Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Morning is wiser than evening

I'm back from my two weeks with my family today. Last night was really rough on my psyche. I kep asking myself why I was continuing to travel back and forth across the country when my official teaching duties are over. Why did I take on two summer students, when I could be sitting in my partner's office or his university's library doing my own research, and spending time with Epsilon in the evening? Why does it seem like the two of us are not satisfied unless we push ourselves to the very limits of what we can take emotionally.

But morning is wiser than evening.

1) I took on summer students because I benefited greatly from undergraduate research. I went to graduate school at a university where the undergrads were mostly neither interested in, nor capable of tackling current research problems. I didn't like working with those students. I like working with the students here who can do research. I believe in passing forward kindnesses done to me. All the faculty mentors I had as an undergrad took me on without much direct benefit to themselves. I should pass that on to the next generation.

2) I've heard from several friends of mine who did their undergrads at this university "I wish I had a female teaching an intro level class in your department." I realize that I could be a strong female mentor at this university, if I choose to be. Whether or not I want to, my presence has an impact. It is probably unlikely that all 3 of the students who approached me for a project randomly happened to be female. As someone who struggled through my decision to continue in academia, and almost chose not to for lack of female mentors, I can't turn my back on this situation.

The real test is whether these answers will hold water next time I have to sneak out of my apartment to catch a plane to avoid upsetting a toddler.


  1. Hi, it's really nice that despite the personal difficulties, you are supervising summer students. I am also supervising a few students this summer. These students are genuinely interested in the subject, but are in university systems which cannot provide them the academic atmosphere that my institute can. As an undergrad, I also benefited from such programs. Before going to such programs, I did not even know that one could have a research career.

    Are you working on research problems with your students? In my case, my students have had very little coursework in my subject and are doing expository projects.

    Best of luck.

  2. New Prof in India, thanks for the support. I'm actually working on research problems with my students. Both are rising juniors, so they don't have a lot of tools. I don't expect anything they produce to land in a top journal (but who knows). Since coming to this university, I've kept an eye out for problems that can be solved, if one takes the background as a black box, with little technical skills. They require some amount of article reading, and a lot of grunt work. At most, one of these projects can become an appendix in a current paper of mine, and another would be the computational core of a paper I could write (but won't because I'm too lazy to execute the computations.)

    As a result, they don't learn a lot of new subject material, but they get a taste of what research is supposed to be. The undergraduate research program at this university specifically encourages professors to come up with projects like this to match with students.