Archive for: November, 2017

Visiting other places

Nov 30 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

A few weeks ago I went to visit another place. I gave a talk, and sat on a student's committee. It was a great place, and it seemed to be very lively and interesting and in general some place that would be a good home. I had to remind myself that of course, I was seeing this place at its best. And when people visit my home department, they say the exact same thing. Context is important.


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Tensions in teaching

Nov 29 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I love teaching. Actually, I used to love teaching more than I love it now. I love teaching best when I am prepared and I know the stuff and I can answer the questions that students ask. Right now, I've got a lot of teaching going on. And I mostly love it.

But, I don't and haven 't always loved teaching. I've had classes with a bad aura/personality/whatever. I once, back in an A&S dept, taught biology for non-majors. They had broken up the 1000 person class into three sections. My  wonderful wonderful friend Tom and I were supposed to teach one section each. It was third quarter (back when there were quarters). We decided to split it into I do five weeks, he does five weeks, and we'd each do the two sections. That was not the problem. The problem was that about 1/3 of the students were pre-nursing (and did not have to take majors first year biology). They only did 2 quarters, and got to drop the the third, which was evolution and diversity and ecology. So the class had been 3 sections and now was down to two, hence only two of us.

Do not argue with me about that: I did not make those decisions, changes in sections, what nursing students did and did not have to do, and how many faculty taught. I did not set up the class, and in fact, organization was a nightmare of about 10 faculty involved in the teaching with the view decisions should be made and things should be done by consensus.

After dropping the third section, it turned out that there were about 50 students in the "prenursing" section who weren't nursing students. They shouldn't have been there, but they were. At that point they objected to the administration about their section disappearing, and how they couldn't possibly fit the other sections in their schedule. The college administration mandated the department to maintain that section. So, my friend Tom and I each did three sections for five weeks. That was a burden, but not the problem. Or The Problem. The guys who did the pre-nurse section for the fall and winter quarters were. They considered themselves mavericks.

If you hate boomers, you would really hate these jerks at the boomer/silent generation boundry. They were going to (and they used these words) "stick it to the man" These are white guys. Middle class guys, who worked for 3-4 hours a day whether they had to or not. No grants, no publications, but hordes of young female students trailing them everywhere. Nearly everybody got A's from them. Their version of "stickiing it", in this case, to protest having to do something so below their dignity as teach these sections, was to chose another text from different from the one used by the rest of the class. The remainder of the hippy-dippy faculty "protested this breaking of consensus, but to no avail. Everyone had "right" on their side.  Unfortunately the functional problem was that their text did not have a section on evolution, and the ecology part was not great.

So, I had the marvelous experience of telling these students that their textbook did not cover the material this term. They wouldn't be required to buy that text, but they would be tested on that material. There was immediate and unrelenting hate of me. Some of it was misogyonist (it was many years ago), so of it was young jerks trying to be clever. I would think: I am a rock of granite and this river flows around me. If self control was a muscle, I got a great workout, three times a week for five weeks. I actually found the two other sections, one of 400 and one of 250 students to be far easier to teach. All I remember of the other section was the dark room, and unrelenting desire to reach the end of my share of the term.

Sometimes when I get up to lecture medical students, first year medical students, and lecture at the end of their first term in medical school I am reminded of that long-ago class. The sparkle of getting into medical school is gone. For the folks who really want to be clinicians, the jump from endless book learning to working with people seems very large at this time. All of us are tired. Yet as one of my wise colleagues says: this is our core mission. We like the research, and even generate the money for the research, but teaching medical students is our core mission. Everything else at the school can disappear: HR, IT, the gym, the counselors, the layers and layers of administrators. In the end: teaching is the core.

Yes, all the other stuff is necessary, and makes the core go better. And these students are first and foremost people, with all the attendant chazerai that all people carry with them. Some of them will get it, and others will take longer. Some will get what I'm trying to do, and others won't. That's life. I need to focus on the core of what I do. And, so, its time to go lecture.

