Monday, December 17, 2012

Grad School Limbo

I have been a very negligent blogger this semester. It's hard to find anything new to write about at this point. Research is progressing, though slower than I might hope. My advisor hasn't changed, but I'm trying to avoid whinging about it on the internet. Days sort of run together without any regularly scheduled breaks or meetings.

I made a wiki for my research group, plus a personal webpage. After a week of playing with CSS templates, I'm now even more appalled at my department's webpage. I'm pretty sure students apply in spite of our web presence.

Maybe Christmas will give me a chance to reboot and come back at least a little motivated. Right now, motivation is hard to find...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Planning Ahead and Writing As You Go

So even though I'm probably 2-ish years from graduating (plus some very large error bars on that number), I've started writing bits and pieces of my thesis. Not just in the sense that I'm writing manuscripts, which I'm also working on, but in that I'm trying to plot out the larger story I'm trying to tell. I also want to right everything down while I still remember why I did it in a particular way.

My advisor seems confused whenever I mention this approach. He's very strongly in the camp of write the papers, and copy-paste to make a thesis. Given his reading habits, it does mean fewer things he has to read, which is good for getting anything out the door. However, at this point, many of my results are of the "and this approach didn't work" variety. Not necessarily paper material, but things I feel should be documented for future students in the group. A quick poll of Twitter seems to indicate that the thesis is a good place to include this sort of thing, and it can always be deleted when you go to do the manuscript. Of course, according to the comments at GenomicRepairman, it seems unlikely hypothetical future students are going to read it anyway.

I also like looking at the bigger picture, because it gives me a sense of things I've *done*, not just the giant list of things I still need to do. When I'm in the writing mood, I'm trying to write up methods sections and working on piecing together background sections as I read. It also helps me plan, and find the holes in my story I need to fill.

What approach did you take (or are you taking) to thesis writing?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Being Smart Doesn't Mean You Can't Be Dumb Too

PLS has a post up, "I'm too smart to end up like that". Man, did that hit a little too close to home. As I've probably made abundantly clear, I am not in a good advising situation. It's one of the major factors that drove me into blogging. As of last week, more students from my group have quit grad school than graduated  which is NOT typical for my department. Nor were any of these of the "I just don't belong in grad school" variety. Two of the students had been here for 5+ years and had at least one paper before finally leaving, and they weren't subtle about their reasons.

In my second year, I was seriously contemplating leaving. Senior students (one of whom ended up leaving) told me to switch groups while I still could. I had fellowship money, anyone would take me. But I had what I thought was four papers worth of data, and I didn't want to leave that much data. Well, two years later, my advisor finally read the first manuscript, and the reviews come back with a reference which effectively killed the next three papers. It's very easy for me to look back and say I should have left then.

But when you join a group, you have to be optimistic. You have to assume that the students who are willing to voice issues have personality conflicts with their advisors, because many times, that's the truth. You can't start assuming failure, or it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Until you find conclusive evidence to the contrary, you assume things will work. And as time goes on, you know certain things are lies, but you hope for once they won't be. "I'll get to it next week." "We'll meet soon." "Our collaborators will send us the code later this week." Because the alternatives are depression, or leaving, and where are you going to go?

The realities of Ph.D funding and departmental politics can make it very difficult to jump ship by the time you've been in a group long enough to have real problems. There may be 30 professors in your department, but half of them are doing projects you are absolutely uninterested in or have no background in. Most of the remaining professors have no more funding, depending on the time of year, or have proposals submitted without any firm cash in hand. Then there's the professors who are too buddy-buddy with your old boss. If you take can take a Master's and change universities, you may have to go through course requirements and qualifying exams all over again. Sometimes, you can change departments within a university, but courses and quals still present a very large obstacle.

There are days when I think I am very, very stupid for continuing with my advisor. But there are also days when I look at the data, and realize that I've done good work, and if I can nag him into reading it, I will put out good papers. I enjoy my project (most days) and think my research is interesting. I'm not in a position that's threatening my safety. And frankly, I don't have the willpower to start over in another group.

Your advisor doesn't have to be blatantly abusive to end up in a very bad situation. It may not even be noticeable until a year or two in, when you notice the student who has to do "just one more experiment" or "just one more paper" before they graduate. It can be simply always having you as one of their lowest priorities. And it's much harder to notice until it's too late.

And maybe the students in PLS's course will scoff and say they're too smart to end up like me. Maybe they're right. But sometimes, being smart does nothing to prevent you from making bad or unlucky choices.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Finding Motivation

This weekend, there was a recruitment event for high school students looking at GiantU. Departments put on demonstrations and do brief presentations about why we're awesome. I volunteered to help with the demos, along with a bunch of undergrads. The undergrads were all very self-conscious, and asked me to do most of the talk.

When I don't do it for awhile,  I forget how much I really enjoy teaching. While TAing this year is out, because I'm still on fellowship, I'm going to try and convince my advisor to let me TA again in the fall (generally, students only teach once, unless their advisor has no money or they're switching groups).  Teaching reminds me why I'm doing this in the first place.

