Posted by: unlikelygrad | June 10, 2016

on being strong

“Oh, UnlikelyGrad, you are so amazing. I could never do what you do. I’m not strong enough.”

If I had a dollar for every time someone had said something of this nature to me, I could buy myself a vacation home in the Berkshires. I personally find it a ridiculous statement.

By “ridiculous” I don’t mean that the people in question are enough; I mean that strength is not a binary thing. I’ve had four babies and held dozens more newborns in my time–I love babies–and I can assure you that no newborn is particularly strong from a physical point of view. But some grow up to be strong people and some grow up to be weaklings (and everything in between).

Becoming physically strong is not a matter of genetics; it’s a matter of carrying on, pushing through pain and fatigue and lifting gradually more and more and more weight until you can carry a lot. Every time I get back to the weights after months away (which is, sadly, more frequent than I’d like) I start to burn out about 5 minutes in. I push on and make it through the whole routine, and at the end I am out of breath and sweaty. I usually end by panting something along the lines of “Holy…Cow… I…Need…To…Do…This…More…Often!” And then I am sore all over. The next session is better, and the one after that is better yet, and if I keep up my routine over the course of a few weeks I start being able to add new things (or heavier weights) to the ritual.

The same can be said about becoming mentally strong. You do not become good at math by picking up a calculator; you become good at math by doing simple arithmetic in your head, over and over and over, then doing algebra in your head over and over and over, then doing proofs over and over and over. You do not come out of the womb good at writing: if you are a good writer, it’s because you write a lot, revising and revising and revising.

Likewise, no one immediately has the emotional fortitude to go through a harrowing time. There will be times when you want to quit: when you are too sore to want to lift any more emotional weight. These are the times when you stop taking the long view. Thinking about the years ahead that you still need to endure is crushing. Well-meaning people tell you to take things one day at a time, but frequently even that is overwhelming. Sometimes I had to take things five minutes at a time, or even five seconds at a time.

Sometimes you have to force yourself to get through a workout one rep at a time. Sometimes you can only get through a homework set one problem at a time. And sometimes you get through a tough time by taking life two seconds at a time. The important thing is to keep moving, keep working your way through. Someday you will look back and see that you have walked a hundred or a thousand miles…and you realize that people look up to you for being able to walk a 5k without breaking a sweat.

Strength comes from endurance. From doing a little, one bit at a time, over and over and over. No, you may not be as strong as you need to be yet…but keep going, and I promise you that you will be.

Posted by: unlikelygrad | November 1, 2015

not luck

I said in my previous post that I’d been lucky to get the contract job I did. Maybe, maybe not.

After another grueling day of doing job applications this weekend, I went back and looked at my stats for last year:

  • I applied for 39 academic jobs.
  • From those 39 applications, I got 6 phone/Skype interviews.
  • From those 6 interviews, I got requests for follow-up/in-person interviews from 3 schools.
  • I only got one job from those three, but I was told that I was the runner-up for another one.

In other words: I worked pretty damn hard to get the job I had.

Aside from the superficial stats, I did a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make sure that my CV looked good:

  • Guest-lecturing for everyone who would let me
  • Teaching online classes for Gifted Homeschooler’s Forum so that I could add online teaching experience to the CV
  • Doing workshops etc. on teaching strategies

Again, hard work. I started positioning myself for a teaching job YEARS before I went on the market.

So far this year I’ve put in 23 job applications. That puts me about 10 apps ahead of where I was at this time last year. I *will* get a tenure-track job if it’s the last thing I do.

Posted by: unlikelygrad | July 15, 2015

Staying anonymous

It was easy to use my real name when I was only doing research. But I don’t really feel comfortable blogging under my real name when I’m teaching on the off chance that my students google me. So my first thought when I went through and redacted my name earlier this year was, “This is just until I graduate.”

But then I graduated and got a job teaching for the summer.

And now…drumroll…I’ll be teaching for next school year as well. I’ll be an Assistant Professor (of the visiting type; sadly, not tenure track) of Analytical Chemistry at a Large Urban University (with a very diverse population and LOTS of non-traditional students) somewhere in the eastern U.S.

I am thrilled by the job as I always envisioned myself teaching and hoped that I’d get a chance to work with students like me. I only have two regrets: (1) It’s not a permanent job, and (2) It’s not in a city I would have chosen as a home. But it’s a good job, and I think that, overall, I’ve been lucky job-wise.

