Friday, April 18, 2014

Ancient Formats

Yesterday was a pretty cool day. One of my MS students successfully defended his thesis which was highly attended by fellow students, faculty, and even a bunch of industry folks. For me, this is student number 4 who has successfully defended so I guess I'm not totally floundering in the mentoring department. Given that I have been reading his thesis, I thought I would discuss (or complain about) something which I think all universities in the US should address relating to theses and dissertations: ancient formatting. Let me take a step back and put this into some context.

As someone who has written an MS thesis and a PhD disseration in two entirely different systems (US for MS, Europe for PhD), I feel like our approach in the US is terrible. If I think back to writing my MS thesis, up until that point in my life, I had no greater personal joy than when I turned that document in. I was ecstatic with it and when I had it bound as a hardcover book (as required), I wanted to show it off to everyone. I was pretty damn proud of that book. But then about a year later my perception changed.

At this point, I was studying in Europe and when I showed up in my office one day, there was a slim, sleek book sitting on my desk. I looked it over and it was the PhD thesis of a fellow graduate student but it looked like a professionally typeset book. It turns out that in Europe, when you write your thesis, you are expected to have 200-250 copies printed to give to your colleagues, committee, and anyone who shows up to your defense. When it came time for me to write my PhD thesis, I wanted to make sure my thesis had the look and feel of a professional document, something worthy of 4 years of work.

My MS thesis, much like the theses that 4 of my students have written, was in the "university standard" format that I think virtually every US university uses. Single column, double spaced, print on one side of the page, weird formatting rules about margins, header height, etc. In contrast, my PhD thesis was B5 sized pages (think about the size of a 7" tablet) with whatever format you want for the contents. Most are single column given the page size but you can use single spaced typesetting, whatever margins and font you want, and you (shock) print on both sides of the paper. In contrast, a European thesis looks like a professional book whereas the US thesis looks like a long high school report.

So why doesn't this change? Most people that see a European thesis almost universally agree that the look and formating makes it much easier to read. I can only think of two reasons why US universities don't change: 1) nostalgia and 2) minimum quality. I can understand (but not agree with) why US universities would do it for nostalgic reasons. They have a legacy of X number of years and they want everything to look and feel the same. That's such a bullshit reason, where it is basically saying the institution is afraid of change. As for minimum quality, there are a many reasons why this doesn't hold weight. The first of which is because the tools of our trade have changed (handwritting to typewriters to computers). Just the difference between a typewriter and a computer improves the quality dramatically. Also, every discipline has its own formats for manuscripts, citations, etc, so why have a generic, awful looking format for very discipline's thesis in a university?

But, the minimum quality really doesn't hold weight when you compare it to a European thesis and their method. From a European university, It is just simply expected that you must produce a professional document. There are no other directions other than that. I can see that being a fear from US universities where they would say "Well if we didn't have these rules, who knows what we will get. So we must have some type of format." But when you see your fellow peers produce a professional document and have 250 copies printed up for their committee, everyone in the lab, and the general audience at the defense, just peer pressure alone is enough to make you produce something that looks good. Also, if nothing else, I think we can agree that no modern journal has a format that comes anywhere close to looking that awful, otherwise people wouldn't want to read it. I know I wouldn't want to. I wish universities would at least say "Pick the format for the standard publication medium for your field and use that as your guideline. We expect your advisor(s) and committee will be able to advise appropriately.". If we could get to that point, I think that would be a win. But until then, the US will be lagging in the professional aspects of our theses and dissertations.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Postdoc vs Research Engineer

In one of my last posts, I mentioned that my group has grown excessively large to 10 graduate students. I do not think I am writing anything that is not obvious to everyone in my group: it is very hard to manage that many people and write grants and write papers and perform the level of university and national service that I do. One of the things that I pride myself on is explaining the status of my group to the students. They know, e.g., the current financial situation (whether good or bad), know when I am hiring or not, and whether they can ask to attend conferences they would not normally attend. One of the recent things that has become apparent to me as a result of my participation in a faculty search committee is whether the candidate understands from where his/her funding comes. Now, most of my students are likely to end up in industry so this may be a moot point but I want them to at least understand where their funding comes from, even if they are not responsible for bringing it in.

Lately, I have been debating whether I should bring on a postdoc to help me advance my group. There are numerous reasons to do this: a postdoc can focus more on research instead of classes, can understand a higher level of applications, can write journal papers, and [hopefully] can manage graduate and undergraduate students. Now I know most STEM folks in the blogosphere are in the biomedical fields which have different expectations and funding mechanisms than those of us in engineering. When I talk to folks in the biomedical fields, they say that 40k is sufficient for a postdoc, maybe 42k if they are really good. But in engineering, you can easily make 10k-15k more than that with a BS, with stock options and a 401k so why would any engineer looking for a postdoc accept that salary??! The numbers I'e seen are more like 55k and when you factor in the 33% benefit rate and then 53% overhead rate, a postdoc costs me 112k/year. And that is for an average postdoc. To be honest, before I came to SnowU, I had a postdoc offer for ~73k/year. That's close to 150k/year if I wanted to hire someone at that salary. 

So this begs the question: is a postdoc worth the 112k-150k per year that I need to bring in to support them?

The basic (and more in-depth) answer is: NO. That same amount of money can get me ~2-3 students who will at least be here for until they get their degree, whereas a postdoc will jump at a TT position if offered. (And I'm not blaming them for that!) But I think the bigger question that needs to be asked is why would I hire a postdoc when (assuming) I could hire a research engineer. 

True, a research engineer would cost more than a postdoc but the big difference between the two is a research engineer (or research faculty depending on how you look at it) is able to be PI on their own grants. Other than NIH, which has its own shit-storm of a competition, there is no other mechanism where postdocs can submit their own proposals. However, a research engineer can submit their own proposals to NSF, DoD, DoE, NASA, etc. And if I, as a PI can land a big grant, I may be able to offset most of those costs for the research engineer and then have them help the finances of the group. 

But why would anyone choose to be a research engineer? Wouldn't they just jump at the first TT offer? I don't think that is the case if the right person is found. I know of several groups at SnowU where the lead PI has their research engineer helping them run their group, takes part in the management of students, helps write papers, and is content with trading the TT rat-race for no teaching duties, no service, and the aspects of soft money. Over the long term, especially with the current trends in academic funding, it is likely not sustainable unless you have NIH/DoD/DoE funding but they may be able to help me, as the PI, sustain a group and output level needed to maintain that level of support. 

I'm still not 100% sold on the idea but it has been something I've been thinking about lately. At this point, I think I would take all the help I can get but if I had my pick, I'll probably go with the research engineer rather than a postdoc at this point.