Another senior student has left the group instead of graduating. I've now seen more people walk out on my advisor than graduate. Needless to say, morale is low around here. But we're doing what we can to keep each other motivated. There be almost no overlap between projects, but having someone ask questions that make you think is still a source of motivation. There's a sort of grim determination of "it won't be me". Now, if I could just get code to do what I want it to do...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

In The Darkest Part of the Tunnel

I've been feeling burned out lately. The manuscript finally got published. I don't have a candidacy exam to prepare for, I don't have any talks in the immediate future, no classes or deadlines of any sort. I've looked at the upcoming abstract submissions, and I can't see any symposia my research fits in. And for me, this is a very stressful state.

I know I have to keep my nose to the grindstone, but there's no light at the end of the tunnel right now. I have no real concept of when I'm going to graduate (2 years, +/- 1 is a heck of a window), and there's no date that tells me "if you make it to this date, you'll be *done* with something". My to-do list never seems to get shorter, I just keep finding things to add to it.

My mom and I are going to visit her relatives who live in a very rural area soon, which will hopefully give me a chance to reboot my brain, since there's no feasible way to work remotely from there. I'm also planning on leaving my laptop behind, for good measure. I don't think I've ever been so excited to go somewhere with sub-56kB/s dial-up.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Reading Outside Your Subfield

Right now, I'm writing a review for myself of very related theories in two different materials systems. However, until very recently, there was fairly little overlap between the scientists who studied these two systems, and it shows in reviewing these papers. In one system, they started with empirical fits of data, and drifted to a more precise mathematical approach, whereas the other material started with math and has slowly been correcting to account for experimental results. The most interesting part is when both sides come up with the same result, and just have a different name.

It reminds me of the paper several years ago when medical students rediscovered integration.

Materials science is one of those boundary fields, with significant overlap with a number of fields, so I've always been encouraged to look at papers, even from unfamiliar journals. I've also made an effort to take classes outside of my departmental comfort zone (which has been rather helpful during this review). It also tends to mean I do a lot more reading than my friends in say, EE.

How many times have we reinvented wheels because we only read what we thought was directly relevant to our subfield?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ignoring Warnings

The semester is ramping up quickly, and the new grad students are quickly sorting themselves out. The only first-year student we got this year worked for the lab as an undergrad, so he had an idea of what he was walking into. Hopefully. More confusing is a grad student looking to switch groups who seems to be seriously considering my group even though 1) there's no secure funding and 2) she's listened to all the stories I've told here and more beside.

On the other hand, when I was a wee little graduate student, one of our former group member told me "Run. Take your fellowship money and run." At the time, I just assumed she was bitter because the equipment never worked, etc., but I realize now that she really was trying to help me. I think stubbornness is really a trait of most graduate students, though, and there's a tendency to assume that we are right until explicitly proven wrong.

What warnings from others did you ignore?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Happy Academic New Year!

The new academic year has arrived at my institution, and it's an odd one for me. I'm not involved in courses at all, I personally have no conferences coming up in the next semester, and The Project That Wouldn't Die has pretty much been killed, unless I can get an Igor to help me resurrect it (which might be worth it for the papers...) For the first time in my graduate career, I get what I've always wanted: time to work on my thesis project without other things to do. Now, I just have to figure out what to do with all that time.

Summer has been tumultuous. We finally submitted the manuscript, and got mostly positive reviews, but the reviews sent us experimental data from a small German society journal which disagreed with our results. That manuscript is accepted, but it's killed 2 papers I'd already written. I thought my abstract had been accepted to the MRS fall meeting as an invited talk, but it turned out my advisor forgot to mention it had been turned into his talk.

I'm just starting my 4th year, in a group that averages 6 years to completion. I've already outlined my thesis chapters, and started writing methodology and introductions as much as I can. My biggest worry is that in a year, my PI is going to completely change his vision for my thesis from what was in my proposal, and most of that will be wasted. He ideally wants the thesis to be fleshed out papers, but I want it to be a coherent and connected story. What makes a good paper isn't necessarily the same thing that will allow me to piece together all of the different aspects of my research.

Happily, my advisor is letting me do my own DFT for this project, instead of getting one of the DFT experts in the group to run it and give me results. I'm actually getting to do most of the major forms of atomistic simulation for this project, which is cool, though occasionally overwhelming.

But, in the spirit of new years, I'm setting myself some goals:

1) Complain less about my advisor. It doesn't change him and it rarely makes me feel better.
2) Get the next two papers onto his desk
3) Go over my thesis outline with my PI
4) Complete drafts of the first three thesis chapters I have planned by this time next year (subject to change according to the results of 3)
5) Write a really excellent letter of recommendation for Minion, who is staying with the research group ze was in this summer which is run by FamousRockstarProf and might actually get authorship on a paper before ze graduates.
6)Find somewhere else to submit my MRS abstract, so I can actually give the talk I wanted to give

Friday, August 24, 2012

On PIs Giving Talks

So the abstract I submitted to the MRS Fall Meeting seems to have gotten upgraded to an invited talk, which made me super excited. But in talking to my PI, it seems one of the session chairs had contacted him, and upgraded it under the assumption he would be speaking (which he never mentioned to me before the official acceptance notices came out). However, I wrote the abstract, everything we're proposing to present in the abstract is my work, and frankly, I give a pretty good presentation. We're the only authors on it. Also, if I'm not presenting, I can't get funding to go.

So instead of looking like I get to give a really awesome talk on all the cool shit I do at a meeting I've never gotten to go to, my advisor is going to give it instead, and I'm not even going to get to go. Having sat through his presentations on my data before, this really worries me, because he gets things wrongs, or claims things are definitive that are really not decisive at all. I was really excited about this, so it's a hell of downer to end my week on.