Posted by: unlikelygrad | June 19, 2015

paperwork and preparation

I have spent the last couple of weeks jumping through the bureaucratic hurdles to get my status at MyU switched from student to faculty. This must not be a common process because I’ve gotten a lot of misinformation from various flunkies.

For example, one told me that I needed to redo all of my paperwork, including the direct deposit form, and there would be a “trial run” for the first paycheck, which would mean picking up an actual paper check on payday (even though my paychecks have been direct deposited into the same savings account for the last ~5 years). I couldn’t find a deposit slip for my savings account, so I filled the form out with my checking account info instead. Later, the person in charge of bank transfers called me to ask whether I really wanted the money going to my checking account, or whether I’d just like to keep it going to the savings account that was already on file. Obviously I didn’t need to futz around with the direct deposit paperwork in the first place.

I was also told by the computer help desk guy that I absolutely could NOT keep my student email–I’d be assigned a different email for use as a faculty member, since I would need different permissions. And since I can’t have two email addresses assigned to me, my student email would disappear fairly quickly. ACK!! Right now I have almost everything going to that address; I had planned to change things over to a gmail account over the course of the summer, but hadn’t gotten around to that yet. Immediately I ran home and started notifying all sorts of people of the new address; I also frantically tried to figure out how to download the messages using Apple Mail (since I’ve always only used the web mail feature). A couple of days later I went back and was brought upstairs to the system administrator…who told me that I would just keep my old email address. Grrrr!!

All of this paperwork has interfered with my prep time for class. Since this is an accelerated class (one semester’s worth of material in 6 weeks) I’m not going to have much time to do lecture prep once it starts. So I’m not only trying to put together the usual start of term documents–syllabus, lab schedule, etc.–but also trying to get as much lecture prep done as possible before the first week hits.

It all starts Monday. It’s going to be an adventure!

Posted by: unlikelygrad | May 24, 2015

what’s next?

Honestly, I don’t know.

I have a summer job–adjuncting at MyU–but I have no job lined up after that.

I want to teach, of course, but at this point I will do whatever it takes to support my family.

I’ve applied for ~45 jobs so far (academic & industry) and nothing has panned out. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had phone interviews and even, in one case 3 successive interviews, but I only end up with rejections.

It’s depressing.

Posted by: unlikelygrad | May 24, 2015

the secret

As anyone who’s in grad school has learned, the first part of a dissertation defense is open to the public; the part in which the committee questions the candidate is private. I always found this frustrating because, if I didn’t know what was coming, how could I prepare for it?

The closer I got to my defense, the more worried I got. I had an officemate who was in with his committee for close to two and a half hours (after the public part!). Granted, this is a bit extreme, but how did I know that I wouldn’t end up in that situation? (Dr. Green was particularly hard on me when I took my oral exams–he questioned me for over an hour and would have kept on going if the other committee members hadn’t demanded some time for questions, too.)

Needless to say, I was surprised when my committee wrapped up the questioning in a bit under an hour. My thought as they ushered me out for deliberations was, Is that all? Not only was the questioning short, it was relatively easy. The questions were thought-provoking but I was able to answer them without too much effort. I even cracked a few (topic-appropriate) jokes.

That evening, at a party Dr. Hand-Waver gave in my honor, I was talking with Dr. Sharp (not on my committee) and mentioned that I found the defense amazingly easy.

“In what way?” she asked.

“Well,” I replied, “It didn’t feel like an interrogation to me, the way that my other committee meetings did. It felt more like sitting down and having a conversation with friends.”

She smiled at me. “Well, that’s what we look for, isn’t it? Once you pass, you become a colleague. We want to see that you can talk to us as a colleague. It’s amazing how few students get that.”

So there you go. That’s what you’re shooting for as a grad student.

Posted by: unlikelygrad | May 22, 2015

Doctor Unlikely!!!

If I have fallen off the writing wagon the last six months, I apologize deeply.

Things have been crazy here: dealing with (a couple of fairly serious) issues with the children, job hunting, and–of course–finishing up the dissertation.

Yesterday I defended my dissertation. (There will be another, longer, post on this later.) After the committee deliberated, my advisor came out to fetch me and congratulate me. As I re-entered the room, various committee members shook my hand and said congratulations, and then, finally, Dr. Green–who’d been sitting in back–said, “Congratulations, Doctor!”

