Monday, October 31, 2011

Non technical research proposal

I hate these. I really do. But I spent a good part of last week putting one together, and I've learned guessed a lot about what to put in, and what not to put in. You can google around and find different examples of these from different fields. Here are some of my favorites from Physics/material science, Medicine and Mathematics.

Why do I need to put myself through this ordeal? For the last 2 years, I've used this fellowship for postdoctoral women as an opportunity to polish my research statement, which has been a good exercise. However, it has wanted a NON-TECHNICAL research statement. Now several jobs I am looking for is asking for such a document. I've heard that many national science funding agencies in Australia require a non-technical research proposal. If you are an Australian reader (or other reader) with experience on this, I'd love to hear your 2 cents.

The most important common feature in the three statements above seems to be that I can understand what they are doing even though I'm not in their field. The panel of people sitting on these panels usually have PhDs, but not necessarily in your field. The proposals have a lot of "state then show" paragraphs, and many "for example" statements to make it accessible at this level.

On an initial reading, all of the research statements seem to be very applied. But looking through the publication list of the physicist and the mathematician, the research does not seem to be very applied. There seems to be a trick to going from the nose to the grindstone details of the work we do every day, to fitting it into the broader scheme of science. I think it is a bad idea for someone to make their research to be "sexy." I read a mathematician's statement that started out defining what the field of topology is, and gave an example of knot theory as an active field of research in topology. Then it said "While I do not study knot theory," and explained what related work the he/she does. This statement turned me off from their project. It seemed to me that this person was trying too hard to make their work sound interesting.

Finally, I don't think any of the good statements I read really got a chance to talk about what they do at a satisfying level. (I know I didn't. After a page of background, I had room for 1 sentence summaries of each of my papers.) But that seems to be what is desired. Unlike a technical research statement, the question is not "Is this person competent at their research?" It is "Can this person communicate well, and is their research interesting?" Information about the quality of one's research needs to come from letters of recommendation.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Advice from a postdoc panel: What do I have in my pocket?

Er... Packet.

This is the third and last in a series summarizing the questions and answers given in a panel about hunting for postdocs. The previous posts can be found here and here. The content of this post may be more field dependent than the content of other posts in this series.

To my more senior readers: If you have ever been on a search committee in a non-lab science, or a search committee at all, please give your two cents on anything I say below. This is the part of the process I know the least about.

There is a standard list of things that go into a job packet in my field: CV, Statement of Research, Teaching Philosophy Statement, Letters of Rec. Cover letter.

Let me start with the Cover Letter. From what I could tell, this is just a fancy way of saying "give me the key words to put you into the correct folder." It is worth the time to customize the coverletter to each school. The one member of the panel who had recently chaired a search committee said that he would scan a cover letter as fast as he could to determine who's pile to put the packet in. The letter should be short. It should contain your field of interest, and the people with whom you want to work. However, choosing the correct key words matter. In my department, subfields A and A' work as mostly disjoint groups. In another department, A and A' may involve strongly overlapping groups of people. If you do A, but say A' in your cover letter, you would get shuffled off the the wrong subfield, and the person looking at your file may or may not take the time to correct the mistake. How to avoid this? See the previous post about contacting people in departments you will apply to.

You have little control over the content of your letters of recommendation. Choose wisely, and you trust your writers. One piece of advice that I've heard everywhere, and true as far as I can tell, if you are asking someone to be the (n+1)th letter writer make sure he/she will write a strong letter. A weak letter, even if it is one that goes beyond the requirements for the position can sabotage an application. Also, for the female applicant, make sure your letter writer is not inclined to write about your personality traits over your research ability.

The document about your teaching philosophy does not need to be long if you are applying to a research school. I have heard elsewhere that if you are applying to a school that really cares about the quality of teaching, then you may have to write a document that is tailored for that school in particular. But I am wandering deep into hearsay at this point. The standard length for a research position in my field is 1-2 pages.

