Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Success Breeds Success

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss how success breeds success in research and discuss two methods to help enable your success in the lab and professionally.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Grad Students: Conference Etiquette

Last week, I posted on Engineer Blogs how I was thankful for conferences. Ok, I know it was cheesy but I was going to post about conferences anyway. Rather than harp more on conferences, I thought I would give out some tips to graduate students/postdocs and what they should do at conferences. For more senior grad students, who've been to several (many?) conferences, this should be a no brainer, but for first-timers, conferences can be an eye opening experience.

This year, to show of my new tenure track hotness, I decided to take a few students with me. I did this for mainly three reasons. 1) I'm taken more seriously now that I have a TT position and am managing a group (personal benefit). 2) The students can really get a feel for what is relevant in the field and what sort of problems need solutions. This is something that is difficult to describe in meetings/discussions on campus but is in plain sight at conferences. 3) Students can use conferences to get new ideas, get added motivation to do good research, and can meet potential employers. There's also another added bonus for me which is once I take a few students, the next year, those students can show the new students the ropes. That ends up freeing my time because I don't have to introduce them to everyone.

Aside from that, there's other things that students should know before entering the conference arena. I'm just going to list a few main ones that come to mind.
  1. Be approachable and outgoing: At many conferences, you have people that tend to be high up in a particular field. Make sure your initial impression to someone else is that you're approachable (and outgoing if you have that personality). You never know if that someone is the head of R&D of [insert large company] or CEO of [insert company]. It's ok to be shy if you're not the outgoing type and the easiest thing to mention is that you're new to the field and that this is your first conference. That's generally a good ice breaker statement. Presumably, if you're talking to a more established person, they're going to more easy going and friendly if you mention you're new.
  2. Be excited to talk about your work: This should be a no-brainer but if you're excited and enthusiastic about your work, it will show. And like #1 says, you might be bending the ear of the head of R&D. However, if you're concerned about IP stuff with your work, make sure to ask your prof what you can and cannot say. The prof should know this but it will help you play your cards closer to your chest.
  3. Sit with different people: At conferences, there's going to be coffee breaks, lunches, dinners, and cocktail hours. Make sure to make the rounds and sit with different people at different tables. This is a surefire way to meet new people. If you have the opportunity to go out with other people than from your lab, make sure to do so. You don't have to drink (I think GMP wrote a good blog post about this but I could be wrong) if you're not a drinker. But going out with people is better than sitting in your hotel room. Trust me. I have been out with many well respected people in the field that do not drink and that's fine. Going out with people shows that you're social and you have a life outside of work.
  4. Accept the free drinks/food: Often, senior people in the field (or your prof) will pay for your drinks and/or food at a conference. Unless your university/lab has a policy against it, say thank you and accept it. If you're out in a group, someone may be able to count the meal as "business dinner" and get compensated for it. Other times, it's simply the older crowd being nice to the younger crowd. They remember what it's like to work for peanuts as a graduate student and they know conferences are expensive. If they feel like paying, let them. Your time to pay will come in a few years when you're making a real income with a real job and you're on the opposite side of the table with the new group of grad students.
  5. Find the other grad students: If you want to be active in the field, get to know the other grad students. As time goes on, these people will be your peers and can help you get a job (or find out who's hiring). If you become active in the society, they will be in planning meetings with you and it's better to be friends than mortal enemies.
  6. Take Notes on every talk and poster. Learn to know what each company is doing. Learn to know who are the higher-ups at each company. This will serve you well when you're hunting for ideas or what to talk to someone knowledgeable about a problem you're seeing.
  7. Find the universities in the area: Presumably, you're going to a conference not next door. If that's the case, search the local university's website to see who is working in a related field. If you find someone, ask your prof if they know that person (or anyone else). If you're at the point where you are presenting posters and give talks, this is a prime opportunity to resume pad. Contact that prof at the local Uni and say "i'm in town for this conference and I've never been to this town/city. I'm working in [closely related field], is it possible to get a tour of your group and see what you are doing?" Chances are, that prof will say "sure. Do you want to give a talk about your research?". And your response should be "That would be fantastic". And Boom! you've just added an invited talk to your resume. This is a great way to see how other groups operate, get new ideas, get more exposure, and those other Uni's are always looking for potential candidates. If you give a great talk, chances are you might get to come back for an interview if they're hiring in your area.
That's all of the things that I can think of at this time. Any more that I'm missing?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This is why the US govt is broke...

I have to travel for a review panel and I've received my plane ticket from the US's travel agent. The cost of the ticket is ~$1200, whereas the same ticket through Orbitz is ~$400.

Having to go through expensive, pre-determined, preferred vendors is just one of the many examples as to why the US govt is broke.

Thankful For Conferences

This week, at Engineer Blogs, we discuss what we're thankful for that relates to engineering. I'm pretty thankful for technical conferences. Follow the link to see why.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Midterm Self-Assessment

As we roll in to the middle of the semester, I'm starting to get a clearer picture of the hard data (grades) from what I have observed via anecdotal evidence. There's a clear Gaussian distribution of students of what I would call the average 70%, with 15% on either tail, making up the very good and very poor students. So far, I'm very pleased with this for a number of reasons.

The pressures to curve the class are non-existent. This is pretty important to me because that's a direct correlation to whether I have the class on the right trajectory. I feel like the average engineering student should be getting between an 80 and a 90 in a class, with the below average in the 70s and the above average in the 90s. If the entire class is in the 90s, then I'm not making the material difficult enough for the very good students and that's a disservice to them. If everyone is failing during the midterm, not only is there pressure to curve the class upward but it also drops morale, which can erode student confidence and evaluation scores.

Most students are pleased with the class, based on informal polling. I ask for feedback anonymously (or not if the student doesn't mind) after every large assignment. A handful of students use this to vent with things like "this assignment sucks" and "I didn't learn any of this crap". But the majority of the responses have been positive in the form of constructive criticism. Comments like "I think this aspect wasn't explained clearly and the notes were equally unclear. Can you give a better example next time?" are things that I can directly use during the next course to make improvements. Also, after these assignments, I do let students know about some of the changes for subsequent semesters so they know their comments haven't fallen on deaf ears. I'm thinking this could be a key part to get good evaluations which always looks better than bad evaluations.

I feel like I've covered more material and required more work from the students and they've responded positively. I've added some changes from previous semesters, beefed up the writing requirements, and had more lectures. Students have grumbled a little bit (who doesn't love more work) but most have grudgingly admitted it's been for their benefit. This also means I have a heavier time commitment for this class than previous semesters under different instructors but I think it's been positive for both the students and myself.

Now, with that said, there's definitely room for improvement. I've been waiting until the last minute to make up assignments and lab manuals, which is not a good trend to start. Also, there are a few more topics I should have covered during the lecture part of the course which would have benefited the students and probably saved me a few headaches. I've been late on getting information to the TAs but I don't require grading from the TAs so I don't think they're totally mad at me yet.

Overall, I'm fairly pleased so far. I only hope that I can keep this up for the rest of the semester and have the students be successful in the course.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Research Group Dynamics

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss the dynamics of building a research group and put forth a few key ideas that I focused on in the beginning. If you have comments, they're greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More on the Vibram Five Fingers

Yesterday, I had a relatively off topic post at Engineer Blogs discussing why thinking outside of the box is a good thing for engineers. I used the Vibram Five Fingers shoes as an example of how this can not only be a concept but come to fruition (and the the market). I thought I would go completely off topic today because I'm dealing with stupid BS that I don't want to deal with and I would rather talk about something enjoyable.

I'd like to say I'm an avid runner but I just don't have the time any more. I'm probably more than a weekend warrior but less dedicated than someone with a regular training schedule. I used to have a bunch of minor foot/ankle/knee/hip problems that were always nagging me. That was until I bought a pair of Nike Free.

