Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dating disappointment: revision

Last week, I wrote about a relationship which ended in a somewhat disappointing way, but I did not know the half of the situation. It turns out to be worse, yet more ironic, than I could have expected.

During the intial few weeks, he made strong declarations of interest, even saying that he hoped that I turned down the postdoc abroad; I felt a bit bad that I didn't reciprocate his strong initial interest, but I did get caught up in it and took his apparent assumption that this would continue as an indication that I could stop looking for signals. Then a few conferences, Thanksgiving, and the end of his semester; although he works nearly full-time during his PhD program, we saw each other in the short periods between travels and it seemed as normal as possible. During our separations, I spent time with four (!) men whom I would have otherwise dated (one of which was Gene), but I decided to be loyal to this guy so I mentioned with each that I was seeing someone and acted accordingly.

His prior relationship had ended 10 months earlier, traumatically: a long-distance relationship with a woman from the middle of nowhere whom he met while traveling; after her move to this city, he joined her, sacrificing his social life and PhD program acceptance, in reward for which she didn't have sex with him for the last year of their relationship. (And somehow it took him a year to break up with her!) The online profile that I responded to was his first venture in dating, he said. I made a joke about how I must be the rebound; he blanched and said more seriously than I'd ever seen him, "Oh, no. Definitely not." He was extremely good-looking (I thought), but did not have much dating experience, no sexual experience outside of relationships, wasn't at all sexually active for most of college, and hadn't had sex until his mid-20's.

Now, fast-forward to just before Christmas. I was at a job interview. He had no home phone; had "lost his phone" the previous week, right before leaving for a conference; and (this is where I should have been suspicious) did not show up on Skype (which he used to be on all the time b/c a family member lives abroad), so the only contact we had for over a week was by email. We had an exchange about weekend plans which turned into breaking up. The last time we spoke on the phone, we had planned to spend the weekend before Christmas together before going back to our respective families. A friend had asked me if she could stay with me that weekend. I wanted to verify that it was the weekend before Xmas and not the weekend after that we would spend together. He replied that if my friend was still available, he would love to meet her and he could have us both to dinner. I said that if he wanted to transition to being friends, I would prefer if he said something directly.

He took a "it's not you; it's me." approach: I'm everything he ever wanted in a partner, but he's just not ready for a relationship, and he truly hopes that we can be friends; at the time that seemed plausible given his neglectful and maybe abusive previous relationship, and (okay, I'm naive) because he said halfway through the email that this seems so trite, but it really is true. I replied to this email completely earnestly, buying the story that he wasn't ready for a relationship because of his past relationship, apologizing if I did anything to make him uncomfortable (since he is a pretty sensitive guy, the sort who cries randomly), and telling him about the people that I was in date-like situations with where nothing happened but I felt guilty and might have over-compensated for.

Now, the new part:

Less than a week after sending this email, I noticed on facebook that he's "in a relationship." I could not resist looking at his facebook profile. He and a girl whose name was both very unusual and sounded familiar had been leaving each other messages on their facebook walls about how cute the other was (who does this on their facebook walls?), and one of her messages even said "you're addictive too." (he recycles his lines!)

Her name was unusual, and I remembered seeing it on facebook in the fall when I was looking at the list of his friends right after we first met. Her name was long, a bit unwieldy to pronounce and when I saw it, I sounded it out a few times and wondered where it could be from, and if it was Moonbazi (not the real name of the language, but the world is too small.) The Moonbazi population is relatively large, but so concentrated that if you meet a Moonbazi, you can always ask if they are from city A or suburb B; most are from one of them, but even if they are not, half their family lives there and most are a little surprised that you know the name of the suburb. I once lived in city A, and a long-term ex-boyfriend lived near suburb B, but she was the first person I'd seen in this city, so her name stuck in my mind.

It turns out that she is not facebook friends with anyone else that I know other than this guy, so his profile is probably the only place that I could have seen her name. Nonetheless, I looked back on his facebook newsfeed (I couldn't resist) and they became facebook friends the day he broke up with me, and facebook "in a relationship" exactly a week later. So he may have reconstructed his facebook history to hide that he knew her prior to breaking up with me, and I only knew otherwise because I'd paused on her name the first time that I saw it. Looking back at his facebook newsfeed for the past week, I saw half of his status updates were presumably about her. "Mr Passive-Aggressive is happy after a great night.", "Mr Passive-Aggressive is counting the minutes to tonight.", etc. Given that they already knew each other prior to this week, I'm guessing that much of this was to communicate the relationship's existence.

Now, the irony. Of course, I googled her name. First, the last name to verify that it is Moonbazi because I was still curious and hadn't checked it out; indeed, the only other instances of the name occur in the two population centers, so it's likely, but not positive. Second, her whole name, which came up in two main places: her congratulations on at least a dozen wedding announcements and her testimonial for a how-to-get-married-ASAP tape series promoted by a right-wing religious organization that I know Mr. Passive-Aggressive would find appalling. The tape series was called something like "Marriage NOW" (the real name is even better), and after each person's testimonial, if the person got married, they put the length of time until the purchaser got married, all less than 1 year, and almost always less than 6 months). She clearly means business. My guess: Mr. Passive-Aggressive will be engaged in 6 months and married within the year.

What I'm guessing happened: Mr. Passive-Aggressive had some kind of on-going interest in this girl whom he already knew. Things developed when I was away, he felt bad about it, and he didn't know what to do. He gradually distanced himself, and maybe tried to stay ambiguous until he was sure he knew where things with the other girl was going, and tried to find a graceful way out of the situation without actually causing any rifts. My email may have made him feel more guilty since I said that I turned down the opportunities that I had purely from loyalty. He decided to reconstruct the situation to look like he had just met this girl the day that we broke up, which is completely improbable: if he wanted to make it look random, he should have picked a day several days before or after. He can't do anything about his claim that he wasn't ready for a relationship.

