Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What not to say on a date: obese version

I went on a date with a guy who turned out to be not merely obese, but the kind of obese where the stomach starts to droop over the genitals, definitely on the way to morbid obesity, if not already there.

He had dropped some TMI in an email saying he doesn't drink alcohol (he'll tell me later).

He didn't do anything that weekend other than get his oil changed --- he couldn't at least make something up? --- and he didn't seem to have any hobbies, so for 40 minutes we swapped pet and family stories. He told me about his job as a professional nay-sayer at a phone company, his siblings, his dog, his siblings' dog, and his dog's siblings.

The dog was good because the dog helped his father with his sleep apnea by waking him up whenever he stopped breathing. Dog's definitely better than a CPAP machine. Which his doctors want him to have because he has sleep apnea too. Getting diagnosed was a real pain. After two years of constant headaches, he had to sleep one night in a lab tethered to machines, and during the one hour he actually slept in the lab, he stopped breathing 6 times. Anyhow, all the medications he has to take are incompatible with alcohol, thus fulfilling his promise to explain why he doesn't drink alcohol. So he's willing to take pills, but he draws the line at a CPAP machine. Or, apparently, weight loss surgery.

Poor guy. He probably thinks I'm not interested just because he's obese, rather than because he is both obese and boring.

I surrender to the job market.

It happens this way every year. I tell myself that I'm not going to go on the job market, except for really exceptional positions. This year, I just sent two applications, one of which was solicited directly by the school.

And then I ran across one at a fantastic small liberal arts college, one that I almost attended for undergraduate in fact, so I have had a bit of a crush on the college for a long time (if such a thing is possible). So I applied there. And then to two more comparably-ranked small colleges, both in barely-tolerable locations; I think I met a guy at a conference who used to have one of those jobs. The web form asked if I had department contacts. I didn't know whether to list him, but I figured I may as well. So now a total of five applications.

And the idea of earning a real salary next year in a tenure-track job, especially in the wake of unknown economic turmoil, sounds really good. So I've identified a sixth job. And then I'll go into an orgy of professional association and job listing websites, which I'm guessing will culminate in a total of 20 applications.

So I need to open up a new excel file to list everything. Which I was convinced wasn't going to happen.

Anything to avoid real work.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Weekend update

It's nice to be wanted

Being in a postdoc that can last more than one year, I've not spent much time on job applications. I've just applied to two, so far.

One job I got via email and asked the person running the search if I should apply, and he said yes.

The other, the search committee chair actually emailed me to tell me about the job and said that he hoped I would apply. This job is particularly promising for a funny reason. I had a famous committee member Joel who had a female student Alberta whom I had heard lots of positive things about. I asked Joel to write a recommendation for me, and accidentally he made it non-confidential, so the dossier service actually let me read Joel's letter, which said that I reminded him of Alberta.

While writing the cover letter, I noticed that Alberta just started a new faculty position at this school! So what a great argument: this famous faculty member thinks I am like one of their current faculty members.

Though then I saw her picture, and I realized that it's possible that he was just saying we look alike.

Doing this particularly targeted job application process is surprisingly non-stressful. I worked with someone on the research proposals in my cover letter, the reason I procrastinate applications, and so far all I've had to do is insert a few additional sentences specific to the school. Now it's tempting to try others!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dating tip #432: Effective email

If someone wants to go out with you, they'll say yes no matter what you propose for a first date as long as it's reasonable. If they don't want to go out with you, they'll say no no matter what you propose. Or at least they should. When I was 23, a 46 year old asked me to the ballet, and I was very tempted to go, but I didn't.

(Corollary: the same holds for initial emails on a dating website.)

I got a very sweet email from someone a couple years ago listing about eight possible first dates ranging from coffee and dinner to picnicking at a specific park with hot chocolate in a thermos (seriously).

And just now I got a similar one, not excessive in number, but just in TMI and nervous online laughter: coffee, dinner, drinks (but he doesn't drink, he'll explain it later lol), pool (location specified), bowling lol. Nervous laughter in person is embarrassing, but we all do it and usually can't help it. Nervous laughter in email is completely preventable.

I don't mean this to sound sarcastic. I've just been dating long enough that I've gotten over my natural tendency to write overly long and detailed emails because I'm nervous, so I've learned the value of simplicity for faking confidence.

- "Hi, I really liked X and Y about your profile because I do/am Z and W. Question related to X or Y? Follow-up question? Generic smalltalk question? Statement related to generic question. Have a good weekend/Wednesday/etc."

- "Coffee or dinner? What day/time works for you?"

That is everything I wish I knew 4 years ago about initiating correspondence and meetings.

Choosing a mentor

My advisor is a great guy, but more of a "super-mentor": he'll advise me, but he has evolved beyond even being a PI so he doesn't really have any projects of his own --- some are farmed out elsewhere, plus there are others in the department doing relevant work. Now that I've sent off my last paper, I am choosing new projects, which means choosing additional mentors.

During college and grad school, I've had many mentor relationships. Initially I started out looking for subject matter that interested me, but I'm enough of a deletante that practically everything sounds interesting to me, so I realized that the quality of the mentor mattered more than the quality of the project. It's possible to find an interesting angle on many subjects, but not possible to make an indifferent mentor better. I haven't always stuck with this rule, but when I have, it's been really helpful.

The first RA-ship that went well for me led directly to grad school. I was applying for an RA at a research center the summer before graduation, and interviewed with two advisors. The one whose research sounded totally boring and whose academic background wasn't similar to my interests turned out to be the nicest guy and we had a great conversation that lasted well longer than it was supposed to --- very much like a good date. The one who did a wide range of interesting research and had an academic background like the one I wanted to get turned out to be the rational sort who doesn't really try to connect with people. I went with the former, and while the project was a little random, it was a success. I stayed motivated the whole summer (although I also remember an extensive email correspondence with the guy I had a crush on then; who wasn't, in the end, interested in spite of spending 2 hours a day emailing me.), and created out a project that I'm still proud of. While presenting the project, I met a woman who served on my committee and was one of the most helpful members. I haven't gone back to the subject matter, but it helped me get into grad school, so that's worth something.

By contrast, the advisor who I did not have chemistry with ended up being my first academic advisor in grad school and a complete disaster.

The rule does not always work, though. In early/mid-grad school (grad school was long enough that it not only has a middle, it also has a beginning of the middle), I had an RA-ship with a fantastic professor. He was always in his office and available to talk, and dropped nuggets of advice about academia, and had us to his beach house for a day every summer (and not to dig him a pool, as I heard from someone who was a grad student in the early 70's: a professor asked them to his beach house and they were all excited, and when they got there, he handed them shovels. And they actually constructed the tennis court or pool or whatever.) He sat down with me and walked me through writing my first paper, which got well-published. I could not have done the writing without him. So it was really a great relationship. My research for the center was not so exciting, but he was accessible and helped my own research along.

And then at the very end of the paper-writing process, he put his name on my paper. He made some "track changes" edits in Word, one of which was adding his name to the authorship line. I checked the journal's authorship guidelines and writing help was not sufficient for being an author (thank god for authorship guidelines! I had thought before they were a formality, but hadn't realized how much they protected junior people!), so I told him that he didn't qualify and sent back the next revision without his name. Next edit comes back to me with his name put right back in the authorship line.

I spoke with my (male) advisor and with the (female) director of graduate studies and got two conflicting pieces of advice: keep him on because he deserves something for his time and no way in hell should he get authorship on a paper that he did not do the actual work. I listened to the latter, dropped him from my committee, and dropped a chapter of my life. (E.g., I can't say that I once worked in his research area.) And I never completely trusted my advisor's advice again. So the "good mentor" rule of selecting research projects does not always work. I couldn't have foreseen that difficulty from any of my prior interactions with him or from anything anyone had ever told me.

I'm thinking a lot about these lessons as I'm choosing my next projects. I'm meeting some genuinely nice people and some politically nice people. And junior faculty, who can't really afford to be nice at all. The politically nice people are the department chairs and others who manage large numbers of people, and while they all seem nice it's always a matter of inference how nice they are in reality. Somehow the politically nice people are disproportionately tall, male (even in heavily female departments), and not overweight.

The genuinely nice people are the sorts who could fit in very well as small college faculty, and really like to mentor. I met one today. We had a meeting with a politically nice person, a junior faculty member, and him. The meeting closed with the politically-nice guy saying, "One thing you'll find about [this university] is that everyone is friendly and accessible." I smiled and said "Great!" because I found that idea completely laughable, but they probably interpreted my smile as agreement and "great" as non-sarcastic. After the meeting, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed because they'd just listed about half a dozen projects I could join, and I ended up speaking with the senior nice guy in the hallway as we walked back to our respective places (naturally, the meeting was in the political guy's corner office), and he gave me some much-needed and sensible-sounded overview advice and he sent me 4 emails within an hour of the meeting with background materials.

(Interestingly, he is short. I wonder how many of the good advisors are short, versus political ones are tall. A short male friend of mine once turned me onto this advantage that tall men have, and I read a book about it, and I keep noticing examples.)

So I'm excited. One potential project has a guy who wants to hug my advisor. Another one dispenses sensible advice. Some progress! Now I just have to do my part and come up with something.

Academic sweetness. Really!

