Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Flash of insight: why nerds seem obnoxious

I'm writing a last minute cover letter to a postdoc, and I found myself talking about following "more correct" methods can influence results greatly. This letter is of course speaking tangentially to the open secret that most research in most fields is done poorly. As just about every study that takes hundreds of papers in a given field and reviewed their methods and inferences has ever shown, substantial numbers of papers in every field, and sometimes a majority, have big errors; sometimes the errors are big enough that we really do have to worry whether the wrong drugs are getting approved.

Of course I can't use judgmental words like "correct" because they sound obnoxious, even if they are correct.

A nerd, in the fully pejorative sense, is someone for whom being correct is more important than being pleasant. You have to be an extremely charismatic, yet sweet, personality to really be taken seriously when sticking to the point of telling someone that they are incorrect. Most people can't do that, of course, which is why they get labeled nerds. Or geeks. Depending on your language.

That is all very obvious, but perhaps a good reminder of the importance of charisma in these fields where there are such right and wrong. You can be factually right, but you also have to be persuasive, and it's ironic and sad that all undergraduate and even most graduate training in these factual fields selects for people who are correct, but doesn't until the end start looking at whether they are persuasive.

One person who is an enormous model for me (though never my advisor --- long story!) was just such a person: quietly charismatic who speaks extremely bluntly yet in the most pleasant way, as if Barack Obama were a researcher.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Premature decisions II: Material conditions

Material conditions and outside factors are the easiest part of a postdoc to identify, so I'll do those first, even though they are the least professionally-relevant.

- Money: four of the postdocs pay x (a funding agency's standardized salary, which can be supplemented in a very limited way; one postdoc said that in effect he made 1.15x with supplementation; based on my current salary, I could argue for 1.4x, but I doubt I would get more than that 1.15x). One postdoc pays 1.3x. Currently I make .8x, but that's working half-time so that I can spend the other half on my own work, so if I worked full time, I would make 1.6x. My current city (where I would make 1.6x full time) is equally expensive as two of the 5 cities (where I would make x), and much less expensive than the other 3 cities (where I would make x or 1.3x.)

- Benefits: I only asked one of the postdocs, and it makes available the university's standard employee insurance plan. As I discovered last year, some postdocs are not considered employees so have to purchase insurance on their own and then be reimbursed: while this insurance does not seem to cost the postdoc anything, this is risky because it means that your health information is tracked by companies which work like credit bureaus, and that frankly scares the bejeezus out of me. If you broke your ankle while skiing as a postdoc and for some reason needed to get insurance on the individual/non-employee market 20 years later, your rates might be extremely high just because you broke your ankle 20 years earlier. I'm not exaggerating. It's a complete deal-breaker for me not to be considered an employee for health insurance.

- Office space: One postdoc is in a space-constrained school, but would nonetheless give me my own small office with a small window. Another postdoc seems to put its postdocs 4 or 5 to a windowless office the size of my current one (except my current office has a window,) but they claimed that the exact office situation was negotiable. I can picture sharing an office with one person, perhaps, but I just don't see how I could happily share an office with so many people; I'm shy and just not used to not having a door that I can close and a window to look out of. Three of the postdocs did not give me a sense for what my office situation would be: I suspect that one would be a windowless cubicle and two could be decent offices, though I don't know.

- Material support: A few postdocs buy new computers for the fellows, and even give a choice. A couple seem to give the postdocs 5 year old computers or whatever happens to be lying around. Some postdocs seem to make travel funds available to compete for. Others give nothing. Others fund any travel to promote the PI's project.

- Safety: Two of the postdocs are in very sketchy areas, where people actually said explicitly it is not safe to walk around, especially not at night. Two are in slightly sketchy neighborhoods, but generally safe. One postdoc is in a really nice neighborhood. My current postdoc is in a sketchy neighborhood, intermediate between "very" and "slightly" sketchy.

- Weather. One postdoc has nice weather, two decent, and two awful.

