Monday, February 28, 2011

Quirky New Engineering Prof Seeks Passionate, Creative Student for a Professional Research Relationship

While I haven’t officially started at SnowU, I am essentially preparing when I do start. Aside from looking over class notes, preparing a new lecture, and lining up my proposal schedule, I need to find students. SnowU has been very good about identifying potential students for me and I will get a chance to pitch my research to new students before they generally make their decisions about a PhD advisor.

So this past weekend, I worked on a few advertisements about the first few projects I want to run. I initially started with the generic Background, Project Description, Responsibilities, etc. After writing a little bit, I took a break and then looked them over. There were two things that struck me upon rereading the advertisements: 1) these say nothing about my personality or about how I would run my group and 2) I certainly wouldn’t want to work for myself based on what I read.

I scrapped those and started over again. I started to go with ads that were essentially personals. One of the headlines for a laser project was Wanted: Cute Redheaded Laser seeks crafty Engineer for a Controlling Relationship”. I know it sounds cheesy but that’s certainly more eye catchy than Project Title: Control of Red HeNe Lasers. I thought those might get me into a little bit of trouble, so I started over again.

In the end, I settled on a format that shows a little bit of personality, a little bit of my quirkiness, and tells a little bit about what I expect from students, while still mentioning the basics like project description, etc. These are much more to my liking, while still be on the good side of professional.

When you were a first year student roaming the halls, what caught your eye on the bulletin board? If you didn’t have a specific advisor in mind, would you take a chance on “The New Prof”? I tend to think (and did so for my MS) students prefer to work with a well established Prof because they think that will help them in the long run. For my PhD, I worked for a new Prof, was still successful, but was almost in spite of my Prof. Is that still the current sentiment? Would you work for a Prof whose position advertisements start with Quirky New Engineering Prof Seeks Passionate, Creative Student for a Professional Research Relationship?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Dual Advisor Conflicts

Currently, I’m in that grey area as far as my job/research is concerned. Mainly, I’m trying to finish a few more papers before I officially move on. One of my other tasks is mentor the next PhD student to continue this current research trend. So with NewGrad, I’m trying to get a few more experiments completely, enough for maybe 1-2 papers and we collectively have a few conference proceedings submitted/accepted.

Research with NewGrad is going well. I expect a lot from my mentees and I give them a lot of tasks, but I also support my mentees much more than other PhD/Postdoc students do for their mentees in my group.

But as I’m slowly faded out of the picture, it’s time for the real Advisor (also technically my advisor) to take over. Since I’ve been pretty autonomous as a researcher for the past ~2 years, I’ve had to set my own path for the research, so I know where it should go. Not to toot my own horn, but I have been pretty successful at doing so. Advisor does not have nearly as in depth knowledge about the research topic as I do and thus, Advisor doesn’t exactly know where it should go. And Advisor wants NewGrad to go in a different direction than the direction I’ve set forth. These are also the same wonky decisions Advisor steered me toward.

Concerning my future, I am not so worried. Once I have moved to SnowU, I will be guiding my own research, unless I get myself as a grad student. In general, I will be able to proceed down the path I want on this topic.

I am more concerned about NewGrad and how this will change NewGrad’s situation. There is clearly a disconnect between myself and Advisor and NewGrad is aware of that. Also, NewGrad knows that I’m leaving shortly and Advisor will be the main person to turn to for the rest of the PhD project. And NewGrad does not want to run the risk of alienating Advisor so early in the project.

I think it is a weird situation to be in for the both of us. What would you do if you were in NewGrad’s shoes? Have you been part of a supervising tandem where you had conflicts with the other supervisor? How did this affect your underlings? Thoughts? Comments?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How PowerPoint ruins America’s STEM Education

On Monday, I alluded to some things that could be changed about America’s Higher Education system, particularly focusing on STEM Education. One of those changes would be to wipe PowerPoint from every computer, in every university, and pass out some chalk.

Ok, well that’s not entirely fair. I do believe in fair arguments so there are times when PowerPoint is a great tool for teaching. PP is great when used as an accent. Having trouble describing a system on the chalk board? No problem. Show a picture of it in PP. Need to demonstrate a little gizmo? Build a small animation in PP. PP is also great for presentations. It’s the standard medium for most (all?) conferences. It helps keep you on track and gives your audience something to look at while you’re explaining how great you are.

The problem with PowerPoint is that it’s taken for granted. Everyone expects you to give a presentation and it is soooo common, that no one teaches you how to do it effectively. Luckily, at UGU, they stressed giving presentations so you learned how to convey your information in PP without getting lost in PP. I was one of the fortunate ones. A lot of people I talk with didn’t get that during their education. Making graphs? Be sure to change the axes and font sizes. That’s a common mistake that kills me every time I see it. You know when you’re standing in the audience that you hate not being able to read the labels, make sure to fix it for your own presentation. You spend more time trying to figure out if it’s “nm” or “mm”, rather than focusing on what’s important.