I'm finding new projects now, and my advisor referred me to a collaborator 500 miles away whose work I'd always admired, but I'd never investigated because I didn't want to live where he is. Which is good in itself.

But also: the collaborator, equally senior to my advisor, told me to give my advisor a hug for him because "He's one of the most wonderful people!"

How sweet: my advisor's collaborator wants to hug him! Which says a lot about both of them. I hope the collaborator is interesting and as full of good will as he sounds.

The vigilant reader might remember that the first 5 minutes of the very first research group meeting I went to (for a research center in my department not affiliated with my advisor) was spent with two of the four people there complaining about my advisor and how mean he was.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

NPR in a small town

I had dinner with some faculty in a small college town. Someone mentioned a 5 minute piece on an entertainment NPR show broadcast that weekend. The probability that someone would hear a random 5 minute snippet on an NPR show could be fairly low since it's only 5 minutes, but it turns out everyone had heard it.

Faculty media diets really are more standardized than McDonald's ingredients.

Hard copy vs. electronic applications

I applied for a job that asked for hard copies. Since it's such a pain to do that and it costs more to have the dossier service send hard copy, I always send the application in electronic copy and ask if they would like a hard copy as well. I have yet to have anyone ask for the hard copy, and I've gotten interviews from these applications, so I know someone is reading them. I was the runner-up to a tenure-track job at a good school under these circumstances, in fact.

I thought my record was broken when I got the mail:

Thanks for expressing your interest in our [position]. We are very much looking forward to reading your work. We can only accept applications in hard copy, so I encourage you to send it to me later this week; in the meantime, I will hold your electronic copy.

So I wrote that on my to do list, and had been home from Thanksgiving for several hours when I got an email that the administrator's computer had crashed. She needs all the applications again, and I can send by email or FedEx the hard copy. As if those are budgetarily the same thing. I resent my email.

The response then came: "Perfect! We're all set, [New Postdoc]. Many thanks."

So it looks like I don't need to send a hard copy, after all.

My record remains perfect. I am guessing that since I sent it on the deadline, the committee wanted to meet right away and needed the applications right then.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

That green monster

I am completely jealous of one of my middle cousins who is 10 years younger. He went to the state school, on his way to med school, is buff and athletic and socially-skilled, beats me at most skill board games, has the surgeon personality which though obnoxious is effective, and has a beautiful, smart, pleasantly confident, put-together girlfriend applying to medical school as well and is way too nice to dislike, though I think she doesn't care too much for me.

On the other hand, I think he is jealous of me as well, which is kind-of silly. I went to an elite college, and I take for granted that I could go from there to any top school in the country in any subject that I'm good at and that I know people in influential positions in a variety of areas. I could have even gotten into med school, though I didn't think so at the time, so didn't even bother taking the rest of the classes and looking into applying.

He started ramping up in math classes at the end of college and as a post-bac applying to med school; while discussing the class he's taking, I let it slip that I took the class my freshman year of college (truly accidental! I didn't realize how competitive it sounded to say casually in the middle of my questions of which text they're using and which part of the course they're in right now that I took it freshman year). Though we actually went through it faster.

I know two and a half more languages than he does, though feel too shy ever to practice any of them, so he is more fluent in the languages that he knows. And I'm more ethnically literate, though that's mostly because school was kicking my ass and I needed another dimension to my life.

And I have crucial qualities that he might not even know to be jealous of. I am a good writer. Though I have no clinical training, I have been told many times that I have a good bedside manner and that I'm good at helping people with their problems. I am an effective teacher, not just for being articulate which he is also, but because I understand a range of students (as a friend says about himself, my transcript is distinguished as much for the diversity of grades as for the quality of them.)

But it is nonetheless frustrating for my cousin to be a foil for my own regrets, especially now that he has a girlfriend to be a female foil. They are 10 years younger and already more put together than I am: a committed relationship, more earning and employment potential, thinner, more confident and socially-skilled, and harder-working with an incentive to continue to be.

The only leg up I have on them is having experienced more challenges, both external and internal, making me more compassionate. But challenges don't necessarily equate to greater resilience; in many cases, it's better not to have had them at all. (E.g., at the extreme, someone with PTSD has had life experience, but they would be better off without it.)

Thinking of all of this, I appreciate Alan even more. He's had challenges, and as a result seems effortlessly compassionate and patient.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bingeing, or why Boice is right

Boice emphasizes the importance of timely starting and stopping, and I am starting to understand the latter better.

Yesterday I was sitting in the departmental seminar, and it was one of those "where things are going" broad lectures, so I started thinking about my own work and sketched out a paper based on some work that had been excised from a journal article I wrote. The material is substantial enough that I could turn it into its own paper, and possibly more than one, so I sketched out what I could do.

I stayed late, and actually worked. When I left the office at 8, I was convinced that I could produce a rough draft of a paper by Thanksgiving, if not sooner. On my way to the train I realized I had forgotten a small adjustment, but usually it doesn't matter. As soon as I got home, I tried it out and once I made it, everything I had seen disappeared. Nothing, apparently. I continued working until 11.

First thing in the morning, I sketched out a logical approach that would figure out whether the previous night's failure was indeed a failure. It was.

I flailed for the rest of the day, making tentative stabs, doing mindless things which might be either productive or totally useless while watching internet TV. I should have just gone to a bookstore or for a walk to clear my head.

If I had been more moderate and stopped early yesterday, I could have avoided the delusion and thus the later disappointment, which is what made me unproductive. Better just to be open and have good will and optimism that eventually something will work.

New projects

I am almost at the point of submitting my last paper from my dissertation to a journal, so I am able to start new projects, but it's really hard to get started.

1. Making connections is not easy. My advisor is wonderful, but does little research himself, so I have a vague list of people to meet with. A senior faculty member closely associated with my advisor (i.e., it seems almost mandatory to work with her, and I like her a lot, so want to) said I could join a project that a junior member was working on, but the junior faculty hasn't answered any emails yet. I sent one in September and one in early November, and then wrote the senior to ask her whether the project still needs help.

Another senior member gave me some material, but they have already published on the area, and it's not clear that I have anything left to do with it. I can learn some new techniques and see whether they yield anything, or I could just move on until I find a better project to work on. But that requires sending more endless streams of emails to make appointments to meet more people, and also explain why I am writing so late. But I think that's what I have to do. I have a whole list of such people.

2. I am not used to not making clear progress. Of course part of academia is dead ends, but I haven't had any dead ends since beginning the last of my dissertation research about 3 years ago. All of my dissertation papers began as class projects with deadlines, so I while there was lots of work to do and small failures in the past 3 years, I had already done enough work that I knew the basic ideas were all sound.

The progress of writing is slow, but at least you know it is progress. Rarely does anyone make prose worse by editing, and writing longer just provides more material that can be distilled into a final version. I am starting to idealize the old days of struggling to sit down to write.

3. I met with the department chair first thing yesterday morning. He seems like a laid-back guy, but I sat in his class on the first day of school to see what it was like and heard him say that there are no extensions on papers because "Every minute of every day is scheduled, and when I grade papers, I block out a period of time for that and do them then. If I do not have your paper then, there is literally not a minute in my day that can accommodate more grading."

Indeed, this appointment was made a month in advance. The train has been quick and on time for the three months that I have lived here, and for the first time ever it got stopped on the tracks for 15 minutes, making me 10 minutes late for the 30 minute appointment.

It got worse once I was actually there. I told him that I had many choices to make, and wanted to ask his opinion what were the most fundable areas. He seemed to think that I was saying that I didn't fit into either the department or with my advisor. I emphasized the great number of choices that I had and wanted to ask advice from as many people as possible. And then he proceeded to tell me some specific research areas that he personally finds interesting. He didn't say anything about funding, though perhaps if he is interested in them, they are fundable.

The combination of not having clear people to work with or a project with clear potential makes me feel unbalanced.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My life as sitcom

Last night, my neighbor introduced me to the sitcom the Big Bang Theory. For those like me who haven't watched television consistently since Murphy Brown, TBBT is about 4 male Caltech professors, two of whom live across the hall from a cute blonde aspiring actress. Many canonical nerd types are represented: high-strung asexual mathematician/theorist, neurotic oversexed Jews, quiet undersexed South Asians, borderline cool but still socially awkward types, and bitchy cold emasculating women (a side character). Leaving aside the last, which is offensive but makes me reflect whether I am anything like her, it's extremely entertaining to see academia in sitcom format.

Of course having watched the first episode with my neighbor, I went home and immediately watched another 9 episodes online through Chinese and Spanish pirate websites, sating my curiosity. Having seen so many in such a short time, the format is stuck in my head, in much the same way that I found myself thinking in Onegin stanzas after reading most of Eugene Onegin in one sitting.

So I have started thinking that my life fits well into sitcom format.

1. My neighbors introduce potentially interesting plot elements.
- The girl across the street is a cute lesbian friend-of-a-friend taking a break from a long-standing relationship.
- The neighbor who introduced me to TV lives just 50 feet away and I am constantly passing his door: he's 6 years younger, politically Conservative bordering on offensive, and seems to have a crush on me (he's very cute, and you can't beat the convenience; alas not marriageable).
- Two girls live down the block, and sometimes spending time with them feels like Good Cop, Bad Cop. The Good Cop is so fun, and some part of me really likes the Bad Cop (the other part wonders if she hates me). Minor characters.
- Newly irreligious 6 years younger cute aspiring writer of distinguished lineage whose parents still don't know, who sees me either as a potential friend or as potential sexual practice.
- A good-looking older guy across the neighborhood I know from grad school has photogenic weirdness such as speaking earnestly and openly about spirituality and illness. Regrettably I feel discomfort and have a constant urge to flee him. He's the one who made me take the morning off to drive him to get his wisdom teeth out, and then left email and voice messages for the next few days about dry socket.