The document about your research should be 3-5 pages, and written for the person in your subfield on the search committee. (There are a few exceptions to this, where the application specifically says that the research summary should be directed at a more general audience. These are a pain in the ass and need to be dealt with differently.) It should be full of "I" statements. While you may think that the results you built your research on is the coolest thing since sliced bread, they do not deserve the same amount of ink that your own research does. Judicious use of bold, italics and headings will make it easier for the reader to figure out what you have done. It is tempting to define all your terms and techniques before stating your results. However, you want to get to your results early in the document, before your bore your reader. There is a balance to be struck. As for what makes a good research statement, I found that googling around for research statements in my field gave me a good idea of what a well put together statement was. (After all, your research statement is on your website, right? Other peoples' are too.) While I could not vouch for the importance of the results in the statements, after skimming a dozen, I got a feel for which styles and presentations read well, and which did not.

CV: In my field, this should include undergraduate and graduate institutions, publications, preprints, awards and honors, talks given, conferences attended, pretty much in that order. Some people like to mention their teaching experience. Other work experience is probably not relevant, unless it ties into your teaching or research. There is no page limit on this. The emphasis is on keeping it easy to read. Some places (like Europe) require that you put your age down. In the US, it is illegal to ask this question.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Advice from a post doc panel: Networking

I recently sat on a "looking for your post doc" panel. There was a lot said that was useful. This is my second post of selected questions and advice from the session. My first post is here.

I met a professor at a conference a couple months ago, and I would like to keep in touch with him/her so he/she doesn't forget me. But what should I say in this e-mail?

Do you have scientific content for this professor? If not don't write the e-mail. Some faculty members on the panel get 300 e-mails a day. If you don't have something interesting to say, you will probably be ignored. Worst case scenario, you may make a bad impression instead.

General advice about e-mailing professors?

If you do decide to e-mail a professor, keep it short.

If you had a scientific conversation with the person, he/she is likely to remember you years later when you are about to graduate and need a letter, with a little prodding about when/where you met and what you talked about. If you met the person over pizza and beer at a conference, he/she is less likely to remember you. In the former situation you should not hesitate to contact the person for a letter. Remembering you will not be the deciding factor in how they choose to respond.

When you do sign your name, put your FULL NAME down, as well as the name of your advisor. This is not about pedigree, but about putting yourself in context. That way if the professor needs a memory aid, they can look for your name at the appropriate institution, or have a good guess at the types of projects you may be interested in.

Have a webpage with your picture on it. This a good place for people to find your CV, papers, etc. It is also useful to those professors who are good with faces but not names.

How do I meet professors at conferences?

If a talk is interesting, but you don't have any well formed questions at the end of the hour, stand in the informal discussion group that often forms around the speaker at the end of the talk. Sometimes this discussion is at a lower level, and encourages questions. A student who is proactive in this type of participation is more likely to catch the eye of a more senior person, even if the student doesn't have a lot to contribute.

Getting to know graduate students is a good way to get to know their advisors.

What other types of networking should I do?

The fun part about job hunting is looking at a department web page and imagining yourself at the department. If there is a group or person there that you would like to work with, send them an e-mail. All the above rules for sending e-mails apply. In addition, do not give them too much personal information, but give them a sense of why you are interested in their work. Attach a CV and research summary. If you have preprints available on line, send them links. If you have a website, send a link.

If you are applying to a job in a different country than the one you grew up in, or the one you did your PhD in, make it clear that you really would be interested in living there for several years.

If the professor doesn't respond to the e-mail, don't be offended. It may mean they aren't interested. It may mean they don't respond to e-mails.

Compose a list of places/groups you would like to work with, and give it your advisors, or any faculty you have a good relationship with. Ask them to contact any people on that list that they feel comfortable writing.

If there is a particular place where you want to be, ask your letter writers to write a different letter for that place, speaking specifically to the institutions strengths and demands. Don't have too many of these, but 1 (maybe 2) is okay.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Advice from a post doc application panel: preparing for the hunt

I was asked to be on an in department post doc panel recently. The advice given at the panel I think extends to many non-lab sciences, especially those that have hiring cycles. This post only addresses issues specific to the planning for the hunt. Stay tuned for advice on networking.

Edit: (other posts in the series can be found here and here.)

When do you start planning?

It is good to have the main results from your thesis done by the time requests for letters of rec. go out. That way, when  you ask someone outside your department for a letter of rec, or your advisor does, you/he/she can say "X has found Foo and Bar" rather than "X hopes to show Foo and Bar." (While it is good to have results finished by the summer before job hunting, this does not mean having the thesis finished. From personal experience, it is a bad idea to work on finishing your thesis and job hunting at the same time, unless you enjoy 100+ hour weeks for a semester.)