Equations + PowerPoint = Knife in my Temple. Sitting through PP lectures in STEM fields which rely heavily on math makes me want to kill myself. As the student, an equation *magically pops up and on the next slide, it’s *magically in the form you need it. Those 4 pages of derivation? Don’t worry about those. Most times math is presented in PP missing huge steps and little tricks/transformations/substitutions. That’s where some real learning occurs.

If you have the PP and the note, what’s the point of going to class? Read it on your own time. Students shouldn’t be reading the PP before the class. They should be reading the textbook, otherwise why assign it? It’s like looking at the Cliff’s Note before the class and saying you’ve read the book.

On the professor side of the equation (which I’ll have to deal with soon enough), I think PP makes you a less effective teacher. You are already stressed with proposals, papers, and students. Who has time for teaching? Oh, lecture at 1 pm today… hmmm.. there’s that presentation that I gave a few years ago… maybe that’ll work. That’s an unfair oversimplification but I think it gets my point across. Once you’ve made your PP slides and tweaked them after the first semester or two, you probably rarely go back and change them. And that leads into a downward spiral where you assume you’ll remember the lecture once you’ve seen the slides so you don’t need to prepare. I was the culprit for this once. I gave a guest lecture one year and was asked to give it again the following year. I assumed I’d remember the material once I saw it, but that wasn’t the case. It was one the worst presentations I’ve ever given.

When PP is not used as an accent and is the sole medium for conveying information, that’s when you have problems. And, as more and more distance learning/web learning is pushed at universities, you’re going to have more and more problems. Apparently, PP is a huge problem for the US military (albeit for different reasons). Let’s not make it a huge problem for education.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Making Mods

Ok, So I'm watching NanoGEARS today so I don't have time for a normal post. I'm still working on the site layout. Hopefully a new avatar and some background pictures will materialize out of thin air at some point...

Let me know what you think.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fix what you know is already broke

In Sunday’s paper, and by paper I mean the Washington Post’s iPhone app :-D, Daniel deVise had an interesting article on Eight ways to get higher education in shape (linky). The 8 methods are:
1. Measure how much students learn at every college
2. End Merit Aid
3. Standardize the three year bachelor degree
4. Revive Core Curriculum
5. Bring Back Homework
6. Tie Public fund to finishing college
7. Cap athletic subsidies
8. Stop re-teaching high school in community college

I think from the descriptions, most of you should be able to figure out the basis for the arguments, so I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I’m going to rip a few holes in the arguments because these might fly for non-technical degrees but these will do little to help in the engineering/science areas. At the end, I’ll name a few that should be considered for engineering (and STM) programs.

Measure how much students learn at every college: While in principle, I’m not against measuring how much students learn at college, qualifying how much engineers have learned is not an easy thing. Plus, you have that endless battle of theorists versus experimentalists for engineering supremacy. Personally, I’ll take the person who knows how to use a wrench rather than the person who can FEA the wrench the best. But how would you test that on a piece of paper?

End Merit Aid: This is one that I’m on the fence about. I wasn’t good enough to receive merit aid in HS but I did have a friend go to Yale because of Merit Aid. He was also an athlete, thus, he couldn’t get reduced tuition price. Yet his parents were generic, middle class. My wife’s (henceforth, DrWife) cousin goes to Princeton on Merit Aid and her parents are also generic, middle class. While both could have gone to state schools without a problem, Merit Aid allowed them to go to Ivy schools. I know it’s supposed to be for poor and maybe they should cap it saying families with over X income per year cannot receive Merit Aid, but I don’t think that should apply to the middle class. Obviously, I’m biased but I don’t think it’s that simple as ending, just capping based on income level.

Standardize the three year bachelor degree: What? Are you kidding me? An engineering degree in 3 years? What is this? Europe? Actually, that last part wasn’t a joke. Most European institutions have their engineering bachelor’s degree in 3 year programs. I’ve seen what happens in those and I’m not impressed. Besides, even here (FYI, I live in Europe right now…) no one finishes in 3, or even 4 years. My UG (in the US) had 127 credit hours and thinking back, it probably should have had about 3-5 more classes in it. Maybe you should beef up your paltry Communications or Poly Sci degrees from 30 credit hours to a respectable 60 or 70??? I mean com’on. 30 credit hours in engineering is an easy year and it’s their whole degree program. That’s terrible. Maybe for non-STEM degrees but in STEM degrees, 3 years is a joke. It’s so laughable, I’m not even going to waste time flaming it more.

Revive Core Curriculum: While you’re reviving core curriculum, why not add a little engineering/problem solving to it?

