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.

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.

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.

My students

I go back and forth on my students. When I first started I had recruited a few MS students and a couple PhD students. Since then I’ve more than doubled and threw in a post-doc and a handful of undergrads. The first MS students are since gone. Now, when I first started I could walk through the lab or office area and they were all having wonderful conversations that got everyone thinking and working together. Now, it’s relatively quiet either from absence or just everyone is focused. Albeit when I first started we had two primary projects, and now we have a few more, so not everyone is working on the same thing so there’s not a lot of working together other than the ‘can you help me with this?’ type of conversations. This got me thinking about categories of students and what I’ve learned from them. Obviously this is my own experience, and I’m hiding their identities to protect them. Stereotyping isn’t always nice, but I don’t care; this is the truth, and that’s that. Also, I just want to say that I really love my students. I invite them to my place a few times a year, I buy them lunches and coffee when they’re working late to help me hit deadlines, and I’ve helped place every one of them that have graduated in my lab in wonderful jobs in industry. So if I type anything negative, I’m not sorry for it, but just want to preface my stream of consciousness with that disclaimer.

Types of students I’ve had so far:
The golden student (or child if you’re into playing favorites): this is the student I can trust with the largest array of tasks and know that I can leave them alone. I have great scientific discussions with this student, and this is the one I will fight the most for because I know they’re not just incredibly smart, but incredibly driven. They enjoy their work, and want to ensure they do a good job, in addition to graduate in timely manner. I can give these students a variety of work, and they get that done in addition to their own, while getting their own grant applications in. I’m certain they hate me because I subconsciously hold this student to higher standards.

The I-need-to-graduate-now student: These students want to start making money now. And they want to do the minimal amount of work necessary and consider themselves to be the most important. They’ll get their letters, but won’t be as prepared as a student that puts in the full amount of effort. They’re focused on one task, which is great for getting focused tasks done, but I’ll hear whining if I ask them to do anything that may delay them getting their letters and their sweet paycheck.

The other academic infiltrators: These students came from industry to get an advanced degree then go back. They’re all MS students, but I wish I could get them to move into a PhD program. These are pretty driven students, with a great amount of practical experience, though like a lot of industry folks, they lose a lot of their theoretical basis in the ‘real-world’

The foreign national: So I have a US passport, but I am not from the US. I understand being different, so I try to help them acclimate by starting up group conversation unrelated to work. Gets everyone to loosen up. These students love being here and are okay taking their time. So long as the language barrier isn’t too harsh a lot of these students are paid for, are hard workers, and enjoy their time in America. Don’t build a wall.

The problem child (I chose the word child for a specific reason): Ugh. Arguments for days, work quality isn’t great, and work ethic isn’t great. I have other things to say, but I don’t want to exude that negative energy. I know the type now, and I’ll be sure not to recruit this type.

The cool grad student: These students are chill, enjoying taking their time, and taking their off-time very seriously. Fun to have and they get their work done. For the most part this is the ‘regular’ grad student profile.

The cool undergraduate: This student just wants some experience and a letter. Nice students that are willing to do some dirty work the other students don’t have time for.

The uptight undergraduate: While I’m not the biggest fan of the term ‘type-A’, these students are it. Neurotic and kind of kiss-assey. These students will go places, but they’re crazy awkward. They’re smart, but for reason can get great work done. Maybe because they’re in a rush?

The sexist/racist/whatever-ist: So that only lasted 3 months. Firing my people in academics is way easier than in industry.  In industry there’s HR, performance reviews, tracking tasks, one-on-ones.  Here, I had one warning discussion then cut the cord.  They’re someone else’s problem now.

Hours they work:

When I went to grad school I had previously been in a National Lab and an industry post so I had work hours I was used to: 8am-6pm with the occasional long night or weekend. I had that in grad school, but with more long nights and weekends. While, I have a couple showing real dedication, most are around from 10am-4pm Monday-Friday. Those that have projects involving live specimens will come in for an hour here or there to check on samples, but apparently this is commonplace for most of the labs here. Maybe it’s the mentality of the university. I don’t want to be a mean person and give them hours. They’re adults, and if they don’t publish they don’t graduate, but their slower pace hurts my productivity, as well. Maybe I’m just used to the faster mindset of when I ran my industry lab and the consequences for failure or delay were more severe. Either I need to change my expectations, be a time-bully, or start doing things myself (like I did with the industry-sponsored project).

How the group has changed over time:
When the group was small there was a very tight dynamic. Everyone seemed friendly with each other, and there were fewer conflicts. With more people I’ve been having to deal with a lot of social dynamics that I had to deal with in industry, but for some misguided reason I didn’t think that a less mature group of people would be better. I’ve reached my tipping point for how large I want this group to be, and I sometimes wonder how PIs deal with large groups.  I wonder at what point a group can’t maintain a tight-knit-ness?  I mean if there’s two people they will be tight, even five can have good comrade-ery.  But if the group has 100 people some people won’t even know each other’s names.  There’s something between five and 100, I’m sure, I just prefer a smaller group.  I feel we can get more done with five good people rather than 10 okay people.  Also, just the management alone is crazy.  It would be cool to get double the amount of papers out, but not at the expense of having more fun.