It's a good story. If only I could ever verify it.

Whatever happened, this was the single most painful dating experience I've had. Having had my expectations raised so high because of his abnormally strong declarations of interest and in spite of my better judgement, there was much farther to fall. What bothers me most was not losing the relationship, but the realization that there's no correct time to let down one's guard and take a dating partner's statements at face value. It would have been paranoid for me to look for signs of disinterest after he had already made such explicit statements of interest, and I'm glad that's not my habit, but such paranoia and skepticism may have been my only defense from feeling like he pulled the rug out from under me. Communicating about commitment would not have given me warning, but it would have either revealed that he did not want to commit (given this girl he apparently liked) or put the onus on him to change the relationship's state rather than making me drag it out of him; I had not felt the need to have an explicit conversation about commitment after 2 weeks of dating, but it wouldn't have been out of place given how well it seemed to be going.

Monday, December 24, 2007

No one got the postdoc

Earlier, I posted about a postdoc where initially she was extremely interested in me by the end of the interview and her interest visibly fell off. I concluded that they just weren't that into me, possibly because I owed a paper to her colleague. (The paper existed in a draft, but wasn't interesting enough to submit yet.) Not an hour after sending off the paper in question, which was in great shape I think, I got the following letter:

Dear New Postdoc,

I wanted to thank you for applying for the Postdoctoral Fellowship in Albatross Albatross and Albatross Research through the Department of Albatross at Albatross University. After an extensive search, I have decided not to offer the position to any of the applicants. I am fine-tuning the focus of the search and will be reposting the position next year for a September 2008 start.

It was delightful to meet you and hear about your interesting and diverse experiences in Albatross Albatross Research. I hope to see you at professional meetings in the future.

All the members of the search committee join me in thanking you for your day of interviews. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.


Albatross Albatross

The naive part of me is curious what she wanted and to see the next announcement that goes up. The realistic part of me knows that it really doesn't matter. She was just disappointed by the quality of the candidates and wasn't all that into me.

Which happens all the time in dating: sometimes people say whatever they have to to make the other person go away, and it doesn't matter if it's true or not. It would be funny if people sent out emails like the above to follow up on first dates.

Critiquing papers

Last week I had a critique due, my second ever "real" one. We wrote many for classes during the first year of grad school; at the time, I didn't understand why. I turned it in first thing in the morning the day after it was due. I hope that I don't forever have a black mark next to my name for that. The day that it was due was the day that I got back from my interview and had to process both the interview and guy situation, and I didn't get a whole lot done that day.

As far as I can tell, I was asked to do this critique because I was cited in the paper. I imagine that it's different in a field like history where citations are everything, but in my field people are not so thorough about the literature: the literature review simply has to include a few relevant papers, rather than being comprehensive. As I've noticed in my (overly thorough grad school) lit reviews, people often cite a source which gives a broad array of other sources rather than citing all sources individually.

This paper cited me in three different places, which was very flattering until I saw that the cites were concerned with something other than the central purpose of my paper. People don't pay enormous attention to the literature, as far as I have noticed, so only the author would bother to make any note of who should be cited where. In two places, they cited me because of my literature review, rather than citing the original authors; in that case, I just referred them to the one major researcher in the area who has many papers with many different coauthors, figuring that's something that someone else would know. In the third place, they cited me in a place which didn't make any sense, making me wonder if they had read any part of my paper besides the literature review. In this case, I really wanted to say that the implication of my paper would be for them to write a totally new paper, rather than the paper that they had written, but I kept my mouth shut. Naturally, I had a small conflict of interest: I can use all the cites that I can get, even if they are inappropriate. If they like my literature review, please go ahead!

I've reviewed two papers so far, and each time, my reaction has been the same. "This is on a topic that I really don't know anything about it," I exclaim to myself. "Someone else could deal much better than I could with all the intricate details, I'm sure. I'll probably miss a lot." And so I start reading it, and feel a bit intimidated. As I went on, though, I discovered (for both of the papers; I am sure it's not typical) that I could not only understand what the paper was doing, but also how terrible it was. It truly did not add anything at all. The first paper as much as admitted it with its title, which was something along the lines of "Some thoughts about [An Intricate But Somewhat General Subject]" and it lived up to the title: it was certainly some thoughts. They would have been very good course lecture notes. I actually wrote that in the review. Now I wonder if that was too mean.

In this case, the paper was poorly written, and I waded through quite a lot of the paper before I figured out what they were trying to say: the paper could have easily been a few pages shorter without having less content. Even after I waded through the paper and read it a few times, I wasn't sure of either its purpose or conclusions. I think the conclusion was that researchers should think more. My review ended up being several pages long, about 25% of the length of the original paper, of almost solid criticism. I did give a window of hope about how they could rework the paper, and I hope that they do, but they have dauntingly far to go.

An excerpt from my review:

The paper needs to be more clearly focused and structured: stating the questions of interest, their practical implications, how they will be answered, and then giving the results and explaining away alternative explanations.

It occurs to me now that that's the definition of a paper. I'm sure the draft that I am working on right now could use some of that too.

I know a professor who says that he takes about 15 minutes to review a paper and is much more generous that he used to be in his recommendations. I think that's probably a good approach: 15 minutes would be way too little for me, but to jump to the very heart of the paper. I spent a lot of my review nibbling around the edges looking at things like the lit review. Looking at the heart of the paper before I've looked at the tangential parts is a little scary. I can stand on firm ground to say that they should cite A and not B, since that's easy to establish, and also whether they are following basic conventions of writing like telling the reader what you're trying to do. It's even not so difficult to say whether their claims are supported by their evidence, and if they left out any logical steps; in this case, I had the (hopefully rare) situation where they gave lots of evidence but didn't reach any conclusions at all.