2. My work includes both popular appeal and irony, and my advisor is good-humored and avuncular.

3. My personal life is a humorous mess:
- Hermit ex-boyfriend who (inexplicably and probably regrettably) I love, but it cannot be because he is so dedicated to his hermetic existence he is not sure he can share an apartment with a spouse, much less have kids. If he finds a spouse, she can live across the hall, but he also likes to joke about dying alone. I'm his major point of contact with the world, and advise him on his work. Which is also full of popular appeal and irony.
- Aforementioned 7 year guy and Alan are good foils: very smart and socially awkward elite PhD WASP who runs marathons vs. not so smart but emotionally attuned ethnic guy who was the only one to fall in the mud when we went hiking.

4. My past and elsewhere includes colorful characters:
- Relatives who had a sudden conversion to either fundamentalist Protestantism or did the Hansen's law ethnic thing.
- One ex was a cool hippie who spoke earnestly about which legumes are easiest for him to digest and how he could find out a lot about himself by putting sesame oil in his first urine of the morning and observing how it disperses. (We actually did this, and found it just stayed in a blob, which is not mentioned as a possible outcome.)
- A friend who has never dated anyone ever for no apparent reason, although now her perpetual singleness has just become self-perpetuating, but she has humorous self-deprecation to an art.

And so on.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The disadvantage of rarely having appointments

After a week of working at home somewhat sporadically and inefficiently, so not going in, and definitely not looking at my calendar, I missed an appointment with my advisor in a downtown coffeeshop. At least I was actually doing work at the moments I should have been on the train to meet him: preparing for journal club and emailing with the grad student organizer, so I have an alibi.

Fortunately he was running late, and his assistant emailed me to tell me he was going to be late, so I remembered the appointment at all. I dressed quickly cursing myself and wondering if I would show up at the meeting with tears streaming down my face, but grateful that I showed no inclination of crying. But realized with a sinking heart that I also had to call. Even driving I couldn't make it there in a reasonable time.

I dialed the 9 digits, and held my finger over the 10th. I thought about hanging up, but I knew that I had to make this phone call and if I wasn't going to dial the last digit now I was going to have to dial it in a minute. So I pressed the last digit.

I told him, and he said in a somewhat joking manner "You're standing me up!" I said I felt really stupid about it. He said that he could make me feel really stupid, but really it was better just to reschedule, and he was running late too and was meeting someone else there in a little while.

Oh my gosh, I love him. And if I were a different person I would vow always to look at my calendar first thing in the morning, and actually do it. But I don't have that much faith in myself that I won't forget a meeting again. Particularly not in the beginning of a winter post-time-change not-going-to-the-gym not-wanting-to-be-in-my-windowless-and-phoneless-office funk.

Tomorrow I have to take a friend to get his wisdom teeth out early in the morning, and it occurred to me with a start that I might not remember that either.

At least now I am dressed and wearing my coat. And I would like to make my weekly tally of office visits be at least two: today, in addition to Monday.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Poster rules

Edward Tufte has books and there are entire webpages about him, but this is how I would summarize rules of good posters since now I am apparently an expert. I'm sure there are different ways to think about it, though.

- Nothing irrelevant to the research, especially no clip art or background pictures or stock photos. At gigantic conferences, I saw the following examples: E.g., medical-related poster with a gigantic picture of a generic member of the patient population, such as a random baby or old person. Worse, but fortunately rarer: that picture in the background with the poster text on top of it. Still worse: a rainbow background behind the text for no apparent reason. Not fatal, but unnecessary: decorations along the corners for no reason, such as an ivy frame or a few different colors. Related Powerpoint phenomenon that I've seen even faculty do: clip art animations that are either irrelevant or tangential to the text. Once I saw a fire engine rushing across the top of the slide to douse a fire. Over and over again. And the presentation had nothing to do with fire or fire engines or emergencies.

- Tables are easier for the writer, but difficult to understand in the brief time a reader is willing to look at your poster, so use plots whenever a table would take a lot of time to understand.

- Very concise text. Strunk and White and then cut it down further. Just the text of an abstract explained can be an entire poster.

- Follow rules for good data display: e.g., no pie charts, no chart junk, no 3d bar graphs, avoid other bad data display issues.

- Organize the data for the reader: put it in an order that allows the reader to see patterns.

- Omit every mark that is not strictly necessary, e.g., most tick marks in enumerated lists.

- Use color to illustrate or organize your data and text, but not otherwise.

Even with Murphy's Law

I went to a conference recently where everything went wrong. This is a conference that practically everyone in my PhD program goes to, primarily for job interviews, but I skipped that year for whatever reason. When I submitted last spring, I figured I would be on the job market. After deciding not to do much job applications, I decided to go anyway because it fit in conveniently, and I thought I had a decent chance of winning the poster award. Partly because my research I submitted is solid and of interest, but mostly because most people don't know the rules of graphic design. I am not very good at it and don't have an artistic eye, but I do know the rules a la Edward Tufte and >90% of posters violate them.

1. I ordered my poster from the internet with very little time to spare. I missed the first day of the conference waiting for UPS because my friend said they came early, and only got to go to the evening social event.

2. The poster company left off part of the address and I forgot to add part of the address, so UPS wasn't able to deliver.

3. I was staying with a close friend who got irritated with me and I didn't realize this until he was already irritated, but after all this I had to ask for a ride to the UPS depot.

4. I ordered the wrong size: they had foam board of a certain size, and I ordered 6-8" too big in each dimension, so had to cut up a second foam board and attach it to the first to make it bigger, and then come up with a way of getting the whole thing to stand up, and there were raggedy edges on the side and top, and mine was clearly a different size than others'.

And my irritated friend was no consolation for any of this. "Most of the problems are all you. Sure, it's an honest mistake to misremember the size, but did you see anyone else who had the same problem?"

5. While waiting for my poster, I put up an 8x11 version on a piece of foam board and while I was gone it got splashed with coffee since it was right across from the coffee urn. Fortunately the same thing didn't happen with the real poster.

6. I didn't know anyone at all. Well, to modify that: I didn't know anyone at all, except the incoming president of the professional organization who was faculty in my program whom I got along quite well with. Which is like being at a wedding where you only know the bride or groom.

Usually I find people at conferences are happy to talk with strangers, but met lots at this one who weren't.

Typical interaction: I took the bus to go the < 1 mile from the conference to the social event in an attempt to be social. Three chattering girls sit down next to me and keep talking for 10 minutes about one of their job market travails without acknowledging me. I get tired of pretending to read the program and introduced myself, not intending to stop their conversation, but making me no longer invisible. They stop their conversation and look kind-of upset about it.

Another interaction: on the way back, we were in a crowded elevator and there was a guy 6" from me talking about public transportation with someone, so I asked him about it. After we get off the bus, he practically runs to the train station, and then as we are standing next to each other at the computer ticket-buying machines completely ignores me, and rushes away and to the other side of the platform. I didn't want to be his best friend. Sheesh.

I did sit down with random people at a table and talk with most of the people there, but came away with nothing professionally relevant. One woman was an assistant dean at a local university and mentioned her past job involved a lot of travel, so I asked what her husband did that he could relocate so easily. She said he was a "well-known successful journalist". Oh.

But I was going to this conference because I thought that I had a good chance at the poster award, and. . . . nonetheless I won one of the awards for the poster session, given to 6% of the poster presenters! It's the first award that I've ever won for my work since freshman year of college. (My CV has about 15 lines under the honors section, but it's mostly travel grants and grad school funding.) So I'm thrilled.

At the poster-related social event, after all my experiences I didn't bother trying to socialize. Most of the "congratulations" that I got seemed like the double-edged jealous type where they might be looking for all the non-merit-based reasons I got the award (e.g., hot topic) or reasons they think I shouldn't have gotten it (e.g., lots of white space), rather than genuine. I didn't want to hear any more of them than I had to.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Alternative careers for PhDs: air traffic controller

I'm not entirely serious, but today's NYT article about the training of air traffic controllers makes it sounds pretty appealing: lots of problem solving, interaction, good pay, job security (not enough of them) at least until artificial intelligence gets really good.

Their pay exactly parallels PhDs' pay: 19k per year during grad school, 30k per year during the next stage of training, and then up for real people, up to over 100k.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


The young researcher down the hall had, in fact, committed suicide, but thankfully not in the office. The office was nonetheless a crime scene. Drug addiction was involved, but it wasn't an overdose. I wonder if they found signs of drugs in the office.

Unfortunately, the person I got this information from was their former officemate. Which made it slightly weird that someone who had never met this person was asking.

My glam single life

I feel like such a stereotype of an unmarried educated woman. I have been reading NYC glam-single lit lately, like Candace Bushnell's original Sex in the City book and Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, so I've been conscious of the trade-off between career and family, and how jealous everyone is of the other.

