changes, the sound of students, and the energy on campus is great, but there will be future semesters. For now, I’ll be working from home in more than one way.

Forever post-doc

I’ve been interviewing post-docs over Skype and most are the usual international students with the occasional okay PhD student sprinkled in.  There are always so many more open post-doc positions out there than there are good post-docs.  So it’s not too easy for me to compete with the biggest names, but I’ve done okay.  However, I did find one good one who’s well experienced, mature, and would make a good fit.  He’s been a post-doc on seven years now and I’m iffy.  Not because he’s been in post-doc positions for so long and not because he might get an academic position and be gone.  His large amount of time in the post-doc is great because he brings great experience, and if he goes to an academic position I’d be happy for him.  I’m iffy because I feel wrong giving him another post-doc.  He should be at the point in his training where he should be running more of a program.  And if I saddle him here I feel I’m doing him a disservice.  I know it’s not my place to tell this person what to do, but I think it’s time to take a research prof (non-tenure track) position or skip off to industry.  He’s very smart, mature, and hard-working so he’ll do well where ever he goes.  He said he just hasn’t gotten bites on his application, which I agreed to look over, and it does seem a little run-of-the-mill.  Which usually is great if you have an Ivy league school on your CV, which he does not.  I just feel like I’d be exploiting this person by putting him in another post-doc.  I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do, but I want to tell him that I don’t think another post-doc is the right thing for him, but I’m afraid he may be insulted.  There are a lot of non-tenure track positions out there in addition to a bunch of industry positions (the economy, while slowing, is still quite hot if you have the right skillsets).  Maybe I’m overthinking this, and should just bring in who I think will be a great researcher, but I just feel dirty doing it.


Losing good students to bio

My background is physics.  I eventually bridged this over to the applied world and medicine, but having a good foundation makes it possible to do anything.  Each student has to be theoretically solid and capable of getting their hands dirty when the research inevitably goes applied.  Each summer I go through the same recruiting exercise where I try to recruit very theoretically sound students.  This summer is no different than the rest in that I try to create a diverse lab with talented students on the theoretical side, computational side, and experimental side.  I’m especially hurting for an experimental person.  Especially someone more on the biology side.  But because of the nature of the work, they have to have a good physics background.  These don’t always go hand-in-hand.  Bio people want to do bio, and typically don’t have the most solid background in math or physics.  On top of this, I haven’t been happy with the lack of gender diversity lately, and want to hold my lab as an example.

Now begins my big issue: I have found a couple female students that are great theoretically, but want to do bio.  As a lot of people know, there is a general interest of women in biologically based research.  My lab does this, but not like the hardcore bio labs running blots and transgenic experiments day-and-night.  So I’m having trouble recruiting the students I want because they want more bio or maybe because they didn’t study enough math as an undergrad.  So for the first time, I’ve decided to relax my requirements and basically pull in a student from a more unfocused discipline (like bioengineering) that can maybe do a little of a lot of different fields.  This allows me to get a female student that is willing to dabble with a little variety.  I’m not happy with this, but I’ll make due.  One of my initiatives has been to get female students into more math and physics with sprinkles of biology rather than the other way around since these fields are sorely lacking.  I’ve noticed some uptick, but I’m definitely not happy with my progress.

On the personal side of things, I was having a solid couple of months, and now I am nauseous all the time.  This needs to end now.

Play when you want

The summer is really the only time I can schedule long trips.  The next month we have a lot of conference prep for two important conferences coming up.  Then the next month I’m moving to a 3-day work schedule for two weeks (and four days working from home), then taking two weeks off completely.  One week I’ll be out of contact completely, and the other I’ll be available sparingly.  I love how I don’t feel bad that I’m away and I’m not worried about someone taking over my job.  I also am very grateful that I didn’t have to ask anyone if it’s okay that I take this time off.  It’s fantastic.  That was always one of my biggest gripes in industry: having to tell someone or get approval for my absenteeism.  If I need a mental health day I just tell my students over email then be available as best as I can.  If I want to schedule a long vacay I just do it.

Now, there is a general decrease in the lab’s productivity when I’m gone, but I’m very okay with that.  I don’t have shareholders or upper management to justify myself to, and my students deserve to slow down every once in a while.  I have one student who goes full-tilt all the time, and I’ve told her that she doesn’t have to, but she insists.  She’ll be a great worker some day, I just hope she doesn’t burn out.

When I was in industry, my employees would ask me if they could have such-and-such day off for whatever-activity.  I would always just tell them they don’t have to ask, they know what the hard deadlines are, and to just submit the vacation requests and I’ll approve it with no questions asked.  I wish I could have set up my department where I didn’t need to have them request time, but it was corporate policy.  Now, I have times I put in everyone’s calendar of critical times I need them in the lab (prep for grants, conferences, etc.), but otherwise, they just put that they’ll be gone in Google calendar and I don’t see them that time.

The freedom of time, alone, is worth the pay cut I took to get here.