It's much harder to look at the central purpose of a project that someone has spent months on and figure out if the project makes sense and if they met their goal. In my mind, that's the purpose of a professor or academic advisor.
If you're doing a review in 15 minutes, that's the issue that you look at, and it's the most important question of the whole review. It's not that I'm intimidated to answer the question, but rather I feel like I might be off the cuff or missing something. Emotionally, it's a difficult statement to say that someone has just wasted their time. Especially if there is nothing to salvage.
So both times, I've read the paper over and over, convinced that the authors must have hidden some material which makes the paper good, and been surprised when I failed to find it.

The other day I went to a seminar at my university and their research was a textbook example of what (they taught us) you're not supposed to do. They're people who I think are quite smart, but I'm not even sure if there is something to salvage in their research at all. I stayed quiet while people debated minor points, and at the very end I asked about whether they considered ways to get around [the flaw], maybe an argument they could make to mitigate the problem. They were, of course, aware of the problem, but for whatever reason didn't have the ability to do better. It's not a minor flaw: any academic in a different field could find it.

It's a bit of a circle: the people in the "top" schools (which has a social meaning as well as an academic ranking meaning) are socialized to accept certain high standards and have almost a visceral urge to stay away from certain mistakes, and they end up being able to meet the high standards because they have access to the state-of-the-art knowledge and resources. People without such access don't have such a strong socialization to stay away from the flaws, and have fewer resources anyhow, so have a harder time meeting the higher standards, and perhaps have less knowledge about tricky alternative ways to get around the mistakes when there's truly no choice.

Happy Christmas to everyone who celebrates it.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Moving on. The benefits of online dating.

It's amazing what a day or so of solid sulking can do: Now I have a new friend and am going to visit an old friend.

For a solid day, I sulked. And caught up on journal reading. I thawed and ate a piece of Mr. Passive-Aggressive's birthday cake, which I'd made for a dinner party a few weeks ago. (He had gotten sick and didn't come to the dinner; since guests had brought other dessert, I froze the cake for later. A day and a half later, he went to an all-day volunteer program, and I didn't hear about his sickness again. Weird to see his avoidance in retrospect. I wonder how far back it goes.)

I found a date on okcupid with such a well-written and funny profile I thought for sure he was way more suave than I. Also very clever: he's a PhD student in a dorky field and perhaps wisely didn't mention that in his profile. He turned out to be smart, kind-of cute, and a bit neurotic, and we had a nice evening of coffee. The fact that we met online is a real benefit here. His profile and his webpage were extremely funny, in a very smart way. Really high quality humor. Yet he was not even slightly funny on the date. He didn't seem otherwise nervous or shy, but he must have been because otherwise I would have expected at least a glimmer of funniness. And I wasn't attracted to him at all. Just from the date itself, I am not sure I'd be so into seeing him again, but because we met online, I know there's more there, so I'm okay being patient to see what emerges if he gets more comfortable with me.

Meanwhile, I found a good price on a last minute fare so am off to see an old and very close friend (it's complicated!)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Liminal letdown

Phrases that people search for that turn up this blog:

  • postdoc sucks
  • postdoc letdown
  • single liminal
  • postdoc dating
  • appearance matters for marriage

I wonder if they found what they were looking for.

What is someone looking for if they are googling "postdoc dating"? There could be websites: "Postdoc Match: Because sex is hottest with someone as smart, busy, and miserable as you are!"

For that matter, what is someone doing if they are googling "postdoc sucks" or "postdoc letdown"? Are they looking for tales of woe to beat their own? Is this blog really so depressing and down about postdoc life? Are they trying to talk themselves into applying for real jobs?

"Single liminal" appears to be a term related to gastroenterology imaging, and one of my posts talked about the liminal existence between single and married. Clever semantics.

Dating disappointment

I've written so many posts about postdocs and academia that you might think that this blog was about postdocs, so I will include a dating post, since I'm sure that my readers (if there are any) were waiting on tenterhooks for an update on my romantic life.

I was totally excited about the guy whom I was dating, but had to travel a lot, so we only got to see each other between trips (mostly mine, but some of his), but he did a "It's not you, it's me" and disappeared. I've never said this about any friend of mine, male or female, but his previous relationship sounded like she was borderline abusive, and at the very least negligent. Understandably he wants to avoid falling too quickly into anything, and doesn't feel ready to have any relationship at all. It's been less than a year. Still, it's hard not to take that personally. It's always possible to be kinder or sweeter, and I feel like if he liked being around me more, he wouldn't feel like this. But there's no sense in talking about the counterfactuals. If it's meant to be, it will be.

The part which particularly sucks is that he lost his phone a couple of weeks ago before going on a trip of his own --- and I'm pretty sure he really did lose his phone. He has probably replaced his phone by now, but shows no indication of having it, and is no longer visible on Skype, and so all of this happened by email, much while I was at my interview. In theory, he wants to be friends, which seems to mean that he'll hang out in a group but not separately. He's so sweet, and I hate to ascribe any bad motive to him especially since his emails were so apologetic. He did handle the situation in the most passive-aggressive way possible, avoiding me and generally giving me the feeling that he didn't want to spend much time around me, until I said something.

Just a week or two ago, it seemed like I had so many potential dates, but these naturally seem to have evaporated.