Is it usual for students to be upset when PIs give talks on their behalf, or am I being weirdly possessive about this?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Happy Dance!

After two years of waiting for my advisor two read it and one round of revisions, my manuscript has been accepted!!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Posts Elsewhere

Today, I give advice to incoming graduate students over at Engineer Blogs.  Admitedly, half or more of it is basically "don't do what I did", but shh...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Outreach & CVs

A question for the professors in the audience: how would you classify/interpret outreach curriculum development on a CV for someone interested in teaching positions?

To clarify, I'm currently working on putting together several panel modules of demonstration experiments to present at next year's local steampunk convention. I'll be working heavily from the materials I got from volunteering at Teacher Camp, but I'm really trying to orient it towards my audience, so there will be a lot of customization. All in all, I'm hoping to do 3-4 panels this year, and add more variety as there is interest in future years. It's not a traditional outreach audience, as the K-12 members of the audience will likely be the minority.

My program offers fairly limited opportunities to teach, and pretty much no opportunities to develop courses. I was able to snag one of the few TA positions where you get any chance to lecture, and have more interaction with students than answering homework questions at recitation. I see this both as a way to get more practice teaching and a way to share my knowledge with an interested audience (I'm developing these panels at the request of some non-sciency friends).

Is there anything I should try and do to document these? Specific feedback I should ask for? Should outreach even be on my CV?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Comparing Paths to Grad School

I got to go to dinner last night with a friend from high school/ undergrad. He's also doing the grad school shtick, but for very different reasons, so it's very interesting to compare our experiences. He couldn't find a job after graduation, so applied to a master's program. He's already TA'ed for more time than I likely will in my entire program, and is on a much smaller stipend in a more expensive city. He's got one eye on the door, and would be willing to leave for a job if it came along.

I knew in middle school that I wanted my PhD, and have planned a lot of things accordingly. Because I'm planning to stick it out, I'm much more concerned about my relationship with my advisor, and much more willing to work long hours. He's currently on a three week road trip, something I couldn't imagine doing at this point in my PhD program (mostly because there's rarely a window long enough). On the other hand, even as much as I struggle with my advisor, I seem to enjoy the day-to-day aspects of my work more than he does. While changing advisors has crossed my mind, leaving altogether almost never has.

Right now, he's getting paid very little for something he's not really enjoying, and probably will be doing for another year until he can get a degree out of it. I've probably got another 3ish years, and even on days where I get frustrated with my work, I'm frustrated because I care a lot about what I'm doing and want it to work.

Maybe grad school was the right choice after all?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Give Teachers a Chance

Since moving to GiantU, I've been able to help out with the ASM Teacher Camp program. This year, due to scheduled server outages, I was able to help for a larger portion of the week. The program combines time in the classroom with time in the lab. One of the things I noticed this year was the emphasis on how to bring these new concepts to class for as little money as possible.

Many of these teachers, after replacing broken glassware, getting safety gear, and ordering basics, have roughly 1$ per student left to bring demos into class. The equipment budget of a single graduate student in my department pretty much dwarfs their annual budget for 100+ kids. These teachers are amazingly resourceful with what limited money they have. There are apparently hundreds of things you can do with a 3$ box of borax.

This program receives lots of donations from companies, and at the end of the week, the teachers get a goody bag with all sorts of supplies to do these demos, and lists of the cheapest places to find supplies. For some of them, this bag is what makes it possible to bring what they've learned at camp back to their classes at all. Even so, limited supplies mean students will only be able to watch, not do.

So if we really want to get more kids interested in the STEM fields, let's start with giving their teachers a fighting chance. Programs like Donors Choose are a way to reach out to specific classrooms. But if wonks in Washington are really serious about getting more young people interested in science, give their science teachers a fighting chance, and a budget to buy enough supplies for hands-on experiments, not just a few demonstrations.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Remembering Why I Do This

In spite of the flaws we've found, we've resubmitted the paper for another round of review. Once we hear back, it'll be time to discuss whether it's time for the Project That Won't Die to finally be laid to rest.

Helping distract me from worrying about this, teacher camp is back! So while I am in manuscript limbo, I'm volunteering to help teachers learn about materials science concepts, and helping demo labs. I forget how energizing teaching is for me when I don't do it for awhile. Teachers make great students, because they really listen. They ask lots of questions, both about the science and what it's like being a female engineer. It's a great chance to really share what I do love about what I do, and why I do it.

Today was metals, but over the week, we'll cover most of the basic materials classes (but not composites). I'm glad I have this week to follow up last week.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Radio Silence

Sorry about the quiet. It's hard to blog right now when I'm essentially mourning the loss of two years of data, because my co-author didn't do proper due-diligence, and I trusted what he gave me. Paper was submitted for review, and while most of the review was positive, and I think we'll be able to get the first paper out, a recommend reference has more or less invalidated everything we'd lined up for the next few manuscripts. The reference in question is experimental data that my co-author couldn't find, and points out some flaws in our potential that can't be ignored for the other manuscripts.

It doesn't help that I would have left my PI if I didn't think I had 3-4 papers worth of data when I considered leaving. So I'm also kicking myself about that.