Slipping on the Nike Free was like a caressing glove for my foot. Two things were immediately apparent after my first run in the Free: 1) the separation of the sole compartments means your foot conforms to the road and you feel more and 2) there's no way in hell you can run heel-toe in these shoes. Maybe smaller runners don't have this problem but I'm nearly 200 lbs and there's not enough padding in them to support that kind of impact. This essentially forced me to run completely on the ball of my foot, which is no easy task. It took a few weeks but I definitely can see the difference between running only on the ball of my foot versus heel-toe. Many of the annoying aches and pains in my feet/ankles/knees/hips have mostly gone away. Also, it forced me to change my stride to be more efficient and my running times have dropped significantly.

But I still wanted a more natural feel, so I tried a pair of the Vibram Five Fingers and went on my first run two days ago. My initial impression of the Five Fingers was that they were extremely weird. There's no padding or cushioning and depending on the model, you either get a nearly flat bottom or a modified tire tread. In these shoes, there's no margin for error with heel striking. If you cannot run only on the ball of your foot, then you're not ready for these shoes. Also, the separated toes aspect is insane, crazy, and totally works. I thought I would have issues with my toes slipping out of their little compartments but had no issues with it.

For a test run, I did my normal 4 mile loop, which is all on the side of the road or sidewalks. My normal time is somewhere between 27:30 and 30:00 depending on how hard I'm pushing it. The course is mostly flat with only minor hills. For the first 2.5 miles, the shoes were great! I was able to feel the road more. I definitely felt more twigs and small rocks that I normally don't. And it's very hard not to run fast in these shoes. I had to constantly restrain my effort because I was concerned something might go wrong and I didn't want to have to walk 2 miles back to my house. After about 2.5 miles, I started to notice a few problems, namely blisters forming under my big toes. Part of this problem was from me pushing it too much (I should have only ran 1 or 2 miles) and part of it was having the trail version of the shoes which has a significant tread under the big toe. You can see how that looks in the figure below.
I slowed down and tried to run on the grass next to the sidewalk, which was pretty difficult because it was dark and I couldn't see where I was stepping. I hit a few ditches (com'on people! fix you lawns) and decided to deal with the blisters and stay on the sidewalk. Even then, I was still under 29:30 which is at least an average run for me. In the future, I plan on using these on the trail runs that I do on weekends where the toe will (presumably) sink in to the ground and not cause blisters.

The last comment that I'll make about the Vibrams is that they are definitely not for the inexperienced runner. I run exclusively on the ball of my foot, even for long runs that last an hour or more. Also, my guess is I'd be somewhere near 5 minute mile run if I was really racing that distance. I'd like to think that qualifies me as someone who isn't bothered by the lack of heel striking in the shoes. But nothing could prepare me for the cramps, aches, and overall workout that my calves feel right now. The 2nd day after a race or hard run is really when you feel it and I'm definitely hobbling around. My calves haven't had a workout like this since I started with the Frees, and even then it wasn't this bad!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn!

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss why older engineers' perspectives of young engineers are ridiculous. They're akin to saying "Hey you kids, get off my lawn!" and they have no idea how good they've had it for decades.

Monday, October 3, 2011

What's the difference between 18 and 27?

Now, I know what you're thinking... 9. On the surface, that technically is correct. But those of you who are astute will say "0" is the correct answer. Let me add a little more context to the question. When you're thrown in to the deep end and you're floundering, does it really matter if the pool is 18 ft deep or 27 feet deep? Nope, you're either going to sink or swim.

I raised this classic tenure-track-sink-or-swim question in this frame during a recent round table discussion with the other new engineering profs and some senior/established profs. Because I really feel like it's either sink or swim and that's it. That's not to say I think SnowU is the type of institution that hires 5 junior faculty and will ultimately fight it out for one tenured position. I think that's a ridiculous way to run an academic institution. But rather, I get the general feeling that either a person has it or doesn't have it, and it's not going to be something the institution does that determines that.

Needless to say, this definitely got some strange and awkward looks from the other newbies. Aside from being shocked that I had a more cutthroat view of academia, the common comments from both the newbies and round table leaders was that they didn't think it was a good thing to jump into the deep end. That, using the same analogy, I should find the stairs and take a more measured path towards the deep end, but ensure my head stays above water.

While I think I was/am prepared for the position, I feel I am continuously tested/challenged by the amount of work, scope of the work, and depth of the work. On the sink-or-swim scale, I'd say I'm treading water, but definitely waaaay in the deep end, which has the potential to be good but also the potential for a spectacular failure.

But if this approach is successful, (and for those of you who have done this) do you think it will have better lasting effects than if I just waded into the pool and learned how to swim that way? For example, I see it similar to higher salary effect for starting a new job. That is to say, if I can swim in 18 ft or 27 ft, then when I'm established, handling the even higher workload with being a tenured faculty member will be easier.

For those of you who have passed the tenure hurdle, how crazy is this approach? Is my assumption correct that handling more in the beginning will mean I can handle even more later? If you're just starting out like me, what has your approach been? Is it similar to this or different?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011

First Classroom Lecture Report

Well, I've survived the first day! Actually, it wasn't so bad. I started out with a PowerPoint that covered the course objectives and syllabus. There was a lot of information regarding TAs, labs, lab rooms, etc, that didn't want to skip and so even though I dislike PowerPoint, I went along with it.

I tried to reiterate the relevant stuff about 3 times so hopefully some of it sank in. I got a few laughs at my jokes that seemed at least mostly genuine. Probably the best part of the PowerPoint portion of class was when I reviewed the Academic Honesty Policy with them. I told them this is something profs babble about on the first day and then most students don't think about it again. But for me, as a prof, if I suspect someone has cheated, it's about 20-30 hours of insane paperwork and meetings that I would gladly go through walking barefoot on hot coals if it meant dragging down a cheater. The class got very silent about that for a few minutes as I paused to let that sink in.

One student was brave enough to ask if I was serious and I responded by smiling gleefully and saying "Yes". I think they got the message.

The only other things to report on are that the students (being seniors) are a rowdy bunch and the room was over 85 degrees, which is too hot to teach. After the PowerPoint, I had to roll up my sleeves and loosen my tie for the Chalk'n'Talk section (GMP's phrase, not mine). The few undergrads that I have met prior to the class which are department helpers mentioned to me after that they thought the class was very good. So some initial praise was nice.

I only covered about 40% of the material that I wanted to cover but that's ok because I don't have set material to cover for the course (since it's labs/projects). That also means I have lecture 2 done so I'm ahead of the game. :-D

All-in-all, it was fine. My nervousness and sleepless nights seemed all for naught, although I didn't sleep again last night and I might have a fever so that could be the reason why I'm not sleeping...

Thursday, September 1, 2011

First Day of Teaching!!

Well, the time has finally arrived! In about 20 minutes, I will enter into my first classroom as an assistant professor. I've had to rip up labs and course planning twice in the last week alone, but I think I might be good to go. 

I don't really feel too nervous because  I've given plenty of talks/presentations/one-off-lectures before. However, I get this spider sense that I'm just completely missing something that I was supposed to do. Also, I'm teaching seniors so presumably they'll be able to smell bullshit from a mile away.

When I started blogging back in February, September seemed so far off but now that it's here, I'm actually glad. I've had 3 sleepless nights but after the first day, I'll probably finally get some rest.

I'll report back with how it went later. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Economics of Academia (Part 1)

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss a reader's question on the economics of academia. Essentially, the reader asks why can't we have 20:1 class ratios and lecturers being paid $100/hr and not worry about bringing in research money.