And that's the closest thing that I have in the way of potential. As disappointing as it is to be dumped by a guy who I really liked, I'm even more disappointed to have to start going to events and online dating sites again.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Post-interview exhaustion

I'm always a bit out of sorts the day after travel. When I was in a long-distance relationship, my boyfriend and I were both a bit out of it for the day or two after each weekend of visiting, meaning the next week was always a bit off. Kids always puzzle why adults find travel to be so tiring since you are just sitting there, after all. Being an adult now, so susceptible to these forces, I really have no idea why --- the psychological displacement? different food? lack of real cooked food? --- but travel is tiring.

The out-of-sorts feeling is even worse after an interview: weeks of anticipation, days of preparation, arriving in a new place I've never seen before, two days of being "on", and then suddenly it's over. Like a date, it almost always goes well, and yet you can't assume anything until you have the signed offer letter in your hand. You only need one, and yet since the unexpected can always happen, you have to try others until one finally sticks.

Last night, I was so tired after getting back from my interview that I fell asleep fully dressed with my light on at 8 pm, and woke up at 2 and then 3 am, finally going to bed at 4 or 5 am and waking up at 8, feeling anything but fully rested. The day has somehow just passed, and I would be better off doing errands than attempting to do work. This is how last spring slipped away from me.

Rules for best research

I was just forwarded ten rules for best research.

The contrarian in me wants to find all the flaws of it, such as the fact that only a limited number of people can end up famous, but there's definitely something to it.

The temptation for me is to find the low-hanging fruit, rather than the important problems. More analogously, I have a fancy hammer and a screwdriver, and I want to go around banging all the nails sticking out of the walls and tightening all the screws. The nails and screws that I have found are important ones, and even ones that get some recognition, but I do not know that they are the most important issues.

It certainly does take courage to come up with the list of unsolved important problems, and tackle them, but you also have to be sensible about which problems are solvable. A physicist who decides that time travel is the most important unsolved problem may end up making an important contribution, but it's more likely that they could just waste their time. In that sense, the physicist would be better off finding low-hanging fruit.

Right now I am consumed with just finishing the projects that are hanging over me, and I have a hard time seeing the future. If I were so systematic as to conceive of myself as having a research portfolio, though, I could treat it as an investment portfolio, which it is. Some projects could be high risk high reward, and others could be good bets, but medium reward.

The academic labor markets as closed systems

For both undergrad and grad school, I attended universities in the top portion of the various rankings, but earlier this fall I had been dating a PhD student in the humanities at a local university. When we first started dating, I decided to see out of curiosity where his program ranked in his field, and could not find the number. His program doesn't fund its students, give opportunities for TA'ing or RA'ing, or even give tuition remission, so he pays tuition and also works virtually full time. It's a world that I was totally unfamiliar with, and my friends are also unfamiliar with it, so I actually had to explain to my friends more than once that he not only doesn't get paid, but actually pays tuition.

Despite working full time, he hopes to finish his program in only a few years, and I'm sure he will. I'm certainly more impressed with his work ethic than my school mates'; even though he has less time to do his work, it looks to me like he makes the most of his time: definitely, he doesn't watch the paint dry or read phdcomics or pursue the other hobbies of graduate students.

It originally didn't make any sense to me why someone would pursue a PhD in the humanities at an obscure school; since top-rated humanities PhDs end up leaving academia, how could someone at a less-well-rated school expect to work anywhere above high school? A survey of employment in history from a few years ago finds that PhD programs are a relatively closed system, with professors at elite schools coming from elite schools, and those at non-elite schools coming from non-elite schools. We know there aren't enough jobs for all the PhD programs' graduates, though, and indeed about 50% of graduates of elite schools leave academia, but 25% of graduates of bottom-ranked schools stay in academia. In other words, graduates of elite schools could have probably obtained academic employment, but they chose to leave their fields rather than work at non-elite schools.

All graduate students lose income due to going to graduate school, and it's usually thought that they choose to go nonetheless because they are so interested in their subject that being able to pursue this interest compensates for the loss of income. If this is true, we wouldn't expect them to leave their fields if they have the option of academic employment. I have a few hypotheses for this:

1. You can eat prestige. Grad students at elite institutions receive compensation not just in the form of the academic basics, such as access to libraries and a scholarly community, but also from the prestige, facilities, resources, social networks, and other features unique to elite schools. Jobs which allow them to be academics, without access to the unique features of elite schools, do not compensate them enough: they instead choose jobs which pay more, and which may also offer them some of the features of graduate school, such as prestige and social network access. Grad students at non-elite schools have already displayed a preference for the academic basics over income.

Universities, at least my alma maters, like to perpetuate this story of falling in love with an academic subject, and these type of decisions --- leaving academia rather than take a suboptimal academic job --- suggest that people choose to go to graduate school for reasons other than their love for the subject. Or at least that this love is fickle.

2. Time management and perfectionism: many grad students at elite institutions are perfectionists to start out with, and their institutions may also encourage this trait by setting up the norm of the scholar without external distractions as the best conditions for good academic work, and may actually even give students funding to enable them to pursue their work without outside work. Grad students at non-elite institutions work more in addition to their studies, and learn throughout graduate school how to divide their time between income-earning and scholarly activity. Alternatively, grad students at elite institutions love their subject, but simultaneously are such perfectionists that they don't see a way to study it under non-ideal conditions.

3. Social norms and role model availability. Grad students use their own professors as models. Grad students at elite schools have faculty models who put much more work into research than teaching, and put a great deal of work into only 1-2 courses per semester and delegate a great deal to teaching and research assistants. Faculty at elite schools with low teaching loads and lots of assistants may be many times more productive than faculty at non-elite schools with higher teaching loads and few/no RAs and TAs. An academic job with high teaching load and little assistance may differ radically from the conception of a grad student from an elite school. The elite school PhD may feel like a job in the non-academic sector is more similar to their idea of a faculty job than an actual faculty job at a non-elite school. They also may have few role models who could illustrate the role of non-elite faculty for them.