With this set-up I went to dinner at a guy I knew from college, also a postdoc. Their 2 young kids were asleep, so it was just his MD wife and a couple of guests described as "another couple" who I assumed would be around the same age as us. I felt a little weird about being the fifth wheel, but that's not totally unusual that in a group of a few people over 30, lots of them are married. It turned out that the couple was engaged and still in college, so about 10 years younger, and I no longer felt strange about it: they're more of an outlier than I am!

I felt stereotypical in two ways. First, while we were catching up about our mutual college friends, when I asked about a guy who I'd hung out with a lot, his only comment was, "Well, he's still dating the same girl as before." The doorbell rang, and I didn't get a chance until much later to demonstrate that I was actually asking how the guy was doing, not whether he was single.

Second, as they asked me what I did for fun, I realized how little of the city they have gotten to experience in a few years here, compared with my month. They had kids shortly after moving to this city, and had never done much in the city other than the basic survival activities and a few restaurants.

And the dating update. When it rains, it pours.

Ones which aren't going anywhere first:

1. My date last week that I was nervous for was extremely likeable, and I would have loved to be friends. He was short and slightly built, and I'm sure women sometimes reject him for that, but conversation didn't feel like an equal exchange and I didn't feel the right kind of attraction.

2. An English professor from a local university who was a third generation academic (!). He had a fantastic voice, and I was especially excited to meet him because he lives much closer to me than anyone else, but nothing. It was one of the most intelligent conversations I've had on a date, though, and I really enjoyed it. In retrospect, I think the conversation was so intelligent because it was not personal. Usually I get people talking about their past relationships or sex or something else very personal; that's how I discovered that one of my dates was an adulterer on the first date. I don't do this on purpose, but the conversation just goes there. And it just didn't go anywhere personal. At the end, he made me pay my $4 towards our coffee bill.

3. The adulterer. I had thought I'd mentioned him, but apparently not. His first sexual partner was a married woman, and within a year of his own marriage, he had sex with his boss's teenage daughter. And several more during his marriage. At least he was forthcoming. I hadn't been looking for any of this information, and somehow it all poured out.

Ones which continue now:

1. Alan, discussed in previous post. I am taking it as a good sign that he reminds me of the guy that I almost married, more than I could ever imagine two people resembling each other: physically, academic interests, personality. But he's better than the guy I almost married in the two reasons we didn't stay together. Completely uncanny how well things line up, especially with the coincidence of having gone to high school together.

2. Daniel, who is 7 years older than I. He's sharp, decisive, and assertive, and that's refreshing, but he also sounds like a loyal friend. Something else that is frankly refreshing is that he is not poor. I don't know how it is, but I've had so many relationships where with my TA/RA or postdoc salary, I earned more than the guy I was dating, and that's pretty hard to do. He goes slightly to the opposite extreme, and has a few expensive toys which make me a little uncomfortable. Just because people frequently want better than what they have, and consumption becomes a spiral. Definite sparks, but I don't exactly find him the most attractive guy to look at. Which would improve if he continues to lose weight. I looked back at his online profile, and I think he lied about his height. Which is understandable.

3. Maxim was a couple years younger, and the only person I've met so far who would seemingly fit in with all of my friends from all different eras of my life: smart, geeky, quirky, sweet-natured, loyal to his friends, science major. In fact, meeting him felt like I'd known him throughout college, as if we'd been doing problem sets together. Unfortunately he lives farther away than anyone else and is simultaneously working and going to school, so has less time than most. He would be a fantastic boyfriend, but is not the most attractive guy, either. Well-built enough that he could be outright hot if he lost 10 pounds, though.

Daniel and Maxim are similar to me in so many ways, and are much more like the type of people I am used to hanging out with, and I really like spending time with them. I had to tear myself away from our meetings, and stayed with them much later than I'd originally planned. Alan might be a better complement, though; he has patience, empathy, sweetness, calmness beyond most people I've ever met. I'm not going to make any predictions because I don't have enough information, but I find the range of intelligence, assertiveness, quirkiness, sweetness to be really interesting. Coincidentally, they're all in law of some stripe, though I'd guess there's a factor of two difference between their salaries (x, 2x, 4x).

Needless to say, I'm not going on the job market this year, except in the same rough metro area.

5 weeks into my new postdoc

0. Good news! I got a paper accepted, after two rejections. The impact factor for the current journal is actually higher than the second journal I sent it to.

1. A commenter remarked on the importance of seeing other people, and oh my gosh, that's so right! Yesterday I left my office in the middle of the day for the first time in ages --- I headed to the gym around 3 pm, passing hundreds of people through hallways and streets, and it literally felt weird to be seeing more than a dozen people at a time. Wonderfully weird! I am going to try to work more often in common areas. Groups of people don't make loneliness go away, but wow it helps a lot.

2. Dating is wonderful beyond my wildest imagination. That's another post so the academically-inclined can skip it, but it definitely helps my mood.

3. Boice's Tips for New Faculty Members is a life-saver. I have not been very productive, but I am following his advice to do something every day, even if it feels small, and I am making progress on projects where previously I had no progress at all. It is incredibly difficult to just sit there, not doing anything other than thinking mindfully before starting work, but it reassured me that he says it's okay if it's a struggle.

4. Knowing to expect a struggle makes work easier. I remember from the memorial service a couple years ago for a famous academic in my field, someone said that he kept a list of his projects and their current status on a notepad. Right away, I made such a list, which was not short, and to my embarrassment, so little about the list changed over a one year period that it was clear that the list was completely pointless. Perhaps a famous academic was not a reasonable model for me. Part of me wants to keep up with my list. Making progress on multiple items seems theoretically possible, and yet I've never done it. So I am taking a small step every day on just one project, and only working on two projects concurrently. I'm trying not to look too far into the future or think about the fact that the two projects I am working on are still from my dissertation, and nothing new from here.

5. Knowing to expect a struggle makes practicalities easier too. After a month here, I know my regular routes well enough that I'm surprised that I still need to spend time with a map each time I go to a new place, even just on campus. The gym took me 20 minutes to locate. It turns out it is accessible only through an unmarked series of tunnels under scaffolding. Of course!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Being new

It occurs to me that one of the hardest things about being new is that everything is an effort, and it stays an effort for maybe 3 months. Every conversation is with a stranger. As much as I long to be with people, the meeting with this new research group listening them talk about projects I'm not going to be involved with was hardly satisfying social contact because I felt like I was totally on stage, and maybe even had to overcome some kind of barrier because a few of them hate my advisor. And my research group never ever has any meetings at all, as far as I can tell. Just a monthly seminar, which is the kind of monthly that is "every month, except when it's inconvenient." which really means six times a year.


I went through a period of high energy, meeting with lots of people, and then suddenly started slowing down. It's incredibly hard to maintain 1 1/2 to 2 hours per day of commuting, even if I do get to read the paper. I introduced myself to everyone that I have met on my corridor, although most people leave their doors closed or ajar just a millimeter so I haven't encountered more than half the people on my hallway. In the subsequent days, I didn't see them again or have an opening to have a conversation. Someone I introduced myself to who has her door open just 3 inches isn't exactly soliciting conversation. The woman directly across the hall from me suggested we have coffee sometime. I should take her up on that. But I haven't seen her since that first time we met. And she is directly across the hall from me! Maybe I should put a big sign on my door which says, "Please interrupt!"

The most demoralizing part of being a postdoc is going to an office and go an entire day without even a single 60 second conversation, and realize that no one cares if I am there or what I do. Of course I care about the research that I do, and I want to do my research, but out of the social context, that's like asking if I am willing to sit by myself in a room for 2000 hours a year, and I'm really not. I got a paper accepted to a top journal, and I'm pleased, but most of all I am happy that its acceptance gives me an excuse to talk with people. There's some clear follow-up work to do on this, but when it's just me and me, I don't feel all that interested.

So I have started again on the bad habits of getting immersed in stupid irrelevant things. E.g., I cancelled the new cheap sofa order and spent forever shopping for a sofa on Craig's List, and found one saving myself about $300 over the cost of the new sofa. And then decided I needed to look for something else. And then watch all the episodes of the Daily Show and Colbert Report online. And get distracted and miss things I'd kind-of planned on going to, but no one cares if I go. And not getting exercise. And going to the public library and checking out all kinds of hobby-related books and fun things just so I can get out of the house. And somehow the time passes. It's such an embarrassing struggle, though I was relieved to read someone else's tips on exactly this kind of torpor.

Obviously something needs to change. I figure if I get involved in a regular exercise pattern, I will feel less restless about working alone for the rest of the day. And find some activities to do. And introduce myself to still more people so that maybe I can have at least 5 minutes of in-person conversation every day. But I really get lonely not seeing anyone and feeling like no one cares where I am or what I do during work hours.

. . .

Dating-wise, things are smashing. In fact, I have reached dating nirvana. In my last city, it felt like I was meeting people who aren't that smart or interesting, although later on I did start to meet them. Here I am meeting more people than I can possibly fit in my schedule. It's kind-of embarrassing, actually. They're not better educated. Maybe I am less picky.

Things are so spread out, so everything has to be scheduled for weekends, and sometimes just one weekend day, so that's easy for first dates: 2 hour coffee dates is plenty, and you can have 3 in one day. Once you get past the first date and you want to do something interesting, it gets to be harder. But that's the worst of my dating problems, so I'm extremely grateful.

