Friday, April 12, 2013

Aggression and collaborators

I'm working pretty intensively with a colleague currently on a project, an Skype has decided to not allow us to have a video connection the last few times we've met. So we have to depend on tone of voice only to convey information.

At some point, I realized that I was getting very excited about a point where I knew I was right, and since he couldn't see the smile on my face while I was talking, it was possible that I just came across as overly aggressive. So after I was done explaining, I preemptively apologized in case he felt bullied into understanding my point.

He hadn't. We moved on.

But I have felt bullied into accepting other people's points of views, and I have felt threatened when discussing science with others. I have also felt tension rising in me when talking to very emphatic excitable people (mostly, and stereotypically, Italians) until I've realized that that is "just how they talk" an recalibrated.

In fact, after a recent visit with a colleague, where we just had a bad dynamic (every scientific disagreement seemed to escalate into an argument), I've tried to be very cognizant of my tone an possible aggression level.

Which now makes me wonder at what set of indicators pushes one over the line between excitable and emphatic to aggressive, especially in the context of defending one's position over that of someone else.

Certainly, having a history of being willing to back down gracefully when proven wrong helps. Being consistent about what one said in the past helps. As does being clear about one's assumptions under which and domains in which one's argument is valid. All of this required developing a history with the person one is arguing with, and to a certain extent, I'm willing to only care about the large n interaction limit of my relationships. But is that all?

What think you?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Being a good postdoc

I'm at a department now where I don't really have a group I plug cleanly into. There aren't undergrads and gradstudents who I share a PI or research program with. I'm also not here a lot. This has me thinking about what it means to be a good postdoc.  Being a postdoc is already a sort of limbo, both in academic roles, and in real life roles. This is me trying to make sense of this transitory phase. Your comments on the same are welcome.
My department went through an n-year review while I was in grad school. The evaluating committee gathered all the grad students into a room one day, and asked us about our experience.
"Are the post docs in the department a productive part of the community?"
Most of the room hemmed and hawed for a while, so I volunteered that the postdocs werea valuable part of the department social life, organizing pick up football games, or other social activities.
"That's nice, but we wanted to know about their academic contributions."
Someone else, whose advisor had a postdoc, verified that they were academically useful.
The evaluation committee at my graduate institution may not have valued the social and mentoring role of post docs, but I think that it can't be overlooked. Post docs remember what it was like to be a graduate student, and our experience, being more recent, is likely to be more similar to that of the grad students in the department, than those of professors who graduated a decade or more ago. We are more likely to be at a similar phase of life as graduate students, or at least at the "next phase" of life that graduate students are trying to plan navigating. I've seen friends in fields without a tradition of postdocs turn to young tenure track professors for this same role.

I remember asking professors in gradschool what being a postdoc was like, and I got very vague answers or anecdotes about postdocs that they learned a lot from. When I asked postdocs about the same, they told me that it was much like being a graduate student, but with less guidance from the mentor. My advisor, who also had/s a 2-body problem, told me about the fact that he and his wife moved every year for the first 10 years out of grad school, but conversations beyond that were not really possible. It was from the postdocs who came through our department for a year or two that I got  a perspective on what it is like to live such a transitory life.
My last year as a grad student, my advisor had a post doc. He knocked on my door a month before my defense.
"I was wondering if you'd like to speak in the knot tying seminar. We have some empty slots at the end of the term."
I look at my schedule and reluctantly agree. After the talk, he knocks on my door again with some good followup questions. We talk for a few weeks to see if there is a collaboration to be had. There isn't.
The academic role of a postdoc, working the in the main area of interest of a PI, who has lots of graduate students in the same area is relatively clear. I've never really found myself in that position, so I won't speak to it. Readers are welcome to fill in this gap.

What is the academic role of a postdoc who lives in the periphery of the interests of a department? Unlike previous positions, in this position I find that there are lots of people doing things that I am interested in, even though I am not actively involved in any of these areas. It's a little bit like living in an intellectual candy store. But other than showing up at seminars and asking questions, what can I do to be of service to the department?