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Thoughts on phd-postdoc-faculty transition.

Nov 28 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I was looking through the "unpublished draft bin" of this blog, and found something interesting. Its a good story, with a good outcome/update. The original title was: (one of) The real tragedy(s) of the phd-postdoc transition. But that doesn't work any more.

Here's the first part, written Sept 2014

This is directed to be who are doing more "little" science. This is not about the people finding postdocs in Honking Big Labs. This is more about people who are not on the NIH track. People who look to NSF for funding. Ecologists (in the scientific sense, not the public perception of pollution sense), systematic biologists, evolutionary biologists, organismal scientists, botanists, comparative systems biologists, paleontologists.

In the Olden Days, people like this got jobs right after their PhDs. They taught their way through grad school, so they knew how. They wrote NSF DIGs, or Leaky Foundation grants, and had already done the PI-thing. And the rejection-thing, too. Their theses were multiple single-authored papers. By and large there were no postdocs for these people. There wasn't money to pay them. And, yes, jobs were very competitive. There were no adjuncts in those days, and a significant portion of my PhD cohort left the field.

Now, that's just not possible - to get a tenure-track job right out a PhD program for most folks like this. Some scramble and come over to the dark side (NIH-funded work). Some places have set up post-doc programs, with some teaching, and some research, and some space to grow for people in these areas.

Here is the tragedy. Let's put it in terms of Emily. Emily is defending her PhD in the next few weeks. Her mentor is an old friend of mine, but a very old-fashioned field biologist. A very old-fashioned descriptive field biologist. He has trained hordes of incredibly successful students. Emily was marginally interested in something I did years ago, and I had some old (raw) data that had never been published. We worked it up, and got a good paper (she's first on it) in a solid organismal journal. She's got about 5 first authored papers.

Emily hasn't had time to write her own postdoc grant, because she's been finishing her PhD. She got a 6 month teaching appointment, but things are looking grim. Not sure what will happen. If a postdoc is not in a big lab, with lots of projects and funding, you have to scramble to find your own money, and its damn hard to do that while you are writing up your thesis. There are not lots of positions, either as postdocs or as profs, for the Emilys of this world. I don't know the numbers: whether the percentages are different for the organismic biologists vs. the NIH-funded/health relevance postdocs coming out of the big-mega-labs.


OK: back to 2017:

What happened to Emily? As her teaching money was running out, she was contacted by a very new, very good, very scientifically glamorous young faculty who had seed money for about a year of postdoc. I suppose this is the professional equivalent of a hailmary pass. Emily jumped on it. We talked about it as being risky but high potential reward. It was a chance to learn new things, and do a postdoc in a Major Department with the brightest young up&coming in the field.

This was just avoiding the problem of writing a postdoc proposal at the same time one is writing a PhD thesis. It is not common in organismic/non-medical types of research. Emily was both good and lucky.

The position proved to be a good intellectual match. She did lots of good work, got more publications out, and thrived. While there, she developed an idea that was the brilliant offspring of her thesis work and one part of the program of Dr. BrightYoungFaculty. It was funded by NSF first time through, and paid for another 2 years of PD for Emily. Of course, since she was a postdoc Dr. BYF is the PI, and Emily doesn't really get credit for it, despite writing. It's not so much someone stealing your best beloved baby, as not getting credit. This is a touchy area, and worthy of more consideration, but not today. In this case, Dr. BYF is good, and supportive, but still neurotic obsessed focused on concerned about her own tenure issues as much as she is about Emily's future. I imagine that Dr. BYF is thinking that Emily got a job and some pubs and that is appropriate. Sufficient?