Something that I have noticed is that I am fairly unambitious for dating. The only date so far that I am nervous for is coming up this weekend. He's an ambitious energetic confident guy. And so I suspect he won't like me. Whereas the guys who showed glimmers of awkwardness or lack of confidence, I was fairly confident that we would either get along or I wouldn't care. I know that's sad.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Wow, that paper really sucked!

My advisor runs research center A, and I thought it might be helpful if I had ties to another research center, so I wrote to the head of research center B. She invited me to their group meeting. One of the topics of discussion was a paper they had just submitted to two journals and had rejected.

It's a fairly obscure area - obscure in that most people think it's unimportant, not that it's hard - so it happens that the literature in the area is not so large, and I wrote one of the few papers which they cited. I said I'd be happy to read it. I had some hesitation after volunteering because I realized that I would be a logical referee, so I would miss the chance to put a new journal on my CV. It turns out it's a good thing that I volunteered because I would have almost definitely recommended the paper for rejection.

How demoralizing to read a paper co-authored by several people including a couple really prominent people which is so completely inferior to research done before. In fact, as a final project in an undergraduate course, I would give it a solid B. Reading the paper made me rethink joining their group.

Not to mention that the first thing they discussed at the meeting was how much they hated my advisor. Who had apparently committed two felonies: 1) criticized one of their papers too much and 2) while giving a presentation to new students to help them find research, he listed a handful of the many collaborators who worked with his center and didn't mention this particular senior faculty member. After 3 minutes of this carping, the center B director said, "That's New Postdoc's advisor." And then followed an awkward silence.

Plus they had the kind of meeting where they set aside 2 hours every single week, and the topics to discuss expand to fill the allotted time. And people just sit there for all 2 hours while so many topics are only relevant to a few people.

I wrote my response to their paper fairly quickly and narrowed my criticism down to 6 points. If they seriously followed my advice, it would be another month before the paper would be ready to send out, and the author had wanted to send it out next week.

Seeing research from this point of view really makes me understand more how important it is to be thick-skinned about criticism. Most criticism is well-intentioned, and it is incredibly difficult to phrase criticism in a palatable way. I rephrased almost every sentence of my review, and I'm afraid it still comes across as overly blunt. But, and I don't mean to be immodest, they should really listen to me: I am one of very few people who knows the literature of this tiny obscure area, and this paper as currently written adds nothing to the area, and I gave some suggestions that if they follow even some of it, their paper could add to the area. I just hope that they listen and don't start grouse about me as they groused about my advisor. And that I have more thick-skinned attitude towards criticism than they apparently are.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Watch out for service!

I volunteered to chair a session at a conference this summer at the last minute, and got an email from the same guy asking if I wanted to be "local chair" for another conference in 2010. I didn't know what that meant, but it sounded like the previous "chair" responsibility, maybe reviewing abstracts or something, so instead of asking what it was, I said yes.

He wrote back,

"Given your proximity to the area and your interests in the section, we thought you would be ideal for the role of local chair.

Local chair’s responsibility usually includes physically reviewing the local venue (if possible), advertising the conference to the local community including government organizations, universities and private companies, working with the chairs and [professional organization] staff to organizing the local logistical details for the days of the conference and also organizing the social event on the second day of the conference. We hope you will be able to accomplish this by committing not more than a day per month over 12 months preceding the conference.

We will set up a conference call soon to kick off the planning sessions."

Is he joking? No way!

I wrote back right away and said that I had misunderstood the role of local chair, apologized profusely, and would be happy to review abstracts or do something academic for the conference.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Impostor syndrome: email version

I am supposed to be finding a research project now. The only constraint is that my research has to relate to the training grant, and I think they want me to do a little work with some people in the research center, but otherwise I can go around the department finding people to work with. I have a whole list, and I have carried around that list of people to speak with for several days before I got up the courage to write to any of them. Classic impostor syndrome: I think they wouldn't want to work with me either right now or later after getting to know me.

The funny thing is that it doesn't get any easier the more I write to. I wrote to the three directly suggested to me, no problem. And to the department chair. But now I have 3 or 4 more left, and each one feels difficult.

My insecurity was made slightly worse that my (very sweet but straight-talking) advisor said that the department chair was a good person to speak with as long as I don't ask him about nonsense. I should let that roll off my back. I know I should. I just feel like I should take some lesson from it.

Also, one of the 3 I have to write to, made some sarcastic remark to me in a phone conversation before I came, which made me feel like he thought I wasn't smart. And everyone tells me this guy is so nice.

Just have to do it. Three two one and then it's the weekend. And I will have accomplished all week is attending a class and sending some emails. Well, and getting more settled. And reading more Boice.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


The current balance in my bank account is $1.71. I've never in my life seen a bank balance like that.

Somehow the moving expenses this time have been thousands of dollars.

I do not get reimbursed any moving expenses, and my first 6 weeks of pay go entirely to moving. I am detailing my expenses so people can see what it goes to, even for someone who is very careful about money. I shopped around a lot for things like moving and car shipping companies where there were many estimates, and chose the cheapest options by far in each category. I packed lots of things that people tend to throw out and buy new in each new place, like bathroom and bedroom trash cans and silverware trays, and I got these things free in the first place. Much of my furniture comes from Craig's list and Goodwill, but I also didn't have time to do Craig's list for everything or ability to (e.g.) move a couch by myself.

Here is the list of expenses:

- $1100 moving
- $600 to transport a car.
- $150 one-way plane fare
- $100 to rent a car to shop during first 3 days because my car's shipment was delayed by 10 days.
- $900 in new furniture: kitchen had no counter space and little storage- $125 for countertop/storage (on clearance); my roommate owned our couch and I can't move a couch from Craig's list in my car - $400 for new couch that arrives by UPS and can be assembled and disassembled for moving; twin bed for guest bedroom + extra mattress + sheets: $240, new armchair $90.
- $500 in other set-up expenses: food, lightbulbs, lamps, cleaning supplies.
Total: 3450. And there's more beyond that, I'm sure.

Some of these expenses could have been less if I spent more time --- e.g., the gas estimate was $300 to drive the car instead of $850 to ship car + fly + rent car due to late car shipment --- but there is a time and practicality trade-off, and the car is more than a decade old and not necessarily reliable. I could have found a couch for free and rented a UHaul and found someone to help me move the couch, instead of spending $400 on a new one shipped to me.

This way, I was done with all moving activities in a few days and was able to move everything by myself since I don't have anyone to help me.

It does seem inadvisable that someone should spend more than 10% of their annual post-tax income on moving. And yet that's how it fell out.

Friday, August 29, 2008

News from the crime scene

Literally just as I was coming back from writing the previous blog post, including the note about the apparent suicide in my department exactly one week before, I was rounding the corner and saw that a security officer and a guy in a white shirt and tie were unlocking the suicide's office door, which is a few down from mine.

The name was on the door that morning, but by then they had removed the name. A little later, as I was going to the bathroom (the suicide's office is on the way to the bathroom), there was a uniformed police officer with a big old-fashioned camera, the kind in 1960's TV shows, taking a picture of the door. They opened the door, and went in with the camera. I overheard one of the officers saying, "It's a good thing [they] left the computer logged in." and something about a note, though it wasn't clear whether they were saying there was or wasn't one. Now there is a sign on the door saying, "Please do not enter. If you need anything, please see [administrator.]" No yellow crime scene tape, but perhaps effectively it is.

I wonder why they waited a week to start the investigation.

A friend of mine said, after I told him about the two deaths on the same project, "Driving a car into a house doesn't sound like an accident. And an apparent suicide might not be. You'll stay away from this project, right?" Which sounds ridiculous, but on the other hand, who knows.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

New postdoc: the beginning

I started this week at my new new postdoc. This postdoc is at the university which is the top in my field, and theoretically should be "ideal" whatever that means, at least to people who like to speak in those terms. And in some respects, it's very nice. My office furniture is actually beautiful, for instance, which means a lot when I think about how much time I am supposed to be spending there. And obviously there are really exciting research projects and student activities. I have learned there are also ways in which I appreciate things I took for granted in my old position and every RA-ship I have ever had: printer access, computer, phone (the policy on all three is BYO (bring/buy your own)), a single contact person for administrative details, a library with books (it has only 1 of the 3 seminal books my advisor recommended; my previous medium-ranked school had all 3), a computer support department run by computer geeks.

I called my advisor's secretary to make an appointment to see him, and she asked who I was. I had to explain that I was his postdoc and tell her which grant I am under.

Plus, a creepy thing that has nothing to do with me. There have been 2 deaths in the past month in the department, coincidentally both on the same research project. One was a middle-aged project manager who was killed while sleeping when a car drove into their house. The other was a post-BA RA who, I am guessing, committed suicide. I can't avoid seeing the RA's name plate on my way to the bathroom from my office.

Good things:

1. Administratively, I am a student, so it's considered reasonable to attend/audit classes, get involved in student activities relevant to my work and there are many that could actually help my CV as "community service" of the kind faculty do. And apparently faculty get involved in these too. And there are all kinds of introductory student functions that I am automatically sent notice about.

2. There happens to be a course this term on exactly the new method that I hear I am supposed to learn for my research, so I have an excuse to meet people and get involved in something right away that is relevant.