4. Changing preferences. Grad students at elite schools could leave academia because their preferences have changed: many enter immediately after college, before learning their preferences for money. As they get older and think about children and other things that cost money, they may realize that their preference for money is higher than their preferences for academia, so we might expect a large fraction of graduates of elite programs in the humanities to leave academia no matter what the academic labor market looked like.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A tale of two postdocs: part 1

This week, I interviewed for two postdocs, and noticed several large differences between interviewing for a postdoc versus a faculty job, at least in my field.

1. There's no hiring process, and in fact these were not really interviews. All the school's postdocs are listed on the single website with no information about how to apply or only broken links to websites, so I contacted the directors and just sent my CV and writing sample and a very short email and in both cases got an encouraging message in reply.

For one of the postdocs (Postdoc 1), the junior faculty member who would be working with me called me and we spoke on the phone for half an hour. For the other postdoc (Postdoc 2), I didn't hear anything until apropos of nothing, a grad student organizing her research center's seminar series asked me to come speak: they would just fly me in and out for the day, but they didn't mention how much time I should allow on either side of the trip for additional meetings and it certainly didn't sound like an interview.

When I told Postdoc 1, they agreed to pay for my hotel so I could stay an extra day and speak with them.

2. I had scheduled meetings with only about five people each day, compared with at least 10 per day for a faculty job. One of the postdocs tried to stretch out the interviews so that it lasted the whole day and I spent the rest of the time with the junior faculty member, so it was even more clear that I was underscheduled.

3. Lunch both days: tuna salad. Tuna salad is just fine, and in fact once I had it for a tenure track job interview, but they took us out to dinner the previous night. One day, we had a fancy dinner, but only because there was another speaker in town and we were asked to join them.

4. None of the interviews was in-depth enough for me to get a clear sense of what I could be doing. I guess I will need to spend a lot of time online and piece together information about both research programs, past work, and make some phone calls when I get back. If it turns out to be relevant.

Despite these differences, I felt like they treated me as an equal. In postdoc 1, the woman is super super smart and productive, and she is the type of brilliant who assumes that everyone is as brilliant and hard-working as she is. So in talking to her, I felt really smart and capable and it's possible that I would even be smarter and more capable working with her than otherwise. An interesting effect.

In postdoc 2, they asked me what I wanted to study, and offered lots of options, and they also held a small lunch with me with the chair of the dept and a very senior famous researcher that even a couple of the faculty at the lunch had not met before and said they were honored to meet her; she's somewhere between 70-85 years old. Everyone was very complimentary of my talk, and I was honored that both the chair and this famous researcher paid attention and actively participated and asked lots of questions both during and after the talk, including about the research that I'd like to do. [By comparison, postdoc 1 didn't attempt to introduce me to anyone, and when I tried to introduce myself to the dept chair at the holiday party, he didn't pay attention.]

Two asides:

Aside 1: At the end of dinner on Day 1, the first postdoc people said, "We're sure we'll see you tomorrow." They're in an entirely different building several blocks away, and my talk conflicted with two other talks scheduled that day that they were each hosting and then I was going to leave. When exactly did they think we would see each other? Or was that just a way of saying, "We don't want to say good-bye."

Aside 2: I met with a grad student who is very similar to me: just defended, we did the same (somewhat elite) summer program during grad school one year apart, our dissertations were similar, we have similar undergraduate backgrounds (different from our graduate field), we grew up within 5 miles of each other, look a bit similar, and she is probably about my age and also seems single.

While she was clearly smart, she was also unbelievably condescending --- I certainly hope that's not something that I have in common with her! --- but her condescension gradually peeled away. She explained her dissertation to me very slowly, and I asked some general questions of the sort that my committee had asked me but which could also come from someone totally ignorant of the topic, and she proceeded with her condescension. Finally, she gave an opening, asking me whether I had ever heard of something, and I said that my dissertation had a chapter on [basically the same topic]. So she lifted a bit of the condescension but kept on the condescension about other issues such as how urban the area is, but no we both grew up in the same urban area, so that's not different either. And then she talked about how much she knew from her summer internship, and I asked who she worked with, and she told me the people, and I talked with her about them, and she finally asked how I knew them, and I said that I had worked with their colleagues, so that wasn't different either. It was a fun process, but then when we saw each other at the holiday party we didn't talk at all.

It appears that I totally sabotaged the reason for the meeting. The purpose of meeting with this woman was for her to tell me what it's "really" like to work with the PI and the junior faculty member, but from the first five minutes of talking about this topic, she was so relentlessly positive that I didn't think that I could learn anything interesting directly, so I wanted to see what I could learn by asking her about herself to see if I could uncover anything that way. I didn't. I just found out about her own work, which was interesting, but it's honestly challenging to have a conversation with someone who is condescending to you because it's so tempting to play the game and out-do them, even though the right thing to do is to ignore the b.s.

A key difference between the two postdocs: When asked about the role of the postdoc, the PI for Postdoc 1 said: "to promote [the junior faculty member]." I am not sure whether this is an advantage or disadvantage. The advantage is that people can work together for mutual benefit: if the junior faculty member and I work jointly on projects and become collaborators and turn out lots of good work, that could be great for both of us. If the junior faculty member uses me to do her work so that she can have first authorship, and this monopolizes too much of my time, I could lose my own career at the expense of hers.