It's not an easy question with a short answer so expect a few posts on this topic. I start out by comparing those constraints to a typical community college model.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lesson Plans Down the Drain

Today, I thought I would be writing to say "Yay, I got a few lesson plans done so I won't be totally scrambling in my first few weeks". It turns out, last night, I found out my first Lab Module for my class, and first two lectures are completely wrecked. Plus, all my subsequent labs/lectures (which build on the first one), are all screwed too. I need to back up for second to give some context.

Part of the Lab Course I'm teaching will deal with data acquisition and signal processing. Currently, many of the students use LabVIEW but hate the interface. So, as part of the course, I was going to introduce them to Data Acquisition in Matlab, something I've been doing for the better part of 4 years (and talked about my love of Matlab here).

I wrote a whole new lab based on using Matlab as the data acquisition and data manipulation environment. I made fancy pictures, charts, snippets of code, etc. Then, last night, as I was working on my lectures to compliment the lab, DrWife had a great idea. We were giving NanoGEARS a bath and she was playing with some rattling toys. As she was shaking them, the pitch (obviously) changed when she was loosely holding it versus tightly holding it or when it was underwater. DrWife suggested that would be a great classroom demonstration. I could tie in damping (via water) or adding stiffness (holding tighter). And, because it was audible, it's much more interactive than just showing sine waves to the students.

I could use Matlab to acquire the signals, analyze the signals in the Fourier Domain. Add filtering, etc. So last night, as I was trying to acquire a simple audio signal with Matlab [using instrhwinfo('winsound') ], all hell broke loose. It turns out, in the new x64 version of Matlab (R2011a) only CompactDAQ devices are supported!?!?!? WTF? So all that legacy code that I've built up over 4 years is entirely down the shitter. So none of my sound examples will work using the standard code (now called legacy interface). And basically any DAQ card you purchase from NI, Agilent, or any other vendor won't work. CompactDAQ devices are such a small part of the possible hardware spectrum for data acquisition that this is a joke.

And the beauty of all of this is the computer lab at SnowU just fucking upgraded to x64 Matlab R2011a. So none of those computers can use Matlab to acquire signals with the data acquisition toolbox. Basically, I've planned 5 labs around using a used-to-be-mainstay piece of software that now is completely worthless. Now I have to scramble to make new lectures and a new lab manual centered around LabVIEW (another worthless software).

I've emailed, I've called, I've posted on the forums but I can't get any response as to when Matlab's going to fix their problem. And it is a fucking problem. Researchers want the new x64 Matlab because it supports 8+ GB of RAM, meaning much higher computation rates and memory. But for researchers dealing with instrumentation, like me, I also first need to acquire the fucking signals!

I would love to rant more but I have lectures and labs to redo. Fuck!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Freshman Advising

One of my service tasks that I am scheduled to do this year is freshman advising. At SnowU, they take freshman advising very seriously, whereas I'm not so crazy about it. I mean, apart from the social transition (and that can be a bitch for many students), the actual academic advising portion should be straight forward.

In engineering, unlike the Arts, students have to take 96% of their classes within their major (or general engineering). In other majors, you could have as little as 30% of your classes within that major (think Anthropology, History, or Communications). The one think about Mechanical Engineering that is so nice is you have this great little chart that says "Oh look, these are the 4-5 mandatory courses you have to take. No room for electives." Your decision is already made for you.

As incoming freshman, they don't know this, which is where I guess I come in. And I know things can get more difficult when you factor in skipping classes for AP Calc and Phys, etc. but even then it's not that hard.

So all in all, this shouldn't be so hard. But if you dig a little deeper, there's definitely a flaw with me advising freshman students. It's the blind leading the blind! How am I supposed to advise them on a graduation track that I don't fully understand yet?!? Yes, I should be able to get up to speed very quickly and this will help me get used to the curriculum. But still, I feel like these freshman will be like "Oh yeah, well my advisor doesn't know shit because he just started working here."

Any thoughts/advice/words'o'wisdom for me?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Writing in Style

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss how I love sketching with my fountain pen and how my colleagues think I'm weird for doing so.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Procrastination to the Nth Power

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss Procrastination to the Nth Power which is a combination of procrastination, deadlines, perfectionism, and biting off more than I can chew.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Don't want to write, don't be an engineer

I apologize to my readers for being such a slacker. I've managed to keep up with my Engineering Blogs posts but my own posts have been seriously lacking. I've had a quasi-political BS thingy at work that forced me to submit for a different request-for-proposals with a closer deadline (and less money!!) than I really wanted to. In the midst of working on that proposal, I got asked to talk to a prospective undergrad about our engineering program since everyone else is basically taking the summer off, so it seems.

Two thoughts came to mind while talking to Prospective UnderGrad (aka, PUG!). 1) did I really start looking for colleges during my junior year of HS? I know I didn't visit any (lack'o'$$$) and I don't think college crossed my mind until senior year. Probably, the really smart kids in my HS started then but I was not in that group. Anywho, thought number two is more important.

PUG was nice enough to mention a few Unis he was considering and visiting. I tried to stress the focus and direction of SnowU and why I decided to join them, hoping to convince him and his mom that SnowU would be just as good as the other fancy-shmancy schools they were considering. For you Oatmeal readers, I definitely focused on using a modern sales pitch. One of the things I mentioned to PUG was that he should expect 100x more writing that he would ever believe possible.

I think my line went something like this: "I know you're very interested in building stuff but you should also expect to write, a lot. Basically, if you don't want to write, major in English or Literature or History but don't major in engineering." (I also went on to say that this is true at any university, not just SnowU.)

So, this was me trying to be Sincere, Helpful, and Knowledgeable. Now, I know I reached PUGMom because she appreciated me being forthcoming about the expectations of UG engineers. She said of the few schools they already visited, everyone else focuses on the "cool, hand's on stuff" like Baja, labs, and ASME projects but no one mentioned writing. I focused on those things too but I said I wanted to make sure he was fully prepared to enter into engineering and know what the expectations were.

So, do you think it was stupid for me to lay it all out there for a high school junior that engineers spend just as much (if not more) time writing as they did building cool shit? Were you told this before you entered into engineering? What are the odds that he'll actually come to SnowU? Any takers?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Daily Grind

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss the daily grind of a professor and toss in some work-life balance issues. A nod to GMP with her post on work-life balance. What do you think? Naive, realistic, or not possible?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

STEM Employment Data

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I respond to Ken Cid's comment about the administration's STEM jobs report. There's charts and tables and all sorts of fun things. You should really check it out...

Monday, July 18, 2011

GEARS Consulting LLC

I've been a huge slacker over the past few weeks about posting. However, good marinades take time, which is what I've been doing. Basically, I've been making contact with local companies for possible research avenues and with colleagues that are initial collaborators. Aside from them, I was contacted by another colleague of mine to do some work that's too short to use for a project through SnowU but could bear fruit for a longer project if we're successful. This brings up a fourth aspect to being a professor that I didn't discuss at Engineer Blogs the past two weeks (part 1 and part 2): Consulting.

I didn't mention it there because consulting is not part of your activities through the university. But, many universities allow profs to consult provided it's within the stipulations of your contract. I thought I would discuss two things: why would a university let you consult and how to go about setting up a LLC. Today, I'll tackle the whys and on Wednesday, I'll tackle the hows.

Why allow consulting? Up until a few years ago, I wasn't really sure why universities let their profs consult. I knew my profs did during UG and Grad school (occasionally missing lectures) but it seems at odds with their normal job of professing. I think the reason with the biggest misconception is because profs would make more in industry so if you don't let them make something on the side, they'll eventually jump ship. While this is somewhat true, I don't hold to that school of thought that profs (especially in engineering) don't make anywhere near what they could in industry. My guess is there is a 5%-10% premium on industry jobs for the same level of competency. And while a worker at a company may get stock options and profit sharing, profs get summer salary and consulting. In the end, I think it's a wash.