3. I really like my apartment. It feels like home, and it feels good to be at a bit of a distance from school.

4. It's a gigantic institution, which is what makes it feel lonely and difficult to navigate, but that also means that there are ways around. There is no central departmental printer, but for some reason the library has free printing, I just discovered.

5. My office has beautiful golden wood furniture, and the office is clearly built for two people.

6. There are common spaces close to my office where I can work if I get tired of being alone.

One of the things that people talk about in college and then grad school is how you have to learn to ask for things if you want them, and this postdoc epitomizes this need. After receiving my ID card, my entire orientation to the postdoc consisted of not giving me a key to my office (they didn't have an extra) and telling me to have a nice year. Presumably I was supposed to race down the hall and sit down at my computer and write a paper.

I do have work to do. But somehow being given the empty half of a dimly-lit shared office that I don't have a key to, with no printer access, no phone to call my advisor to make an appointment, feels like I don't really have anything to do until the room gets a bit more populated. I know that there is no inspiration for work. You just have to do it. Even without a printer. And when I have a draft to print, I will have to find a way to print it.

So I will go back to my office, work for an hour, and see what comes out of it.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Aftermath of this postdoc

My postdoc advisor keeps writing to me to ask me to perform various secretarial tasks --- not terribly time-consuming, but a total of 45 minutes that I don't feel like I have as I prepare to move and start a new postdoc that I am trying to be extremely conscientious about. I told him that I was surprised to continue getting requests for secretarial, to which he replied that he was surprised at my response, since he doesn't feel that I have put in as much time as I was paid for this year, though he admits he could be wrong.

I don't know how to reply to this, or if I should. It seems to me that it's water under the bridge, though I am tempted to say a few things:

1. He cut my salary in half when he hired an administrator to do these secretarial tasks, and yet continued to give me these secretarial tasks.

2. I am not a secretary. If he thinks I owe him research work, that's a reasonable issue to discuss. Discussing how many emails I have to send and lists to compile is not reasonable, and really weren't reasonable tasks for me in the first place.

Both points are reasonable, and I could tell him both of those. The third point that is of course in the back of my mind is that he lost me the second he cut my salary in half and made the first few months of my employment be 70% secretarial tasks.

But really I just want to avoid the whole issue. It was a mistake to accept the job. My term of employment ended, and I no longer have affiliation with that university. And if he thinks that I owe him something, he should have raised this issue when he was actually paying me.

That's a little overly strict, but I am concerned about maintaining boundaries so that I can succeed in my up-coming position.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lessons from my postdoc

In no particular order, these are the lessons I learned from the job search that led up to my current postdoc, which was a mistake to accept from the beginning:

- Don't try fancy tricks: I took my current job as a stop-gap measure before I was going to go abroad. It was an offbeat interesting thing to do --- trying to do multiple things at once --- that completely failed and left me with an unfulfilling and frustrating year, and not very much money either. If I had taken my second choice, which was just a plain old postdoc at the same school, it might have been more boring, but that stability is good and probably ultimately more fulfilling.

- Take only a job that cares about your professional development. In this postdoc, my professional development was an extracurricular activity. That's why my pay got cut in half before I even started because I needed time for my own work. The postdoc that I would have taken otherwise did care. Even the visiting assistant professorship at an elite college, where I would primarily be a teacher, cared about my professional development more than this postdoc did.

- Prominent million dollar professors are dangerous. Some students of these professors with a million dollars in grants manage to do very well, but some just end up being used. I have a friend from a different school whose advisor was a million dollar professor, who just ended up being an underpaid programmer, and is a programmer even though PhD is nothing related to computers or engineering. This guy I worked for this year was a million dollar professor which meant he was never around, he assumed that I could discern what he wanted if we spoke for just 15 minutes every month or two, and he didn't care at all about my professional development.

- Have good will to everyone, but trust no one. That sounds obvious, and I was really good about making sure that no one took advantage of me throughout the job process, but I took this job without a paper offer because I was assured that there was funding and he wouldn't leave me loose. The existence of money to pay me was not the thing that I should have been concerned about. What I should have been concerned with was how much of the money was going to me, and what my responsibilities would be.

It's interesting to think back at last year, and what my options were. I didn't apply to enough postdocs last year, and didn't really understand the job market, so what happened was slightly weird especially since I expected 3 specific offers that I didn't get, but would have preferred any of them to what I took.

I think I said this already, but to review the real actual offers for myself.
- First offer: postdoc teaching 1 class a semester at Ivy-ish university with 6 days to decide before I had even interviewed everywhere. Turned it down when I got:
- Second offer: VAP at elite small college. Which I was in the mindset that I was going to accept and was on the verge of accepting when they told me that it would be bad for me to take it.
- Third offer: research scientist at top-5 that wanted to use me.
- Fourth offer: a real postdoc abroad.
- Fifth offer: the real postdoc at my current school.
- Sixth offer: didn't get the real paper offer letter until my first day, and didn't get salary commitment until I started the process of moving. By this time, the process of travels and offers had stretched out for about four or five months, much longer than it usually would, and I was just tired. I'm not usually such a sucker. I can bargain with cab drivers in Arab countries, but somehow I let there be an exception because I was tired and impatient and trying to be interesting.

With what I know now, I would have done a few things differently on the labor market in 2006-07:
1. Applied to more postdocs, even if not in the fall to keep applying through the spring in spite of all the traveling I was doing just in case no real offers came through.
2. Not applied to temporary teaching positions at all. Safety option would be postdoc at mediocre school.
3. Not apply to positions that just want to use me.
4. Accept only positions where I know exactly what I will be doing, how much I would be paid, how long it will last, and nailed down as much as possible. Uncertainty is a risk, and risks feel stressful, and this job was one big uncertainty. Even until now.
5. Accepted the only job that cared about my professional development: the postdoc at my current institution. Even though it didn't come with group health insurance and even though it paid less than I had been promised in my current job (which didn't come through on that.)
6. Not think seriously about moving to a new city until I had lived in my current city for a few months without leaving. That might mean moving to the new city during the summer rather than stretching it out.

I lost financially, but I think I am coming out ahead as far as my CV goes. My CV lists my current position as a type of job that a grad student might have, and technically I was a grad student this year. So my first year of postdoc is at this prestigious place instead of at my current mediocre place. But I think I might have been happier if I had settled and settled down and just lived for awhile and caught up on my papers and been normal for awhile before looking for another job.

Given that I did accept it, there were some things that I could have done better as well:

- Meet people even if they are all hidden away in their offices and no one introduces me. I was used to there being common areas, seminars, etc. where people meet, or at least being taken around and introduced, but everyone just stayed hidden away all the time. The only people I met were one girl who came to my office, a few people at a Christmas party, and a guy who I met at a conference elsewhere who took a job here.

- Regular updates. Even though I went months without seeing my advisor, and probably only saw him a total of six times in person (seriously, six, I'm not exaggerating. I can get out my calendar and count them all) for the entire 14 months that I worked for him, giving weekly email updates is a way to stay engaged with him. And keep calling. Even though I rarely got through.

- Talk and engage even when irritated. I used this blog to vent instead of taking my grievances to my advisor, and it would have been more healthy and helpful if I had tried to have constructive conversations about exactly what the plan was and what I should do.

- Decide in advance. I was keeping this double-think that I was going to go abroad even though I knew it was probably a bad idea for my career if I wanted to live here. But I kept the option open and that made me not commit to being here right away and made my advisor not commit to me, because I had some weird idea that if I committed to this postdoc I would be boring or mediocre somehow. Although partly the lack of commitment was because the project was initially supposed to be 3 months and now somehow it's stretched out to 14 months and still not done.

- Do things quickly even if it's gruntwork. Find ways to make gruntwork okay. 30% of my job was secretarial work and 60% of my job was lit summary tasks that an undergrad RA would have done, and I was ticked off. But the remaining 10% of the job was where I could have taken the undergrad stuff and done a great job with it, and made it interesting, and gone beyond. But instead I dragged my feet and complained because it seemed like the tedium would last forever, therefore ensuring that the tedium did last forever. If I had just accepted that I would be spending 100 hours doing undergrad RA tasks, and just tried to finish, I could have counted down from 100 and moved on from there. Plus then I would have learned more. As I was finishing up the undergrad RA tasks a month or two ago I was just thinking how even though it was tedious, I would have had a better handle on the project as a whole if I had just done it right away when I started. So tedious things are okay too.

- Remember that nothing lasts forever. So many of the issues that I had this year came from an assumption that somehow things weren't going to change ever, when in fact they did change every few months. Initially I was convinced that there were no men here to date which made me plot to move to another city and invest lots of time in my job hunt, and then somehow they've started popping up all over the place like gophers in that game now that I have gotten settled in and started going to activities and meeting people. (And actually before that I was dating someone for a couple months and it seemed pretty solid when it wasn't.) And the tedious work wasn't forever either.

- Corollary: Don't panic! Like it says on that book. I had a few biological clock panics this year and it really didn't help anything. Somehow things work themselves out even if not in the way you expect.

- Engage. It's hard to engage when traveling. All I want to do is go home and stay there after I've been traveling at least every other week and sometimes more, but going out and doing things even when I'm tired from traveling would have been better for me overall. And perhaps find a way to decrease traveling.

