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.