I guess it's a good thing I'm working on 4 different projects at once. Still sucks.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Prioritizing without Deadlines

After almost one year without few real deadlines in my life, I think I'm finally learning how to balance my different projects in a way that 1) everything gets attention and 2) things actually are completed. One of the biggest changes I've made is starting to outline manuscripts before I'm done with data generation. It helps me identify what data I need to generate, and makes me think about how many steps are going to go into it.

At some point in my undergraduate training, the idea of making metrics for everything was beaten into my brain. Every so often, I will sit down and make my priority matrix for every project I'm currently working on. First I split them into two types: things which need computation time, and things which need brain time. Each project gets a 1-10 score in several categories, which I assign different weights.

50% of the score is immediacy of the next deadline. When I actually have them.  20% is for length of time I expect it will take to complete. 20% is for how long it's been since I worked on that projects, and 10% is for how important I think it is to its master project. The entire score gets multiplied by the number of tasks that depend on this task. However, I let myself get frustrated with projects and take a break from them, and if I'm inspired on a particular project, I will give it more attention.

So far, I haven't had any deadlines take me by surprise, and I haven't heard any complaints from my advisor that I'm not producing the right data, but with the annual grant review coming up, that may change. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Pondering Beyond Academia

On Twitter and in blog comments, BabyAttachMode has started an interesting conversation about if those who left academia regretted doing so. I've been thinking a lot about careers and "what next" lately, and the more I think about, the more I want to spend at least part of my career away from the academic research environment. There are a lot of reasons for this.

I'd like to have kids, and not feel so guilty about taking a reasonable length of time off for maternity leave. I know in my current situation, I'd be expected to at least be working from home within two weeks. My boss has no kids of his own, and some of his previous students have done just that, so that's what he expects. Not that I'm planning on any right now, but things happen.

I'd like to earn closer to what my husband makes. And that isn't going to happen in an academic postdoc. In a national lab, it's much more plausible, but many labs aren't near somewhere he could work. Also, there is some totally awesome research happening at the smaller labs like PNNL.

I miss working with people on projects that can be completed. Open-ended questions are interesting, but I miss being able to say I'm done with something, and mean it (see: project that won't die). I liked having a final product that I could point to and say I contributed to that part, over there. It's the part of me that identifies as an engineer instead of scientist.

Unlike most grad students I know, the majority of my friends are *not* in graduate school. I have my belly dance friends, my craft night crew, and I married out of the ivory tower. It helps keep me sane and grounded, and remember that there's more to life than papers and grants (like Brave coming out! The hair algorithms! Squee!) It also shows me how borked certain things in my current academic environment are. The only professor in my department who regularly seems happy are the 2 old guys who are || this close to retiring, and our two young Russian hot shots, who I'm pretty sure are a) crazy and b) rolling in grant money. And because they work all the time, it's not like they're miserable from 9-5 and then go have a life. This is what they do. Is it any wonder that the longer students are in graduate school, the less likely they are to want to pursue an academic career (can't find the article to cite)?

I'm also very lucky to have family that will understand and support either decision, with a very solid knowledge of what every option entails. I've got an aunt and 2 grandparents from academia, an uncle from the national lab system, and parents in a tech industry. When I was an intern at GiantEquipmentManufacturer, my boss had his Ph.D, as did his boss, and 4 of the 5 other people in our little group. Not only that, but they had degrees from all over the academic and geographic map.

Of course, the grass is always greener. But I can't help noticing that the grass over here is awfully brown lately.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Summer Vacation? Ha!

I go to a craft group weekly made of of people who by and large aren't in academia. My favorite question recently has been "Aren't you less busy now that the semester is over?" Ha! Um... no. You see, summer is when program reviews are, when my PI finally has time to read our manuscripts, and swings back into micromanagement mode. Summer is, in fact, busier.

At this point, I'm done with required coursework. I've finished my teaching requirement. As such, research is now my daily job. While I have more flexibility than my husband to decide to knock off early and enjoy the weather once in a while, I'm still expected in the office, working, most of the time. My advisor asked if anyone was planning on being out of town for the 4th of July, and it was very clear that the correct answer was 'no'.

Pretty much the only difference it that there are fewer undergrads underfoot, so it takes less time to get lunch. Ah, the exciting grad school life...

Thursday, June 7, 2012

At Long Last...

After 2+ years on my advisors desk, 1 week fighting the submission website for the journal he chose and 3 days off nagging him to approve the final PDF, the paper is submitted!

Now, back to work on the next one...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Learning from Negative Example Part III

Posts one and two in this series.

Things I've recently learned from my advisor:

Don't leave town unannounced the day before a senior student's (hopefully) final data meeting
That student will be incredibly frustrated and angry when they can't find you, and only learn where you are by asking other professors if they've seen you. Younger students will start worrying about our own odds of ever graduating...

Let the movers lift the heavy things
Yes, it's a very delicate piece of equipment. But the man who can bench 200 lbs and lifts heavy things for a living will be able to set it down more gently than you, especially after you've thrown out your back already. 

Learn to adapt to new technology
Just because you learned to program in Fortran77 doesn't mean advancements haven't been made, that allow such crazy options as using descriptive variable names, and having lines more than 72 characters long. Every single programming language I know of got rid of go to statements for a reason...

Don't expect students to know exactly what other students on unrelated projects are doing
My role is to work on my project, and work with the members of my group doing anything related to my project. If there are people in the group who work in other physical locations, don't expect me to know what they've been doing: they aren't here while they're doing it and I have my own stuff to worry about. It's a good day when I remember what I'm doing...