I’ll admit that the core classes I had to take for my general degree requirements were a joke. I remember taking a freshman US history class to satisfy my general degree requirements during my senior year. The big term paper was 2 pages, single sided, double spaced. And those history students, who will spend the rest of their careers reading and writing complained about it.

Also, it’s a little hard to pack in more “core curriculum” into programs with 120+ credit hours. If they did so, those classes should be added and taught for senior level. By that point, you’ve been in college for a few years and you’ve probably learned a lot (even if they can’t measure it, see #1). If you had core classes during your senior year and taught at that level, they would be much better than having a few seniors in freshman courses.

But, if I have to read ancient literature (and we know my feelings on Shakespeare), then some Lit major should learn a Mohr’s Circle and have to build a balsa wood bridge.

Bring Back Homework: Ummm, last time I checked, you don’t graduate with an engineering degree without doing homework. Homework never left engineering curriculum. ‘Nuff said.

Tie Public fund to finishing college: This can never be. You’ll always have students who drop out for money, transfers, can’t take it, jobs, other “life” things. Also, the first two years of engineering is full of weed-out classes. And those students are weeded out on purpose. But, if they implemented this, you wouldn’t be able to weed out students who can’t hack it because you need the money.

It’s the same issue at the MS and PhD level. Some students pass simply because the state gives X amount per graduated PhD student. And sometimes that X amount is really needed. Implementing this means you’ve just relaxed your education standards.

Cap athletic subsidies: I think athletics versus academics is an entirely different beast. I’ll leave this alone for now.

Stop re-teaching high school in community college: Engineering isn’t really a community college thing. Not applicable here.

How could they really fix higher ed, focusing on things they know are already broken?
Fix the current research funding system: Maybe if professors didn’t spend 80% of their time writing proposals, students would get taught, graduate students would learn more, and professors could actually get in the lab once in a while.

Stop hiring un-qualified TA’s to teach classes: I once took an EE class that was taught by a Math grad student. That’s pretty messed up, but it obviously made perfect sense to the university. TA’s are assistants, not lecturers. If you make them lecture, pay them like a lecturer and hold them accountable. Remember, some people paying many thousands of dollars for an education expect to be taught by qualified people.

Get rid of PowerPoint! I’ll save that for tomorrow.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lab Wars

It’s smaller than I thought…

How’s that for an opening line?

I recently received the floor plans and was asked for my desired modifications for my new lab space. When potential lab space was discussed during my interview, I had an estimated space in mind and I do believe the University (I really need a nickname) did meet my initial size estimation.

However, I think I low-balled the amount I needed. The space is manageable, for now. In subsequent years, I would hope to pick up a handful of students, which means there’s going to be a shortage of space.

Part of yesterday’s post on courses to teach stemmed from my reaction to my newly allocated lab space. Another reason for teaching a self-imposed lab class is the potential to carry out experiments in that space over the summer or when the course is not taught.

I know Lab Wars (cue the music) is a common activity at universities. Hell, I generally go through that on a weekly basis (and win =D ). But the University did meet my requested space size and are willing to make modifications to enhance the space for my specific research needs. So I think I’m somewhat stuck. Hopefully, I can wow them with publications and results within the first few years so I can plead my case for more space.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

And so it begins...

In preparation for starting at my new position and university in a few months, the Chair was kind enough to pass along the specs for my new lab space and asked about my desired modifications. Additionally, I’ve agreed to teach the first year and take my free semester during year two. The first class I am teaching is a senior level laboratory class. I know Profs during my UG used to bitch about laboratory classes and the amount of workload. I’m not too worried (right now) because this University (BTW, I need a cool, recurring nickname…) is a lot smaller than my UG and by the time they are seniors, most of the weeding should be done. Also, as an experimentalist, laboratory classes are something that I should promote because I hated learning from people proclaiming their greatness in front of powerpoint. For instance, in Controls, we always started knowing the frequency response (or transfer function) of the plant. That’s a helluva lot harder to get in real life, and IMHO way more difficult than actually designing the control loop.

There is a point to all of this; I’m just taking my sweet time today. So in the spring, I have to teach another course, but this time a course of my choosing. Currently, I have two courses in mind. Course1 is a lecture-based course with some in-class demonstrations on a topic that I am very familiar with. During my PhD (and now in my short PD) I’ve taught at least 3 MS students and 4 UGs on this topic. Sure, I would need to make formal lectures and plan, etc etc, but it shouldn’t be any more different than a normal course.

Course2 is a laboratory-based course encompassing all of the Shit I Wish They Taught Me (SIWTTM). SIWTTM would be significantly more difficult to set up. I would need some financial support from the department(s) and I would probably have to beg companies for software/hardware donations. Also, it would require some teaching lab space and significantly more time from me to debug labs, write lab procedures, etc etc. I’ve pitched this idea to a few colleagues (not at the new University) and they have said this course is a good idea and it’s something they wish they had in the late UG or early MS.

