Monday, December 14, 2009

Department chairs

I used to hear faculty discussing department chairs as if they were another species, and I didn't understand how that could be: they came with the same training and did the same kind of research as normal faculty, so how could they be so different? But now that I have met so many of them, I understand.

They're academics, and yet they're politically conscious. They're cocky and excited, even if they're under-resourced and have a mediocre record. They're oh so nice, yet every discussion is a negotiation requiring some attention to strategic concerns. They promise a little as if it's a lot, and they promise something when they might not have anything.

The first times I saw these traits, I didn't realize it was part of a pattern, but now it's so clear.

The myth of the postdoc

In the midst of job season, we all have romantic ideas about what fellowships are like: you picture yourself in a different environment, doing different work, and you come home to a fulfilling social and personal life that is just like the one you have now. Obviously a complete fantasy.

Right now, I feel extremely productive. I am doing research that is interesting and relevant, and the projects are coming along at a fair clip: I have given or will give several distinct conference presentations this academic year, written a grant application and part of another, and have a few papers at a good stage of preparation, but virtually everything that I have accomplished has been this year.

In the first few months of my postdoc I felt disoriented to live in a new city and university with completely different patterns of life; distracted by moving and the endless tasks that have to be done, and the lack of money due to having moved; and overwhelmed by the need to make friends and professional contacts simultaneously in order not to be lonely. Meanwhile during all these adjustments, I felt lonely, scared, tired, and sluggish, and just plain non-resilient. Any setback was discouraging, and there were so many.

That's really not a good mood in which to take on new projects. Craving the familiar, I just finished old projects and got them published. That's precisely not what you're supposed to do, but it was hard to do otherwise. New projects have lots of unpredictable setbacks and at a time when every single part of my life was in upheaval, I didn't feel that I could handle setbacks well. The first time I went to a new project group and the first 5 minutes was two faculty members (one research-track and one tenured) dissing my advisor, and the remainder of the meeting was just boring. Between the awkwardness and lack of interest in the project, I didn't continue.

As I prepare job applications, the cost of moving and transition has been forgotten. And it really has to. New jobs require a leap into the unfamiliar and willingness to take the consequences, whatever they are. But I am pretty sure that even though right now everything feels so good and right that the loneliness and disorientation of moving seem so far away, I will have another lonely and disoriented and perhaps even depressed season as I move to my next position. I will forget all of that as I interview (thankfully I have gotten some), and will be nothing but sweet and light on the interviews.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Variations on a theme (dating)

I just reread my post from early August, and almost 4 months later, my dating life looks similar.

Jack and I stopped seeing each other even as friends. Something incredibly banal and boring happened --- fill in your favorite Brady Bunch episode subplot minor minor conflict. After nine months of impeccable communication skills learned in MBA school, he blamed and accused, sent endless emails, ending with "what else short of slapping you would show you that I was upset." The whole situation surprised me. I just didn't write back, and that was it.

New romantic interest seemed extremely promising: we connected well (most recent date 6 1/2 hours of just talking), he's smart with BA from a top-20 small liberal arts college, taught high school math at a prep school, and he is well-built and good-looking. It didn't even bother me that he was a starving artist and estranged from his surviving parent after the other parent's protracted illness. Until it turned out that in the recent past, around when I was finishing grad school, he was homeless for several months. Homeless as in all of his belongings in a bag next to a park bench that he slept on because he ran out of friends to stay with, as he lost his friendships after staying with each of his friends.

Why do I have such an affinity with the troubled?

He didn't go into more detail about his time being homeless, but yesterday I saw homeless men standing with signs by the road off the highway yesterday asking for food (I gave one the apple that was supposed to be my afternoon snack), and I started thinking about the myriad degradations of homelessness and the wall of dehumanization between the homeless and non-homeless ("everyone else"), and it breaks my heart that he had to endure all of this.

I feel of two minds about this.

On the realistic hand, obviously an enormous red flag. The specifics do not matter. He has less of a buffer to protect him than most people, having chosen to go to art school instead of continuing in his steady job, a complicated family, and a tendency towards depression, but whatever the reasons, someone who could actually fall so far once could do so again. And he still does not have a steady income: a few jobs that are a part-time job with low enough salary that he still qualifies for some types of public assistance.

On the optimistic hand, he also pulled himself up from such a hole that is so deep most of us cannot imagine it, and he is wise enough to know that he cannot get into a real relationship until he feels more steady on his feet. He is also wise enough to avoid tangling relationships with social work. And I feel like I connect better with him than 90% of the men I've met this year.