Work when you want

Here’s a shocker for some: people are different.  Some people need 40 hours to get work done, some only need 30 hours, some like to work as much as possible to maximize output, and some like to get the bare minimum done.  Some can only get the bare minimum done.  I appreciate a job where I can work 80 hours a week whenever I want.  Realistically, (ignoring the time to answer a text, call, or quick email) I put in about 50-60 hours a week while classes are in session.  Occasionally more, but rarely fewer than 50.  I have always thought that a job shouldn’t be about the hours, but about the productivity.  When I was in industry, I almost always did the 50+ hours because I like doing a thorough job, but there were the times when I just didn’t want to be there.  I had to put in time, get it approved, etc.  I fucking hated that.  I like taking off in the middle of the day for a long lunch if I want, or leaving early, or showing up late without having to tell anyone.

When I became a group leader, and now in running my academic lab, I fostered a ‘work as much as you want, but also reap what you sow.’  I despise that the culture is, at minimum, work 40 hours, and at maximum, work until you can’t anymore in most areas.  I do get annoyed when I don’t see students around, but ever since the recent bad student I had, I do have contracts where, barring any crazy circumstances, I will not fund students past 5.5 years.  So they know they need to work or they’ll be out of the job.  I only demand that they’re around during set times for meetings, and so I can drop in (1000-1130 and/or 1400-1530).  Other than that, they can work early mornings or late nights if I’m not around.  I do demand to see progress, since that’s the only thing I care about, and I’ve been pretty blatant when I haven’t been happy with progress.  I feel this gives the students the freedom to work the way they wish while keeping them all on track.

I got to thinking about this because I have a new student that always tells me when they’re taking off like they’re asking for permission.  I always tell them to make sure they’re around when they’re supposed to be, and that’s it.  They can take off all they want and don’t need my permission unless they’re taking off for large swaths of time.  I know that I would’ve appreciated that, and I definitely appreciate that now.  Just a bit of gratefulness to write about….

Dear admins,

Leave me alone.  I appreciate you have had a part in my relative success here at the University.  But I hate being paraded around as your little showdog.  At first, I have to admit, I was honored that some guest was coming in town to give a commencement speech or that wants to buy some wing and you want to show new research.  But I just don’t have time to be going across campus for a couple hours to help you win over some dickhead that can cut a big check so long as we look diverse and appear to be solving some kind of problem.  A big check that most likely won’t even be seen by students in the form of better instruction or facilities.  Now, if they want to cut a check that gets my department some new fume hoods or some more TAs then sign me up.  But, why the fuck you brought me in on a meeting with someone that wanted to expand the practice field for the football team I won’t understand.  I get it, you want to show diversity, and one breed of person isn’t enough, but I don’t want to be a showdog.  I want to be a dog that works for a living.  There are a lot of annoying things you do, but this is near the top.



Retention risk

In industry, we had a term called “Retention risk”.  I know there are other terms to describe this, but basically it’s the concept of some employees are more mobile than others.  One can always get a big raise or promotion if they’re willing to switch between companies.  I knew many people that did this and in industry it’s the norm.  People need to do what’s best for themselves as the company would drop you at the slightest hint of needing to provide a boost to the shareholders.  So when we, as management, see that an employee is behaving differently we have to think about how critical the person is to the business and if we should go extra lengths to preemptively stop them from performing a job search.  Once the call was made that someone was critical to the business then a promotion would be set up, or at least a large raise.  I had to do this at times, and I notice this happened with other departments pretty frequently.  And if the manager was too slow to act, the person would frequently be gone.  Side note: women employees were less mobile, in general, but also managers just wouldn’t think they’re as critical.  Ladies, be mobile, remember that the company owes you nothing, and let your managers know when you’re not happy.  The people that were rooted were usually less likely to be rewarded with promotions because managers knew their efforts were better spent on keeping the retention risks.

When I was an undergrad it seemed that all my professors were very well-established and were going to be staying their whole careers at my school.  In graduate school, I realized that some profs see an opportunity elsewhere and jump on it.  Especially if they’re not getting the support from their current school.  This went very counter to how I saw academia: stable.  I don’t know if this is a recent trend, or if I’m just noticing it right now, but I see a lot of professors switching between schools.  I mentioned in a recent post that this is happening with a mentor of mine, my PI recently did it, and a handful of friends, as well.

So this brings me to last week where the department head was asking me if I wanted to expand my lab space and asked which class I want to teach next semester.  I brought this up to my old PI and he said that there’s word on the (nerdy) street that I’m interested in this one particular school that hasn’t even contacted me.  I’m always open to new opportunities, but only if it’s actually an opportunity.   This is clearly just some shitty rumor maybe to get me to leave?  I have no idea how it could have started.  I have no intention whatsoever to leave in the near-future.  I always had the mentality that a company would drop me at the smallest sign of a market swing, so I had as much loyalty as they had to me (very little).  I don’t feel like that here, but I’ll take what I can get, I guess.