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

May Madness

Since I started graduate school May has consistently been the busiest month of my year. This year, I'm preparing data for a conference talk I'm giving, trying to make sure there are new results related to multiple projects before the annual reviews in June, trying to get the paper out the door, now that my advisor finally gave it back to me, and all sorts of other fun. At least this year I'm not planning a wedding, and the talk does not require magical data fairy powers to be engaged.

Blogging has been slow. Between coding, writing up bits of manuscripts and end-of-semester minion wrap-up, my writing energy has been occupied. So here's my plea: if there's a material or materials science question you've always wondered about, send it to ms dot matscieng at gmail dot com, or leave it as a comment, and I will try to write something about it. The hardest part of blogging is definitely coming up with appropriate ideas.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Materials Scientists Use Optical Microscopes to Examine Structures

Chemjobber posted earlier about this image:
I've already commented over there about the issue, but I felt the need to elaborate. You see, microscopy is a *huge* part of much of materials science. As a simulationist, no, I'm not doing it on a daily basis anymore. I'm still my group's polishing guru when they need help with sample preparation. But in my prior research life at SnowTech, optical microscopy was as important of a tool to me as tensile testing and hardness testing, and far and away the best way for me to characterize a structure.

Let's look at a few examples of what we can learn from microscopy:

Five different Zn-Al-Cu compositions, all with over 87% Zn. Scale bars represent 50 micrometers. All samples  were manufactured by die casting with rapid quenching and no additional heat treatment.
I took these images from a report I wrote as an undergrad. There are 5 different compositions of Zn-Al-Cu alloys, all made by die casting, all with fairly similar compositions (I won't frighten you with ternary phase diagrams just yet). From these images (sometimes with the help of SEM verification) I can do the following:

-Identify the major phases present
-Estimate the average grain size
-Estimate the porosity (I'm looking at you, D...)
-Identify impurities and inclusions present in the sample
-The order of solidification and phase transformations (with help from the phase diagram)

So why do I care about all of these things? Because microstructure affects macroscale properties. For this particular study, we were looking at creep, and because creep tests take *months*, we did tensile and hardness testing for kicks. The grain size and shape controls the creep mode. Large, soft primary particles allow dislocations to move rapidly, which is undesirable in this case. We can predict a significant amount about how the material will behave under elevated temperature/ stress just by looking at the microstructure, which is good, because I really didn't want to wait three years to get enough creep tests run to reach the same conclusions.

We also learn different things at different magnifications. Low magnification can show directional crystallization/deformation that would be unnoticeable at higher magnification, and is much better for quantifying porosity and primary phase fractions.
AA6082 extrusion with an AA5086 weld bead at low magnification 

This is an AA6082 aluminum extrusion with an AA5086 weld bead run through it, also my own micrograph. You'll notice this is a much lower magnification than the previous collection. The sample has been fractured, but you can distinctly identify three major regions in the sample: the weld bead, the heat affected zone (where recrystallization has occurred) and the extrusion region, where the microstructure is unaffected by the weld. I can also see how the grains grew during solidification of the weld melt metal, and there's clearly a crack from the residual stresses caused by welding. Most of this can't be seen at higher magnifications

AA6082 extrusion with AA5052 weld bead at weld toe, same sample as above at higher magnification in a different location

There are also many times when optical microscopy is *better* than electron microscopy. But ... big fancy expensive machine! It must be better! (cry the undergrads) The contrast in an SEM image comes from two things: topology and elemental contrast. If you want to look at the grain structure of, say, an Al-Si alloy, the SEM will show you very little, because Al and Si are both fairly low elemental numbers, and don't show much contrast. On the other hand, pure Al and the binary Al-Si phase look very different in an optical micrograph. In the above image, the Si-rich regions show as dark, and pure aluminum shows as bright white. And unless you want your airplane to fall out of the sky, you better hope that materials scientists are using optical microscopy for quality control checks.

And this has just been a discussion of optical microscopy in non-ferrous metals. I haven't even gotten to technical ceramics or composites, let alone steel and cast-iron. There are entire handbooks devoted to the microstructures of Fe-C alloys alone (which may be my next spiffy material).

My New Favorite Thing...

... is the Dover Chemistry/Physics series of books. They're fairly affordable paperback textbooks or reprints of classic manuscripts, so I don't feel bad about ordering them speculatively, or writing in them. I've purchased four so far on group theory/spectroscopy and mechanics, and they're all pretty fantastic. Plus, being paperbacks, I can carry them around in my purse, even though I don't have a particularly big bag. These texts typically have a pretty narrow focus, so while they may be less than perfect for undergraduates, they're exactly what I need.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Impostor Syndrome and Family

Thank you to Scicurious for hosting a carnival on this subject.

As a woman in engineering, I expected to feel impostor syndrome quite strongly, but so far, I just haven't. I can find myself in a room as the only woman, and I barely notice. Am I some magical super-confident oddity? Not really. But even if I don't think I'm the best at ___, I still feel like I deserve to be where I'm at most days.

As I've been reading some of the brilliant posts around the internet, it seems that authors largely find in one of two categories: "best students" who no longer are, or people making a large leap from their background.