On the realistic hand, I can hear so many women saying the same thing, and just ending up burned.

Other prospects are two men a long plane ride away: George (who does like me, it turns out) and the wedding guy (who now calls me a couple times a week, and is slightly disappointed when I get off after 2 hours, and he is looking for another job in closer cities).

Oh, and a just-minted-PhD from school whose personality I find really attractive and I think he's cute, but he is very fat. Now that he's defended, we have time to get to know each other. The thing that puts me off from him has nothing to do with him, just the social context. He's one of those "really nice guys" that "someone should date" but no one around him wants to. When people saw me with him once, they got all excited, and somehow it makes me uneasy to be that "someone." [Addendum 1/8/10, it turns out that the excited woman who saw us told her roommate that I was having brown bag lunch at school with this guy, who told the Starving Artist, and presumably others.] But with all considered, there's a great deal to be said for stability.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The worst kind of colleague

I'm on this project alluded to earlier that I realize is so canonical as to be a stereotype.

Senior faculty member gets a grant, gets some wheels moving, and passes it to junior faculty member. Junior faculty member works on it enough to do one of the objectives of the grant, presents them at one or two conferences, and sits on the project.

Senior faculty talks up the project to postdoc (me). Postdoc contacts the junior faculty member in September, October, November, finally gets an appointment, goes to appointment (90 minutes round trip), and finally finds out about the project sometime in the middle of the winter, but nothing is ready to be passed on at that point. Makes another appointment, remembers the appointment just in time to make the appointment if it were in the same building or even campus but it's an unpredictable as much as an hour away, so emails just before scheduled appointment time. Meeting rescheduled after 3 weeks.

Postdoc tells senior faculty member that she will be applying to present the work at a conference and senior faculty member says "Great! Let me know what I can do." Postdoc rushes to write abstract draft in record time, asks many questions including "Whose names go on this?", and gets no response. Abstract is necessarily vague because project has not yet been started. Junior faculty member gets wind of the abstract and asks to see it. Only emailed comment on abstract is about the positioning of authors' names. Names changed. Revision sent. Remember this abstract is based only on the grant application because project has not yet been started.

In the early spring, postdoc finally meets with junior faculty member (baked goods in hand as apology) to get started on the project. Junior faculty member is not in office. Postdoc waits and eventually leaves baked goods on desk with a note. Junior faculty member comes eventually, abstractly thanks postdoc for the baked goods, mentions that abstract was read and commented on, but "It must have been thrown away or lost." I'm not making this up.

Junior faculty member selectively gives some of the materials to postdoc, but not all materials. Postdoc asks for materials used to do earlier work, as well as the presentations that the work was presented in, but junior faculty member will not give them.

Postdoc finally starts project, rushes to get enough work done on project to present at a conference, gets most of the necessary work done, and presents.

After months without contact, senior faculty member emails "research group" during the conference and says they need to meet soon because an MD grad student, referred to in email as Dr. FirstName, is joining the project. Perhaps tomorrow.

Meeting is set for after the conference. Postdoc, remembering earlier missed meeting with junior faculty, dresses carefully in the morning, thinks about meeting all morning, arrives at the distant office 45 minutes early. 10 minutes after meeting start time, junior person arrives. Senior faculty member is called and is at home due to a scheduled-well-in-advance medical procedure. 30 minutes after meeting, Dr. Grad Student arrives. Postdoc reports on conference. Senior faculty asks postdoc to spent 2 days a week with Dr. Grad Student getting him up to speed. Postdoc stupidly says that she doesn't have that much time right away, rather than just agreeing.

Postdoc spends time with grad student and gives much more to grad student than junior faculty gave postdoc originally, emails project to report that. Postdoc notes that grad student will have easier time getting up to speed than postdoc originally did because he has all materials that the postdoc has, so in theory can get going right away. Passive aggressiveness is apparently contagious.

After meeting, junior faculty member emails (Cc: senior) and asks again for conference abstract, whether the abstract was sent to any other conferences. Postdoc says this was the only conference, forwards original draft to demonstrate all of this was discussed months ago. Junior faculty member rehashes argument about name order and again asks whether abstract sent anywhere else. Postdoc reminds junior faculty that name thing was already discussed, repeats that it was not sent elsewhere, and in addition forwards 2 additional emails, documenting what was sent to the conference, and last night's email that it was not sent anywhere else. And then wastes part of morning writing bitchy blog entry about this dysfunction.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why are suitable guys so unfriendly?