Some fellowships and/or exclusive schools have very early deadline, because they want to weed out the people who are not as on the ball. Start looking early.

Many applications for post docs in the states specifically ask for a letter outside your department. Keep this in mind early in grad school. Often times your advisor can contact the author of a series of papers that are key to your work, but it works better if he/she knows you from a conference.

It is generally good form to give your letter writers at least a month to write your letters. If they are missing a deadline (i.e. its in a day or two, and they haven't uploaded the letter) you should contact them. Most US institutions are willing to wait a while for a late letter if everything else is in on time. This may not hold in other countries. (If you know the writer well, depend on your personal knowledge of the person to figure out when to bring out the cattle prods.)

How many schools should you expect to apply to?

Many. The number is field/subfield and economy specific. One post doc in a different subfield applied to 30. I applied to 88. When he applied schools had started cutting back on positions significantly. My year, most positions had already been advertised by the time Lehman's collapsed. But for both of us, we applied to the vast majority of positions available.

What should one consider when applying to schools?

NEVER apply to a job you wouldn't take. What will you do if you get offered a spot there, and no where else? However, if you would take a job, but only if conditions A, B, and C can be met by the university, apply. You can negotiate for those conditions at the time of hiring.

What considerations are important when applying to a school?

This requires some soul searching. Do you love teaching, and want to work closely with undergrads? Are you primarily in the game for the research? Look at the teaching loads for various schools. As a general rule of thumb, the greater the teaching load, the lighter the focus on research. However, not all schools with large teaching loads are schools that are interested in innovative teaching techniques and provide a great teaching environment. No one at the panel knew a whole lot about how to catch the eye of a truly great teaching institution, so I won't comment on that axis further.

Do you want to stay in a city for non-academic life reasons? Is it worth being hired by a lower tier school to do so? It is very difficult to switch from an excellent research school to an excellent teaching school, or vice versa. If you think you are interested in research, try to stay in as research focused environment as possible for as long as possible.

Does the department at the school have someone who would be interesting for you to work with? Do you know that person? If you don't know that person, send him/her an e-mail. Does your advisor or one of your letter writers know that person? If so, have them send him/her an e-mail.

Is a job listed as tenure track, but doesn't have a requirement of X years of Post-doc? Apply. Even if your field has a strong norm of X years of post-doc before tenure track.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

21rst century America

Epsilon's current favorite foods are:

Okra curry

I love living this country and at this point in history!

Monday, October 24, 2011


The last week has seen a more than trebling of traffic to my blog, which is very exciting. Most viewers seems to be coming from GMP's blog, but some from other places I haven't been able to specify. I thought I'd use this time to give a bit of background about myself.

I am in the last year of my post doc at research university with an fabulous student base. My partner and I are both academics, and we have spent more time in a long distance/commuting situation than we have spent sharing an address. Somewhere in the giddiness of of my having landed a great post doc, we decided to have a child, who I call Epsilon in this blog, hoping that the needs of a third person would keep us from putting career in front of family. It was not to be.

I started this blog while my partner and toddler were living in Chicago, and I was commuting 10-12 hours each way to spend time with them over the weekend. I was miserable and lonely. Our small family unit is reunited for the next few months. In January, my partner will be moving to a foreign country, and I will be alone with Epsilon for several months. Read about it here. I'm currently on the job market looking for something in the foreign country, or for a university in the US that will hire us both.

In the meanwhile, I write about my experiences as a postdoc, my views on women in the sciences, posts about Epsilon, the political issues that catch my interest, and the activities I can find time to partake in. And occasionally, when something disturbs my psyche, or I have an extra moment to breathe, I write poetry.

I'd like to know who you are. Google keeps far too much information about you, but not enough for a real dialogue. For instance, I've had a follower who consistently uses the browser Iceweasel. What is Iceweasel, and why is it your preferred brower? I recently got a hit from Zambia. Who are you, and how did you find me?