And that’s when it started to hit me. I did it!! Almost 24 hours later, I’m still a bit disbelieving that it’s (mostly) over; the euphoria hasn’t hit yet.

Posted by: unlikelygrad | November 15, 2014

I should knit…

I’ve always wanted to learn to knit, particularly because I have trouble sitting still unless I’m doing something with my hands. I’ve tried learning but have yet to get the hang of knitting.

A couple of days ago I got a fresh batch of bacterial strains from our collaborator. They arrived in Petri dishes on agar:


My job was to transfer them to growth media so I could make freezer stocks for use in experiments. That sort of work is best done in the culture lab, which is unfortunately in a different building than my lab. So I had to bring the agar plates outside.

Unfortunately, the high temperature that day was around 10 F. I really didn’t think going outside in that cold would make my bacteria particularly happy, so I looked around for something I could use to insulate them. I found an old sweater of my son’s stuffed into one of my desk drawers and decided that would work perfectly.

I’ve since used the “bacteria sweater” (as I’m now calling it) for insulating my cultures on several runs to/from the culture lab. I’m starting to think it would be a good idea to have insulating sleeves for things like Petri dishes, Falcon tubes, and such. I wish I could knit some, but since I can’t, maybe my son Will could do it…

Posted by: unlikelygrad | October 31, 2014

Why doing outreach is good–from a selfish point of view

Most people I know in our department do outreach because they have to.  You know, they (or their PI) put some blurb about it in the grant proposal, and now they have to follow through.  Accordingly, I’ve heard it said that you should do the minimum amount of outreach that you can get away with.

Baloney, I say.

* * *

I discovered long ago that if I am sitting, staring at a manuscript and trying to force words on the page, I get stuck easily.  Back in California, I found instances of writers’ block to be the perfect time to go outside and deadhead my roses (which bloomed year round).  Here in Colorado, I try to write at home so I can work on home improvement projects (painting, etc.) at those times.  I also get my brain unstuck by washing dishes, folding laundry, and such.

The reason this works is that sometimes you have to back away from a problem and let your subconscious work before you can get past your roadblock.  Doing mundane tasks allows you to move your primary focus away from the important work but also leaves enough brain power to keep the thought process simmering on the back burner.

For me, doing outreach serves roughly the same purpose as these mundane tasks.  Except it’s better in some ways, because my brain is still in science-thinking-mode.

* * *

I think one of the pervasive problems in science today is that people are getting hyper-focused on their areas of specialty.  Don’t get me wrong; I believe that people have to specialize to a large degree.  But I also think the big breakthroughs come when someone is able to step back, look at the bigger picture, and bring something new into the field that other hyper-specialized people don’t even think about.

This is another bonus about outreach: if you’re doing it right, you’re addressing broad topics that wouldn’t normally come up in your research.  And sometimes, as you learn more about these topics that are only vaguely related to what you’re currently studying, you come up with new research ideas.

* * *

The last self-serving reason for doing outreach is that it makes you feel cool. When you’re working with middle-school kids, you never feel like you have impostor syndrome. (The same does not hold true for me in academia!)

A local middle school is developing an experiment that will go up to the ISS in spring (assuming that the Antares disaster doesn’t mess up the schedule).  They asked a club I’m part of for help.  I went along because, hey, outreach.  And space.

They ended up being very happy to see me because there’s no real biology department on campus and I’m the closest thing you can find at MyU to a biologist–I know about agar, and nutrients, and designing experiments with living creatures, and things like that.

I love this project because it’s so much simpler than the stuff I do for school.  Don’t get me wrong–it still has lots of complexities, and the kids are going to be hard pressed to get all of the variables sorted out before launch.  But compared to what I do, it’s a piece of cake.  I can take in the information they give me, figure out what the concerns will be, come up with solutions, and help them figure out how to test which solutions will work best. At times when I’m struggling to see myself as a decent scientist, it’s nice to prove that my research skills are actually decent.

* * *

Bonus reason: the laughs.  The other day we were brainstorming how to test performance in microgravity.  I explained the science behind the “Vomit Comet,” trying to steer them towards the idea of dropping the stuff from heights.

One of the kids came up with a better solution.  “Let’s take it with us on The Tower of Doom at Elitch’s,” she suggested. Bwahahaha. Yeah, that would probably work.