My Email #1: Emailed guy on ok cupid because he sounded smart (one of few) and he mentioned xkcd in his profile, so I mentioned a couple of my favorite strips.

His Email #1: He drops the name of a niche computer program that I use often, which is actually extremely weird. Why would he think I would know what that was? And writes 4 or 5 more paragraphs, mentioning that he is away for 6 months and including no questions. Maybe he is clueless and doesn't realize he isn't giving me a way to continue the conversation.

My Email 2: Wow, I use that program a lot and ask why he uses it because I'd thought he was a computer programmer from his profile. And ask a few questions to keep the conversation

His Email 2: No, he's in my small sub/field. And 1000's of miles away. This email is like 2 sentences long also with no questions.

My Email 3: See you at the annual conference!


Another case: Also ok cupid. I email a guy in the fall, again one of the smart ones. he turns out to have been at my graduate school when I was and I was almost certain that we knew some of the same people. He CLOSES his profile. (I know he didn't just block me because I have a second account and tried from that one as well.) Did he just enter witness protection?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I just want to do research

I have started writing grant proposals. Everything is soft money around here, and grants are the only way to advance. Suddenly speaking this language of grants (why didn't I learn earlier?), everything makes more sense in conversations between colleagues.

At a recent conference, I spoke with a person I went to grad school with (who was a TA of mine but PhD was in a different department) who is coming up for tenure now. I asked about the requirements for grants. Some places, even hard money places, have an unofficial requirement that you need at least one major grant to get tenure. It turns out his department only wants a publication record. I never thought that I would say this, but "publish or perish" is so generous. Now that my new norm is "eat what you kill."

As a friend of mine said, "When I would hear faculty members say that they just want to do research, I always interpreted that to mean that they didn't enjoy teaching. Now that I know about grants, I understand."

I just find it unbelievable that people speak in academia as if all it takes is good ideas. Just pursue what you like. As if that were enough. If I could do it over again, I would make a list of the research areas that operate on 100% hard money and choose grad school and research topics only from those areas. Now that I'm at the job stage, I would apply only for jobs that operate on 100% hard money. But most jobs seem not to list that crucial crucial fact.

Starting collaborations

At a conference I spoke with a grad school classmate of mine who was in another PhD program but with similar interests. He is in the first year of a faculty job, and I asked him he was able to get any research done while teaching. He said that he had and even gotten some new collaborations going.

I confessed that I had some difficulty starting collaborations, so I asked him more details about them. One of the two is still in the "looking for collaborators" stage. The other collaboration is with a faculty member at the same university in another department. He's contributing expertise to the project. I asked more details how he met this person --- did this person come to him or did he come to the person.

"Well, I came to them and they came to me." He paused. "Actually, it's my sibling."

Whew. Glad to know others have just as much difficulty as I do starting collaborations. Still he has a guaranteed salary for the next few years and gets to teach and come up for tenure.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Interpersonal conflict: just like a TV show

I have a colleague who is probably about 5 years older, faculty, and had been working on a project that I'm supposed to take over. It took months to make email contact with her, she didn't really apologize for that, and then I concentrated on other projects because I found her long email response time (and associated traits) difficult to deal with. Plus she is beautiful and well-dressed with pictures of her beautiful, well-dressed kid all over her office, and assorted baby equipment.

And I find the project daunting in tedious ways (i.e., it's a time-consuming new trendy method, and it's not clear that all the time put into the method yields much better work than things I already know or other things I could learn).

But I came back to the project, though, because I like the PI and I wanted the PI to be happy with me.

This colleague is difficult in all the ways you can imagine. And yet I had an "after school special" type breakthrough with her when I noticed no pictures of a significant other in her office. Just lots of kid pictures. And no ring on her wedding ring finger, just a ring on the engagement finger that looks nothing like an engagement ring. Or wedding ring, for that matter.

So if she is difficult to deal with maybe that is part of why. And baby equipment in the office could be that she is a single mom without a backup in case the child is sick. Who knows.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Whoa, diss!

I'm applying for back-up postdoc funding in case I don't get a faculty job next year. I had 4 committee members, two of whom were helpful. One was my main advisor. The other active member was the only committee member I fully liked and respected and appreciated their feedback --- really looked up to them. Never worked with them other than on my dissertation paper revisions, but I just really liked them.

This person wrote a recommendation for me and wouldn't put it on file in a dossier service, but said I should ask whenever I needed it. Of course not planning ahead very well, I never did ask because I was always asking too late to expect them to be able to do anything. Now I am planning ahead, starting an application several months before it's due (go me!), and so when I asked if they could update the letter they said no.