I know many people (including advisors) in common with the junior faculty member, and she seems like a genuinely good person. She may have really high expectations for work, though, so if she thinks it's okay to give me (say) 40 hours of work because in her mind a normal person works 60-70, I may feel like I'm in real trouble because I'm not good at working for so long on a regular basis.

By contrast, postdoc 2 is very poorly-defined, which could be risky, but it also seems to mean that I can work with whomever I want in a larger group, many of whom have tenure already. They also seem to have more resources available and a bigger base.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Academic exile

I had a friend from my old city visiting this weekend. She's doing a postdoc in a top-50 university completely in the middle of nowhere. She also was offered a 2 year fellowship abroad, but this was the only "real" offer, and her advisor would not let her turn it down. She doesn't know anyone except one guy who went there also from our university, there's almost no one our age to date or be friends with, and it's a very different culture and lifestyle, but she seems to be taking it very well. When I remarked on it, she said it was easy to deal with something if you don't have the choice.

It sounds like her advisor was guiding her job search from the beginning, so she only applied to viable jobs in the first place, so it doesn't have much of a reflection on her that she only got one offer since she was selective before applying. Compared with me, since last year I just applied everywhere and anywhere.

I still can't imagine feeling dedicated enough to my field that I would be willing to live somewhere without even potential friends. She's in a relatively pure field though, and for her leaving means leaving her field forever. In other fields, the lines between academia and the rest of the world are a bit more permeable in both directions, and the jobs outside are a bit more similar.

The US is gigantic, and it's a little sad that so few places are considered livable or desirable by academics. I have the sense that in most other countries, the universities are in places generally considered to be desirable to live in, or at least not too far from them, though presumably some are better than others. Of course, the US has more academic opportunity than most other countries in the first place.

Speaking of academic isolation, I saw in the NYT last month that the king of Saudi Arabia is starting a university
King Abdullah University that he intends to compete with MIT and simply giving it an endowment which will place it in the top 10 university endowments in the world. My sense is that Saudi Arabia is a totally different category in terms of freedoms allowed to foreigners than the Gulf states with emerging university systems. However, inside the walls of the university compound, the usual rules of Saudi Arabia won't apply, so they could have wine and cheese gatherings, women driving, Christmas trees and other non-Muslim religious symbols, and everything else permitted in the West (other than collaborations with Israelis, so presumably they don't intend to have fields like cryptology), but how much would they have to pay people to make them overlook the fact that they would be constrained to the compound in order to live what would be a normal life in the US. It's an interesting thought-experiment about how much commitment people really have to our Western ideals, and how many people would accept jobs there despite the restrictions. It's also an interesting question whether the people at the university will interact with the other Saudi academics, and whether the freedoms will inevitably have to filter down to the other Saudi universities, and perhaps other parts of the society. Presumably not: the oil workers are probably already allowed those freedoms without any impact on the rest of the world.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Feats of the job search: the holiday party

The unforeseen peril of a job interview during the "holiday season": needing to attend the annual holiday party for a department that hasn't even hired you.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Just not that into me: on the job search

In dating, I learned to recognize the signals of "just not that into me" even before the book came out. Even over email, a flat tone was evident in the correspondence and delays were palpably longer. Of course, it's obvious when they are into me. So it's particularly sad when there is clear interest and then it suddenly drops off.

The exact same form of "just not that into me" shows itself on the job search. Early this fall, I had an interview with what was possibly the perfect postdoc: in the small field where I've done most of my research so far, past postdocs have gone onto become faculty at the same university, great city, prestigious, and they had clearly thought about the professional development and mentorship issues, and the director was clearly considerate and respectful of her research assistants. Everyone seemed thrilled to meet me, and their enthusiasm was not even dampened by the fact that on arrival I was completely drenched due to a torrential downpour en route. As the last meeting of the day, I met again with the director, and we spoke about starting dates; she liked that I could leave my current position early, and she said that perhaps they could even let me know before the application deadline they'd issued. She also asked one question, "What's your work style?" I answered truthfully that I like to start and finish things early, though deadlines are always helpful. Totally true! I don't manage to, but I do like to, and that's definitely my goal.

Right after I got back, I sent a thank you note by email and a hand-written note as well. A couple weeks after I got back, I sent her an update with my defense date and saying that I could even start slightly earlier than I said at the interview. No response to any of this. Somehow the relationship soured. It's not mysterious: she must have spoken with someone that I used to work with, to whom I owe a paper, that I'm finishing as we speak (this week?). Maybe she even decided that I fudged my description of my work style. Once she decided she didn't like me, she could pluck little things from the interview to not like, and in the few months I was waiting to hear (having not applied to very many other things) I have assembled about three other things, including my miscalculation of the weather. I put my expected defense date as October in my cover letter, and it turned out that we couldn't find a date that everyone could meet then, so it had to be deferred to November. I miscalculated the weather and ended up wet. I acted like myself and gave my actual opinion and experience.

Similarly, this fall I had a phone interview with an academy associated with a branch of the military. I know this is controversial among some, but some of my best friends are former ROTC and I didn't have any qualms about accepting the interview, although I did repress the urge to ask when asked if I had any questions, "Just out of curiosity, do you hire lesbians?" But it seemed like a decent enough job, and certainly worth interviewing for.

For some reason, the phone chemistry simply did not work. I had been spending the morning hard at work, in a bit of a work trance, and my eyes were a bit bug-eyed from looking at my computer too much when the call came. It was my very first phone interview of the year, and I hadn't thought about the job market for several months. The very first question that I flunked was how the weather was. "Very hot," I said. Which I thought was a fine answer. It had been a bit cool, and it was pretty late in the year to still have hot weather, so I liked that it was hot. I suppose that I could have answered at greater length, but I was after all still a bit spacey from doing work. My interviewer said, as if contradicting me, "Oh, the weather here is cool and quite nice."