But that still doesn't answer the question of why profs are allowed to consult. As near as I can tell, I think the main reason is there are often project available from companies that need to be completed in a short timeframe. This is too short to be a university project and probably not enough money to fund a prof+student+equip+50% overhead. Rather, short projects that are successful by the prof can turn into longer projects at the university. Essentially, you (as the prof) help them fix an immediate problem and they look to you to solver longer term problems through a partnership with the university.

If successful, this is a win-win for everyone involved. The prof gets some extra salary for consulting. The company gets their immediate problem solved. Also, the company has a partner to look at future problems that may/will arise but don't have the internal resources to commit to solving them. Rather, they can fund the prof and their student(s) to solve them in a more university-like pace. The university wins because they will get their 50% overhead on whatever the company sponsors at the university. And, because this money wouldn't normally be available to the university, it's an extra source of funding. Plus, it only came about because the prof did consulting on the side.

The last thing I'll say about this aspect is that funding from companies is generally much more flexible than agency/foundation funding. When you're getting money from the government, you need to explicitly spell out everything that you'll spend money on, even before any research has been done. This has the potential to hamstring you because you may commit X amount to travel each year but you actually need to travel more in the latter years rather than the early years. But when you get funding from a company, to them, it's just $X amount out the door. If you need to shuffle things around to get the research done, they don't generally care. That's very good from the prof's perspective because there's a lot of flexibility in there to work with.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Declining to Review

Over the past few days, I've had a few requests to review show up in my inbox. I accept that reviewing manuscripts is a part of my academic service and it's something you're supposed to do for the good of the global community. There is also some personal benefit because reviewing other work helps you critique your own and makes you a better writer. Unless I am travelling, I have always accepted the reviewing assignments I'm given.

Except today...

This was a fortunate case (for me) where you can see the manuscript in its entirety prior to accepting/declining to review. Some journals only let you see the abstract and then it's more difficult to decide because the abstract may sound like it's in your area but the manuscript is actually not in your area. (On a side note, I have had this happen several times and it's a bitch to do a good review.) Being able to see the manuscript in its entirety was crucial. From reading the abstract, I thought "Hmm, well this is definitely my area. Guess I have another one to add to my pile." Once that PDF was on screen, it was an entirely different story.

After skimming and picture hunting, the manuscript failed to pass any of the normal publication requirements like does this really need to be published, is the topic/data highly relevant, and isn't this just combined piecemeal from multiple places? So I took the easy way out and just said "Nope, not reviewing". I feel bad about it because I'm shirking my duties as an academic but it would have (at best) been annoying and time consuming to review.

So, for any of you out there that have done a lot of manuscript reviewing, how often does this come up for you? What do you end up doing? Is it right or wrong to just decline to review because at first glance you think there's no shot at getting it published?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Academic Breakdown

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss why professors live and die based on their funding and give some rough indication of the amount of funding needed to sustain a research group.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Official Tenure Track: Day 1

Well, the day has finally arrived! Today starts my official tenure track position at SnowU. Officially, I switch from visiting assistant professor GEARS to GEARS, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and optics. (You'll notice a few changes to my bio and an added disclaimer just in case.)

I'm pretty excited and nervous, just like I was my first unofficial day. But, to tell you the truth, it's pretty anti-climactic. I've already been working here for a few months, submitted papers and my first proposal, and have my first grad student. Plus all the people here already assumed and acted like I was official.

My office is still a work in progress (see left). I'm still awaiting furniture, a whiteboard, and my new laptop. Also, I need to decide about adding extra chairs and a conference table or should I go with a small loveseat and a coffee table. I'm thinking the latter but not sure. Plus, I have to get my Worth Demotivator poster.

Other than that, it's the same routine for me here. Figure out which grants to go for, finish papers, work on completing prior commitments, and brainstorm for new ideas. Hopefully I'll pass muster when it comes my time for tenure review in a few years, but we'll have to wait and see how that plays out.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Proposals: Initial Thoughts

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss my first proposal experience. Hopefully, when I'm an old and feeble tenured prof, I'll look back on this post with nostalgia.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Diversification: with Dr. Anna Garry and Professor Ursula Keller

When I posted on Diversification in STEM Fields, I mentioned Professor Ursula Keller's article in February's OPN. I reached out to Professor Keller with a few specific questions hoping to gather more insight on what a junior faculty member such as myself can do and what are the specific aspects of STEM academia that are keeping the door closed for women and minorities. Dr. Anna Garry, who works with Professor Keller on the issue of outreach and retaining talented women scientists, was kind enough to respond back with some very thought provoking responses.

If you haven't read Professor Keller's article, it can be found here (not pay link). I suggest you do so not only for the context of the questions but also for just general insights into the diversification problem in STEM fields. I've posted my questions so you can see the specific context with the shortened question and response below.


[Original Question: I completely agree that senior male and female scientists/engineers will carry the most weight in changing the culture in STEM fields. However, as a tenure track faculty member who fits the stereotypical profile (white, male, American), how can I be an ally even in my early career stage for eliminating sexism and discrimination? Are there particular steps to take for someone in their early career to buffer themselves from outside influences which may lead to a more discriminatory view in the future? (For example, you start out with good intentions but change over time to get into the good ‘ole boys club.) ]

1. How can a new male tenure track professor buffer themselves from outside influences that can lead to a more discriminatory view in the future?

[AG] I think that the key here is to keep an open mind always about attitudes and assumptions that you see and hear. In addition you can speak up when you see something uncomfortable. Often women are told to lighten up, or not to take things so seriously, or that a person didn't mean it. If a male colleague/member of staff says that what is happening/said is not right, or that it's discouraging - this is really reinforcing for women, they feel supported and respected. For women the environment they work in matters enormously, the old "take it as a joke" attitude is very wearing if the joke is always on you.

Specific examples: I am not a physicist, I am a political scientist, educationist and writer. I am used to being in a more balanced workplace, gender wise.

In the current environment I hear general statements like "I cried like a girl" and there is also a common attitude of competitiveness that is not a natural approach for a lot of women. You have to be very confident in this environment to be different, and not become isolated.

In addition, because I am a woman I have (for the first time in my life) experienced the initial assumption, from men and women here who don't know me, that I work in a secretarial, assistant capacity. This is an awful experience (I have a BSc, MA and PhD), and it hasn't happened to me before. Dealing with this in an angry way would not work, because you are dealing with unconscious thoughts, and who do you talk to about this, if it is an underlying assumption. What I did was set out on a campaign of clarifying the situation to the right people. It worked, all is clear. But I am an experienced, confident, person who could do it, even though it made my heart sink that I had to (and may have to deal with it again). What I was dealing with was subtle, unconscious assumptions, rather than open minds about what the range of roles a woman can take.

I am also hearing from young women scientists that they have to deal with the uncomfortable situations where male colleagues will not/cannot look them in the eye when they speak, and that some men talk only to the men in the group. For male scientists to include women all levels in these group situations is vital and, ultimately, very encouraging.

As you are aware, I think it may be very easy for a successful male academic to adopt the communal departmental mind, if all the colleagues in a department are male. A second thing that is necessary for male scientists to realize is that women (and the research has shown this) are often very self-questioning, unconfident and perfectionist in their work. They may think they are not good, even if their marks are excellent. If they are not discouraged at this stage of initial nervousness, they can produce great work. Positive reinforcement and encouragement really helps in the retention of women.


[Original Question: After reading your article, I agreed with the overall points you are attempting to make. Identifying borders, changing the work culture, and becoming an advocate of a new scientific culture all sound good but how do we go about initiating this change? Do you think there are individual differences and borders between STEM fields or are the obstacles to change largely uniform across all STEM fields?]