The first response was: you really should ask someone at your institution. When I replied that actually they request people from grad school, the second response was that they didn't have time. I thanked them and said I thought I could find someone since the deadline was so far off.

But I feel really stung, especially since I like them so much.

I felt like everything had been going so well. And, otherwise, it is.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The woman who does everything more beautifully than you do writes a grant proposal

There's a woman at my university who is just a year older than I am, and finished her PhD a few years ahead of me. The most famous member of my committee whom I loved and I didn't get to spend much time with was her advisor and has been her co-author on at least half a dozen papers. And she's really nice, so I can't dislike her, as gratifying as that would feel. I met up with her recently, and thought immediately of this Sylvia character who does everything more beautifully. When I was reading these comics back in straight-A high school 4.8 GPA days, I thought I understood, but now I realize I couldn't. Now I do!

Beyond being recognized as a junior expert in one of the areas where I do research (and am only locally a semi-expert), due to having collaborated with her famous advisor on many papers, and doing interesting work, she is also more perfect than I could imagine being personally: she's married to a successful academic guy her age, lives in a great location, with one child so far, is effortlessly thin (looked better a few months post-partum than I look now), nice and really low-key.

The only main requirement of my postdoc is to submit a funding proposal by the end of the academic year for a career development grant. I met up with her and found out she is currently funded by the exact same grant, having gotten it on her first try, which was fantastically helpful and extremely intimidating. Her proposal is extremely well-done. I've not looked at many of these things, but I can really tell hers is exceptionally good. It has coherence and logic: it's an important and central problem, and yet extremely well-defined and manageable, it builds on her areas of expertise, and it comes with a 20 year vision attached. She had a substantial publication list going into the grant application process that shows a variety of projects she can do, and was already junior faculty for several years at the time of submission. I have just my dissertation published, one paper from undergrad, and that's it.

Having read her proposal I have a very clear idea what I could do process-wise to develop it, and yet I feel even more paralyzed than I did before I read it. The most intimidating part: I have 2 months left to produce the grant proposal. She produced the grant proposal 4-5 months early and circulated it widely and got lots of feedback, asked lots of questions to program officer, and that's how she got it on the first try.

Compared with her, I'm a very weak candidate. But I don't have a few years to develop prior to the grant proposal.

The hard part moving forward is swallowing my fear, moving on, and starting to work on it anyhow. I'm definitely not going to succeed if I don't start. And if I don't get this (likely!), I can reuse the material somewhere.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Staying in touch with a postdoc advisor

Dialog is so much easier when I have recently been in contact with my advisor. The longer I spend away from him, the more dread and friction I feel about doing work, and I slow down and feel overwhelmed by all the projects I'm not doing enough work on, and it's exactly like the Doldrums in the Phantom Tollbooth, which is where you end up when you don't know where you are doing.

Then once I see my advisor, I am scared and feel a little stupid for part of the time, but then feel revved up and actually like I am doing just fine and I can do good work that will uphold my part of the traineeship bargain, and actually become super responsible and responsive.

Yesterday I met with my advisor. I was totally dreading it because I spent a few weeks under the weather, partially from physical illness and partially from the accumulated mental sludge and inertia from having been away from normal life for awhile. I was convinced that there was a good shot that I wasn't going to have my position next year, and that he would tell me just how disappointed he was in me and that he's sorry it didn't work out. It's not entirely paranoia on my part. I have been told similar things before and left to flail --- being asked to leave an academic program even --- though the flailing was temporary and certainly not fatal to me or even my career. But I forgot that he really wants this to work too.

Anyhow, paranoia over because he spoke to me like I am definitely going to be here next year. So I feel relieved. And we spoke about new projects and the next steps and how I am going to apply for funding real soon now.

As a result of this meeting and the burst of energy, when I got the "training grant annual update" form in the email today I wrote up the report and sent it back within an hour. Had I gotten the email before the meeting I would have sat on it hoping that I would do enough work to make myself worthy of filling out the form. Delusionally thinking, perhaps, that I could write and submit a couple papers before the end of the month so that I would have something on there other than my dissertation papers.

But the right way to think about it is to do all the work for the annual report, work hard and if I do happen to submit a paper I will add it to the report and resend it.

Life is so much easier when I'm happy and optimistic. When I'm in the middle of a procrastinatory funk, it's so hard to regain my optimism. Though maybe it just takes a meeting. Or even just any human contact.