  • Topics courses: Teaching topics courses are a LOT of work. Be aware of this before you take this advice. However, teaching a course in your area of expertise, that is not the specialty of others in the department, is a great way to become one of those post docs that professors later talk about as someone they learned a lot from.
  • Organizing in house seminars: This takes less work than teaching a topics course, but often requires having a PI or someone else with some clout in the department to kick some asses to get people to volunteer to talk. You may still end up giving several of the talks, but unlike a topics course, you won't be giving all of them.
  • Volunteer to speak: Volunteer early to speak in one of the department's seminars. If you have a PI and a project that you fit in well with, your PI may already ask you to do this. But if you don't, and are hanging around the periphery, this is a good way to broadcast to others what you do. If there is a seminar series aimed at PhD students, give a short talk there as well. Then the students will also have an idea of what your general interests are, and will seek you out if they need help in something you may be an expert in. 
Having done some of these, and watched others do some of these, I need to emphasize that the earlier in ones position at a place one does any of these, the better. If people know the third week you arrive exactly what your expertise is in, the longer they have to think of you as the go-to person when a problem arises.

Monday, April 8, 2013

I am wrong

This is, in part, a public apology to my partner who is many many time zones away from me at the moment.

My partner and I have had a discussion about placebos for a long time. I have always argued that, in a sufficiently resource constrained environment, where access to medicine and medicare is sufficiently limited, giving a patient a placebo for an ailment that they could not get a better cure for otherwise may not be a bad thing.

My partner has always argued that, no, this is not a morally correct thing to do. It corrodes faith in the medical institution. If a doctor is willing to lie to you about somethings, how do you trust him about others? If going to a homeopath or acupuncturist or ayurved is acceptable in some circumstances, then how do you encourage people to go to MDs in other circumstances... you just increase the public health problem.

My point of view has been fed by a desperate urgent need to believe that something, ANYTHING, could help the situation of friends and friends of friends living in rural parts of my favorite third world country. Over the years, I have come to see that it would actually help my friends more to spend the money they would otherwise spend on a non-medical pill perscriber to get help around the farm for a day or two so they can rest, or to spend the money on nutrition over a longer term.

And then... Of course there's an and then.

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I did not really come around to seeing or understanding exactly what my partner was trying to say about the breaking of trust in medical authorities until it happened to me. I've been suffering from set of mildly annoying, but very rarely dangerous set of conditions for the last several months. I decided to get it checked out at the doctor's. She was very helpful, in spite the language barrier, and gave me an idea of several possible causes, did some tests, and gave me follow-up instructions. So far so good. I leave the office happily with a prescription and a referral.

Being the child of MDs, with a pharmacologist in the family, I am curious about what medicine is prescribed to me. I love poring through WebMD, and MayoClinic, and Wikipedia trying to learn about the pathways through which the various chemicals about to be coursing through my veins will effect my physiology. The more graphic the information I get about my inner workings, the more excited I get.

So... the first thing I do when I get to my office is google the name of the drug I just bought at the pharmacy. And then I walk it over to an colleague to make sure Chrome translated everything correctly. The contents of the little bottle in my hand are 25% alcohol. The rest is herbal essence and things to make sure it doesn't upset the stomach. Its an anthroposophic treatment*. Its a I feel like I've just paid a visit to a snake oil trader, a remnant of a world the FDA got rid of in the US a long time ago.

I am all for keeping mental health/spirituality concerns in mind when dealing with a patient. I am very grateful to the doctors that I had in college that spent a long time talking to me about my concerns and fears about things happening to my body. If I need more time and a GP can reasonably provide, or more trained in balancing my spiritual needs with my physical needs, I seek out a religious leader or a therapist. I do NOT turn to a bottle of alcohol.

Sigh. I am sorry for not understanding my partner's point. I am ashamed that it took something happening to me for me to get ti. This is the second bad experience I have had in this country with doctors. I am at this point, a little afraid to go to a third.

*This is also the medical movement at the bottom of the anti-vaccine movement. See this blog for more info.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

So easy your grandma could understand it ...

I'm not terribly fond of that phrase. When I'm frustrated at someone speaking to technically, in spite of repeated requests for them to slow down, I tend to ask them to explain it to me as if I'm a 5 year old. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But it avoids insulting the intelligence and knowledge of a woman I've never met.

And now, there's a balm for it irritation that phrase  causes. Grandma Got STEM! This is a relatively new website that features women who are grandmothers who worked in some STEM field. It's been a nice bit of uplifting reading to show up every day on my blogroll, and a fascinating peek back through time. We all have grandmothers. Many of our mothers and grandmothers were scientists and engineers. Write about them. Send in their pictures. Mother's Day is next month. A copy of a "to appear" post makes a better mother's day present than a box of chocolates.

Clean Plate

Where has the time gone?

Somewhere in the beginning of February, I thought I'd be able to take some time to catch up on some academic reading. But, as these things always go, one deadline blurred into another. Surprises popped up, projects became more interesting, and warranted more time that I'd originally allotted them. Nothing bad, but no time for reading.

