Wednesday, May 06, 2009

As if I have SO MUCH MONEY

Around the end of every accounting year for each of my various funded projects, I stress out over how much $ did I this or that, and how much $ will next year's this and that, and what $ can or cannot be charged to this account or that account, and so on.

Since my funding comes from a variety of sources with a variety of accounting year timings, increasingly I feel like I am having this stress all year long, rather than just once. So I recently decided that I really needed to do a better job of keeping track of my project budgets. The university sends statements but they are often cryptic, and the amount of information contained in the statement varies depending on the funding source. I have never found them very helpful even for figuring out where the money went, let alone in projecting how the money is going to go out.

Some years ago, a senior colleague/mentor showed me a complicated spreadsheet she used for keeping track of things, and it (both the spreadsheet and the concept of keeping track of big complex budgets) intimidated me so much that I never followed up by asking for a template or tutorial session or anything. But that was back when I had very little money and very minimal and simple expenditures so managing it all was easier. Now, I need something to manage the stress of managing the funds, because it's starting to keep me up at nights (sad but true).

In the last few weeks I've been nosing around friends and colleagues to see what systems or tools they are using for tracking project budgets, and the consensus seems to be:


On the one hand, this makes me feel better, that it's not as if everybody lit on to some genius strategy of which I am lamely ignorant. On the other hand, really? That's weird. The people that gave me that answer range from very well funded to moderately funded, and one of them I know has very complicated budget situations. But it seems like most folks just assume everything will work out, and they wait for somebody to yell at them if and when it isn't working out.

I know some people that have had some kind of budget catastrophe this way, with money accidentally mismanaged and in one case, even disappearing (which I still don't understand) but that doesn't happen to most people, I guess. Still, I downloaded an open-source Quicken-ish account tracking software and am using it until I can find something even better (without having to build it myself).

Bah, budget management. Yet another thing they don't teach you in grad school.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Poster child

My university has a program to study and promote university-level activities relating to recruiting and retaining female faculty members in disciplines where they are in the minority at the faculty level. It's a fine little program, full of useful networking opportunities and interesting guest speakers.

They recently launched some kind of branding activity where they came up with a specific font and some slogans and graphics for all their flyers and so forth, and the header image for all their materials is a row of little photos of academic women doing professory things. They emailed me to ask if they could use a photo of me, since the university has some laying around from previous photo-worthy events. I don't mind. But when I eventually looked at the promotional materials I noticed that two of the six photos were of me, I'm just wearing a different shirt in each.

Now, really, are we so hard up for women faculty? Maybe it's supposed to be a hidden statement about why we need these programs ("Look, there are so few women faculty members we couldn't even find 6 different people that had been photographed.")

(It's not any kind of statement, though. When I pointed out to them that I'd been twice included, they were like, "Oh. I guess none of us really noticed when we were putting that together.")

Still, aren't they lucky that I was recently approved for promotion & tenure? How ironic would it have been if 2/3 of the women in the promotional photos had in fact not been retained?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


The other day I ran across a recent journal article that was relevant to one of my grad students, so I forwarded it to her in case she had not seen it already.

Several days later she came by my office to discuss a few points in the paper, and she began by saying, "This paper was a disappointment . . . the objectives were fairly routine, and only a small part of the paper is what I would consider any kind of real contribution to the literature, and in that part, I think their methodology was somewhat flawed. They could have done a lot better with the data they had."

I nearly cried, I was so proud of her. Even a year ago, she would never have considered voicing criticism of published work. She has long had sort of a confidence problem with her own work, in terms of being able to stand up for her decisions under constructive criticism, and she had kind of an expert-complex where she assumed everybody else knew more than she did about her research, and about everything else. (Once, very early in her research career with me, I mentioned something about reviewing a manuscript for a particular journal and she was stunned . . . she said, "I assumed that manuscript reviewers were all crusty old men who have been doing these research things for a long, long time.")

Some of her hangup has been just her personality, but I don't doubt that a lot of it is her particular religious and cultural background. She's from a certain foreign country and religious minority where acknowledging your expertise, especially if you are a woman, and criticizing another's work, even constructively and with sound science/engineering reasoning, is inappropriate behavior. A couple of years ago we had a very frank conversation about my concern that she was holding herself back from doing her best work, and she described to me the culture clash that had been going on in her head over how to reconcile her view of her role and appropriate behavior in society with her role as an expert in her research career.

I have never had this specific struggle, but I do understand the struggle to find an internal consistency in your attitudes and philosophy on life. Particularly as a very new assistant professor, I felt some of this type of friction, and so she and I talked about trying to develop a sense of self that didn't make you feel like you were abandoning your values and background, but still meant that you could use your talents and education to have a positive impact on the world through your work.