2. Are the obstacles similar across the STEM fields, or are their individual differences?

This is a huge question and I don't have the answer to this, but we will consider this question as we work. Certain areas of STEM have been studied more than others. I haven't, however, seen a great deal of work about the situation in Mechanical Engineering. One of my neighbours is a researcher in the ETH Mechanical Engineering department. There are two women there out of 40 researchers.

I think one answer is that the academic career has common issues across all of the science subjects in the sense of how a scientist deals with the obligations of scientific research, publications, conferences and dealing with family life.


[Original Question: Another point you make in the article states that women are opting out of academia as it is now defined. And from that, I presume that some men do not opt out of academia, either because they are OK with its current definition or are willing to work in a system that has some significant drawbacks (tenure and funding rat-race, perpetual postdocs [specifically science fields], pressures to publish, to name a few). What is it about an academic position that is driving women away but not driving men away? Is it simply a numbers game where there are still enough men within the system that there will be some pursuing academic careers regardless of the drawbacks?]

3. Do women and men opt out of academia in different numbers?

[AG] This, I think, is an important question and I am trying to address this in my work. I haven't seen any figures or studies on this. My aim is to interview all the scientists I can, across our network, on key decision moments in their careers and identify then the attitudes of men and women to idea of remaining in academia, and the situations that cause them to leave.

My sense is that a lot of men opt out of academia too, for many reasons. It may be that we are also losing the type of men that would make a real contribution to changing the scientific environment for the benefit of the retention of women and minority groups!


[Original Question: From your profile in the article and your current position, I see that you have lived and worked in multiple countries with different cultures. From my own experiences in the US and Europe, I have seen a dichotomy arise within STEM fields resulting from more cultures mixing. As the cultural diversity increases, the natural progression is to suggest discrimination over time will decrease due to the diversity. However, as more cultures are represented with differing views on societal roles for males and females, I find the progression has stagnated. From your experience, do you think this could be one (of many) reasons for why discrimination persists?]

4. The impact of cultural diversity on the stagnation of the situation for women scientists

[AG] This is an enormous question, and there hasn't been much investigation of this. There are certainly anecdotal stories on the problems that different cultural views of the role of women create. I don't think it is possible to answer this, but it is certainly something that we are alert to. It may be that someone who we commission for the OPN "Reflections on Diversity" column, from a minority scientist point of view will address this topic.


Ok, interview over, back to my normal GEARS voice. Dr. Garry has also mentioned to me that OPN will be launching a column in the near future called "Reflections on Diversity", discussing Women and Minorities in Science.

While there is a lot of information to digest in Dr. Garry's responses, there's two items which immediately jump out to me: the lack of eye contact (Q1) and that men which may make a real contribution to changing diversity might be the ones leaving academia (Q3).

I definitely have been in interviews and meetings where the speaker will not make eye contact, and from asking around, most people seem to say the same thing. I'm not sure why people don't make eye contact (without staring!) but when you're talking to someone and they're talking to the wall, it's very annoying.

More importantly, I think Dr. Garry brings up a hugely interesting suggestion in Q3. Because academic jobs are limited, there will always be people leaving academia after their PhD/Postdoc. But maybe the men that are leaving are the ones that would be the type of person to try and effect change. But since they leave for industry, the majority of men left in academia are of the type that perpetuate the current standard or focus on their research without thinking of things outside of it. I'd love to see some evidence of that but it is a very interesting proposition.

I would like to thank Dr. Anna Garry and Professor Ursula Keller at ETH Zurich for taking the time to respond and for giving some thought provoking insights. More information on Professor Keller's group can be found here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Diversification in STEM Fields

One of the reasons I started blogging was to share my tenure track experiences with others. And like all other bloggers, you start reading other blogs and get a lot (well, sometimes) of useful information for what other tenure track faculty did in certain situation. Underneath all of that info though, there is an undercurrent always discussing the topic of diversification within STEM fields. This isn't just limited to blogs but in real press as well.

In February's OPN (pay link), Professor Ursula Keller at ETH Zurich tackles the topic by proposing that senior faculty (both male and female) need to be the main advocates for diversification. Professor Keller also states that we need to change the present working culture, something which I think is nicely summarized by GMP's post on Work-Life Balance. The thing is, I'm just a n00b at all of this (no seniority) and I have no real insights into how to effect change because I am a stereotypical, white male engineer.

This same exact question was asked by Hermitage: "What would you like to see from tenure-track and not-yet-tenure-track menfolk? How can they pitch in?". [For details see] However, the respondents didn't really come up with any profound ideas (not trying to offend...), but rather stuck to basically saying stop being an asshat. There were other items mentioned like try to disassociate the sex of the author when reviewing/judging/commenting and to speak up when you see an obvious case of sexism.

But what else can someone in my situation (young, male tenure track engineer) do to not perpetuate the norm?

In a professional world, I don't think someone should be characterized as a humorless bitch, nor is asking is it that time of the month. On one hand, I'm actually shocked that faculty members would ask that but on the other, I can't say I'm surprised - we can be asshats for no reason. But is that essentially the list of things a male faculty member can do to help?
  1. Treat female faculty members (and other minorities for that matter) as just "normal faculty". Their record should speak for themselves, not their outward appearance.
  2. Maintain professional courtesy even when women/minorities aren't around.
  3. Just work based on the work, not the authors.
  4. Try to more vocal about your work-life balance.
The first three to me seem like they should be a no-brainer. I'm married to a female engineer with a PhD so I don't need any other justification for woman's competency in engineering (and all STEM). But I think the 4th item on the list can really go a long way to making a difference. That's especially the case for my situation because I'm in academia (flexible working environment) whereas my wife works in industry (structured working environment). I expect I'll be doing my fair share of dr's visits (like today!) and staying home with a sick child, and so on.

But that brings me to a grand question that I can hopefully get some answers from the blog'o'sphere.

Are male faculty members that have female partners in STEM fields better allies for diversification than those whose partners are not and does that make for a better work-life balance?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Would a postdoc have helped?

Sorry for not posting in a while. I've been swamped with proposal work and traveling. Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I've posed the questions Would a postdoc have helped? It's a question that's been on my mind since I've been working on this massive, multi-university proposal. More to follow on that today or tomorrow.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Unknown Adversary

When you get that initial letter (or email in my case) that states you're getting a tenure track offer, it's essentially life-changing. As you can barely restrain yourself in your office chair (or in bed checking your iphone at 3 am...), you want to rejoice in pure happiness. There's fireworks going on in the background. You're having delusions of grandeur thinking you're going to hit 9 out of 10 proposals. You're going to be an awesome teacher with near perfect reviews. Blah blah blah.

Fast forward a few months. You're settling into your new position. Working on your first proposal. Finishing those last few papers that you need to do otherwise you'll never get them done. Oh, and then DrWife reminds you to finish submitting your relocation reimbursement. So, you collect your receipts and head to the department administrators who will undoubtedly help out the new guy. You're handed a folder with a bunch of papers from the interview and hiring process. You start browsing the paperwork as you're chatting with the secretary when you notice something very peculiar.

There's a misplaced piece of paper in your folder with the information of another interviewee of the university; someone they've passed over. You can help but look at the name, address, and current institution. And it turns out this is someone that you've met before and has a "name" in your field...

And then it dawns on you. There are a lot of people that submitted for this position and you're the one that got it. But it doesn't stop there. There are also people that you probably know and they were passed over for you. And eventually you'll want to make a splash in your field and undoubtedly some of the people that were passed over may resent you for it. Killing your proposals, negative comments in professional societies, etc etc.