I sent off the zombie manuscript yesterday. The only other project that is really hot on the burner has just hit a dead end until a collaborator can clearly define what needs to happen and why. I may have time to read today! Furthermore, the sweater I'm wearing today has a sticker on it, given to me last week by Epsilon to indicate that I joined the clean plate club by eating all my dinner. I think I'm good to go.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Breaking stereotypes

One of the things I had to do over Thanksgiving break was write letters for my students. My partner's family had a big reunion last year, so much of this writing happened in the moments when most people were out doing fun things, leaving only the losers with laptops lounging around the fireplace.

One of the letters I had to write was a recommendation for an NSF grant application. One of my fellow losers was an uncle-in-law who is also a professor at an MRU. He was more than happy to look over my letter of recommendation for me, since he had sat on the other side of these NSF grant processes, though in a very different field. One of the comments he made was that I had not emphasized my student's stellar grades. I explained that this was because my student did not have stellar grades, but I had other reasons for believing that this person was an excellent candidate. He paused, gave me some other useful feedback, and then said that he thought it was unlikely that someone without stellar grades would get such a grant, the competition being what it is. He went a step further to posit that he doubted it was possible to be a successful academic without stellar grades as an undergrad.

It was so tempting for me to point out that my undergraduate grades were far from stellar, but I seem to be successful. I forbore on this impulse for reasons of family politics, and because I'm not actually sure if bouncing from postdoc to postdoc, however prestigious  in my mid thirties counts as successful in his book.

Last weekend, I found out that my student got the NSF grant. I am incredibly proud and happy for her. I also really want to call up my uncle-in-law and give him an "in your face" moment. It won't do any good. I must forbear again.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The cost of my ambition

Easter Monday found me alone in my apartment in My City editing a zombie manuscript, with no internet. It found Epsilon and my partner travelling to the US for a visit with grandparents. The solitude has me thinking about the price we've paid for our ambition. It is easy at times like these to slip into feeling sorry for myself, from the sheer loneliness and boredom of the day. I will try to keep this post from drowning in my self pity.

I have a running daydream of I life I could have lead if I were a slightly different person. I could have become a trailing spouse. If work was not a calling, but something to do to fill the empty hours of the day, if my mothering instict was stronger, I could be satisfied with a job whose primary purpose was to keep a roof over our heads. If I were to step deeper into fantasy, I'd be in a position to quit my job after my partner had tenure, to be the mother I wanted to be, and to dive deeply into a local social issue that interested me.

At this point in my daydream, I've completely lost touch with the economic realities I live in. There is very little for which I would trade the financial security that my partner and I enjoy. There are other jobs where we could find this security, but in this great recession, very few have the flexibility required by the previous paragraph.

Still, I see friends from highschool find jobs as nurses and journalists, in the publishing business or the non-profit sector. I see them lead comfortable lives in large cities with shimmering night life and a deep circle of friends. Or I see them raise kids near their parents. The distance I keep from my family that I call independence and breathing space, looked at in another light, serves to deprive Epsilon of valuable time with grandparents.

If I'm honest with myself, I recognize that my friends from highschool grew up with well off parents. Living near parents has the additional advantage of getting financial support, directly or indirectly, from them. Friends who do not come from the same econimic background as I, but hold the same jobs as my friends struggle more, or they live with a much smaller savings buffer than my fiscally risk avering psyche can deal with.

At this point in the discussion, my partner usually points out that many of our friends have chosen free time over job satisfaction. He's right, but I think there's more to it than that. As much as I complain about this job, I am aware that no one is pinning me here. What I hate most about this job (and this reveals that I am not mired in comittee work and other requirements of a tenure track professor) is the payoff structure. There is an intense period of misery in the early career, that one gets through by keeping one's eye on the holy grail of the permanent position. I am gambling everything on the story that life gets easier with tenure.

How much am I putting on the table? I do not even explore industry jobs when the opportunities present themselves in the wrong city. "Short of making me independently wealthy, money cannot solve my unhappiness" I tell people surprised at my disinterest. Stability in the wrong part of the world is not worth a 20% pay increase. Put it that way, I can't actually be all that unhappy with my position.

We will never see Epsilon look up at a plane and say "no money, no money", because he wants to, but can't visit his grandparents. On the contrary, in the three years he has had it, he has filled 6 passport pages with stamps.

It remains to be seen whether we will be turn out to be a contorted stereotype of the parent(s) in high power careers. Not ever quite around or available as much as we need to be, electing instead to buy off the time we are unavailble, through trips, toys or camps. Time and Epsilon's inevitable therapy sessions will tell.