Emily applied for jobs last year, and got one job offer, but it had some issues (like expectations that all seed money would be paid back in 3 years through grant overhead), and she turned it down to finish up the postdoc. She's applying again, and I've got all paired appendages crossed for her. She's philosophical about the ups and downs of the postdoc, and perceives the advantages. It is a very mature response, and one that lets her move on, do good work and not get stuck in recriminations and self-recriminations. I'm writing letters for her again, so I'm going to find out what happens in the next chapter.


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A few thoughts on elderly parents (part 3): Dali Lama edition

Nov 27 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

The Dali Lama said to live one's life without regrets. I've always loved that, because it has multiple meanings. Firstly, don't do the things you are going to regret later. Try to live, right now, in the way you wont regret. Think before you act. But also, once you have done thel iving, stop regretting. Move forward. Can't change the past and all that.

And that is fine advice for interactions with aging parents or other rellies.

I was in New York for TG, to visit family, with, alas, no time for friends. But I did make time to visit my aging aunt, one of my father's two surviving sisters. She is in her early 90s, and frail. She wants to do things for me (make lunch, give me ice cream) and it is painful to watch, both because it is so hard for her, and she wants so much to give me things. I finally did reach out, take her hand, and say "Aunt Bas, I love you, just sit down and talk to me. Tell me stories about your mother, my grandmother, and all the family I never knew".

I started visiting her a while ago, when another cousin Amy, with whom I have stayed in touch, urged me to do this when I visit NY. I hadn't seen this aunt in over 50 years, as she and my father were not close. But I try and go regularly and send her letters (phone calls are hard given her deafness, and Skype is out of the question). For my part, I want to help her. Her apartment is a disaster. Not hoarder status, but piles of boxes and old NYTimes everywhere. She said her bills are a mess. I want to sit down and sort them out for her. But she has an adult daughter, Evie, my age, who comes and helps her. My aunt complains about what her daughter doesn't have time for. But, I suspect this is a case of everyone being the hero of their own story. If I was that daughter, and some other relative wanted to step in and help, I'd tell them to get lost. I want to help, but I do not know what I can do, other than visit when I can, and even when its difficult for me to do. I will call my cousin Evie, who I don't really know and I haven't seen since we were kids (which is that same 50 years ago).

I ask myself, now, what would I regret here? I would regret causing any pain to my cousin, Evie, my Aunt's daughter. Her road is plenty challenging as is. I would regret not learning more from my Aunt Bas. She is really the last link I have to their generation. My parents lived in New York when they were young. My mother went to Hunter College. She lived at the 92nd St Y. I do not know much more about their life their, other then a few apocryphal stories about how they met. And that my father introduced Aunt Bas to her future husband. But, my parents, what did they do? Where did they go? What was their New York? I will never know, and I try not to regret not knowing.

So, I will be respectful of my cousin, who is probably in the horrible place I've talked about so many times. And I will visit my aunt, and love her, and see my father in her face and her words and her mannerisms. And I will not regret.


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Even More grant advice... tables & figs

Nov 26 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the things I have always maintained is that one reason old people get less done is not exhaustion, although that happens. It is that vision starts to go to hell in a handbasket. Can you say presbyopia? Reading glasses? argh.

So... my young followers, do not make small tables with 6pt font. I cannot read them. I will resent having  to work extra hard, and strain my eyes to see your table/figure because you are so hell bent on packing stuff into your proposal that there is no room for this critical figure except to be read with a magnifying device (be it analog and handheld, or digital on the computer). Let me add that the worst is when I blow up your figure on my computer and it looks like it was done with crayons.

One guideline for using figures is when the words it takes to explain the image take up more space than the image. Sometimes you need the raw data to prove you can do it. But sometimes you can describe a figure, succinctly and you are wasting space with it. Some diagrams help explain the design, the equipment, a particular relationship. But lots of time they don't. Get someone else to look at those beloved babies of yours and give you some honest feedback.