So that begs a few questions. If you're in academia, do you eventually find out if other people applied for the position? And if those persons reveal themselves, have they been good sports about it? Or should I expect some backlash during some of my proposal reviews, paper reviews, etc etc? If you're out in industry, how does it work out there? I have no clue if things are as tight-knit as they can be in a specific academic field.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Friday, May 27, 2011


Lately, I've been getting settled at SnowU. I'm up on the faculty page in one department (and hopefully soon on the other). My permanent office was just vacated by its previous occupant. Now all they need is a new coat of paint and my furniture and I'm good to go on that front. The other stuff is going decently well too. There's a fellow new faculty member in one department and we're trying to work out logistics between the two labs, costs for remodeling, and establishing a 3-5 year plan for our spaces. I'm not too worried about that as I think it will get worked out shortly.

That does, however, lead to the main topic of this post: negotiations. When I originally discussed the App Package (part 1 & part 2) and the rest of the interview process, I realized I never mentioned much about the negotiations. From what I've heard and from my (limited) experience, everything is negotiable. If it's something that is a deal breaker for you, definitely bring it up now because you would be able to do it later. However, most negotiations break down along a few lines, namely: Startup, Students, Lab, Office, Salary, Extras. First, I'll start with some general thoughts though.

General Info
Have specific targets in mind for everything. I need "X" amount of lab space, roughly "Y" students salaries for at least two years, and I'm a rough startup pile'o'cash of "Z". If you're needing specific equipment, come prepared with a list during your interview. Also, look up student salaries and tuition expenses to get a rough idea of the cost per student. I didn't really have to show the specifics during my interview but they definitely glanced at my rough startup outline and were impressed that I had what appeared to be a detailed list. It shows you've thought about what you'd need, estimated costs, and are prepared for the job.

I know the whole thing is called your "Startup Package", but this is really the money part. How much do you need to get the ball rolling on your operations? What's the minimum amount you need to grease the wheels. If you throw out a huge number, be prepared to back it up with hard figures (even quotes if necessary). The university you're interviewing at will have some ideas about your research field and they'll know roughly what to expect from you. If you low-ball it, they'll probably not take you seriously. If you high-ball it, just justify it and negotiate from there. Remember, most (decidedly most, but not all) don't want you to fail in your tenure track period. They want you to succeed because you're expensive for the university. But if you don't ask for it now, it's not going to matter at tenure review when you say "well I didn't have enough to start the ball rolling." Have a rough number in mind and then round up by 30%. Hey, it's negotiations.

In my case, startup money, students, and summer salary got lumped into one total pot that I can draw from so I don't have to stick to 3 students and X in money. I can change it to 2 students and X+dX in money if I want. If you can negotiate that, do so because it will make things more flexible for you.

I specifically separated students and startup money because tuition is expensive and 4 years X $$$$ tuition X some students = a lot of startup money. In practice, that will probably come in the form of tuition waivers and things like that. It doesn't matter how the university does it, just make sure you budget for students. Also find out the policy for tuition waivers (if any) or if you get TA support as per normal faculty.

Inquire about the average cost per student per year ( (tuition+salary+taxes)*overhead). This may be a key factor in deciding where to go if you've got multiple options. If you're planning on having a big group (say 10 people), the difference between $100k/student/year and $85k/student/year means $150k difference in your needed funding per year. If you're running a 10 student lab then you're in the $1M+ in research money turnover per year. To some profs, the difference between $850k and $1M in research money per year may not seem like much but as a new faculty member, that scares the shit out of me. That's a lot of money to have to bring in every year to keep things going.

Lab Space
Your lab space is directly coupled with the startup package and the size of your group. How many students are you planning on supporting right away? What equipment do you need and how much floor space does it take up? What are the requirements for your lab conditions (temp control, lighting, humidity, fume hoods, whatever)? Once again, a detailed list is better here. It shows you've thought about it and they you're not in over your head. I probably wasn't too specific on the size but I had very specific requirements on the lab conditions.

I've heard two different schools of thought when it comes to salary. One is: don't negotiate on it and save all your chips for more space/bigger startup/more students. Two is: only mainly negotiate on salary because the rest won't matter too much in the end.

I can definitely see the logic in (1). You're probably going to make decent money anyway and you'll probably do some consulting on the side. So your academic salary + summer salary + consulting should be enough to live on. Plus, instead of taking some extra money, you can get possibly an extra student or more equipment or whatever. That will help you get tenure (and more output, recognition, etc) and a higher earning potential.

However, (2) also makes sense. Here's the point reason. They're going to give a startup package so you will get some stuff. If you've asked appropriately in the beginning, even if they low-ball you, you're going to still get a nice package. So, this will be your only time to really ask for more money. And, to tell you the truth, I'm not so sure an extra "X" amount in startup or 1 extra year of a student salary is going to make or break tenure. If you're that close to the "go/no go line", then a lot more has gone off track than your initial negotiations.

In the end, make sure to ask for summer salary for at least your first two years. You're not going to have much research money coming in before then. After that, it's up to you.

I'm not sure how much it matters (although I'm not in FSP's office) so I just asked for the same sort of office space that all the other tenured/tenure tracks have. I did ask for a nice coat of paint and a carpet though. Basically, I would try to make sure you're on professor row where you are visible like the other profs. Young students don't want to forage around in the dank basement for your office. That's going to make it harder to attract good students.

I wasn't sure what extras you might negotiate on until this past week, which is ultimately what spurred this post. PARKING!!! Maybe this is just me but I don't think you should have to pay for parking where you work. And I don't think you should have to deal with BS about which car you take on a given day. This is the one thing I did wish I negotiate for and forgot to do so. I think all faculty (and probably all employees) at a university should get a hang tag free'o'charge from the university when they start. No fuss, no bullshit, and no dealing with parking which seems like an entity unto themselves with universities. And, if all the new faculty start asking for it and get it, they might change the policy at the university.

So that's all I have on the subject for now. Anything else I missed, please comment below. Feel free to add other tips and thoughts as well.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Next Big Thing

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I discuss the 5 technology items that changed my generation and put forth the question: What's the thing that will become the norm for our children's generation?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Age matters

Chris Gammel had a great post at Engineer Blogs about the valuable resource that older engineers bring to the table. I think this is a great post but there are some other things that could be added to his list. One of those is the "applied" nature of life. For instance, most people in my parents generation probably worked on cars non-stop during HS and college and engineers even more so. The same could be said for sparkies with transistor radios and computer engineers in the old computer clubs in silicon valley before it was Silicon Valley.

The one area where I would say there's a shift towards younger engineers is dealing with computers. That's not to say older engineers cannot use computers but younger engineers who, for the most part, grew up with computers, they're second nature. New version of Solidworks, Pro/e, MS Office? No big deal. Even the transitions from Office 2003 and Office 2010 are fairly easy even with the interface changes. My suspicion is this is more difficult for the older generations of engineers. Plus, my generation and younger has basically a wired-24/7 attitude. And while you can argue the pluses and minuses of that, you can also see how we get things done in a different manner.

For instance, I use skype regularly to video chat with colleagues. Their screen share function is great and it's much easier to visualize a lot of things rather than just describing them over the phone. But I can see why that would be somewhat different from older engineers. At the same time, I am probably more awkward on the phone in a professional sense because I'm much more used to using email as the first contact. Older engineers, however, grew up talking on the phone and they are more versed in that sort of social conduct.

It is a shame though that most older engineers have to go into management to get the respect (and pay) they deserve.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Proving Vs Disproving

Some of the most fruitful work I did during my PhD studies was with a Postdoc. Working with SuperK was the classic East-meets-West in middle and total opposites attract (no, not in that way). Quiet, determined, calm, yet surprisingly funny versus loud, persistent, obnoxious, and a bumbling idiot at times. Can you guess who's who?