- Personal life: I have friends in all of the cities, thankfully. I can easily see myself living in the cities for four of the five postdocs. The fifth would be cool, but doesn't feel remotely like home, perhaps because it's a different region of the country than I'm used to; also, my friends in this city (both male and female) have had trouble dating, ironically, since given that they're both males and females having trouble, I would think they could find each other. Three postdocs are in cities at least as interesting as my current one; two are in less interesting cities, but close to better cities.

Okay, that's probably really boring for anyone other than me. And even for me. I'll try for better. I have an interesting interview story to write up in which my interviewer was extremely frank.

Two types of postdocs

I did the job search last year, but hadn't noticed this before. This year I noticed that there are two types of postdocs.

1. Postdocs intended to benefit the postdoc, often with structured professional development programs. Of course, these postdocs are supposed to benefit the research center who get to renew their training grants if the postdocs turn out well, but the key fact is that the postdocs have autonomy and define their own success.

2. Postdocs intended to benefit a faculty member. At one of my first interviews, I was sitting with a senior and a junior faculty member, and I asked what the role of the postdoc was. It was an innocent question, and I wasn't thinking of it in any kind of cynical way. The junior faculty member was a grad school cousin --- their advisor had served on my committee --- so felt almost like a relative. The answer came immediately from the senior faculty member, "To get tenure!" In other words, the faculty member gets a very tight leash because they are truly dependent on the postdoc.

After this interview, which fortunately came early, I started looking at all postdocs as structured programs to benefit the postdoc versus to get a promotion for a faculty member, and noticed that all of the posted postdocs could be divided in this way.

In addition, there is a third type of postdoc, which tends not to be posted. That's the kind that I'm in now.

3. The employee postdoc: The postdoc is an employee on a project, like any other employee, and often one of many. They have the title of postdoc, but it's a bit arbitrary because they don't do anything different from the research scientists or other non-PI researchers. Their work benefits the PI, but since they are one of many, the PI does not have such a tight leash on them.

Premature decisions I

Last year, I waited to decide whom I was interested in until I found out who was interested in me. As we know in dating, knowing others' interest changes your perception: the Heisenberg Principle of Dating, if Heisenberg had been an "older single." Someone who seems too interested seems fishy, and someone who turns you down suddenly occupies your thoughts, even if you hadn't thought much of them.

To avoid such conundrums, I am going to think about which postdocs I like before I find out whether they like me. There are five, and one of my recent interviewers seemed to imply that they would make me an offer as early as early this coming week, so I want to make up my mind about what I think of them before I get an answer.

Before I talk about the individual postdocs, I want to formulate what I am looking for in a postdoc.

1. Professional development: I want to feel confident in my ability to write grants, and submit a small federal grant application during the postdoc. I really have no idea what I'm doing here, and need to learn before I can get a faculty job.

2. Work habit socialization: I feel okay about my ability to write and publish papers. If I continued just as I have, with no outside help, I'm sure I could have a respectable career. My work habits are substandard, and I have spent far too much time on youtube and facebook and wikipedia and everywhere else.

3. Mentorship. I feel slightly divided on this one. Mentorship is always helpful, but it has to be the right kind. Taking on a new advisor is always risky because some apparently act as though they own your time. On the other hand, these types of advisors may be more helpful in finding jobs for their students. Since I've become used to a more hands-off model, I suppose I would err on the side of hands-off, but ideally it would be someone who is around that I can stop by if I need to. The most tricky part.

4. Viable research direction: Based on my past experience, I have really good research ideas, but I don't have a coherent vision of a research agenda which is simultaneously sufficiently focused to be manageable and yet broad enough to be important, and which is fundable and has good academic opportunities. Because of my field, I have a fair amount of flexibility in finding direction like this.

5. Smart peers with similar interests whom I can learn from, both topically and methodologically. I don't want to be the most methodologically sophisticated person in my department; I want to learn from others.

6. Research community: Seminars and other signs of an active research community to keep up with the research, both topically and methodologically.

7. Personal life: A city where I could have a viable personal life and meet smart people to befriend and date.

8. Health factors: Easy to get good produce, exercise, sunshine, breathing room, etc. People seem happy. Money is a factor here, of course, because it would be very hard to live in expensive cities on a postdoc salary, while others are very comfortable on a postdoc salary.