This is my second consecutive day of good work habits. If I keep this up, maybe I will even start to feel like I am not just pretending to be responsible.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The lack of obstacles is intimidating

I finally got the data that our "collaborators" had been withholding. I emailed the PI at the other university during the first week of the month, and twice more, asking for the data. He answered his email towards the end of the month. And I got it that day. And now there are no obstacles. I find that extremely intimidating.

The only thing standing in my way is me. (I am the change I am looking for?)

I went on a date with this engineer who told me of his first post-college job. He was hired on a 6 month contract into a group that was originally a bit over half a dozen people. He hadn't learned this area in college, and wanted the opportunity to be trained in it. When he arrived, the group was down to 3. Then the other two quit. And then the last one quit. And he was the only one in the group, and stayed up as late as he had to in order to do all of his work, and bought lots of books. And he did all the projects that the group was given. He is first generation --- he moved to US in late junior high --- so maybe has good work ethic from that. Whatever it is, I am in awe.

Were I in the situation I would take the many excuses available --- didn't know the material, group left, no mentorship, no contact with anyone --- and decide maybe I could do it, but it wasn't worth it. Worth what, I'm not sure: the time? the ego risk? And do just the minimum and hope to find something more suitable.

A friend of mine said that sometimes he thinks that in dating I am hoping to meet someone who will be a good model to improve my work habits. In fact I am.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Paranoia in"Collaboration": assertiveness lesson #598

I am joining a collaboration between my advisor and a group at another university about 1-2 hour flight from here. This is a collaboration where my advisor's lab is providing to the project something not available anywhere else. The rest of the project is not so innovative --- there are several dozen similar things.

The PI described the project and another two to me, and basically wants to meet me before we start collaborating, so they will fly down there for a few days. And soon. On phone call 2, he says that I should have as much done as possible in advance and that I should have one of those 4 am to 10 pm days, and it will be just one day.

In order to have work done in advance, I need information. He refers me to his peons (well, actually junior faculty), and they send me some information that is not adequate for planning. Two weeks of email exchange and finally they agree to send me "everything."

Some time passes in between all this --- some legitimate, some procrastination because my mind got off the project --- so my memory of the conversation is fuzzy enough that I don't catch on right away that I was only sent "everything", not actually everything: it's less than 1/3 of the project and my advisor's contribution isn't there. But I spend another week or two thinking I must have misremembered.

Finally I schedule a phone call with a junior faculty member who reveals that the PI is not actually comfortable sharing, or "collaborating", until he's published a certain amount on the project. As if he is afraid that his collaborator's postdoc is going to steal his entire project away.

The junior faculty member promises to send my advisor's contribution, but says I need to speak with the PI if I want the other 2/3 that is necessary to have "as much as possible done" in advance as he said.

I am used to standing in my own way by procrastinating --- I could have twice as many publications if I didn't check email or distract myself --- but it is weird realizing that there are actual other people that are real barriers and how important it is to be on my toes so that I can call b.s. when necessary. Because I wasn't on my toes and assertive, a month passed which was almost completely unproductive for this project.

In fact, I almost feel like I have to budget in this wasted time: how many hours and weeks to convince collaborators to actually collaborate.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Another funny/disastrous date

Last night I went out with this guy from a few blocks away whom I met on facebook.

When he picked me up I had to go back and turn off the radio and I made the mistake of mentioning it was Obama's press conference. He was ranting about socialism in the stimulus bill within 1 minute, but also about the lack of sufficient infrastructure funding (isn't that contradictory?), and continued for the next few minutes even as I tried to at least ground the subject in facts ("Which economists back that up? Did you see the Congressional Budget Office report on stimulus multipliers?", His reply: "I don't need economists. I'm a capitalist. Obama has all these socialist economists who want the government to take over the economy."), so I knew before even getting into his car that it was pretty much a write-off date.

He thought similarly because he changed our plans, and instead of going to the nice area to walk around and have coffee at a Barnes and Noble, he decided we should go to a B&N in a strip mall. He didn't order anything. I paid for my own tea.

When I mentioned that I go to a hip neighborhood sometimes, he said something about how he hopes a homophobe would have a fit there. He had been raised pretty conservative, so I was curious whether he was anti-homophobia (= possibly gay) or just neutral about it, but when I asked him to elaborate he would only say, "There are gay people there, but they don't hurt anyone. They're totally harmless. You can walk around there and it's not like they do anything to you. It's not like they attack you like in boys' dormitories at single-sex schools. You didn't know that they attack each other in boys' dormitories?"