Anywho, SuperK and I worked on a bunch of topics, wrote a bunch of papers, and traveled to a bunch of conferences together. After SuperK moved on, I was pretty upset because my sparring partner in the lab and the one person who understood me academically was no longer there. We still keep in touch but SuperK's at a company now doing other cool things but it's all secretive.

When SuperK left, there were still a ton of experiments to finish and things to prove in the lab. The end goal of all of this was to prove the uber simple system and have our industrial partner pay the university (and us) an 18-wheeler full of $100 bills to license the technology. I tried to do as much as I could but I was saddled with my main PhD project and other projects and ultimately we didn't have the funds at the time. Right around the time I defended last fall, OldEuropeU hired NewPhD to finish working on that project. I agree to mentor NewPhD and things were going great....

... until yesterday.

Aside from building a demonstrator in the lab, we also needed to make sure the theory matches the results. Before building the final setup, we spent a few months to building different systems and making sure the more known methods indeed worked. Plus we had a few conference proceedings to write and we wanted to do a comprehensive paper with each system at the end.

Well, some things changed with the setup and things got sidelined in Europe. We needed to get a key component fixed in order to prove the final setup. In the meantime, I moved back to the US and am now trying to start new stuff here yet finish stuff from there. That left NewPhD to finish the system characterization while I worked on the theory. Before I left Europe, we did some rough calculations and I was pretty confident.

I should really learn to check my math. It turns out, the ideal system (for practical reasons) will not theoretically work for all cases, so it will not be robust enough for transferring to industry. And, to add some fuel to the fire, we guess wrongly with our intended results and were accepted for a talk at a conference and the paper is do ASAP. We were fairly vague in our description in the initial abstract but now our proceedings that was going to prove something actually disproves our initial ideas.

I'm pretty bummed about it this. The really sad part is this technology could be adapted to a bunch of different systems and widely applicable.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reality vs Virtuality

Today, over at Engineer Blogs, I bash Controls Engineers for not living in the real world. No, I'm not joking. They really do live in a parallel universe where simple concepts are made to be unrecognizable and more difficult than necessary.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Honeymoon is Over

This past week has been crazy busy for me and the rest of the family. Our stuff in the shipping container arrived (waaaay ahead of schedule) which now means endless days of unpacking. NanoGEARS definitely likes it though; she's crawling all over boxes and reaching into everything and pulling out stuff. (Her way of helping.)

So now that our stuff is here and I've been officially-unofficially working on campus for two weeks, I can definitely say the honeymoon is over. Don't get me wrong. It is totally fantastic to have this opportunity and I am looking forward to the next set of challenges but it is definitely overwhelming. I know I'm not officially working for a few months so I have time to finish other, prior work. But that's a lot of work and with meeting my new colleagues, learning the area, and general living issues like unpacking, I don't have nearly enough time to do what I want to do. Hence my lack of blogging.

One thing that has been weird is the lack of need for an alarm clock. If you're trying to get up early and you hate waking up to that alarm clock, just sleep with the curtains open. Or don't have curtains like our current situation. Since the sun is up at 5:30 am, I haven't had to wake up to an alarm clock since we've moved. I used to think that Philips Wake-up Light was total BS. But maybe not. If the sun is up early where you live and you need to wake up early, just use that rather than your alarm. You'll end up feeling better without that grogginess.

Well, I'd like to blog more but I have meetings about my lab space and future research projects. Look for me tomorrow on Engineer Blogs, where I discuss the difference between real engineers and virtual engineers.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Official Unofficial Day 1

I know I haven't posted in a while but I hope to get back on the right track this week. With moving, house hunting, car shopping, daycare issues, and watching Fast Five, I've been swamped lately. Actually, it's been very frustrating because I am definitely a creature of habit. I like my daily routine, where I know roughly what to expect in the morning, day, evening, and night. And I've had no routine for a few weeks, and I'm getting crabby about it :-\

But that's ok, because tomorrow is officially the unofficial first day on the job!! I'm meeting with the lab coordinator to see that my lab is up spec. I move into a temporary office until my official office is complete. And I've got an appointment with SnowU's grant support staff to get started on some NSF grants.

I feel like I have the jr high to high school, day-before-first-day, new-guy-at-the-new-school jitters. Things will most likely go smoothly but I'm nervous nonetheless. Wish me luck!

Monday, April 25, 2011

New Car(s) Dilemma

Test drove a new 2012 Civic Sedan. Drove nice, nice dealer but visibility is baaaad. I have to sit way back due to my height and the beam between the windshield and side windows is huge.

Also, I wanted to drive a Focus to see how it drove next to the Civic, but the dealer was a psycho. Never leave your real phone number on an internet car dealer form. They'll call you all the time. I'm scared to go into the lot.

Between an Outback and a Forrester, the Outback clearly wins. Getting a nifty rearview camera on it.

As for the second car, oddly enough it's tied between a Subaru Impreza or a Chevy Cruze (that's the odd one). The main tradeoff is a bigger engine and AWD in the Impreza vs gas mileage and cheaper sticker for the Cruze.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fantasy Curriculum: Physics is OK (for the most part)

My delusions of grandeur with my fantasy curriculum continue. Yesterday, I discussed how I would change the math part of the curriculum. Today, I'm tackling physics. If yesterday was a blindsided, no-holds-barred tackle, then today is more like a two-handed-touch tackle.

Physics really isn't a major issue for most ME curriculum. Probably, most programs have two physics classes, one on basic physics (equations of motion, etc) and another on electromagnetic theory and maybe optics. My basic physics class was ok but I would have liked to see the math stuff tied in a little more. For instance, yesterday I stated that I didn't get the relationship between derivatives (vel, accel, jerk, snap, etc) in math. I only heard about them in physics. I'd like to see that link strengthened significantly.

The bigger issue I had with basic physics was the EM theory part. Rather than rant and say all physics is terrible, I'm going to chalk that up to a terrible professor (RMP has literally 1.5 stars for ~140 ratings). Out of 100 students, there was a total of 1 physics major and my guess is this prof didn't like engineers.

Aside from the prof not appearing to care, EM theory can be taught from too high a level. I mean, do young engineers really care about the derivation of Maxwell's equations? No. That doesn't mean they're not important (they really are!). But that doesn't mean you should waste 4 classes with endless derivations to get 4 equations that are in every physics book.

This brings me to my only issue with physics. And it's basically the fundamental difference between physics and engineering. Physics is all about the journey to the answer and understanding those concepts that get you there (ie: endless pages of derivations). Engineering is all about using tools that are in a toolbox to solve a problem. The method and end results means two different things for engineers and physicists. Thus, there is some source of disconnect would could be improved.

If I explain it in higher terms, an Engineer with a 2% error away from their initial assumption would say "I'm good to 2%". However, a Physicist would back correct their initial assumption by 2% to reach the goal of 100%. In physics, it seems more about your initial hypothesis whereas in engineering, it's all about how far you are from you're desired target.

To me, it seems that engineers and physicists talk about the same things but there's a miscommunication. For engineers to really grasp physics concept though, physics needs to be explained how an engineer would think and then slowly build into more physics concepts. If you don't do that, you risk a complete miscommunication between both parties and the education level will decrease.

I'm not sure you'd make a complete overhaul to the physics concepts discussed, rather, the teaching style should be addressed. Maybe only seasoned Profs who knows the quirky differences between engineers and physics should teach it, or maybe someone totally green should do it to see if they can come up with something better. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fantasy Curriculum: All out assault on Math!

A few weeks ago (7 eons in internet time...) I posted on Engineer Blogs a snippet of ideas for how I would change the mechanical engineering curriculum. This mainly focused around one thing: have all ME required courses taught by ME faculty. It's pretty simple. If you're a ME student, you probably have ~120 hours of ME degree courses that you need to take. If they're all not taught by ME faculty, you're getting shafted in your education. That's just my opinion. However, it seemed from the initial comments that there's bunch of people that would like that.