I've talked before about my SciGrandmother, and my other family members in STEM fields both in and out of academia. Clearly, I'm not making a large leap away from my background. Even at GiantU, I have a family support network, in the form of an aunt who is a professor in a biological field. She helped me find a mentor in my own department to help me deal with some of the nonsense that is my advisor. Having someone who is not a formal chain-of-command mentor has been incredibly helpful. When my own advisor was editing at the rate of molasses, he was willing to read my manuscript and give me feedback about organization and writing style, even if he didn't know all of my science.

As far as the "best student" thing goes, I've never been the best student at everything, thanks to my sister. It's been a life-long competition, with me winning some subjects and her winning others. We're fairly close in age, and very even in ability. I've had years to get used to having someone who was better than me. I'm better at math, she's better at writing. I'm better at music, she's better at drawing. And eventually, I've gotten to the point where that's ok. The best days are when one of us can say to the other "It's so helpful having a sister who's better at ___ than I am".

Lastly, I'm often just too damn busy think "I need to do x, y, z, alpha..." to think I'm not good enough. If I can't do everything, it's probably because there's so much of it. Every so often, I lapse into thinking I'm incompetent because I haven't finished everything, and then I vent to a lab mate, and they remind me I'm working on 3+ projects.

So what advice can I offer others? Find and cultivate a support network of various stages and fields. Find a peer you can vent with, find a mentor who's not your advisor (admittedly, this can be very tricky), make friends in other departments and other groups. Find someone who will tell you that what you do is awesome (that isn't a family member). Have trouble reaching out to people? Join Twitter, read blogs, form a virtual support network. Seriously, the blogosphere is full of supportive people from all sorts of career stages, even if it's dominated by biologists.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Somedays, life doesn't suck

Posting has been particularly sporadic recently, as I've been spending more time than usual coding. It's amazing how much creative energy this really takes. I've also had a great time working with the undergraduate on my project. Ze's super motivated and picks things up quickly. I will be sad to lose hir this summer. However, ze will be transitioning to an experimental group, and I do think the exposure to a wider variety of types of research before graduate school is highly beneficial. Plus, this experimental group is run by SuperFamousDude, which will look a lot better on grad school applications.

But for the next few weeks, we get to finish going over all the results and figuring out what needs to be done to polish them up for inclusion in a manuscript.

I also have delicious tea, the sun is out, and I found the Query Scholar extension for Chrome by way of @highlyanne . I may even decide to eat lunch not at my desk.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Learning from (Negative) Examples: Part II

To see the first post of the series, go here.

This week's observation of management failures:

When you hire an expert in ____, have them work on ____. For example, assume you hire someone who is a preeminent scientist in shock-wave physics. You have two projects with funding: one is on polymeric structures, and the other is on simulating ion impacts. Quick, which one do you have them work on?

*buzz* Time's up! If you said ion impacts, you are clearly not my advisor.

Keep it simple or explain it clearly: you may have great reasons for adding 10 layers of complexity to what is typically a very simple process (like, say, taking a group photo). However, don't expect an enthusiastic response when something that should take 5 minutes takes an hour if you don't make clear why. Even if you can't successfully communicate it, try.

Not everyone responds to the same motivation: My advisor is a big believer that we should all be motivated to work 16 hours a day so we can graduate sooner and go out into the world an make a reasonable amount of money. This, apparently, is all the motivation we should possibly need. I don't think he comprehends that short-term praise/feedback can make a huge difference in productivity. I don't think he understands how utterly disheartening broken equipment can be. Most students don't need cheerleaders, but most students do need some outside motivation.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Thinking about careers

I've always been someone who compulsively plans my life out years in advance, though I refuse to plan vacations with any sort of detail. Right now, I feel sort of in limbo, since there's a pretty broad range of when I will graduate, based on how quickly research works/ my advisor reads future papers. I'm also thinking a lot about what kind of career I want. Recently, it was suggested that I might be a good editor, and the more I think about it, the more it seems like a very good fit. I prefer being a generalist to a specialist, and I can read and edit at faster speeds than most people I know. Of course, I likely have several more years to change my mind dozens of time before it will really matter.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Last day of winter

It's the last day of winter according to the calendar, and I live in a fairly northern part of the US.  But somehow, it's warm enough to wear this today:

Weather this year has been bizarre. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Brief PI Rant

Dear PI:

Communication is much more effective when it is a two-way street. You complain that we don't keep you informed about what we're doing, and that we need to show you more intermediate data. Well, how do you propose we do that? Emails are largely unread, Dropbox is doing diddly-squat and we meet once a month for 30 minutes during which you often get fixated on one detail of something trivial (like, say, my font choice on a purely internal document). Do you want daily telegrams? Smoke signals? Voicemail? I'm running out of ways to convey information to you. Finding you in person doesn't work, and since you are teaching a grad class this semester, you don't have set office hours I can use to ambush you.

Furthermore, quit getting mad that we don't always communicate with other group members about things we had no idea they were even doing. There are 2 postdocs and 7 graduate students and 2 undergrads working on 12 different projects. It's a good day when I remember everything I'm supposed to be working on, let alone what everyone else is doing.

We're not going to be offended that you have to travel for presentations and review panels and whatnot, but please, at least tell us when you aren't going to be around so we don't waste time looking for you?

The people you allegedly advise/supervise

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Questions To Ask and Avoid on Grad School Visits

It's that time of year again, when prospective graduate students visit the programs they've applied to/ been accepted by. My experiences have always been with visits where you're accepted first and there are no rotations, so some of what I'm about to say may not apply to interview visits or departments with rotation programs. With one of the visit weekends at GiantU done, I've started putting together a list of questions in several categories.