Shortly after, I told him that the guy I dated this summer had recently come out to me. He stopped the car (we were in a parking lot) and said, "There is no way THIS (gesturing at the length of my seated body still wrapped in my coat I'd been wearing the entire time) turned someone gay. You could turn Elton John straight!" somehow managing to make me feel simultaneously objectified and flattered. And I definitely did not want to take off my coat.

On the way home, I told him the story of the religious adulterer (posted about earlier) and he got so angry ranting about pretend religious people that I thought he was going to crash us into the median. I thought about which skeletons he might have in his closet, and I did get him to reveal a past engagement he'd gotten into after a month of dating and she broke off after 2 weeks.

I have to admit it: I kind-of like disasterous dates as long as they are not the only dates in my life.

Published! Officially finished with dissertation

My final dissertation paper got accepted for publication. All the papers are well-placed, and this one is in a journal with highest impact factor of all. The average impact factor of the journals where my dissertation papers published is. . . well, extremely high. I mean, not Science/Nature high, not even close (though arguably one should be looking at the log of impact factors rather than impact factors themselves because the high ones are so high), but probably higher than many of the dissertations to come out of my program. And they are all single-authored papers, and all in journals where that's very unusual.

So I am really happy about this. Especially since this last paper actually has the chance of making a difference in the field, though also of pissing people off. And that is actually why I delayed submitting it. That and the fact that my committee never seemed to like that paper very much, and it didn't come off super well as a job talk during my first year on the job market.

But the journal took it, and that's all that matters!

Success is scary. It raises the bar of what I feel like I need to accomplish now. Rationally, that thought doesn't make any sense. An accomplishment can never be a bad thing. Not every piece of work is fantastic, and you certainly can't start any project expecting it to be fantastic.

Nonetheless, every project I'm working on so far is at the very beginning stages, and I am not yet feeling absorbed in anything which I find scary and distracting.

And it's hard to feel absorbed because as I am starting projects I wonder if the ideas I'm having are as fresh and original as my dissertation papers. But that's not productive. It's not like I set off on my dissertation looking for something creative. I was just trying stuff, almost on a whim, and things came together. Some projects will come together to be fresh and get well-published. Others are like book-keeping, and they add to what we have but in the same way as others' work does.

All the work habit books talk about turning off your inner editor in order to get started. These books are talking about writing, but the same idea applies to research. Try a little idea, and then see where it goes. As the title of one of my favorite writing books says, "No plot, no problem!" That's for writing novels, but the same idea applies. And it's fun to read about recklessly writing a high volume crap in order to be able to pull a novel out of the mess. Maybe I should get it from the library again and reread.

And the height of non-rational thoughts: I see all the bad economic news and I imagine not doing any work and not getting renewed and continuing on my lack of work streak in any job that I take and . . . well, that's already ridiculous.

If I have a solid hour of work on one project, that's a start, and a solid day, that's great, and a solid week, I will really feel absorbed. Attainable goals; one foot in front of the other until I get to other side. That's how you cross a wire across the Twin Towers (as I heard the guy talking on NPR on Friday), and it's how you do anything.

So much easier said than done. It's totally self-aggrandizing to say that my pretty high impact factors put me anywhere like crossing the Twin Towers on a wire, but even if they do: walking doesn't change, no matter where you are. Attainable goals. Attainable goals. Attainable goals.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Just as I was feeling irresponsible. . .

I am submitting an abstract to a conference at more or less the last minute and so emailed the section head to ask whether one idea would fit, having absolutely no idea what else I would do if he said no. Several email forwards ensue, and now I'm being asked to be the "[Field] expert" discussant on an impossibly-broad interdisciplinary panel.

It's so startling to be feeling irresponsible --- in this case because I am running late, as I frequently do --- and then to have such a thing land in my lap.

If I worked more consistently and wasn't running late for submissions and everything else, I might not feel like such an impostor, but on the other hand it's feeling like an impostor that lets me feel particularly grateful when good things happen.


In other news of unprofessionalism: the administrator for the job that just rejected me sent me an email about scheduling the rooms for the job candidates that they are inviting. Apparently the room scheduling administrator has the same first name. I googled the one name listed in the accidental email and he already has a faculty job at a very good state school. I'm flattered to have been competitive enough with already professors to make it to the top 10 of that group.

Once I start new projects post-dissertation, and feel solidly integrated in that, hopefully then I will actually get invited for the job talks.

