Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Deceptive publication records

So several of us in my research group, frustrated with the what feel like is a complete lack of papers coming out of our group and our PI's snail-like pace in reading them decided to see how no one has gotten mad at him for not publishing more (admittedly, he's tenured and has been for awhile, but GiantU doesn't tend to be a school for resting on one's laurels). The answer seems to be as a very minor collaborator on projects none of us were even remotely aware of. Collaboration can be a fantastic thing, but in this case, it really seems to be at the detriment of his own students. Only 1/3rd of the papers he's published since coming to GiantU from OtherGiantU have one or more of his graduate students on them. So overall, his numbers look fine (though not spectacular), but we aren't getting the papers.

I see a lot of people giving graduate students advice about selecting advisors reminding them to check publication records. However, just looking at how frequently the PI has published can be deceptive. Check the other authors: are they even at the same institution? Even better, check the student's publication records. While some fields may typically not publish before graduation, almost every department website I've looked at is out of date, so some of those students may have already graduated.

Also, a question I asked on Twitter earlier: in your group, are things like papers and grants announced? This blog was triggered by me finding a recently published paper where my advisor was a collaborator and one of the students who has since left the group was also a coauthor. I had no idea this paper existed until it popped up in my search. My PI recently was awarded an experimental grant, which we only discovered because we brought in a new student to work on a brand-new project and there was a sudden equipment buying binge.

Am I just being paranoid, or is this all totally normal practice in science?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Checklists and Checking Out

This semester, as previously mentioned, I'm TAing the junior level MSE lab course at GiantU. I have to say, I may be learning much more than my students. GiantU is a very highly ranked school in my field, while SnowTech is rather less prominent. Consequently, I had expected a slightly higher caliber of students who were rather motivated. What I've found is that instead, GiantU seems to really attracted students who have mastered the system, rather than the subject.

What do I mean by this? They want to know exactly what to do on every assignment to get the grade they think they deserve. I've been flat out asked for checklists of everything they are supposed to include in their lab write-ups. I refuse to give them this, because I'm looking for their ability to piece together an argument. However, I get the distinct impression that many of the other professors in the department have gotten in the habit of spoon feeding their undergraduates. It's also very clear that they expect me to be on-call 24 hours a day, given their email habits. They clearly learned these habits worked somewhere, and I find it somewhat disappointing.

The modern K-12 academic system can be gamed very, very easily, in the era of standardized testing. If I had not been in the International Baccalaureate program, it would have been fairly trivial for me to maintain a 4.0 without any real effort, because you always knew exactly what would be on most tests. Because it's hard to quantify, No Child Left Behind has shied away from creativity, and critical thinking. It's about jumping through the hoops exactly as you are told, not about finding a route around them.

I was at the early edge of NCLB in my home state. My sister, who's only a grade above me, had a very different K-12 experience because of the difference in the number of standardized tests we had to take. Now, the students I'm seeing have grown up entirely in the NCLB system, and it shows. They struggle mightily with open ended assignments. Yet, in all their attempts to figure out exactly what they need to do to get the grade, they ignore the things I tell them matter, like proofreading (grammar is 50% of the grade for reports in this course) and proper referencing. Not looking forward to the next round of grading...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Where has all the motivation gone?

So I was at a conference all of last week, which was simultaneously inspiring and disheartening. I came out of talks with all sorts of ideas of things that I could do. On the other hand, I kept thinking about how impractical and uninteresting what I've gotten done in that last year has been. This has been a frustrating year, to say the least. I've been project-hijacked by my advisor several times to produce data for abstracts he submitted without existing data, or based on data he expected from students who ended up leaving the group. Because of a possible scheduling conflict, I had to submit a poster to a conference in case he couldn't be there to give his talk.  I've been trying to cut back on the whining, but after last week, I'm just tired. My work didn't belong at that conference, but my advisor told everyone to submit abstracts so that he could answer "yes" at committee meetings when asked if he had any students at the meeting.