So I’m in the process of writing a proposed syllabus for both classes, as well as descriptions for the labs. The Familiar Lecture syllabus was fairly simple to write because it’s a topic that I’d like to write a book on someday so I already have an outline of topics I want to cover. SIWTTM is a little more difficult but the more I think about, I think it’s a class that would be very rewarding to teach if successful. Plus, it resonates with my experimentalist side and will really test my skills as a teacher.

If you were a senior UG or an early MS student, would you rather take an elective lecture from a n00b prof or would you rather take an elective laboratory class? If you were Chair, and your newest prof hands you two proposals, one for a standard lecture and another for a laboratory class, which would you assign? Would the workload for the laboratory class (second lab class in a year) plus the startup inertia combined with all the trappings of a tenure track position mean this is career suicide from your newest prof? Or would you, as Chair, see this as a chance to add something to your curriculum that you probably have desired but cannot find anyone to champion?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

There can be only one

It’s about that time of year again, conference abstract submission time. Actually, this year isn’t so bad. Unlike most years, most of my research that I want to present is actually completed and the results are already known before submitting the abstract. That’s great because I can show data in the abstract submission, rather that speculating about what I might get done in the next 6 months. Also, I have two very good research results on topics that are linked, but not the same. At this conference, however, both would fall under the same category and be competing for a presentation.

Sessions for this conference are usually split into 4 or 5 presentations of about 15-20 minutes each. There’s no chance of my talks taking up 2 slots in the oral session, which means one will be relegated to the poster session. Unless I manage to convince the session chairs to give me an extended time slot (which I severely doubt), I’ll have to choose. In terms of Highlander, There can be only one.

So my question is, do I choose the project which has the highest impact to the end user and relegate the cool, physics stuff to the poster? Do I use the cool, physics stuff to tease the end results for the user and tell them to come by my poster for more info? Or, do I plead my case with the session chairs for an extended time slot?

The other question I have on this topic is about when is it right to publish something. For instance, I can imagine these research topics completed, with proceedings written in the next two months (well ahead of schedule). Then, the next step is to beef them up from their mini counterparts to full journal papers. This won’t be too difficult because we have a plethora of results. However, should I wait to submit them for journal publication until after the conference? Also, this is research performed at my current PhD/mini-Postdoc University prior to moving to my tenure track university. But it won’t be submitted and presented until after I’ve moved on. Should that count towards publications during my tenure track period? It seems pretty unethical but the people I’ve spoken with seem to suggest it is fair game. Thoughts?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Screw Shakespeare, Learn Engineering Skills

So FrauTech in her guest blog at Scientopia discussed why there aren't more engineers in the blogging. One of her first comments was by Colin who brought up the very valid point that US schools are falling behind in STEM fields in high school but in fact, most high schools don't teach engineering. DrugMonkey followed up with a comment that engineering didn't necessarily need to be in high school. I couldn't disagree with this statement more. This brings up the point I would like to make:

Screw Shakespeare, Learn Engineering Skills.

Learning literature skills like interpreting Shakespeare is waaaay less important for students to learn in high school than engineering skills. The world needs more people to be able to build stuff and advance society rather than another person working on yet another interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You is great, but I digress).

Aside from teaching the specific discipline topics (mechanical, civil, electrical, chemical, etc etc), engineering teaches PROBLEM SOLVING. What does the world have plenty of right now? Problems. Clean water, clean energy, food sources, climate issues. I don't think having students recite Macbeth to a contaminated well is a good way to clean it. However, showing the students how to build a filter and a mini-windmill to pump the water will teach them real skills, like solving problems.

I remember reading an article in the paper a few years ago about a study done about 10-15 years ago for junior high students. Half of the students took the normal curriculum, whereas the other half had 1 task in their "science class" (why couldn't they call it engineering?). Their task was to figure out what it takes to launch 15000 lbs into space and what minimum velocity it takes to orbit earth. I can't find the link to the study right now but basically, an overwhelming majority of those students went on to university degrees in engineering and science (most engineering), and a significant number went on to get advanced degrees. The control group had only a hand full of students go into engineering/science careers.

That study was a clear indicator of what happens when you introduce engineering (under the veil of a "science class") at a young age. We need more of that at a young age in society and a lot less Shakespeare.

Monday, February 14, 2011

It's Ok to say I don't know

For engineers, it is sometimes difficult to say that you don’t know, especially in academia. An engineer at a basic level is supposed to solve problems and come up with ideas. Academia can be pretty cutthroat with funding drying up and the pressure to patent, publish, and build a research group. Saying you don’t know goes counter to being a solutions-oriented person.

In an interview, and particularly in a difficult interview, the most effective way to not get backed into a corner is to say you don’t know. During my interviews, I have one clear instance where there was no way I was going to impress this faculty member and had no choice but to switch from promoting my abilities to trying to limit my losses. I’ll try to remain as generic as possible but the rough scenario was the following.