- Don't try to move subfields without a huge amount of research. Otherwise all the interviews are a waste of time. I went on maybe six interviews for jobs that I had a low probability of getting because they were in a new subfield. My dissertation was on A. My current job was going to let me work in a new subfield B, though that project ended up being given away to someone else even though it was a major factor that brought me here. So I figured I could apply to projects in B elsewhere without much additional research. I applied thoroughly to every single position in a good city in area B without making a serious effort at a research proposal.

By contrast, in subfield A people appear to be ready to give me the moon and stars. Just now I emailed a government official who is the retiring director of a big department in my area of research looking for her replacement, and asked for an informational interview and whether they have more junior positions. I saw her name because I saw the senior job announcement. She wrote back enthusiastically, and said I may as well apply for the senior position because my research interests match the department's so closely.

The reason I wanted to switch is because I don't have a great deal of confidence in the future of funding in this area A and ability to find a job where I wanted to live, and I also feel like it's not as "important" as B. And just for variety. A's such a small area. B is expansive. But if I wanted to work in B I had to put lots of time and lots of reading, and instead I just spent tons of time writing applications for jobs in B that I wasn't competitive for because I hadn't prepared enough for them.

- And one last job search tip that I learned this year. This one is the rule of improv theatre, and it works for job interviews too: affirm everything. I am very much myself on interviews, and I trust a bit too much and convey things that could be seen as negative. Like 80% of faculty live on campus, and at the moment that I hear it it sounds claustrophobic and weird. I did say, "How great that you have such a community among the faculty and probably get to know people in other departments that way. And the campus housing looks really beautiful and well-planned." But then much later on in the interview (2 days is such a long time!) I let my guard down and asked if it ever feels like they're in a bubble. When I should have stayed on message. Affirm affirm affirm. They said their major concern was "fit." Affirm affirm.

So, that's all, folks.

Probably won't be blogging much after this, though maybe about my interviews next year once they started happening.

Last day!

Today is the last day of my former postdoc, and tomorrow is the first day of my new postdoc.

First of all, on the small level, I can't believe everything that I was able to do today. I stayed home in the morning, catching up on email almost emptying out my inbox. I got into the office in the early afternoon and in four hours, I:
- Wrote most of a summary of my work for my advisor.
- Wrote 3 pages of my paper, and they were good.
- Filed away all the papers that I had been putting off until "later".
- Caught up on loose ends as I realized I needed to for the status update, including tracking down an errant collaborator who has been MIA for the past 5 months. (He claims he never got our paper comments.) Ironically he was the most prominent of our collaborators.
- Chatted with my one friend who was in the office today.
- The dreaded phone conversation with my advisor. I committed to finishing the paper I'm working on and edit 2 more collaboration papers which have been crashing my version of Word.
- Turned in my key. I ducked turning in my ID. I hate to lose that kind of thing.

Tomorrow I am starting a system of working every day, no excuses, on a project that I need to progress on for an hour. We're going to check in with each other. It sounds minor, just an hour, but that's an hour more than I'm doing now.

Next post: lessons.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Questions before choosing a grad program

These are questions that I wish that I'd asked before choosing a grad program. I had been admitted to two programs at elite universities, and I chose the one at my undergrad institution where I liked the location better. My career would have gone totally differently if I had asked these questions and chosen a program according to them. Not necessarily better, but different.

I was looking only at the universities that graduates went to, and obviously they were good. But I had no idea before I started grad school what soft money even was, much less how it becomes the bane of existence for many faculty members.

The questions were mainly about faculty jobs:
- What proportion of graduates go onto faculty jobs?
- Which departments? Professional schools? Research institutions?
- What are the conditions of the faculty jobs that graduates go to?: hard vs. soft money, salary levels compared with similar alternatives, how much time do they spend applying for grants, number of courses taught.
- Do people change their research area according to the grant availability? Okay, this always happens to some extent, but how often and how substantial are the changes?
- How hard is it to get faculty jobs? How much postdoc do people do before getting faculty position?
- Which job markets do grads go on? What is the job market procedure usually followed?

Sunday, July 6, 2008


1. Today's the wedding of the-guy-I-almost-married. That's the epithet I use sometimes in real life, too. It puts me in a bind. Our worlds still overlap --- his profession and related issues are a topic of conversation in my circles. Because I considered marrying him, I can speak with authority about a world that most people don't see from the inside and I feel the need to say how I know. I have begun saying "a very close friend," even though that's disingenuous because we have spoken only once since he gotten engaged and that was probably the last time ever. That time, just a few weeks before his wedding, he told me that he continues to follow me by facebook.

So today he goes from the-guy-I-almost-married to a very-close-friend-I-never-talk-to. Congratulations on your new status, my VCFINTT.

2. The hard part comes when I move, and start encountering people that he and his wife know, though thankfully they're moving. I will be visiting a community where he is now a prominent figure. If he ever comes up, he will be mentioned by title rather than by first name. I'll be living within a few miles of where his wife has lived for the past few years, presumably encountering her friends.

3. Coincidentally, while packing today, I ran into a book that Gene gave me when I left my previous city, a foreign language edition of The Giving Tree, which is the only children's book about which I have always since childhood felt unadulterated sadness and anger: the tree gets exploited by its friend the child, and is inexplicably happy.

I'm four years older than my VCFINTT, and when we were dating, he had a lot of mental health problems. His family was in theory supportive of him, but also had always been completely crazy and disordered. When we started the relationship, I had just six months before gotten out of the only truly awful relationship I'd ever been in, and I really just needed an affectionate relationship, which this was. I bounced back after several months with him, and I gave him a great deal of emotional support for years during this time, although it was a difficult time for me as well: a year into our relationship, I failed my quals and was kicked out of my program, and had to petition to return. Getting a call from him at 3 pm saying that he was still in bed and needed help getting up, and spending countless hours talking him out of bed at the worst of his depression was a downer, especially on top of the usual stresses of long-distance relationships. I loved him, so I tried to help as much as I could, but I also set boundaries, and after a few years he was upset about the boundaries. By the time I broke up with him, I had no respect left for him, and was angry to have lost prime dating years, ages 26 to 29, doing what I thought was the right thing in supporting him.

Now I realize that it was silly of me to devote so much to someone that I'd not decided to marry. He came from quite a conservative background, so I expected a proposal after a year even though he was only 23 then since that is what his friends were doing, but we were in different cities and neither of us was willing to leave or change programs, which were both long and we were both holding on by our fingernails. His program had no direct equivalent near me, though we researched his doing a supplementary masters at my school, and I was afraid that I might not survive transferring programs.

So we stayed in a holding pattern. That's why the Giving Tree is going to the top of my give-away pile.

4. Of course I love him and always will, and I am sad that we'll never talk again. Sometimes I have fantasies of old age, whether or not his wife is still alive, if he ever gets sick, I can visit him in the hospital. Maybe if one of his parent dies, I can pay a mourning call. And then I realize how silly it sounds to wish for these things.

He's the only person I ever foresaw getting old with, and even though I chose to end the relationship some part of me still wants to follow his life.

5. I've never even been engaged, and with such a life of expectations washed away, I feel divorced.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Loneliness and academia, part 40

Loneliness seems to come as a side-effect of the academic lifestyle. I am on a fairly large mailing list for an activity with a new faculty member in his early 40's who keeps sending updates on his mother's health. It seems strange to do, because he goes into such depth about which medical tests, and what the outcomes were. I know him personally, and I'm glad that I know that his mother is sick and he needs extra support, but I feel like knowing the details is kind-of intrusive even as a relative friend of his. For the many people on the list who don't know who he is, it's downright weird to know that this guy's mother had X and Y medical tests and treatments.

But then I realized that everyone needs someone that they can tell all the details to, and he doesn't have anyone. He's never mentioned a father, so apparently his father is no longer in the picture, perhaps no longer alive, and I don't remember if he has siblings, so his mother might be his only immediate family member, so it's even more traumatic that he's at risk of losing her.

He's moving to the same city as I am, and he's clearly reached out to me. He's refined and attractive, but so clearly lonely and longing. Not that there's anything wrong with those things. Being lonely is a good thing, in a way, because it means that someone likes people --- compare my misanthropic once-long-distance-boyfriend who broke up with me the morning of my job interview in his city --- but it also creates a vibe that makes others want to run away from them, at least when it comes to romantic involvement. This instinct to run away from loneliness and need is one of the tragedies of human nature.

Setting up new postdoc

More progress:

1. I just made $1980 more for next year by pointing out that I have one year of postdoc experience. I wasn't sure if it counted because I just got my degree last month, but my position this year was called "postdoc."

2. I get paid for August, but now need to figure out how to work in as much work as possible at the same time as I am moving from two different cities. And don't even have an apartment yet.

3. Office space continues to complicate apartment hunt.

Originally: I was going to be mostly in the central location, and only occasionally in the distant location (which is where my advisor sits), so had the option to live in the cheap public-transit-accessible edge of the city where it's easy to find housing remotely. The central parts of town are more ideosyncratic, so harder to find housing at a distance.

Now: I am supposed to have "a presence" in both places, though we'll talk about the split once I get there. I could live in the easy place and resign myself to a 25+ mile commute to the distant office, and public transit for the other office. If I go in half the working days in a month, it's still under $100 per month extra as long as I don't have to pay for parking.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Moving decision paralysis

This post is me talking to myself about moving since I'm trying to make a decision. It is boring. Move along. Nothing to see.