Two years

Every time I start to write something, I get swept up in something new. Often, I have an idea, start writing it on WordPress, save the draft before I post then come back and realize that A) I don’t like what I said, B) It was an incomplete thought I wasn’t wanting to finish, or C) All I have is a title. And that’s when I actually have the time. Most of the time I’m swept up in so many other things that I can’t find a moment to collect the thoughts I want to. Looking back at my unpublished posts was a trip because it gave me insight into different thoughts I had been having. And it’s crazy what a difference two years can make. I’m about to recount some stuff, the next paragraph kind of personal, and the ones after professional. So if you’re more interested in the professional, feel free to skip the next paragraph. It gets kind of real, so I really won’t blame anyone for skipping over. Not looking for sympathy at all, but sometimes one’s hands can cramp from playing things too close to the chest (or vest…whatever the phrase it. Honestly, I don’t care for vests unless you’re fishing I guess? But even then, what’s with all the pockets? Are fish that really particular? They can’t be any more particular than my students, and I don’t need to wear a vest for all of their demands. Maybe earplugs. But I can fit those in my pockets).

In two years I went through an immense amount of loss in my family and friends. I buried myself in work, and became a different person. Losing a father whom I was incredibly close to along with two long time friends can beat a person up. Compound this with a long-term relationship ending and all the messiness there, along with having to build up my lab, keep professional relationships going, along with keeping other friends and family happy that relied upon me and you get a very stressed out person. Life was closing in at a fast velocity, and given that the velocity gets squared, the energy required to keep it going was immense. That’s a physics reference if you’re in-the-know. Now, I concentrated on myself and healed a good bit, met someone new, focused on getting in-touch with all the good things, and doubled down on the work commitment to get me through the rough, and I feel better. Blah blah, insert inspirational line here about getting through the rough, let’s get to how my academic life had been…

I seriously turned into a professional during this time. I matured quickly to learn to cope. I bit off more than I could chew, and I definitely grew up, but I’m in a good spot. I secured a couple large public awards, one small one, and one big private one. Now to fulfill my specific aims I had to recruit this amazing set of students. And if you’ve ever seen the Avengers imagine the music as the student are all assembling and the BARELY fulfilling what I asked them to. I had to take on a decent amount of work on my own. Now, for the public money there’s always a little bit of evolution to the direction of the project. As long as we’re contributing to the knowledge-base and staying mostly on-track people are happy. My largest amount of money came in the form of a focused project from my old company. Basically it was my old job, but I got to do it in academia! Sounds fun, right? No no no no no.

Now, I blame myself for not preparing the students properly. I will not blame my students. Either I recruited wrong or didn’t educate properly. But typically a lack of skill can be compensated for with a drive to work a lot, but these students are not pulling the hours I thought they would. So I rolled up my sleeves and got dirty. I travelled abroad to meet with partners, I did all the design work and studies myself to meet these tight goals and to everyone’s satisfaction we got this project done. We’re waiting to publish because we had to do a couple human studies and these have to get disclosed in a way to protect corporate interests. I will take on this kind of project again, but I’m going to have to change the approach to ensure expectations can be met. I’ll make a post on this.

My lab finally has a decent cadence. We’re getting papers out, we’re presenting at great conferences, and I really do like my students, but I don’t like being such a grown-up. I used to mess around constantly at work, but these past two years have changed me. I’m still as immature as ever outside of work, but it’s like I can turn into a robot at work. I have to buckle down with my students, tell crying students that are about to fail a class that they’re not cut out for this, and not let all these ‘experienced’ assholes in the department walk all over me. It’s paying off, and I’m finally learning how to teach and research at the same time. And I’m focusing in on the types of students I want to hire. Overall it’s looking okay. 2015 was the worst year of my life, 2016 perked up, 2017 finally started to turn a corner, and I feel good about 2018. Hopefully no one else dies or breaks up with me, and the occasional high-impact paper wouldn’t be bad to have. I have some more ideas for posts, and hopefully I actually finish them this time around.

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.”

My background

My name is Phindustry, I used to be a spy (I loooooooved Burn Notice).

Well, actually I was someone with the mind of an academic that accepted an industry position. I never ever wanted to go into academia when I was in grad school. I hated the grants, papers, mentoring, etc. But as I got into my third year I realized I have a lot of fun in doing that stuff. But I had tuned everything I did to get into industry. So I decided to go into industry to get practical experience prior to getting back into the ivory tower.

I was undercover; learning everything I could about industry’s culture. I moved up pretty quickly, eventually controlling my own group. But as soon as I realized I was too deep: focusing only on the bottom line, not really putting as much effort into mentorship, etc. I knew I had to leave and make my way back to academia. A couple years ago I started applying and here I am in my cushy office with grad students knocking at my door and the semester about to start. My previous blog about some of my thoughts about industry can be found here (

Bottom line: until I get tenure…I’m not going anywhere.

(If you don’t get the Burn Notice references, sorry. It’s not as good as some other shows I like, but the spy thing seemed to work for this post…)