Day 1, I met HardProf with the other Profs in a quasi-informal setting (although you, as the interviewee, treat everything like an interview). Most of the other Profs were bantering with me about side topics; sports, experience abroad, traveling, lifestyle, family, etc etc. Sure, some of these things aren’t officially allowed to be interview questions but they’re going to come up so you might as well answer them. Anyway, HardProf did not seem to join the banter but would continuously switch topics to research/teaching/group setup/experience. I found this odd, but went with it. I was a little uncomfortable with rapidly adapting to new topics while focusing to keep as socially and politically neutral as possible.

Overall, Day 1 interviews went very well so I ended the day feeling very positive. I had one awkward interview but that is easily classified as neutral compared to this. Day 2 rolls around where I meet with HardProf early in the day. Usually, the interview starts with a few minutes of banter just to get the flow going. This was not the case with HardProf. From minute one, HardProf starts firing broadsides and I had no choice but to duck and cover. From my talk the previous day and from discussions with other Profs, HardProf knew I did not have experience in this one field. However, one of the classes I suggested I wanted to teach contained a lot of that field. Previously, I answered that question stating something like “Currently, I am not fully up to speed on that particular topic. However, it is an area that I know I need to brush up on. Thus, why not put myself forward for teaching a class that has it to make sure I really learn it.” Most Profs usually respected that I admitted I did not know and that I was willing to learn. However, HardProf decided to go line by line through the course syllabus over 30 minutes, fully knowing I had experience with only a few topics.

Now, I tend to think I’m fairly good at coming up with BS on the spot when needed. But in an interview, BS is definitely an area you want to stay away from. So when HardProf asked, I shrugged and said my usual line about willing to learn. And with the next question, I shortened it to “I don’t have experience with that topic”. And a few questions later, “I don’t know”. And because I didn’t fumble around for a reason and stall for 10 minutes, I came out of the interview knowing there was no way I impressed HardProf but I don’t feel like it was my fault HardProf’s time was wasted. After 10 minutes of questioning, you’d figure the interviewee would get the point you’re trying to make and move on to something that was more useful. In the end, HardProf told me to enjoy my stay and good luck in the future, which is a nice political way of saying “get lost”.

So what were your hardest interviews/questions? How did you respond and did you think it ended up helping or hurting your overall performance?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Finding Your Champion

When preparing for the interview, it is standard practice to read the website bios for each faculty member and to see their research interests. When doing so, make sure to ask for an interview schedule and specifically prepare for those people with whom you are meeting. If necessary, read their last few papers to see what they published recently.

Aside from looking for things to jog your memory while you’re meeting with them, you’re also looking for who is going to be your best champion when the committee makes their decision. Usually, there is a senior faculty member who has research interests that align somewhat with yours and they will likely be more enthusiastic about bringing you on over someone that comes from way out in left field. Some might see this as a little internal competition but that’s why you work on explaining how you two can work together. Let’s face it, even when you’re good enough to land a tenure track position, you’ll still need mentoring and support along the way. Someone who has similar research interests will definitely make a better mentor than someone who has no idea what or why you are working on your specific research.

During my prep, I found this to be rather easy and indeed when meeting people who I targeted to be my champion(s), I definitely found it easier to talk with them because we did have more research aspects in common.

The other thing to do in this stage is figure out who you can impress the most and who is going to be the hardest to win over. For instance, if there are 10 faculty member interviews you probably want at least 2 people to be really excited to land you. For the other members, you probably need 6 to say that you have what it takes, they could certainly work with you, and that you’re willing to contribute to the faculty for teaching and academic service. There’s probably going to be 2 people that you’re not going to win over. However, the closer you can get them to feeling at least neutral about you, the better.

Usually, the faculty members that are going to be the most difficult interviews either have a candidate they’d rather see or they have a philosophical difference with your research/teaching style. In those interviews, you can usually tell that finding common ground is difficult, which immediately puts you on the defensive. For instance, when I came across that, I focused on not getting upset or defensive but rather explaining my position on why [a chalkboard lecture was better than powerpoint] and why I thought it could reach students, but that I was willing to adapt as I got more experience with [teaching]. It shows that you’re not an idealistic prick who wants everyone to learn like you learned. Aside from philosophical differences, if you get backed or back yourself into a corner on something that’s out of your area, just be honest and say you don’t know.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Interview Essentials

So you’ve worked very hard on your app package. You’ve applied to every university that has an opening and you’ve been waiting for weeks [months], anxiously hoping you get noticed. And then the day comes. You get that email/call saying you’ve made it to the interview stage!

Now what?