The job turned out to be one that I didn't want because of the teaching load, but somehow it stings that the reason they didn't pursue things with me was because I failed the small talk.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

University of Wives

My postdoc advisor is almost never in the office: between living far from the university and traveling frequently (which yields the research funds that support all of us), it's just not practical for him to come in more than a few times a month. I never got introduced to anyone, so only met the people immediately around me. At the holiday party, I met everyone else, which was overwhelming.

Meeting them all at once, I noticed something: the group at the party was almost entirely female (unusual) and absolutely everyone was married, even the graduate students. I didn't go around asking who was married or looking at ring fingers, but most volunteered it. By contrast, maybe 1/4 of graduate students where I came from were married, and maybe a bit over 1/2 by the time we all finished.

The university itself is pretty average overall, and this part of it looks like it's where the wives of people who have other reasons to be here tend to go. When one member of a dual career couple gets a top-notch offer, the other has to take whatever jobs are in the area, which are usually less prestigious, but it was interesting that in this case, such a large proportion of the people here were in the same position. Perhaps it's not surprising: the university is not top-notch, but this particular research group has funding as good and prestigious as better universities.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Working efficiently I: My previous attempts

This is the first post in a series about work habits. Americans are more comfortable talking about sex than money; since graduate students don't have any money, it seems like graduate students are more comfortable talking about sex than work habits, and they get more tight-lipped past graduation when they have to be professional. Everyone complains about how much work they have, and everyone complains about how much they procrastinate, but people rarely go into the gorey details. Sometimes, people will let loose with a vivid tale of procrastination, but they will rarely reveal the enormity of their procrastination and their feelings about it. Procrastination can sometimes truly feel frightening, like the triumph of fear or negativity over reason and motivation; our dreams of making a difference in the world get channeled into exercises of pure pointlessness. In this series, I want to explore my own procrastination and inefficient work habits, and attempt ways to surmount them.

Now that I have finished my dissertation, several projects loom before me to finish before I can start anything new: publishing two papers from my dissertation, and finishing two projects that I worked on with professors; also, there are two little projects related to my dissertation that I feel like I could do pretty quickly. I'm slightly embarrassed about the projects owed to professors since it seems to me that a normal graduate student would have finished these projects at the time that I was paid for them. Somehow, time dragged on, and my dissertation took precedence, so I shelved the projects. One of the outstanding projects probably prevented me from getting a postdoc that I applied to this year, which I had really wanted. (The postdoc advisor knew the professor I owed the project to.)

I actually have an even uglier confession: last year, I had funding to finish my dissertation, and nothing else to do, but somehow the stretching out of infinite time inhibited me. I am not sure what I did last year. Read blogs, some of which were academic. Spent infinite amounts of time at each task. Allowed my dissertation to intimidate me. Frequented online dating sites. Oh, and I wrote up my job materials, applied to 70 jobs, finished enough of a dissertation chapter to get a job talk, spent a month on phone calls, two months traveling, and a month google-stalking the tenure track job which was eventually recanted and they didn't hire anyone. Logistically speaking, I did have the time to finish my dissertation last year; I had done enough of a chapter from start to finish to have a job talk and could have found the time to finish writing it up, but somehow everything being in flux unsettled me enough that the risks of tackling the thorny parts of my own work seemed too overwhelming.

Flux is the name of the game in academia, however, so I am hoping to learn how to work within it.

Before making a new start here, I think it's important to figure out what hasn't worked for me. Last year, I had a bright idea: doing homework isn't so hard because it's finite and comes with deadlines, and sometimes professors will actually take a much larger project and break it down for students so that over the course of a semester, they will have completed a large work. At the beginning of fall semester, I took the templates that I used for constructing assignments from my time as head TA, and I wrote assignments for myself, about 8 of them altogether. Each assignment was a reasonable weekly assignment to give to students, and the initial ones were even quite easy and were suitable for undergraduates, possibly even first years.

I wrote the assignments using the tips from Boice (Nihil Nimus: Advice for New Faculty Members), not to work to excess, and to schedule the work. A college friend of mine who was also a PhD student actually happened to be in town, so we agreed to meet up in the library reading room and sit next to each other for a few hours every day as long as she was in town, and I wrote the assignments during this time, which took only a few days. I felt so organized to have a small pile of assignments for myself, which looked like real assignments that I gave to students. I think I even put my name and a "course name" in the upper left corner.

When I actually started the assignments, in retrospect I didn't push myself hard enough. If I came to an obstacle that I couldn't push through in the time I'd allocated, I would stop, and the next day I would dread coming back to the work, so I would decide it was a great time to work on my CV or look for more jobs.

I knew that completing my dissertation would be a challenge, so I even started working with a therapist, but she found my procrastination problems understandably boring and petty, as they are. Procrastinating is virtually universal, though people engage in it to a greater or lesser extent, but it just sounds so silly to come out and talk about why exactly you're procrastinating. When it's someone else's procrastination, it seems like the answer is just to do the darn work, and it doesn't seem like there's anything to talk about. Maybe you can even get specific and give the trite advice to break down the task into small bits. Therapists may be more used to talking about interpersonal issues than intrapersonal ones; certainly, this therapist found it much easier to talk about my relationship with my advisor and department, my job search, and my dating quandries. Ironically, the therapist that I started seeing in order to advance my dissertation became another vehicle for procrastination, in which I would instead think of other parts of my life instead of my dissertation. The counselor was free through the university health center, so even though I wasn't getting what I came for, I didn't feel like I wasn't getting my money's worth, so just kept going.