I also got to meet with his perpetual golden child who really is a very lovely person, and provides some hope that maybe I can be successful in spite of my PI. She also reassures me that nagging him really is my only route to get papers read. On the other hand, it's been ONE YEAR since I sent the first complete draft of my first manuscript to him, and the total feedback I've gotten was "Well, sometimes your writing is a bit choppy". This is not due to a lack of nagging...

It's also a bit depressing to meet friends who have completed their Master's programs and are out in industry, with responsibilities and interesting jobs.

So now, I'm back, with no real looming deadlines, and it's hard to motivate myself to do anything right now. Suggestions?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Science vs Engineering

This week, I am at a conference organized by several of the major professional societies of MSE, with a pretty heavy emphasis in the E. I have attended this conference three times now, each time for a radically different topic. My first time here, I fell into the Engineer category quite firmly, but now I fall pretty solidly into Science. Consequently, I feel a little out of place explaining my work to old colleagues. One if the first questions I'm asked is about the practical applications of what I'm doing. Right now, my work is on simple model systems, and any relation to practicality is tenuous at best.

The science vs engineering divide is also noticeable in comparing the undergrad programs at GiantU and SnowTech. SnowTech is very much Engineering oriented, with a focus on design and looking towards industry jobs. GiantU teaches as though they expect every student to continue on to grad school as a scientist. Yet I regularly have students who tell me they really appreciate hearing about the practical applications of the theory they are learning.

What I currently do may not show up in consumer products in the next decade, but I appreciate having the engineering background. So for now, I continue to sit on the ampersand of MS&E.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On Presenting

Conferences are always a revelation in awkward presentations. I'm a bit of an anomaly among engineers, in that I have very little anxiety about public speaking. On the other hand, my PI is a visible bundle of nerves, the he is at least audible. Even with microphones, I've sat through several talks where I was straining to hear the speaker.

In theory, we are trained in presentation skills by our advisors. But what when the advisor has limited skills? There are plenty of people who are absolute experts in giving a compelling presentation: we just tend to call it acting. Perhaps we should start requiring basic acting classes for scientists. Maybe then I could hear them...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Learn all the things!

So this week, I'm at one of the giant meetings in my field, which happens to be in Ohio this year. As a computationalist, I'm rather out of place in the professional society environment, which is full of practical things. On the other hand, I like attending talks more, because more of it is new to me. It also really makes me wish I had the time/ resources to learn more characterization techniques.

I've also been contemplating recently what kind if post-doc I will want to do in the very distant future, when I maybe manage to graduate... While I like my research, what really excites me is teaching. I'm currently hoping to do some experimental work, but I'm not sure how realistic that is. My advisor isn't terribly helpful at this point, partly because he's been largely in hiding since my preliminary exam.

The experimental technique I really want to learn is NMR, which is probably the most directly useful for comparison to my particular simulations. There's not a good spectroscopy course at GiantU, but another nearby school supposedly has a good course I could audit. Assuming I ever had time...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Invisible fundamentals

This semester, I'm teaching a junior-level lab section. Consequently, there certain things I assume students  have learned at this point, and know were covered in their freshman level courses. I don't know if it's an issue of retention, or that they never really learned it the first time around, but there are certain basics of report writing that they've just missed.

There's some of the higher-level style issues, like use of 3rd-person passive voice instead of first person active voice. But for some students, they may be unaware of even more basic issues. For example, recently, I encountered a student who didn't know about Microsoft Equation Editor or the symbol menu, and has been using wikipedia and copy-paste to put equations into lab reports. Multiple students had to ask how to take a text file of comma separated values and open them in Excel or another graphing program.

While I was initially rather stunned, thinking about it, we never actually teach students how to use much of the software we expect them to use regularly, like Microsoft Office. Even if they had been taught at some point, the GUI has changed so drastically over the last few releases that they may no longer be able to find the tools. Even though these students are "digital natives", not everyone can learn software by poking around until it does what they want.