Questions to ask grad students:
What do you think of the city?
You may have to read between the lines a bit, but it should be fairly clear whether or not we like living there.   This also covers things like public transit, apartment locations, etc. Just let them talk for a bit and look interested. You'll find out a lot.

How often do you meet with your advisor?
This helps you gauge the management style fairly well, and graduate students are going to give you the real number, whereas the professor will give you the frequency they intend to meet.

How often do people in your group publish?
Again, this is a question to ask students instead of the professor for much the same reason as the meeting frequency.

How long did it take the most recent students in your group to graduate?
This is an important question to ask both students and professors. The students will give you a better view of the recent trend, where the professor is going to include every students they've ever had in their math.

What are the food options near campus like?
You may be in a town famous for amazing food, but if it's nowhere near campus, your lunch options may be limited.

What was your coursework like?
Different schools take drastically different approaches to their curriculum, and students will give you a better description than the course catalog.

Questions to ask professors:
Do students typically pick their own topic in your group, or are there specific projects to chose from? If the later, do you have specific projects available?
This can still be a hazy question, because at any given time, there are several proposals out for review, so the answer may change before you would matriculate. However, you will get a much more specific idea of what you could be doing, should you decide to join a group.

How long does it take a typical student to graduate in your lab?
Yes, this seems like a very reasonable question. However, in my experience, the answer you get is how long the professor thinks it should take. I suggest asking to compare to the answer to the grad student version, though. If there is a large discrepancy, be wary.

How many students are in your group?
Whether you know that you like a lot of attention and feedback, or you like being part of a larger group, it's worth knowing. Departmental websites are often woefully out of date in this category, so it's worth asking the professor.

When do you expect students to start working on research?
Self-explanatory. It's up to you if you think sooner is better or if you want to really focus on the course work.

What kind of jobs have recent graduates gone on to?
 This can give an idea of the professor's track record in getting students into the kinds of positions you are ultimately interested in.

Questions NOT to ask grad students(and expect a useful answer):
What do you think of working for your professor/ the department?
We're trying to get you to come to our school. We're under orders to be enthusiastic and positive from the person who can actually make our lives hard, our graduate coordinator.

Do you like your research?
Just because I'm madly in love with studying amorphous states of matter doesn't mean you'll find it remotely interesting. If I'm tired of fatigue, you may still be interested in it. Of course, if the grad student in question is tired, drunk, or otherwise failing at impulse control, you can get very revealing answers, like "I only put up with my advisor because I love my research" (I swear this hasn't happened... yet).

Questions NOT to ask professors (and expect a useful answer):

What kind of research does your group do?
In groups that do many different things, this tells you nothing about what positions might be open, especially if they're starting new research areas. In more established and focused groups, this tells the professor you haven't done your homework before talking to them.

What kind of support programs are available for students?
The professors are usually not very well up to speed on these unless a student has talked to them about it. This is a question for the graduate coordinator/administrators.

What do you think of the city?
The way professors interface with a city is not the same as you will in graduate school. They will have better parking, live in different areas and probably not go to the same bars.

How many hours a week do you expect students to work?
 They will either give a wishy-washy "it's about the amount of work" answer, or adjust their number depending on whether they want to impress you or avoid scaring you off.

What questions would you add to these categories?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Learning from (Negative) Examples

My advisor is a brilliant scientist, but he's not such a brilliant manager. So I'm trying to figure out what I can learn *not* to do from his example, in addition to all the things I'm learning to do as a graduate student.  Here are some of my initial thoughts:

1) Don't take more than 6 months to give any feedback on a paper. Students would rather get a paper with angry red ink demanding we re-write entire sections than wait while you polish the language.

2) Don't assume students know what they're supposed to be working on if you don't tell them directly. Corollary: don't assume students know about deadline just because they happened at the same time last year. A year ago is a much longer time to a graduate student than you, and we don't get emails reminding us of upcoming grant reviews unless *you* send them.

3) Announce when positive things happen. Land a grant? Announce it! A paper got accepted, even if the student graduated? Announce it! A big celebration isn't needed, but let us know.

4) When disasters happen, make time to meet with the affected students, or else they get really jittery.

5) If you're going to be super busy or traveling, let students know so they don't spend all day trying to hunt you down when you're out of town. We shouldn't be asking undergrads for copies of their syllabi to know when you have scheduled absences.

6) Never, ever submit conference abstracts with a student as a co-author (i.e, the person expected to generate the data) unless a)the data already exists or b) you warn the student that they need to produce this data *at the time of abstract submission* (not 4 weeks before the presentation...)

What have you learned by bad example?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Rough Week

Not much I'm willing to blog about right now. Pipe failure destroyed over 100K of equipment in our lab, I realized I'd done something fundamentally wrong at the beginning of a set of simulation and need to redo them, and been having sinus troubles. I'm very lucky as a simulationist, nothing affecting me directly was destroyed, but it's rough on morale all around. Here's hoping insurance covers it and they're up and running again quickly.

Friday, February 10, 2012

One Year Later

Happy blogiversary to me! So what has changed from my first post?

-I got married
-My advisor finally read my first manuscript, two years after I sent it to him
-I passed my prelim!
-I joined the team over at EngineerBlogs!