Posted by: unlikelygrad | October 23, 2014

Don’t be too quick to judge

This post is written as a response to an article I saw on social media yesterday. A friend (not a scientist) linked to the following: the top 7 wackiest examples of government spending.

Of course, everything in the article is made out to sound ludicrous. And maybe some of them are. But while I may disagree with some of their choices, an article like this is simplified to the point where you cannot understand the justification behind any of the studies. So let me explain what I see as the reasoning behind #2, “watching grass grow.”

The Department of Interior spent $10,000 to monitor the growth rate of saltmarsh grass. In other words, the government is paying people to watch grass grow. On the bright side, they have not started paying people to watch paint dry.

First of all, $10,000 is peanuts (I’ll explain why in a moment).

Second of all, speaking as a scientist who’s done environmental work, I’m guessing that this involves weekly or monthly visits to measure the grass–they aren’t actually sitting there watching the grass.

Finally, why would the Department of the Interior care about the growth rate of saltmarsh grass? Because one of the best ways to prevent damage from hurricanes etc. is through the restoration of coastal wetlands, and the more you learn about how these wetlands grow, the more effectively you can restore them. If, by spending $10,000, they save a million dollars in damage (which, considering the amount FEMA pays out for storm damage over the course of a decade, is quite a modest sum) it is a worthy investment.

* * *

So, on to the money issue. I said that $10,000 is not very much money. Why? First of all, many institutions take 50% of a scientist’s grant money to cover overhead costs–upkeep on the lab space, paying for electricity, and so on. So our poor PI (that’s “principal investigator,” the chief scientist in charge of the project) is left with $5,000 to run the study.

This amount has to cover supplies, travel costs (say, 20 miles round trip every week to the study site over 2 years), and pay for the scientist doing the monitoring. The monitoring scientist, who is probably not the PI, could very well be a grad student like me. My salary + benefits (health insurance, tuition) runs roughly $36,000/year. Suddenly, $5000 doesn’t sound like so much, right? Even 1/5 of that (for a project that runs one year) is a bit over $7000–$5000 doesn’t even begin to cover it!

Every grant submitted to the NSF and EPA (not sure about other agencies) require justification. The proposal must address the proposed benefits to society. It is not enough to want to do science or to come up with something interesting or “cool-sounding.” It has to benefit society in some small way. (Many agencies also require an outreach component, which means that part of the money is being spent on public education.)

* * *

The article concludes by saying:

While some of these waste examples seem like a drop in the bucket, cutting wasteful spending is important to build momentum to tackle even more difficult and pressing issues, like entitlement spending.

Moreover, the national debt is currently $17.9 trillion–and growing. Waste reform is just one of many steps needed in order to bring down the national debt, and ensure a prosperous future for the next generation.

Well, let’s think about this for a moment. Let’s say a person was deeply in debt. Let’s say this person lives in a McMansion with a monthly payment of $5,000 per month and leases a luxury car for $500 per month. Let’s say that this person also stops by Starbucks twice a week to pick up a coffee. Should this person start by cutting out their cappuccino? Wouldn’t it better to say, “Hey, you can get a decent car for half that amount per month” or “If you downsize your house, you could save a couple thousand per month?”

The federal budget for 2014 includes $1.235 trillion in spending. (All figures in this section are from Wikipedia.) Of that, two agencies that exclusively support science–NASA and the NSF–receive about $25 billion, or about 2%, while three that might contribute a modest to reasonable amount of their budget to science–the Department of the Interior, the EPA, and the Department of Energy–are allotted $48.3 billion, or about 4%.

By contrast, the Department of Education receives $71.2 billion–almost as much as the first five agencies mentioned put together. (Constitutionally speaking, I’m pretty sure education is supposed to be governed by the states, not the feds, but that’s neither here nor there.) The National Intelligence Program gets $48.2 billion. And the Department of Defense gets $526.6 billion.

* * *

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in having a strong military. But if we cut 20% from the defense budget, we’d still have a pretty strong military. If we put half of that back into the science budget, we could understand so much more about our earth and create science jobs. We barely understand the dynamics of the ocean, and yet we only have 24 research vessels in our fleet (6 of which aren’t big enough to go into the deep ocean). Meanwhile, the navy has 430 ships…

I think we have our priorities wrong. Defense is all well and good, but money for science can potentially improve people’s lives…and money for collaborative science, with shared projects between nations, can build bridges and promote peace in ways that military action never could.

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