But it is really hard to start new post-dissertation projects!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Strange rejection note

I got an email from my contact at a job saying that they had 127 applicants and I was one of their top 10 choices, but not on their short list. At the time they got to the last 10 choices, "we were comparing among the very best folk and it proved to be very difficult to pick one and leave one out, and it really wasn't an issue of expertise at that point -- I hope we have made the right decision!"

What a weird statement. "I hope we made the right decision by rejecting you."

Um, I hope you did too?

This is the second such rejection I've gotten. One last year where I was one of five to interview remarked that they chose the "best fit". It's frustrating to think that there is some ineffable personal quality that I should develop to get thought of as a good fit.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Boice lesson of the day: Stop!

We all have the days when you go to the office and don't do anything at all. Facebook. Clean out inbox. Obsess over details like travel plans. Maybe some meta-work such as looking up deadline for conference submissions, renewing library books, volunteering to chair a conference section, speaking to lay people.

And then it gets to be 5 or 6 pm, and I just want to stay until I've done something. But that just punishes myself and it makes me feel anxious and it puts me in a bad position for the next day, and I end up too tired to go to the gym, and it's all downhill from there.

So even though I haven't done anything today, I am going to leave. Tomorrow is another day.

I also write down what I did all day hour by hour, even to fill it in with "facebook", "catch up on dating site email", "catch up on professional email", "answer professional-related email from high school student", "attend lecture". My theory is that it's like the cure for obsessive thoughts. (You don't judge yourself for having them, and you don't try to stop them. You just count them. And before you know it you aren't thinking about that guy who dumped you after a 2 month relationship by losing his phone.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Beggars try to be choosers

I know this PhD who is the kind of socially awkward that attempts to be suave and comes out unctuous. The kind of guy who makes remarks early and awkwardly about how much they like sex, always in the most awkward way possible.

He is well-intentioned, though, and in spite of his unattractive aspects, I suspect that once someone gets to know him they'll like him.

I mentioned two women to him, and his reply was the worst of pickiness: "I think I met Alice and we don't click... do you have a picture of Barbara? I trust you on the other stuff and guess if you like her I might - but everyone has there own ideas of cute! If she fits with my concept of cute, we could work out something perhaps... "

The right woman who gets to know him will find that he's a great guy in spite of his unctuous manner. Apparently he is not willing to extend the same favor to women.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Privileged guilt

I got a note from an academic in a developing country who is 5 years younger than me and has 32 publications, nearly all in what sound like standard US and European journals (though he's not at all in my area, so I can't gauge). He is looking to come to a country where he'd have more economic opportunity and not live under an oppressive government.

Meanwhile I muse over how to stop myself from procrastinating and have had many many days where the bulk of my time was spent cleaning out my inbox and looking at funny pictures on the internet. I am always up to date on xkcd and almost always on the Daily Show. I am always behind on my journal reading, and may not even open the ones that come. Even not compared with someone for whom work is the only way to a decent life, I already feel guilty about the amount of time that I spend not doing anything productive.

Update: a friend of mine in that guy's field says he suspects that most of the cites are forged. It would be easy enough to check.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Grant applications

I've never really applied for a biggish grant. I found an announcement and a senior person to work with me on a pre-proposal. We planned a collaboration with some of the senior person's colleagues.

Only one application was allowed per area and a few days before the deadline we found out about another group in the area and for various reasons we had to collaborate rather than compete. During a couple of hours of conference calls, we spoke about exactly how we would merge the two studies. The "merged" pre-proposal was submitted with no mention of us and not even showed to us in advance. Even more egregiously, the merged application requests funding --- and this is a full third of the requested budget --- for a role that I would have done for free, and in an area where frankly I have far more cutting-edge knowledge, albeit less experience.

Their way of telling us that they don't want to work with us was by sending to us their pre-proposal a few days after it's been handed in and having us notice that there's no mention of our participation.

Reassuring update: I forwarded the pre-proposal to someone who wasn't included on the recipient list, a pretty senior person. I phrased it neutrally, "Even after our conversations with them last week, I'm not sure exactly what they have in mind, but wanted to make sure you had the pre-proposal."

The reply: apparently they don't play well with others.

Well said! Still royally rotten of them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The demographic game

A close friend from college just broke up with her boyfriend of 10 years, her first long relationship. She's a slightly aimless grad student, cute but could be more confident. He's cute, dresses well, and has a tenure-track job at a good school. It seems so transparent.