The easiest thing to say is: Don’t Screw It Up. The best thing to say is: Practice. A simple Google search should produce numerous “typical”interview questions. Be prepared to give answers on any of these questions. Some people suggest writing out full answers but I tend to think you sound like a robot in those cases. It seems like you’re “too” polished. What I did was jot down ideas/thoughts on a question but stopped short of memorizing a 2 minute monologue/answer. Also, make sure that you can answer the generic “give me 2 minutes about yourself” and “why do you think you’re ready for this position” questions. In two, all day interview sessions with 15+ people faculty members, be prepared for those in at least 50% of the interviews. Once you have practiced your questions, it’s time to practice the actual interview.

By now, you should know some faculty members who are willing to help you out. See if they have a faculty friend who maybe knows of you but doesn’t really know you and ask them to give you a mock interview. Treat this like a real interview. Set up 30-60 minutes and come prepared with copies of your app package for them to look at. Ask them to treat you like they would any other candidate.

I only did this with two people I knew but I got some very good feedback, especially from one Prof. When it was over, I thought I did will. Prof thought otherwise, saying to fix X, Y, and Z and come up with a better SoR and research outlook otherwise I’m not going to get the job. It was quite damning but sometimes tough love can be a good thing.

The other thing Prof did (and I didn’t even notice) was goad me into a minor argument. That’s one way to kill your prospect as a candidate. If it comes down to even a minor argument (that you win), you still lose. Sometimes this happens for political reasons like you’re not the candidate that this particular faculty member wants. They really want candidate B or C. If you argue with them, they’ll definitely take that back to the committee meeting and say “Candidate A seemed to argue over everything. I don’t think she/he is the right person for here.”

This leads to two points: make sure to do your background on the faculty to find your champion and it is ok to say you don't know. I’ll discuss those tomorrow. Did I miss any interview background topics? Any other tips?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Getting the "In"

The most difficult thing about getting a TT position is getting your foot in the door. I do think, however, it is a misconception that you have to be “groomed” for a TT position or that you need a direct “In” from your advisor or some other mentor. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t help to have it, but it’s not 100% necessary.

The best thing about contacts at a university that you want to apply for is that you might have a source for a little extra, off-the-record information. For instance, at my ideal university, I suspect they had some specific people in mind when they advertised their open position. Even so, I applied anyway. I did not make the cut, but at least it was good to go through the motions. Also, I was able to speak with the Search Committee Chair regarding my application package and I got some good advice on things to accent in my app package.

At the other places I applied to, I did not have an “in”. They were the random online submissions, where I had originally guessed that the Send button was just a mask for Delete because they already had someone in mind. In those cases, it is generally submit and then hope for the best.

While I know it sounds crazy but if your app package says you’re ready for a TT position, the search committee will see that. If you are ready, but your app package doesn’t say that, then they’re going to think you’re not ready. That’s why is hugely important to have spent a lot of time and effort on preparing your app package.

In my experience, most of the online submission pages do not list the search committee chair. In those cases, I do think it is good to check with the department secretary to make sure your information is received in full. If they do list the committee chair, then you should inquire with them after a reasonable amount of time (maybe 1 month) to “check the status of your application” and if there’s “any more information that they need before reviewing it”. There’s no need to elaborate further on it. Doing this once is acceptable. If they don’t respond, then either you didn’t make the cut or they haven’t reviewed the applications yet. Also, it’s very easy to brush aside an email. It’s probably better to just pick up the phone and call them. It also shows that you’re proactive. However, do not become a stalker over this. That’s a surefire way to get you un-considered for the position.

In the end, just be positive about it but also realistic. While we’d like to think we’re the special candidate, on paper there are probably 10-15 other candidates at your level that look just as good. The committee is only going to pick 3-4 for interviews. Your CV, SoT/SoR, and cover letter will get you to the 10-15 person cutoff, but it takes some luck to be picked in the top 3 after that. And once you’re in the interview, there’s your chance to shine.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The App Package (Part 2)

After the CV, the next two critical documents for your application package are the Statements of Teaching and Research. During my preparation, I received the whole gambit of advice from having short 1-page statements for each to having multi-year, elaborative exposés on your future plans. In practice, this usually gets sorted out based on the position for which you are applying.

For instance, if you’re looking for an assistant professorship, they aren’t going to expect you to have gobs of info on teaching. Thus, a lot of the places have a limit of 1 page each or 3 pages total. In those cases, you only have enough space for the core points in the SoT/SoR. For teaching, it helps to show you have a teaching philosophy. By now, you’re probably either an experimentalist or a theorist. But in engineering, you’ll need to be able to teach both. Also, you should have an idea about the core program classes that you can teach. These core classes should be pretty common in some shape or form in most engineering programs. Lastly, you should mention a few ideas about classes that you’d like to develop.