I've never ever seen a Specific Aims that was improved by including a figure. It may exist. It may be your proposal. But what does need to be in the SA is sufficiently dense and important, that taking the space for a figure, a graph or a table on that page usually is not a good idea. And for heaven's sake, do not put in a quasi-table of definitions. There should not be 10 or even 5 things you need to define in your SA's. If there is one use a clause such as: Bunny Transfiguration, a developmental change that occurs at 6 months of age, turns tadpole bunnies into fully hopping creatures.

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Programmatic snowflakes

Nov 23 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Also from the tweets. A discussion about how long to finish a PhD

Now this really frosts my shorts. Anthro is right up there in the competition for most-unique-fucking-snowflake discipline in the universe. Physical /biological anthropologists can be the worst. We work on primates/humans, so 1) we don't have to know state of the art in other biological disciplines and 2) people are more interested in what we do, so that gives us a pass on issues of professionalism and 3) blah blah blah.

You can't have it both ways: either you are a social science, and therefore "more scholarly" than those assholes in hard science/engineering and thus we need 7 years to do a thesis, and our methods/results can't be held to your standards, OR you are a  "real science" and you jackasses need to pay attention to what we do, and furthermore, we want resources equal to the hard sciences  from the university/college.

And yes, yes, #notallanthropologists. There are lovely anthropologists out there in the world. But if you want to swim in the ocean, minnow, you need to know which way the current flows.


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Weird things that happen when you get old

Nov 23 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a colleague with whom I am friendly. Nay, I would go so far as to say we are friends. She is a lovely person, a great scientist and a committed human being: caring for family, friends and the students. When my Mom died, she was very supportive at work. I have tried to be supportive of her issues in balancing life & work (I say "try" because I cannot judge what was useful or not for her. That is her call). I have certainly read many grant proposals and helped with those.

As you can guess, there is a but coming.

Every time this woman sees me she says something like "are you OK?" or "you don't look so great, is something wrong?". The fact is, nothing is wrong. I am old. When I get tired by the end of the day, I look tired. I don't think I am more tired than I was when I was 30. But maybe I am.  I think that we (as a society and culture) think that looking old often equals looking tired, or looking ill. But, in truth, I am probably less tired, because I am getting better at making sure I get enough sleep and eat well and take care of myself.

I am not sure of this, and I'm certainly not a fixed perspective, but I think things like "tired" do show more on old faces (as opposed to actually being tired). There are things one is better at hiding as one ages: disappointment, for example.

There are times when I have thought older faces are more interesting than younger faces. But then I teach and young faces, when engaged in something they want to do, engaged in something difficult, engaged in learning something they have chosen are as variable and interesting as any set of other faces. Stay away from magazines filled plastic people (usually young). Stay away from news announcers and TV programs where it seems like botox has erased the subtleties that make each human being unique.

When people talk about teaching being invigorating, there may be lots of reasons. Sometimes it is the information and the flow of information. Sometimes its working with other people, different ages, and seeing them grow right before your eyes. Sometimes its just being reminded as to what being human is.

No I'm not tired. I just look like the old person I am. And I am proud of every damn wrinkle, scar and yes, I'm even getting warts at this point.


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Great Quote about why not to tax college tuition

Nov 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

This post titled "How The House GOP Tax Plan Soaks University Cooks, Custodians And Other Low-Paid Workers", by Daniel Marans,  says:

“What this means is that fewer college employees, and fewer of their children, are going to have the opportunity to attend college because the life-changing benefit of a tuition waiver will become too expensive for them to afford,” Brunson and Austin write. “Of course, just as it does with graduate students, this limitation applies only to those without personal or family resources. Those with such resources will be fine.”

But that's not the great quote. This is:

“And this is why it matters: access to higher education remains the only thing standing between the current United States and a society of hereditary privilege and permanent class divisions,” they add. “The proper term for such a society is an ‘aristocracy,’ and it is precisely what our country was founded not to be.”