In general I find advising grad students really challenging, and not something that I am good at. But when you get to see an individual's growth as a person and as a researcher and you feel like maybe you contributed to that in even a small way, it's very satisfying.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Letters of reference

Two undergraduates have asked me to write letters of reference for them for the same scholarship program, and I said yes to both, and now I feel weird about it. One of them is a undergrad research assistant working on a project with me as part of a program I direct, and the other is an undergrad RA working on a project as part of the same program, but with a different research advisor (who is also writing a letter for the student). For the first student, writing a letter of recommendation for him was a breeze (well, relatively speaking, anyway - I find writing solid, helpful letters of reference really difficult, and this one was less difficult than most).

For the second student, my interactions with him have been limited to our weekly program meetings where he's one of 10 students. I like him, he participates fully, he has a good sense of humor and he's very punctual. But . . . I don't know, if I were a scholarship committee member I would probably not find punctuality and niceness all that compelling. I am struggling with how to write an appropriate letter of reference for him.

It's tough to be an undergrad trying to drum up letters of reference, I'm sure. Your interactions with potential letter writers are often quite limited and you probably have no idea what a person would or could or should write about you in a letter.

And it's hard to write letters of reference. I think other people must struggle with this as much as I do (or, maybe they don't but they should?) because I have read some really sucky letters, mostly in grad school applications. By sucky, I mean, they have next to no value in helping the reader make a decision about the relative potential of this student to do whatever it is they're applying to do. For instance, I once read a letter of reference for a student applying to a very technical graduate program that was written by this student's former jazz flute teacher, who talked about what a good understanding of jazz this student had. I understand that perhaps out of all the professor types this student had encountered during undergrad (which was not in music, by the way) the jazz professor was the one with whom the student had the longest and most in-depth relationship, but . . . really, this letter was not that helpful to me in assessing the student's potential for research. Although I did appreciate that the student had a wide range of interests and I suppose (though it was not mentioned in the reference letter) that the student probably has some good experience combining theory with creativity.

I have also followed the lead of some senior colleagues who, when asked by a student to write a reference letter, have asked the student to either write a draft of the letter first, and email it to the professor (which I think would so horrify me if I were a student that I would probably just ask somebody else) or provide a bulleted list of things they think the professor could or should discuss or note in the letter.

I did the latter with these two students, and both of them returned basically a list of some key elements of their resume: leadership experience, club activities and so on, none of which I have any direct knowledge of. So, clearly I need to refine how I explain to askers what kind of list would be helpful to me.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Last Straw

I have this colleague.

This project that we're working on is cool, which is why I continue to work with him. But really, the parts that I am working on are easily decoupled from the other parts of the project, and I don't need him or his work in order for my project(s) to be viable. He might need me a little bit more than I need him, but he can find another person who provides similar benefits to his project as my work does. Conveniently, the current funding is drawing to a close and our next series of discussions are focused on securing the next phase of funds.

I have decided I am done with this colleague. The last straw for me was very minor, just another example of his strange behavior.

A blurb writer for my college alumni magazine (that is, the alumni magazine for the college whence my appointment comes) contacted me and another colleague from a different project about writing up a little five or six hundred word story about our work, and inquired about the project with Dr. Micromanager and whether or not the two projects have enough overlap that they could be promo'd in the same blurb. The overlap is mostly that both projects contain a significant element on my particular little research area, which is why I'm a co-PI on both projects.

(Although, have I mentioned that I am not technically a co-PI on the project with Dr. M? I helped to write the proposal and have been actively engaged since it was funded, but according to Dr. M there was "not rooom to include" my name in the proposal, which I have a hard time believing - but didn't find out until after the proposal was actually submitted right at the deadline, so what could I do?)

So I said to the writer, there's a good bit of overlap, both have a part that deal with [my research], just with slightly different [nuance].

The writer did up a nice schmoozy little blurb. Both projects have had formal news releases so there was a lot of written material already. Everybody mentioned in the blurb said it was fine - except Dr. M.

Dr. M. felt that combining the two projects in one blurb minimized his project. He told the writer that if they were going to give it such an unsophistocated treatment then they should not mention it at all, but that really they should write a separate blurb about his project.

The writer pointed out to him that was not likely, since space was very limited, and since he is in a different college so the primary connection of his project to the college with the alumni pub in question is . . . not him.

He sent me a message telling me that he did not like the writer's attitude that they were somehow doing us a favor by including mention of this project, and that I needed to avoid people like that.

This is very good advice. I should avoid people who act like they are doing me a big favor by using me or causing me trouble at every possible turn, for instance by having me write sections of a proposal and then not putting my name on it, or by not writing anything for a proposal I am leading and then demanding to be the primary, or by insisting that my student have another project participant as a formal co-advisor, or by sort of disallowing me from discussing my research with a lay audience my field when the opportunity arises.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Things I wish you never need to be prepared for.