Relationships are such a demographic game. When you get involved in college or right after you don't know who is going to be successful and who not, so it's easier to pair off by personality. As success becomes more clear, people seem more and more conscious of their "worth" in the marketplace.

It's not my relationship, and I wasn't even sure I thought it was the best relationship, but for some reason this depresses me.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Why I love Boice

I was feeling disconsolate the other day, so looked up depression in the index of Boice. He had practically a whole chapter in the first half of the book, the teaching half that I never look at. He says that the first year out of grad school in a real job is a time when faculty feel more depressed and listless than at perhaps any time in their lives. I would add, all the more so for postdocs because we don't even have much real place in the university, as in the recent PhD Comics. It made me feel so much better to read that I was not alone and that it was actually normal to feel abnormal!

Boice is right every time. I am starting new projects and still have a couple weighing on me from before, and I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to start churning everything out. In other words, this is the typical rushing impatience alternating with despair that leads me to watching the past 3 days' of both the Daily Show and Colbert Report instead of working. But when I think about even Monday or the end of the month, I'm not sure how I will have enough work done for those times.

There's a balance between solo work and collaborations. There are two or more projects closely enough related to my dissertation that it feels like I could churn them out one week each and get good journal placement, although I know that is the rushing impatience that Boice warns against talking. Review article on a subject related to my dissertation. Again, seems easy. And a couple old projects that I'm going to ignore.

And then collaborations. The only successful one is a grant pre-proposal: I saw a notice for funding, wrote a pre-proposal for the first time with no idea, and she said it was good, so I accomplished something here that wasn't my dissertation. And then a couple potential collaborations whom if I am working with I need to start some momentum, hard especially with the holidays.

I have to keep reminding myself to breathe and just allow work to proceed one hour at a time, and one step at a time. I wrote down two steps and did those, just like I'm supposed to. And now I want to write down that step 3 is "Do everything else." But I will breathe again and take another step. Impatience is hard.

And also hard is that I feel such a pressure (from whom? my advisor? "people around here"?) to juggle more and more balls, and in theory I see how all of them can be juggled by someone else. I just feel like I have trouble doing even one project. But I will start one project and feel like I have a little momentum on it before I move to something else.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Perils of soft money

A faculty member who I had thought of a well-established is leaving the university soon because they got sick and couldn't work full-time anymore. They are moving partway across the country to a mid-rank school that I didn't even know had an appropriate program. The announcement said they would be able to continue in academia in a "highly supportive environment and yet not be obligated at the same level [as] here."

Presumably they could no longer pay for their soft money position, and the new position will pay their salary.

What a horrifying position to be in.

Miracle of the phone

I got an email from the senior member of a rival research group about a published paper. He had several detailed questions, clearly pasted in from a Word document complete with sub-items (a, b, c, d) and bold font for the item titles. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach because he asked straight out whether one of the numbers was correct because it seemed high to him, and I remembered why it might not be correct.

I spent over four hours going back over my paper, pulled up all the programming again, and discovered the mistake that I had suspected. That one number was too high by one because of a programming oversight. No other numbers were off and it doesn't change the primary or even secondary results of the paper because I'm interested in differences, and even after being corrected, my number would still seem "high" so qualitatively my results are the same.

It made me nervous to admit the mistake to a rival especially when I'm on the job market so being scrutinized. I also felt weird sending him exact details in writing because I know that they have enough people in their group that if they wanted to, they could replicate my paper quickly and perhaps discover errors that I hadn't seen. I'll submit a correction to that one number to the journal once I'm done with the job market, but the correction will have no practical effect on anyone's future work and could have a negative impact on me.

Most of the questions were just details about definitions, and so I wrote up my answers to all the questions and dallied over sending it. Then I realized the phone exists. Thank you, Alexander Graham Bell!

I called him up and answered all his questions. For the one answer where I am off by one, I told him how I defined the quantity, a bit different than most, and then gave an argument for why the answer should be "high" since it really is high both as published and once corrected.

He said, "Oh!" like he hadn't thought of my answer why it was plausible. He agreed that it made sense, and he seemed sincerely satisfied by that answer. And his qualitative understanding will be exactly the same if he finds out it is really x-1 instead of x.

And then I got to find out about their group's newest research, and I even gave him a tip that I think could really help them.

Beyond the lesson about the phone being oh so useful, it's really nice to realize that no matter how quantitative you get, people think qualitatively. Someone is short, average height, or tall, and even if their height is off by a few inches they probably wouldn't change categories. Likewise, my answer was "high", and qualitatively it didn't make a difference whether it was n or n-1.