In my original post, I picked on a few non-ME courses that I would like to see changed. Today, I'm going to specifically discuss the Mathematics and Statistics curriculum parts of a typical ME program and how I'd like to change them. I realize I'm totally biased and haven't had a good math teacher in college but I'm also going to assume I'm not alone in this boat.

The biggest reason for swapping math profs for ME profs is the application of the math. When you're in a math class (even math for engineers) it's always math for the sake of math. I took a graduate math course called "Advanced Applied Engineering Mathematics". There was never any actual applying of the math. Engineers don't care about math just because it's math. They want to use it. If you don't have examples of it, you're talking to zombies. Math prof's don't give practical examples. However, ME profs can.

This brings me to the second biggest reason for changing profs. Math profs want to teach math students who think like them and approach problems like them. ME profs want to teach to ME students who think like them and approach problems like them. It's pretty simple and basic but it doesn't make sense. And ME profs are as qualified (if not more qualified) to teach engineering math courses because they use it on a regular basis.

Most universities have the math courses front-loaded before the ME courses. A better approach is to actually teach the math in the same course where it's applied. I'll give you an example. One of the basic things about derivatives (and 2nd derivatives) and integrals is the relationship between position, velocity, and acceleration. I don't ever remember hearing those three words in my basic calc classes. That's a shame. Probably these concept should be taught as part of the basic physics course.

Now, rather than rant forever, I'll try to discuss some constructive things. I'm going to assume a student needs the following math courses (some universities may vary)
Calc I
Calc II
Calc III
Diff Eq
Linear Algebra

For Calc I and II, I'd combine those into one course called Engineering Calc. I would keep derivatives, integrals (only shorthand methods), partial derivatives, equations of motion, and complex numbers/conjugates. Everything else, deep six it. You're not going to remember it anyway and if you need it later, you can learn it later. Also, I would hack down Calc III and Linear Algebra and combine them into one class called Multivariable Calc. You can only take some much of vectors intercepting a plane is space for so long before you kill yourself. And when you're talking about multi-variable problems, it probably good to introduce some matrices.

Statistics, I would kill completely. Totally useless course except for the first 2 concepts you learn about standard deviations and distributions. Everything else in the course was of the theory of statistics persuasion which is useless for UG engineers. Instead, I would tack that on to a lab course. I'll go back over this when I talk about chemistry.

Lastly, Diff Eq. Wow, words cannot begin to express how much I disliked Diff Eq. However, it is needed for Fluids, Vibrations, and Heat Transfer so it has to stay. It depends on how the curriculum is set up, but I think most students take this during their Sophomore year. Instead, I would pick whichever class needs it and shows up first (say Fluids) and have it co-taught with that class. This way, you'd take 6 hours of Diff Eq and Fluids but the profs would have to work in tandem. I know it's tough but we're trying to get the students to learn more useful information.

I think the math curriculum can be trimmed from 18 hours to 9 hours with some supplemental stuff added to a few courses. That frees a lot of space for other courses. I'm slowly building to my complete Fantasy Curriculum. Over the next few days, I'll tackle some more subjects. Thoughts on my assault on math?

Monday, April 18, 2011

There's no place like home

Ok, my blogging hiatus from moving is finally over! I'm back on US soil and it feels very good to be home. I can understand the language here, you know what to expect at stores, and prompt service is back.

Before the memories fade into oblivion of this move, I thought I would share with you my thoughts on international moving. Some of these may be tips, others rants, but hopefully there is some good information in there for anyone looking to relocate internationally.

Before the Move
  • Get a big plastic folder with dividers. That will help you keep track of everything. If you're moving with a family, household items, and pets, you're going to need to keep track of passports, flights, hotels, rental cars, shipping container, other mailed packages, copy of your (and significant others') work contract, pet vaccines, residency information, etc etc etc. There's sooo many papers and you will need to keep them handy. Make sure to travel with that in your carry on baggage.
  • Decide what absolutely need and what can come later with the rest of your household goods. Remember, even if you check extra bags, you'll still have to lug that stuff around. Between two adults, one NanoGEARS with stroller, and three animal crates, taking 3 checked bags and four carry on bags is a lot. If you can do with less, try to do so.
  • If you're traveling with pets, book their ticket(s) early and repeatedly call the airline to make sure they have a spot. You don't want to be stuck at the airport waiting for a flight and there's no seat for Fido. Also, take spare treats, food, and litter with container if you have cats. That can add a bunch of weight to your checked bags.
  • Check the weather at your new location to make sure you bring appropriate jackets. Going from 70 F to 30 F climate is completely reasonable in April, so it happens. SnowU was aptly named as we had two days of flurries when we arrived.
During the Move
  • Have as much patience as possible. You're going to be traveling, dealing with changing time zones, cranky partners, kids, animals. The more stress you make for yourself, the more it's going to aggravate you. These things compound on each other.
  • Get to the airport way early. Like 3-4 hours early if you're traveling with pets. Also, if you can have a friend with you to help with luggage, that's a plus. We would have been so screwed if we didn't ask a fiend. We had no way to handle it all plus watch a baby and animals. We arrived 3 hours early and made it to the gate 15 minutes prior to boarding (20 mins before takeoff). Animal check-in (at 3 locations!) plus excess baggage check and passport control can add a few hours.
  • When you land, make sure to have money in the local currency (dollars in this case). I didn't have any and didn't have time for an ATM (don't ask why...). A very friendly homeless guy actually ended up helping me (common for this airport) and I would have tipped him $20, but all I had was about $6 in quarters for tolls. Let's face it, international moves are expensive. The added $10 for expensive currency exchange is water under the bridge at this point.
  • Taking an international flight, then hopping in a car and driving 7 hours (across a major city during rush hour traffic) with 1 dog and 2 cats in the car can be done. Very dangerous, and I don't recommend it but it can be done. A better option would be to crash at a Motel 6 for 2 hours, then drive. Even if you're not staying for the night, $60 on a hotel room is still water under the bridge.
The Day After
  • This is where traveling with a pad of paper and pens is handy. Start making lists for everything you'll need. If you're solo, it's not so bad. If you have a family and a little one, you'll need to be very efficient in getting groceries and other items and still let NanoGEARS nap and snack when she wants.
  • Immediate things you're probably need: Phone (preferably mobile), Food and basic household snacks, dishes & utensils (paper or GoodWill), a few pots and pans. If you're living in a short term rental (as we are), it's probably not too clean so you will need cleaning supplies, possibly a vacuum, laundry detergent, dish soap, etc.
  • Try to get into a routine as soon as possible. Yes, I know you're tired but that doesn't mean you should sleep all day. You're only delaying the inevitable.
Other Thoughts/Comments
  • Food: Waaay more choices and waaay more expensive here than in Europe. Both good and bad. When you don't have those choices, you don't spend as much. At the same time, you miss having choices. Resisting the urge to splurge on every vice you've missed for the past 4.5 years is hard!
  • Customer Service: I'm sorry Europe but it's waaay better over here.
  • Rental Cars: If you have a dog that sheds, bring a lint roller with you. If not, it may cost you 220 euros for them to vacuum the car. It's a ridiculous charge and bullshit but you've got a plane to catch and no time to run to a garage to vacuum it.
  • Paperwork: There's a lot of unnecessary fat in it in the US. Maybe it's me, but signing 9 different forms for a place that you're only staying at for 6 weeks is ridiculous. Our sue-happy culture sucks. I'm going to miss Europe in those respects.
  • Apartment Complexes: Have no idea how to layout a kitchen properly! I love cooking but it's not going to be pretty in this thing.
  • And lastly, there's no place like home.