I grew up in my current city, so moving here was easy. I knew which neighborhood I wanted to live in, and where to find apartment listings, and I even had a friend in my former city to live with. All I had to do was come here and find an apartment. I was lucky, and we took the first apartment we saw, though we spent 2 whole days going through the rest of our list to make sure.

Coming to a city that I'd never visited prior to my interview is much harder. Simultaneous with looking for an apartment, I have to decide which neighborhood. I am an urban person and have never lived in a full-fledged suburb before, so I'd planned on living in the city. Plus almost everyone I spoke to in the suburbs sounded bored and lonely. I've lived in most of the major cities in the US, and went to elementary school with 8 year olds throwing gang signs, but I wasn't prepared for the kind of city with vacant lots that people turn into inner city farms.

The inner city farms and burnt-up boarded-up buildings and lack of supermarketsprompted my flight to the suburbs. A friend who grew up in the area reassured me that it was not white flight, since everyone who could afford it moved out of the city, and indeed in my several trips back and forth to the suburbs in the middle of the day, more than 95% of the public transit riders were minorities. I convinced myself that I liked an apartment complex built in 1950: it was well-designed, a 20 minute walk to the train, and cheap, and I bought some fantastic cheap produce half a mile away. Plus, the two guys I knew who were moving to the city at the same time also sold out to the apartment complexes.

After two trips back and forth to the suburbs, I started realizing the implications of a 40-45 minute commute each way, and decided to give the city another chance. This time, an RA in the department suggested a neighborhood where I could safely walk alone at night, and which had a supermarket to boot. An awful overpriced chain supermarket, but I didn't take it for granted. I could get to both offices in under 20 minutes without a car. This neighborhood, ironically, was also mass-produced industrial housing, no less soulless and depersonalized than the apartment complexes, just about 40 years older and more compact with no 1 bedroom apartments. I didn't have much time to call landlords in advance, and after days of heat exhaustion, I didn't really care that I only saw a few apartments.

I left the city without getting an apartment. I have one possibility in the suburbs and two in the city, and I have to make a decision and sign a lease, so I can get on to the next step. I'm on the verge of signing a lease for a city apartment that I'd need a roommate for, but it feels risky to put money on the line and commit to living with a roommate I've never met. Holding out for a 1 bedroom that I've never seen seems somehow preferable to a roommate whom I've never met, although if I am holding out on that I will feel in suspense the whole time. I've usually had roommate situations work out well even when I've never met them, but it is always complicated.

The suburbs sound boring and listless, except I now know two women in the suburban apartment complex where I would live, one of whom is doing a grad degree where I'm doing a postdoc. And I know a few more people in the same suburb, so it could actually be socially okay to live there. Except there's nothing to do there. And I could have a 2 bedroom apartment for less than a 1 bedroom in the city. And that produce market was nice. Even though it's not my first choice to live in the suburbs, at least then I would have an apartment that I have actually seen and have the issue settled. In talking to people, some of whom are not happy in the suburbs, many of them said that they took the place in the suburbs because it was easy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Plausible deniability

When I was visiting my new postdoc to get my ID and such, I was incredulous about the money thing. Several times I asked them, "My advisor and I agreed that I was moving and starting Sept 1. Should I change that plan since I am being paid starting July 1?" And they said that I did not have to change anything. At the end of our meeting, the admin asked what I was doing during the summer, and I said that I was at my current job through July. She asked if it was a problem for me to be paid by two sources, and I said that my current job wasn't government funds, so it shouldn't be. All she said was that I should check with my advisor to see whether I needed to do anything special given that I was being paid all summer.

I got an email from my advisor saying that I'm not being paid now, and I should say when I want to start working and being paid, so I asked the admin about the apparent discrepancy:

Finally, do you happen to know whether [advisor] has okayed paying me for July and August? His email below sounds a bit like he thought that I was registered for insurance, but not getting a stipend now. When I called him on Friday, I just left a message and didn't get a call back, so haven't yet been able to speak with him about this.

Her response:

I know he will provide the health insurance for you starting July 1st, but my understanding is that he can't pay your
stipend if you aren't here yet. If you could begin the Post Doc sooner than August 31st, we have the stipend to support you. But if you aren't here during July and August, then he can't pay you. Does this make sense? This was the concern I expressed to you last week.

Let me know what you and he decide about your start date. We can revise your letter to reflect the correct dates, if necessary.

That was not the concern that she expressed last week! In email she just has to cover her behind. I hate how outlandish it makes me sound, "You thought we would pay you when you weren't working? How ridiculous!"

Sometimes I feel like my life is stranger than everyone else's.

Update: I got back 1 month of the pay by arguing that during August I'm presenting at a few conferences, so it's relevant. And I got half an office at the main campus, instead of a room shared with 17 people. And after thinking so much about it, the total time that all took was 90 seconds.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Not really a free lunch; being a postdoc means asking for things

Perhaps this is a lesson in who really runs things. I asked my postdoc if I could arrange for a month of gap health insurance, and I would gladly pay for it. They said that they could do that, and pay for it, but it had to be 2 months for admin reasons.

When they were setting up the insurance, the budget director of the research center discovered that there was money in the postdoc fund to start funding me 2 months early, so decided to go ahead and do that --- perhaps it is use it or lose it? And afterwards she and another administrator decided to ask my advisor whether it was okay. Neither heard back from him on the question. Now I have to ask him if he's okay with it, and if he wants me to do anything for the extra funding. As long as he really is okay with it, it's a great deal, though potentially an uncomfortable way to start off. "Do you mind that your budget director decided to give me two months of free money?"

Now I'm asking another favor. There are two campuses: one campus is where my advisor and his mostly-MD colleagues in the research center have offices for the (possibly rare?) occasions when they are actually in their office. The other campus has everything else, including journal clubs, seminars, postdocs and PhD faculty in the same research area, and grad students. I suggested that I work partially with a PhD faculty member at the central campus partly because the work honestly looks interesting, but also because I want the excuse to be at the main campus. Currently I'm slated to have a normal set-up in the distant campus, whatever that is: cubicle, half an office, etc. In the main campus, I'm slated to have a desk in a room with 17 other people, mostly RAs. So I have to ask for a half office there as well.

The administrator is fantastic on these issues: she was coaching me on how to ask for the extra space because she agrees that postdocs are horribly isolated and they should be around as many other people as possible. Honestly, I want to be at the main campus because it seems more fun and is easier to get to, so I keep reminding myself that I have legitimate academic reasons to be at the main campus, so I shouldn't feel hesitant about asking.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Last interview of the year

I had my last interview of the year in mid-June.

The department was founded about a decade ago, but as of a few years ago there was exactly one faculty member left in the department. It's a field with an obvious non-academic set of careers, and the chair had left, and while they were working to replace the former chair, they appointed an 80 year old interim chair, and didn't want to hire new faculty, but they didn't appoint a new chair for several years. Meanwhile all but one of the other faculty left and were not replaced. And this department still had hundreds of students which somehow continued to be taught.

Now there is a full contingent of faculty, mostly non-tenure-track but relatively senior, and the recent years of turmoil have succeeded in decreasing the number of students by 30%, which they see as fortunate under the circumstances. This year they are making several tenure-track hires, which they've been interviewing feverishly for. The delays were due to delays in the central administration's approval of the hires.

More new postdoc gratitude: free money

My new postdoc advisor decided to set my start date me 2 months before he asked me to start working, so as far as I can tell, I get two free months of salary, effectively a 20% signing bonus (as it were.) I had been worrying about how I was going to cover all my moving expenses since the postdoc does not reimburse moving, but this does it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

NIH stipend levels frozen

I've noticed that NIH stipend levels have not increased for years. Does anyone know whether anyone is organizing a protest of this? It seems ridiculous, especially given the recent inflation in energy and food costs.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Moving practicalities

I'm planning my move for this summer, and finding a few things very helpful so want to pass them on in case anyone else does:

- Movingscam.org has reviews of different moving options. The site's somewhat unfortunate name came about because someone had their belongings ransomed by moving companies, and when they started looking into the consumer issues, they found many moving companies gave low estimates and then raised them once the move was in progress and it was too late for the customer to back out. One story that I read there had a woman actually decide to forfeit her belongings rather than pay the several thousand dollars that the moving company requested from her.

They recommend a very small number of services --- full service, cargo shipping/partial trailer, relocubes, and self-driven moving vans --- and their motto seems to be "if you want it done right, do it yourself." From reading their stories, I understand this perspective.

- ABF UPack has been consistently friendly and helpful in all of my planning for different moving scenarios: they email quotes right away almost all the time and show which days are cheaper, and if you call they will tell you the price difference between different days. The other relocube places are less responsive and the people I spoke with seem more like salespeople. Upack customer service people haven't tried to pressure me at all, and they answered all my questions and explained the options, and all five of the people I've spoken with in the past two years at their depot terminals and customer service were just extremely friendly and helpful. Moving isn't their main business --- they're a cargo shipper --- so that may explain the difference from the other places. (I tried to use them for my move last year, but due to parking regulations in my current city, I wasn't able to.)

Also they gave me a $50 discount for mentioning the above website when I called them after making my reservation. I had thought that mentioning the website gave the website some funding for referrals, and hadn't expected a discount, but it turns out that it gives a discount.