9. Next step: Postdoc is prestigious and well-directed enough that the next steps are both clear and attainable. Ideally, postdoc is open-ended enough that if the market were not great one year, I could stay another year to go on the market.

10. Likeability. I want to feel comfortable with and like the people in the department.

Those are my criteria. The next post will discuss how each postdoc measures up.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I'm lending money to universities with billion dollar endowments

I had forgotten how tight money gets during interview season due to new and sudden expenses; plane tickets and hotel rooms add up quickly. Spending money that isn't mine is slightly thrilling, and even moreso is the suspense of whether I will be able to pay my credit card bill in full before getting reimbursed. (Not thinking ahead, when the stock market declined, I tried to get some bargains with anything I could scrape out of my bank account. Or rather, thinking too far ahead.)

Unresolved reimbursement is an awkward way to be in touch with potential jobs. I had two interviews in December for jobs that I really want. For one, the hotel mistakenly charged my credit card instead of billing to their account. For the other, the advisor's assistant had a family emergency, and didn't get around to reimbursing me until I emailed yesterday. In my email exchanges, no one said anything about the jobs and their time-frames. Is this a classic case of "They're just not that into me", or do they just not know yet?

I don't know, so meanwhile, I apply apply apply to more more more jobs, and fly off to more interviews (thankfully!). At this stage where I've spoken with so many people, and not gotten anything back, it's hard not to wonder if this year will be like last year: many fantastic almosts, but nothing substantial in the end.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An open-access journal for Valentine's Day

An item in the Journal of Irreproducible Results's email newsletter called my attention to the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, which publishes many papers related to romantic love, which are all open-access.

- Attractive Women Want it All: Good Genes, Economic Investment, Parenting Proclivities, and Emotional Commitment. I have noticed this paper's result that attractive women can have higher standards than less attractive women, but find it profoundly depressing.

Attractiveness as the major factor in women's ability to attract a "high value" mate is not a main finding of the paper, but it is apparently well-founded in the literature. Traits like education really do seem to be much less important in whom women can attract, and that's related to why successful men have an easier time marrying than successful women. In reproductive fitness terms, women's time might be better spent exercising and primping than working, especially if work contributes to women being less attractive (e.g., travel = worse diet, less exercise, sleep loss). Men's incentives align more directly: working in itself helps men attract mates, though exercise also does (and another paper found men who played team sports were more attractive). As has been noted umpteen times, women have a much harder time finding men of comparable education/income levels: women's education isn't as much of an asset to them on the dating market as it is for men.

Also, from my read, it looks like they could have rated the women's husband's mating values directly and chose only to look at the women's self-reported standards for a mate; I wonder why they didn't look at the empirical results of the women's actual mate choices; or perhaps I have misread.

-Likewise, women put more emphasis on character in mate selection, while men don't.

- Sex Differences in Everyday Risk-Taking Behavior in Humans: Males take more risks than females do, and more risks when females are around. They don't talk about whether risk-taking behavior has any effect on female attractiveness, but that would be interesting as well.

- Sex Differences in Romantic Kissing Among College Students: An Evolutionary Perspective finds that men use kissing primarily to get laid, and don't mind its absence in short-term partner selection as much as women do. An interesting thing that I hadn't realized was that they hypothesize that kissing allows substances to be exchanged that make women more interested in sex.

Fascinating, yet depressing, to see human behavior reduced to such basic terms. I'm going to the gym.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Don't be shy! You can come out and say it.

I just got an email with the subject line: "Rejection notification."

It was just for a conference, thankfully.

UPDATE: I got the following email shortly after:

"The email you just received was not the one we intended to send to you. It was a system error and we do apologize. Unfortunately, we still are unable to accept your abstract entitled..."

Snarky comments which are not going in my research statements

- "My experience living abroad has always been outside of North America. The chance to live and study in Canada would give me an invaluable global perspective on a foreign culture. Some of my best friends --- and, in fact, my favorite ex'es --- are Canadian. It would be a personally meaningful for me to have the opportunity to live among their people."