My emphasis. Issues based on "meritocracy", even if that's what we want, are fraught with all the baggage of privilege and hidden discrimination. I remember one of the metaphors, dating back to the 70s, most likely: What if there was a race, say 400M. And one of the contestants had chains on their legs. Or a 50lb bag of sand strapped to their back. That's not fair, and immediately you stop the race mid-stride and remove the impediment. But, the race is 10 seconds gone, and the contestant with the impediment is so far behind, that they can't catch up at all. What does one do to make the race fair at this point?

But we are moving backwards from that  point, from even just the societal removal of chains. We don't seem to give a damn that the race isn't fair. That children, children, are burdened. [But of course, the moment we decided that Sandy Hook didn't matter, we decided that children are expendable.]

It used to be education was the first step: let everyone run as fast, regardless of race, religion, etc. But, now, we seem to be content to say: oh yeah, if you really don't like those chains, take them off yourself. That is not what this country is about.

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Follow NIH opportunities on twitter

Nov 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

If you are in the NIH ratrace, then following NIH Funding [@NIHFunding] can be helpful. Yes 95% of what is tweeted is irrelevant. But its still better than the days when it came to the library, in hard copy, and you had to go somewhere else to read it.

NIH Guide for Grants & Contacts: funding opportunities & more. (Official NIH Office of Extramural Research account.) Privacy:

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Negotiating for new job

Nov 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

This, from the tweets, generated a few thoughts:

Faculty negotiation: 1) Salary, 2) start-up package, 3)HR benefits, 4) Moving expense, 5) space for research 6) Teaching load, graduate student access and support, 7) promotion/tenure process, 8) IPR, 9) Parking/housing/child care and 10) Spouse/partner employment#SfN17

— Addictive Brain (@addictivebrain) November 11, 2017

Hmmm... I disagree with order, for sure. But the first thing to consider is what is the ballpark of the starting place from their side?  If something is "close" to what you want/need, it may be a better strategy to set that aside and put your negotiating towards the things that are not. Thus if the lab space is close, but the salary not, don't argue for an extra 100 sqft, but for the extra $10K in salary.

Also keep in mind that a "final offer", the legal piece of paper won't be made until you and chair have reached an agreement about what the position is and it entails.  Thus your negotiating can be delicate in balancing what you need vs. what the department can offer.

As for order: if you don't have what you need, in space or other resources, to be a success and publish, get funded, in short do your job as a scientist/professor, it doesn't matter how high the salary is right now. If the teaching load is so burdensome that you can't do research, and research is what gets you tenure, it doesn't matter what the salary is, or how much they give you for child care.

You are playing a long game now, and you need to think about what will carry you for the next six years. Which suggests one point to inquire about: how long can I keep the start-up (seed) money. Sometimes it needs to be spent in a window, and sometimes that window is a year or 3 years. That can be a problem if you haven't gotten funded by then.

Also, it is worth keeping in mind that there are some things your (soon-to-be) chair can't negotiate. Things like HR benefits are often determined well above the chair level, and sometimes at state universities they are set by the State Legislature. Ask about them, but don't get hung up. The same can be true of parking/housing/child care. Money is fungible: salary can go to parking, childcare, or moving. And $1000 now for moving (which may seem very important) is not worth as much as $500 more in salary, multiplied over 6 years, and including %age increases.

Teaching load is tricky. In this day and age, jobs are often defined by teaching needs: its where the money for the line comes from. Try and find that out during the interview. If they absolutely need someone to teach: A&P to pre-nursing students, or Intro ecology for a well-subscribed program, your trying to negotiate out of that teaching can result in a final offer not being made.

A good chair will let you know where she/he is flexible in the offers that can be made. What teaching can be delayed or traded? How are salaries set, and what is the range for this level of professorship (lots of public universities have set ranges)? What about space? What about renovating space? One likes to think everyone is negotiating in good faith, and that the chair wants you to come and doesn't want you pissed off. But remember to get it all in writing. The chair you negotiate with today may not be around tomorrow.



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