On the research side, when space is limited, I think there are only two things you need to get across. The first is that you have larger plan for where you want to be 5-10 years for now because you think the technology is headed in that direction. The second is that you have a series of projects already outlined which help you plan out that 5-10 year period. One thing that I learned (and was asked during an interview question) was “How is my future research different from my current group?” In my case, that was fairly easy to answer but for others, that may be difficult. If you’re not doing something new or there is a research group focused on that already, how are you going to get funding?

And speaking of funding, that bring me to topics that should be included in your SoT/SoR that should be considered if you have sufficient space. On the research side, in addition to outlining where you believe the technology is going and having projects which lead in that direction, you also have to show that you know how to get there. In academia, that’s via funding and group management. Naming key grants that you will go after during your tenure track period and defining how you will set up your group will go a long way to showing your future colleagues that you’re ready for this challenge. This includes the number of students and a rough idea of the cost per year of running such a group. Lastly, adding a section on your previous research can give an indication that you’ve already been trained for this type of research and you’re the right person to lead it in the future.

For the SoT, space permitting, having some good grandiose ideas about novel classes that would greatly add to the curriculum shows that you haven’t just focused on research. These should be treated differently than your suggested courses that you would add because these ideas should be a department or college initiative. This could be something like a minor or specialization within a degree or a course which would take some significant support from the department. Also, look for higher education teaching grants. This would show the department that you’re serious and that you think there are additional support mechanisms which would help you get this started.

The last piece of the puzzle is the Cover Letter. In general, the Cover Letter should be customized for each position. It should specifically draw connections from points in their advertisement to why you fit the position. This is where you can get specific about why you fit this exact position. The SoT/SoR should largely be independent per position for which you are applying. Some other considerations are that this should be addressed to the committee chair if it is publicly known but you should expect the rest of the committee to read your letter. Also, some people say a two page cover letter is fine but I think at this stage in your career, one page should be enough.

The last thing I’ll say on this is to be hopeful but don’t get your hopes up too high. I ended up applying for 10+ positions and received no reaction from almost all of them. All of those positions that I wasn’t successful for didn’t even have the common courtesy to have a form letter rejection saying they were “going in a different direction”. I think that’s a little improper, but that’s the world we live in. If a semester has past and you have followed up several times and you still haven’t heard anything, it’s not looking too good. This can be the most frustrating aspect (not officially knowing) but it takes persistence to get a position. Also, it [sometimes] helps to know someone on the faculty. More on that tomorrow.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The App Package (Part 1)

Let’s face it, academia is a tough world. But if you’re that good and you present yourself as being that good, someone will take a chance on you even if you didn’t come from the best lab/university/professor. Presenting yourself as being that good is as important as your technical ability because you’ll eventually need those skills for commanding a conference hall, a classroom on a daily basis, and you have to inspire your students. Underneath all of this research and teaching is a business. A Tier 1 research university, on some levels, in nothing more than a business. It’s your job to bring in money so you can play in the lab and the university can function (and give you a lab in which to play). If you’re good but not good at showing people how your research relates or how efficient your research group is, you’re not going to succeed.

The most important way to get this across is your application package and, if you are lucky, your interview and presentation. For now, I’ll stick with the application package and discuss interview stuff over the next few days. The app package usually consists of four items: CV, cover letter, statement of teaching (SoT), and a statement of research (SoR). If you’re good at graphics, then make a fancy (but tasteful) cover with an explanation of what it shows. They don’t want to see abstract art, but if you have a few pictures or drawings that summarize your research, then do it.

Let’s start with the CV. Critically assess your CV. If you’re looking at academic jobs, you have to know you’re good enough. If you have a few publications in OK journals for your field, then it’s looking dicey. The easiest way to check is find the newest assistant prof in your department and ask them how many papers they had when they were higher. If you’re equal or greater, then you’re off to a good start. Also, NEVER have a “papers in prep” section. That’s basically saying “Yeah, I was going to do that but I never got around to it”. It screams of saying you’re not a closer. At the very least, don’t give them a reason think poorly of you.

Another good tip for papers is to separate journal publications and conference proceedings. Most reviewers will try to divvy them up anyway, so they’ll thank you for helping them out. Putting them together is a lose-lose proposition. Assuming you have only one or two journal papers and you hide them with 8 conference proceedings, it is going to look like you’re hiding the fact that you didn’t publish enough. Even if you had 8 journal papers and you intersperse them with a bunch of conference proceedings, they’re going to say “Wow, this person has done a lot of work, but why not accent that you know how the publishing game is played” (More on the politics of publishing later).

As for the rest of the resume, make sure to keep an accurate employment history and remember important dates for everything. Since I did not have postdoc experience while applying, I left everything research or academia related in my resume since about the middle of my undergrad. Make sure to have all of your sections concise and not spread out over a page break but do list everything. Aside from research/employment, education, journals, and conferences, list any patents, presentations at conferences, companies, and/or universities, mentoring, key skills for your research, academic service, conference volunteering, professional associations, awards, grants, everything including the kitchen sink. You're supposed to stand out, not blend in.