Over time, the assignments got a bit wrinkled and water-stained at the edges from being carried around, and when I came back to them during this final push to finish my dissertation, I discovered only several pages, from which I could extract only a subset.

In high school, I was really good about starting my work ahead of time, even in difficult courses, and I relished feeling oblivious to deadlines because I'd finished the work long ago. In college, I felt overwhelmed, partly because I took more difficult courses than I had to. Nonetheless, for a few isolated semesters in college and graduate school, I had that lovely tranquil feeling of order that comes from going to bed early the day before a deadline and opening my folder the next day to the completed assignment, which I hadn't seen since completing it a few days before.

While my life will never again be quite as neatly packaged as a school assignment, I think that I can teach myself to avoid working to deadline.

I can extract one lesson from my past attempts: as important as it is to break things into small tasks and not do too much at any one time, it's also important to push through obstacles, perhaps to make sure that I accomplish in each session one difficult thing that I dread, if there is one.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The best defense: a good offense?

I defended my dissertation last month, so am now officially Dr. New Postdoc.

I've heard many stories of dissertation defenses involving renegade faculty members taking out their frustrations on their rival's student. My department doesn't have any such rivalries that I'm aware of, but having had challenging encounters with faculty members at my past research seminars, I was slightly nervous and at the same time relishing the prospect of such an encounter. We have smart people, but I've never had the sense that anyone thinks they're smarter than I am, so the challenging exchanges can be pretty fun.

The few weeks before my defense, I was preparing to travel and then traveling, so didn't get the chance to forward the email invitation to ask people personally if they would come to my defense, in either the literal or figurative sense. I'd just forwarded it to a few friends because the announcement looked so official, even just by email. The department distributes the announcement to everyone attached to the department, including people I'd considered mentors. The day before my defense, my older and wiser friend asked me who I'd invited. Uh oh! I didn't realize I was supposed to invite anyone. I figured those who would consider themselves connected to me would see it, and decide to come. Realistically, on a Friday afternoon in the peak busy season of the semester, I knew it was unlikely many people would come, but somehow I thought someone might.

Instead, not even all my committee members came and one left 45 minutes early. My defense was me and all but one of my committee members and a phone in the middle of the table through which the disembodied voice of the famous committee member spoke. I was asked to limit my talk to 20-30 minutes, and was told 10 minutes before the defense that one of the committee members would have to leave 45 minutes early, so my defense would in total be 1 1/4 hours instead of the 2 hours planned. Compared with every other committee meeting I've had, it was a total cakewalk. They suggested one new small change, deliberated for five minutes, and then everyone left with friendly wishes of good luck. My advisor's farewell was, "I will keep my eye out for your papers; I look forward to seeing them."

After six years, it was suddenly all over. Everyone left the room, and I was left alone with my career, 45 minutes earlier than planned.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

In memoriam: academic suicides

John Blodgett Edwards, a Harvard sophomore was found dead in a fourth floor bathroom at the Harvard Medical School New Research Building at 11 pm Thursday night with a plastic bag over his head and a bottle of chemicals nearby.

Right now, undergraduate and graduate students around the country are preparing final papers, taking exams, regretting all that they didn't do, and vowing that next semester will be better. I've ended my student days, but I remember vividly how overwhelming it can feel, with everyone feeling like they have their own personal anvil suspended above their heads by a fraying string, eroded further by each additional challenge.

Everyone would like to believe that the suicides are different from the other students, but the research that I'm aware of shows that suicides differ from others primarily in the opportunity. Gun owners commit suicide at higher rates than non gun owners, with guns that they have owned for a long time, and many unsuccessful suicides do not attempt a second time, indicating that the urge to commit suicide did not cause them to buy a gun; rather they had the gun when the urge for suicide came. Another part of the opportunity is isolation.

In these cold days of diminishing light when everyone is absorbed in their own work, some students feel an overwhelming despair. When everyone around them is feverishly absorbed in the enormity of their work, and social exchanges are hurried and rushed, students have many more opportunities to feel alone and overwhelmed.

My high school classmate who committed suicide during college did so during the end of the term of the spring semester. I remember finding out about the suicide while rushing from one thing to the next, finishing a paper. A close friend who attempted suicide did so during exams, when regular classes and activities are suspended, in theory to allow people to concentrate fully on their studies. In reality, students isolate themselves, and the average student finds themselves pursuing pointless feats of procrastination.

Few students, even those who feel themselves coming close to the brink of mental collapse, will confide their anguish to others. The best that we can do is always to be human to each other. A smile and a friendly word are simple gestures, and it seems naive to say this, but reaching out just to be friendly can cut through others' isolation and despair, even just slightly. Colleges may follow this suicide with new restrictions on the availability of chemicals to undergraduates, and more psychological counseling. What might make a bigger difference is individual faculty members making the effort to prevent the feverish and despairing self-absorption by distributing work more evenly throughout the term, with firm deadlines to prevent procrastination. Procrastination is part of human nature, and the end of the term will always be more busy than the beginning, but the self-absorbed despairing frenzy that many students fall into at the end of the term could be reduced, at least a little, with some thought and effort.

College students feel themselves to be adults, and legally they are. As robust and self-assured as they seem to be, though, some students' mental health is far from robust. And yet they're thrown into an environment where they are living alone for the first time, negotiating the adult world of available sexuality and substance use, figuring out what they want to be when they grow up personally and professionally, and, in most but the most intimate small colleges, taking courses which are both intellectually challenging and structured by faculty preoccupied with their own research, rather than pedagogy.

Suicides are tragic but rare, but the isolation and despair that lead to the suicides are widespread. I hope that university communities react to tragedies such as this one by remembering to reach out to others with a light touch, and to plan their courses to diminish students' isolated despair.