- "I'm applying for the postdoctoral fellowship because it will give me a chance to learn research area Y, where the funding is greater and more secure than my current research area. While I am slightly less interested in Y than my current area, it is not by much, and the security that the higher funding provides more than compensates."

- "On a personal note, the postdoctoral fellowship offers unparalleled opportunities for recreation. For example, your last name. Most people whose last name was a common child's pet would have changed it; I commend you on your dedication to your family tradition, as it has provided my friends and I with at least 30 solid minutes of laughter. Additionally, the research fund will come in handy in repairing the water damage from when I spit water at my computer while laughing, simply from writing this application. Just imagine if I actually came."

- "The postdoctoral fellowship also offers the chance to get an additional Masters in the new area. This fits in very well with my career plan, as I've been actively working towards my MRS degree for the past two years, but just haven't found the right collaboration for the capstone experience. I'm sure the resources of your university will assist greatly my finishing this degree."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The hidden postdocs

Postdoc search advice always suggest that you network to find postdocs since they're not required to be posted. My advisor's view of the world is limited to our university and he's not exactly in my area, so my networking has largely consisted of google supplemented by the occasional informational interview.

Early in the season, I targeted a few universities to find all of their postdoc listings, and wrote to them since postdoc announcements sometimes had little or no application information.

Quite late in the season, it occurred to me to search federal funding agency websites for the recipients of postdoctoral training grants. After finding the list of universities and PIs with these grants, I looked back at each university's website. My yields were about evenly split among three outcomes: the website had a normal postdoc announcement together with application info and deadlines, the website has a brief description of the postdoc with no application information, and google finds nothing at all about the postdoc so I emailed the PI.

Some postdocs are the sort where the PI assembles the money from their research funds, and that is the kind of postdoc that I thought you could find by networking. It's startling to me that federally-funded training grants, whose entire purpose is to recruit from a wide pool to recruit the best researchers into a field, do not require their recipients to at least create a local website with all the program information. Since many training grants have as their purpose to recruit new researchers from other fields, they can't assume that the researchers can find out about the postdocs from their social networks since they're coming from outside.

Nonetheless, it seems that the only way to find all the relevant federally-funded postdocs is to find out the funding mechanisms and look at the US government grant websites. Even setting aside questions of fairness, that's hardly good for the field, since wide advertising brings in better people than narrow or non-existent advertising.

Has anyone else found this in their field?

A non-caffeine boost: flaxseed oil?!

A professor whom I respect referred me to the blog of a Berkeley psychology professor, Seth Roberts, and sometime last year I read his theory about the beneficial effects of flax seed oil on mental performance. He's carried out somewhat-flawed trials on himself and concludes that flaxseed oil increases mental acuity. He's been very systematic, but only has 1 subject and he chooses not to blind himself to which oil he is consuming. He's not the only one to say that omega-3 fats are healthful, so it didn't seem completely outlandish.

Recently, I decided to try the flaxseed oil, so I've been having 2 T Whole Foods brand flaxseed oil (nose-clipped) first thing in the morning, 1 hour before tasting anything. After 1 week, I noticed that I seemed to be procrastinating less and working more. I didn't do any measurement to substantiate my subjective impression, and that's only an association, but it is nonetheless encouraging.

What surprises me the most was that today, after getting almost no sleep at all, I took the flaxseed oil first thing in the morning and have been no less productive than normal. Which is to say, not amazing, but I am not doing what I usually do when I haven't slept which is staring off into space for long periods or going on a long google hunt for nothing in particular. (Plus, I'm also not very hungry.)

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Murphy Brown alternative

One of my interviewers had had the postdoc several years before; immediately after, she got a faculty position there. She was the success story for the postdoc, and I was completely impressed. She had mentioned during an earlier meal together that she had recently become a parent, so I was even more impressed when she mentioned during her interview that she had gotten a prestigious multi-year federal junior faculty grant on the second try. During the interview I was hanging on her every word hoping to glean information about how she accomplished this amazing feat. I was a bit puzzled when she mentioned that she had applied for a job in her home state since it was not even close to as good as this school. Towards the end of the interview, while trying to sell me on the department being so family-friendly, she mentioned that she had given birth as a single parent.