My three most popular posts were An Engineer's Guide to Low Stress Wedding Planning, Why I'm Changing My Name and Speculative Abstracts and Golden Children.

My daily routine is very different now, with no classes to take or teach for the first time since I was 5. It makes it feel like summer, though the weather isn't trying very hard to disabuse me of that notion. I'm still haven't adapted to an existence without multiple looming deadlines at all times. My nearest major deadline is May. I know I'm supposed to enjoy this rare period in my life, but I'm much happier working with deadlines: they help me prioritize.

My major goals for the next year are to get the paper out the door, and get the next 2-3 manuscripts on my advisor's reading list. I want to rewrite my codes so that I can run them on the HPC cluster instead of my desktop. I've got a bunch of other project specific goals, but mostly, I want to make it through the next year with my sanity relatively intact.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Patience is a virtue

Two years to the day from when I sent my first draft, I got the revised version back. Significant style changes, as expected, but only a few comments which should be readily addressed. Huzzah!

Lone Ranger?

Having an undergraduate working with me has been a great experience so far. But it's made me think about how things work in my research group, or how they don't really work. Because he's working very closely on one of my projects, I have a very good idea of what his data should look like, and can help with troubleshooting. Much like in writing, sometimes, you just need someone else to spot your typos. Unfortunately, there's almost no overlap across projects in my group. There's no one who can take a glance at my simulations and spot a syntax error in my input file, or remember when they got the same error code. 

In theory, our advisor would be close enough to projects to help with these types of problems, but the reality is that most of us are left to fend for ourselves. You certainly learn more by struggling through to solve problems, but there's a point at which it overwhelms the ability to get anything done. It also makes brainstorming more limited. Collaborating is not something I'm learning how to do right now. 

I'm a little jealous of some of the other groups in my department, who work much more closely with one another. They seem to be less dependent on their advisors. On the other hand, when the equipment goes down, no one is getting any work done. Maybe the grass always looks greener from a distance. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Writing Recommendation Letters

This week, for the first time, I'm writing recommendation letters instead of requesting them. The first is to support the nomination of my undergrad research advisor for a society teaching award, which was honestly a slightly tricky letter to write. His one-on-one mentoring is fantastic, but I was the only one who could understand most of his lectures. However, I'm more of a morning person than the average college student, so having a 9:30am lecture after an 8am one didn't bother me the way it did most of my cohort.

The second letter was in support of promoting an assistant professor to tenure. While I only took one course with him, I still seek him out for discussions, and the only reason he isn't on my committee was due to schedule conflicts for prelims. Needless to say, it was a pretty easy letter to write.

I also got to learn how to get access to departmental letterhead, which was kind of cool.

Between sending out letters and getting new code things to work, I think today counts as productive, and it isn't even 5 yet!

Friday, January 20, 2012

A little ray of sunshine

You'd think by my seventh year in the gray and dreary part of the country, I'd remember that when I get grumpy in winter, that it's a lack of sunshine. This morning was clear and sunny, so despite the snot-freezing cold, I lingered on my walk into the office from the parking lot. As a Coloradan, my body was calibrated to 300+ sunny days a year, so several weeks of gray is enough to drive me into a very deep funk.  So after my roughly annual reminder, it's time to start taking my vitamins and drinking more milk to get my vitamin D levels back to my happy place. Maybe then I can kick my butt back into gear.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Grump Season

The mood in the office is pretty dreary and stressed right now. I'm not sure if it's the fact that winter finally arrived, a slow start to the semester, the inconsistent temperature, or a reaction to some unbloggable happenings. Whatever it is, we're all grumpy, which leaves me uninspired to blog. Honestly, I'm too tired to be angry right now. Or maybe I just need to go find some sunshine.

If there's a materials question you'd like answered, please ask, since I'm clearly bad at coming up with ideas. My email is

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Turn-Based Advising

This semester is not getting off to a great start. I came into the office after break only to be immediately flattened by a fairly nasty head cold. I'm also really struggling with staying motivated. My prelims are done, and to be honest, I'm about fifth in line to graduate from my group, which means I'm also fairly far down in my advisor's reading stack. One of the older students and I were talking about it, and realized that my advisor more or less practices turn-based advising. So he won't read Student Y's paper because he's too busy with Student X's papers whose papers he didn't read until after they graduated because he was too busy with Student V's papers.

I'm also not working on a project with any collaborators, which is why I'm farther down the list than the two students who joined when I did. I sit next to the conference table in our office space, and it gets hard to ignore how differently he treats my project (i.e., ignores). It's hard not to get angry. Nothing has changed about his advising, but I no longer have the distraction of classes.

I'm sure that about 2 weeks before the next grant review rolls around (noting I'm not actually supported on it...), I'll get attention again. But right now, I can't help like feeling like a three-year-old tugging on a parental sleeve begging them to look at my pretty picture.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year's Resolutions

I return from break much more relaxed, with the notable exception of my back muscles. I'm not normally terribly into New Year's Resolutions, but I do like to set myself goals and deadlines, so I might as well take advantage of the season. Here are my goals for the next year:

1) Blog at least once a week

2) Do a spiffy material post once a month

3) Whine less

4) Incorporate more pictures

It's a fairly short list, but I'm trying to be realistic. This is my first semester with no course commitments since I was 5 years old, and it's going to be a challenge to stay motivated. I've always been more productive the busier I was, so being effectively un-busy is going to be a challenge.