Another tip I got was to make a website of projects. Your future colleagues probably don’t want to go through all of your papers but if you had a website with some good photos and schematics, that will work wonders. Have a short description, keeping the high-line of the research focusing on “What’s the main purpose” and “Why is this project successful”. No more than a paragraph or two. That can really give reviews a good perspective.

On Monday, I’ll tackle the SoT, SoR, and cover letter. Any other tips/tricks that I didn’t mention are greatly appreciated.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The FuNk

The six months prior to November of last year was just a whirlwind of activity for me. Aside from the final push for finishing my thesis on time, last minute experiments, and a conference proceedings/presentation, I had tenure track interviews involving international flights and adjusting to a newborn at home. I defended in December, finalized my negotiations for a tenure track (yay!) and took a few weeks off. When school started up after the winter recess, I was in a total motivation funk. My background on my laptop is a “To Do List” with papers that I need to finish and submit to journals, as well as prep work for NSF proposals and basically a bunch of stuff I didn’t want to do.

This lull persisted for about two weeks before I had to train a new PhD student in the group. And I don’t know if it was getting my hands dirty or if it was working on something other than thesis project/writing for the first time in a while, but that was the jolt to get me out of that funk.

As an experimentalist, I like nothing better than building stuff and setting up experiments to prove or disprove ;-) stuff. Working with a new PhD student in an area where they have no experience is certainly good prep for the next step. And aside from things progressing nicely in the lab and teaching a potentially good student, I’ve managed to check off one of those papers that I had to write.

I’ll definitely have to remember this for next time; I’ll probably get “the funk” after a rough semester. But if you find yourself standing in front of a wall and you know you can climb but you really don’t want to, just walk around it and see what you find. On your travels, you might come across a trampoline and might be motivated enough to drag that back to your wall to make things easier.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Group Dynamics

Lately, I’ve been thinking student and research group managements. Given the dynamics of lab setup, startup money, and teaching responsibilities, I probably will have about 3 grad students for the first few years. Once I start building up resources from external funding sources, I might be fortunate enough to support 5+ students and maybe a postdoc. The question is, is that necessary to run an effective research group?

During my MSc work, I was in a smaller group (~4 grad students) and during my PhD, I was one of 8-12 PhD students and up to 3 Postdocs. With a group that large during my PhD, it was easier (and more productive) to essentially break off research with one of the postdocs and just work on our own stuff together. Basically we had our own “small group” within the large group.

The pros of that situation were obviously good and fruitful (otherwise I wouldn’t have the opportunity that I have now...). We were able to focus our research, crank out papers, attend a lot of conferences, and pool resources. At the same time, our interaction with the rest of the group dropped off and there were so many students, that keeping track of what we were doing was difficult for our advisors.

Twice, I have benefitted from a smaller group and clearly seen the ineffectiveness of a large group (although 1 data point doesn’t make a trend). At the same time, during interviews and discussions with other faculty, the general trend seems to say bigger is better. The break seems to be between 4/5 students and 5+ students. For the latter, a postdoc is necessary to help manage the group. At the same time, the amount of funding per year also jumps. More students/postdocs equals more papers (theoretically) which leads to a perception of a more “successful” research group. That should increase the amount of funding. At the same time, the amount of time in the lab decreases, you are spread thinner for your students, and you become less effective at pushing the research focus where needed.

So what is the ideal group size? How has a smaller(larger) research group benefitted you?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Removing University Faculty Tenure

There was an interesting article in the NY Times discussing the failings of tenure in K-12 education and several states trying to remove the tenure process [linky]. If you’re reading this blog, then you probably already know the merits of both sides of the argument, so I’m not going to remind anyone of those. However, removing the tenure system at K-12 (which I think will eventually happen) is certainly a step towards removing tenure at the collegiate level.

The dynamics of tenure for K-12 teachers and university faculty are vastly different. University faculty are not only rated on their effectiveness for teaching (albeit a minor part of the overall “score”) and their contribution to academic service, but they also must graduate successful students, perform research, publish, and, most importantly, bring in money.

What if we assume there wasn’t a tenure system? Would a full professor who has presumably brought in a lot of money for a university escape the headsman’s ax if the budget gods decided their salary was not justified (no matter the amount of money they bring in)? Would they rather have the younger (cheaper) asst/assoc prof who doesn’t bring in as much money? I’m not so sure that would be the argument. I suspect the argument would revert back to who is the better teacher. If that’s the case, then my money’s on the asst/assoc prof because they still have jumps left in their career.

Do you think the university tenure system is going to be dismantled at some point (and if so, when)? How much do you think the typical ratios for performance evaluation would change? Some typical numbers I know of are 50% research, 30% teaching, and 20% service.