I'm all for the Murphy Brown alternative, and it's something that I plan to do if I need to; I hope I won't. In fact, I find the prospect completely petrifying. To have children before having a husband means risking never finding a husband; few men have the patience to help raise someone else's children, even an anonymous donor's. To wait to have children until finding a husband means risking never having one's own biological children. I hope to God that I never face this choice between romantic love and biological children. Going by all the fertility statistics I've seen, though, I'll need to start thinking about this choice about 3-4 years from now.

It's always been a sad fact of academia that the successful women are more likely to be the unmarried ones. A study of women's success in academia found that after you control for having children, women were equally successful as men. As (I believe) Virginia Woolf said, "Everyone needs a wife," that is, someone to look after their life details.

After meeting this woman, I am starting to think that this price for success might just be too high. I now have no doubts in my competence that I could be a full professor with zillions of dollars of grants, publishing in the top journals and tackling the most important problems in the field. I know for sure that I don't care a rat's ass about the most important problems compared with having a biological family. It's not even something that I need to stop a moment to consider.

It's not news to me that it happens that women who wanted children aren't in the position to have them as they'd intended: the stories are legion. What's shocking to me (but maybe it shouldn't be) is the irony. She's academically a phenomenal role model to have gotten this prestigious grant. There's no free lunch, and every hour spent at work is an hour spent away from family and personal life. We, the academic hoi polloi, are often left to imagine the personal costs of luminaries' success, such as spouses and children left behind during conferences.

The personal costs of a role model's success --- and therefore my potential personal costs of optimizing my work decisions versus personal factors --- don't get any clearer. Worse, she may pay an additional price in her professional advancement: I guess that she's looking at the much less prestigious position in her home state because it's near her family, and she'd like the moral support.

Observations from recent job interviews

0. For some reason, the only seats available when I select seats after buying tickets or when checking into a flight are middle ones. When I actually get on the plane, there are plenty of aisle and window seats. What's the deal?

1. I had a dual interview with another candidate --- the two of us met with the fellowship director and had lunch together with the faculty. Surprisingly, it was not even slightly awkward.

2. I've been interviewing for postdocs at the top top places in my field, but my current institution is middle-ranked. I can tell how seriously based on how people inflect their voices while talking about my current affiliation. versus

At the top school in my field, they seemed to take it seriously as an institution: "So, you're at Mediocre University," they stated, and mentioned people that they knew there or asked about its exact location relative to the nearest city.

At another top school, they had a questioning attitude: "So, you're at Mediocre University? [i.e., You would be coming from there to our august institution?]", seemingly relieved when I explained it as "a project that came up while I am finishing and publishing my dissertation," and didn't mention any features of the university such as people that they might condescend to know there. Only one faculty member there seemed open to the school, and asked about a faculty ; unsurprisingly, she was the one who attended less prestigious schools than the others (but was doing absolutely brilliant work.) These reactions were virtually uniform across the schools, and unrelated to any other aspect of the school. The faculty at the more status-obsessed school were at least as friendly and open, and I'm guessing they had at least as much funding as the top place.

3. One of the positions was a politically-motivated postdoc funded by a private donor. I was a little worried about that because I'm solidly behind the cause, but uncomfortable with mixing politics and academia, and wondered if it meant that 100% of my research agenda had to be in line with the cause. It turns out no, and even the interviews with people who I suspect that I would disagree with their political approach turned out well.

4. I was visiting the institution of someone doing almost exactly what I'd like to, so asked to meet them in person before my interview. They weren't connected with the position. They mentioned two traits they look for in a postdoc:

(a) Productivity: the postdoc is supposed to do what the faculty member is unable to do because of their administrative responsibilities. Three papers a year is the ideal.

(b) Potential to learn from the postdoc, rather than just to continue what they were doing before. She wants to make a difference by her mentorship.

5. The Murphy Brown alternative. This deserves its own post.