What other skills do you assume students should have by college?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ada Lovelace and Inspiring Women

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, everyone!

I've talked before about some of the women I find inspiring as a scientist, my mother, my grandmother, and Professor Millie Dresselhaus. Today, I'd like to talk about some of the other women who have inspired me as a scientist.

Until I reached high school, every science teacher I had was female. Actually, until college, I had exactly one male science teacher. Of those women, the one who I remember best and inspired me most was my 8th grade science teacher. It was the first year we were really focusing on chemistry, instead of biology or earth science, and Ms. George did fantastic demos. She was energetic, and sarcastic enough to handle a bunch of 12 and 13 year old students. The day she lectured about dihydrogen monoxide, I was falling out of my chair trying to muffle laughs while she very sincerely talked about how much of this dangerous substance was being dumped into our oceans.

She also wasn't afraid to push students who could have coasted. The final lab of the year was meant to combine all the different analysis techniques we'd been learning to identify the components in a jar of "sludge". She had a list of possible ingredients on the wall. Most students were given a jar with 5-6 components. My partner and I got a jar with 9 (there were 20 potential choices).

So thank you, Ms. George, for making me work!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

First Lecture & Grading

Yesterday, I gave my first formal lecture in front of a class and survived. There were certainly things I could improve on (like the concept I had in my head exactly backwards), but the students were clearly attentive (since they caught my mistake), I got some excellent questions, and my timing wasn't nearly as horrible as I had been afraid of.  More than anything, I need to master the art of writing on the board while talking, and using chalk without the squawk.

I kind of hope that at some point, I can do a more lecture-intensive TA, but while I'm on fellowship funds, that seems illogical. Part of why I'm doing the lab this semester is because I already have the background for the material we're covering, so I can fit it into my schedule (relatively) painlessly.

I'm also starting to see the benefits of doing my high school service hours as a student grader for freshman English. It takes me much less time to go through grammar corrections than it takes my fellow TAs. My favorite gem from the most recent batch of labs was the auto-corrected misspelling which turned a statistics term into a literary term. Spellcheck is no substitute for proofreading.

I'm finally getting into the hang of my semester, and realizing I'm just never going to get much research done on lab days. Now, if I could just get Matlab to stop randomly seg faulting...

Monday, October 3, 2011

My Favorite References

So this is a topic that was mentioned on EngineerBlogs back in February, but in preparing for my first ever lecture, I've been very thankful for my rather extensive bookshelf. I was lucky that I could afford not to sell back textbooks as an undergrad, and my husband kept most of his, which means I've got a pretty good collection to draw from. Here are some of my favorite references:

Fundamentals of Materials Science and Engineering, W.D. Callister (also acceptable: Materials Science and Engineering: An Introduction)  This is the standard textbook of introductory materials science classes for a reason. It is fantastic! The index is thorough, the chapters are descriptively titles, and above all, it has some of the best figures. Materials science can be a very, very visual field, and knowing wheter it "looks right" is a critical skill to learn.

Undergraduate Instrumental Analysis, Robinson, Skelly Frame and Frame. This was honestly not a useful book when I got it for class, because in that class, we were always told what characterization equipment we would be using. Now, though, it's a great reference for any characterization technique, covering the basic physics of how it works, common pitfalls, and basic descriptions of the equipment.

(online, because there's 22 freaking volumes of awesome) ASM Handbook Online (subscription required) While my university has a subscription to these handbooks, being a member of the ASM professional society will also get you access. While the focus is on metals, since it used to be the American Society of Metals, these are a great resources for finding teaching examples. If you're a mechanical engineer with a metals question, they are a great place to start your search.

I could probably keep going through my bookshelf, but we quickly get into rather more specialized texts. These are great when you have a very specific issue, but for more general questions, I turn to these first.