Old friends from when I could count daily hits on fingers and toes, what would you have me keep writing about? New acquaintances, if you've had a chance to go through some of the archives, what have you liked, and what more do you want?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Now I'm just confused

This came out of Herman Cain's mouth yesterday:
“I believe that life begins at conception and abortion, under no circumstances,” Cain told Morgan.  Pressed on if he would apply this same directive to his grandchildren, Cain candidly responded.
“It comes down to, it’s not the government’s role or anybody’s role to make that decision. Secondly, if you look at the statistical incidents, you’re not talking about that number. What I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that the family or that mother has to make. Not me as president, not some politician, not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family. And whatever they decide. I shouldn’t have to tell them what decision to make for such a sensitive issue.”
I'm sure he's not pro-choice. Or, if he is, he will remove it from his platform soon. But this was just hilarious. His summary of the pro-life movement's stand in this country is so spot on!

Update (10/21 12:20 pm):


CAIN: It would be an illegal abortion. Look, abortion should not be legal, that is clear, but if that family made a decision to break the law, that is that family’s decision, that’s all I’m trying to stay.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

An Extraordinary Senior Woman

This is a story told to me by a friend during his final year as a post doc at a department where PhDs can be around, full time, for over a decade without eyebrows being raised. It is also normal in this field to take a few years off between undergrad and grad school. In short, if the women want to have children, it makes sense for many to do so before finishing their PhDs. 

The final meeting of a weekly seminar involved a period of retrospection and anticipation for the next year's seminar. Several people (mostly female graduate students) suggested changing the time for the seminar (currently meeting on a weekday evening) to a time better suited for people with children.

The senior faculty member (SFM), female, who usually runs the seminar (but not this year) objected strongly. She pointed out that this is the way it has always been done, and that when she runs it, it is followed by dinner and drinks (with plenty of soda for observant Muslims). She goes to bed in the early am, but people stay drinking at her house as long as they want. It is her belief that a seminar followed by dinner and drinks was the only way to build a good feeling of collegiality and camaraderie in the department. She followed this with the complaint that this didn't used to be a problem when the department was nearly all male. The time has become a problem only when the department started admitting “women who weren't serious about their work and who had other priorities.” Neither he nor I are making this shit up. He swears that these are as exact quotes as he can remember. I'm watching myself write a parody of a paranoid feminist's worst nightmare used to justify why she shouldn't enter academia. I swear it's true.

My friend (MF), being a good junior male academic pointed out that the time problem isn't just one for women. He was too stunned to be able to fight back on the issue of admitting women.

SFM replied that people should get their partners to help out.

MF pointed out that some people attending the seminars didn't have partners who could help out.

SFM said that if it was such a problem that people should bring their children to the seminar, but that they had to be dedicated enough to attend. Anyway, it couldn't be a gender thing since she had succeeded in academia without anyone doing anything to make her life as a woman easier. WTF!? I can't even begin to enumerate the badness of that response.

I don't know where to start. The bullying? The sexism? The  "I've-suffered-so-you-should-too" attitude? The insensitivity to the fact that some people may not like to drink or stay up after midnight? The lack of understanding of what having a bunch of infants and toddlers in a well lit seminar room well past their bed times looks like? The anger at the other tenured male present, who has children, for staying mum?

Should the graduate students stage a day of "failed child care options" on the day that an important outside speaker is visiting, to embarrass SFM? The under 5's would suffer, but they won't remember it. SFM on the other hand? ....

My friend says that on top of the difficulties in standing up to a person like this, he found it harder to call bullshit on her sexism because she was female. That if SFM had been male he would have more easily been able to ask him to stand down on the sexism. I feel like I would have had the opposite experience. I give my female colleagues the benefit of a doubt if they say/do something that may or may not be ill intentioned because they've been there, and very little leeway if they do something idiotic or ignorant because they should know better. This difference may have to do with our personalities, or be due to the fact that it is easier to call bullshit on someone more similar to you.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


One of my summer students' presentation was selected as a semi-finalist in the summer research project presentation contest.

Each summer researcher gets an opportunity to either give a short oral presentation or a poster session on their summer work. I've been very happy and impressed with her work, and she showed me her presentation before she gave it, but I didn't know it was a competition.

There are two more rounds of speaking, and then cash prizes go to the top 3 students. I take no credit for this one, but I'm very excited for her. WOOT!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Open letter to a reviewer

Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you for the time you took to review my article. I hope I did not inconvenience you too much to read what you call "utter nonsense." Though I don't know who you are, I am able to surmise that you belong to a group of scientists that do not agree with my methodology, and have a preferred methodology. But you have not actually cited anything in my paper to support your claim that "I have a poor understanding" of my subject area, or that any of the technical details used in my methodology are incorrect. In fact, from what evidence you have provided, it seems that you stopped reading my paper after section 1.1.

I also appreciate your belligerence. You've had a bad day, and ranting about someone else's useless work makes you feel better about yourself as a scientist.

However, I must point out, that if I were a writing instructor, and this was a critical essay, it would not pass muster. Fortunately, neither of those are true.

For your well being and mine, I hope that you do not have to undergo the arduous experience of looking at any future work of mine.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Job Hunting

I have a draft of most of my materials written up. I have a list of places and deadlines. All I need to do now is modify my materials according to the specifications of each application, and look up the members of universities I've never heard of to see if there's anyone exciting there I've happened to not have heard of who would be an interesting colleague.

In theory, this last step could be a lot of fun. No. After the first dozen or so cold e-mails and shifting through department web pages, this step is a lot of fun. Its just the first dozen that are terrifying.

I got lucky this application season. I'm looking through the faculty at a school that I think is a long shot fit for me, and I find a face from my undergrad years. An old TA of mine has drifted in his field to be studying problems that are remarkably closely related to what I am interested in! And then, I find one of those somewhat rare "we've never heard of each other, but we may actually have interesting things to say to each other" situations at the same university.

Its almost enough to get a girls hopes up.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The liberal I wish I was

I read this on Daily Kos the other day, and I can't get it out of my head.

The person I hope to become when I grow up does not greet political arguments with ire or emotional responses. She greets them with facts and counterarguments that hold in the starting domain of the person arguing with me. She seeks to find common ground with the arguer, and attempts to find who is correct.

Correct is a muddier issue when dealing with political arguments, but for now, I use the definition that if a person starts with a set of axioms, and then is consistent within those axioms (even when it works against their own interests), then conclusions that can be drawn from those axioms are, in some sense, correct.

This response to a 53%er does that. And it reminds me why I am a liberal.

The letter in response to the following:
I am a former Marine.
I work two jobs.
I don’t have health insurance.
I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college.
I haven’t had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years.
But I don’t blame Wall Street.
Suck it up you whiners.
I am the 53%.
God bless the USA!
 The responder writes:

Look, you’re a tough kid.  And you have a right to be proud of that.  But not everybody is as tough as you, or as strong, or as young.  Does pride in what you’ve accomplish mean that you have contempt for anybody who can’t keep up with you?  Does it mean that the single mother who can’t work on her feet longer than 50 hours a week doesn’t deserve a good life?  Does it mean the older man who struggles with modern technology and can’t seem to keep up with the pace set by younger workers should just go throw himself off a cliff?
And, believe it or not, there are people out there even tougher than you.  Why don’t we let them set the bar, instead of you?  Are you ready to work 80 hours a week?  100 hours?  Can you hold down four jobs?  Can you do it when you’re 40?  When you’re 50?  When you’re 60?  Can you do it with arthritis?  Can you do it with one arm?  Can you do it when you’re being treated for prostate cancer?

I've lived in a place where 50 year olds work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, no sick days with pay. Where illness mean loosing one's job and depending on family for food. These 50 year olds looked like 80 year olds do in this county due to the back breaking work they've undertaken for the last 30 years. They lived in slums in a developing country.

And is this really your idea of what life should be like in the greatest country on Earth?
I know what my answer is. The author continues to describe his understanding of the "American dream".
Look kid, I don’t want you to “get by” working two jobs and 60 to 70 hours a week.  If you’re willing to put in that kind of effort, I want you to get rich.  I want you to have a comprehensive healthcare plan.  I want you vacationing in the Bahamas every couple of years, with your beautiful wife and healthy, happy kids.  I want you rewarded for your hard work, and I want your exceptional effort to reap exceptional rewards.  I want you to accumulate wealth and invest it in Wall Street.  And I want you to make more money from those investments.
  I wish I had the grace to write this letter.