It turns out that there are a number of unexpected (well, I did not expect them, anyway) things that an advisor may experience or be called upon to do in the event of the death of a graduate student. I hope you never have cause to learn what they all are for yourself, but I will tell you some.

* You may end up planning a memorial service because many people (yourself included) wanted there to be one but not being family, none of you felt like you had the authority, and under the circumstances, you are the closest thing to authority that there is. You may feel completely inappropriate for the task but you will do your best anyway because you would want somebody to do that if it had been you.

* You may wonder what kind of bizarro memorial service there would have been for you if you had died unexpectedly as a graduate student and your advisor were to plan a service. This may provide a moment of amusement in an otherwise emotionally taxing day.

* You may recieve an automated email from somebody in university records administration requesting that you mark all of the graduate student's files with

* You may have to ask the professors of the students current courses if they would prefer to assign a grade for the semester or to mark the student as having withdrawn. You might hope and then be glad that they agree to assign a grade because even though it makes next to no difference, it seems unnecessary to blemish the student's otherwise completely spotless academic record. You may also wonder why it is even an issue, and why that portion of the transcript is not simply marked DECEASED.

* Your other graduate students may stop by your office together, and you might close your office door and the little group of you may simply have a quiet moment together shedding tears.

* You may be contacted by the student health insurance office requesting a mailing address for the forms involved in the Accidental Death Benefits. You may find it weird that this task landed on your desk but you don't want to complain about it even though you probably rightfully could. You may have to call the graduate student's father to ask about whether or not her body had already flown home and if not, did they also need the forms for the Transport of Remains Benefits because those forms are time-sensitive.

* You may have to run interference for one of your other graduate students when a micromanaging project leader requests that he present his research for scrutiny the next day (since the deceased graduate student would surely want all the good work to continue), but you know the would-be presenter absolutely does not feel like dealing with being picked at right now.

* You may get a phone call from the graduate student's former supervisor from when she worked at a major lab before coming back to grad school, whom you contacted with information of the tragedy because he'd written a glowing letter of recommendation which you had in your file, and you and the other nerdy researcher may trade sniffles and acknowledgements, and you may feel a little bond even though you have never met the other guy in your life.

* You might circulate an announcement about planning the student's memorial service and then be so relieved when within minutes one of the other grad students emails back to volunteer to do an trumpet solo, because you'd had this fear that no one would step forward to have a role in the service and the whole thing would become the Average Professor Emotional Breakdown Hour, which you are certain the former student would neither want nor appreciate. You may feel even better about that when her family emails you her obituary to run in the local paper and you learn that she was also a trumpet player.

Thanksgiving and taking

One of my outstanding, vivacious, kind, and promising graduate students was killed in a car accident on Wednesday as she was traveling to visit friends for the Thanksgiving holiday.

It's hard to wrap my mind around it. One moment she is very much there, with her energy and presence filling a room, and the next moment she is completely and forever absent.

I am deeply saddened by her loss. I'm close to all my grad students, and I also considered her to be a friend. Also, being a graduate student's advisor is a sort of unique relationship and a little bit like being a parent; you invest a lot of time preparing them for a bright future. When that future evaporates in a split second, you feel a loss that is not only personal and professional but also, you feel a void that will exist in society for all the advances that person would have made, but won't. In addition, I know she looked forward to marrying and having children some day, and she would have been an excellent partner and mother.

When I was a child, my younger sister and my younger brother passed away, one suddenly and one after a long illness. My grief for them was for the future that might have been. My grief now is slightly different, because I feel like I'm grieving the future that would have been and now will not.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Schroedinger's Baby

Average Baby started at her new day care two weeks ago, and she seems to love it. As soon as we arrive, she just wants to play and zoom around the room and see what the other kids are doing.

As we reasoned when we were making the decision to move her, the new day care has a number of advantages, but so far the feature we have enjoyed the most is that one of the walls of the room is a one-way mirror so that over lunch, my husband and I can stroll over to the day care and totally spy on the bebe. In the old day care, we had no idea what she did all day, or what sort of temperement she had when we were not around. Obviously at home we don't know what she's like without us, either.

At home, Average Baby is usually very cognizant of our whereabouts, and if it's not sufficiently close to her, she gets irritable.

At day care, she is among the most independent of all the babies & toddlers, and is perfectly happy to amuse herself with this toy or that, or will crawl over to one of the other kids to show them what she is doing, or to take a closer look at what they are doing. When one of the other kids starts to cry, she regards them for a few seconds and then looks around the room for one of the providers to see if there's going to be a resolution.

We could watch this all day long, because it's so fascinating for us to observe her when she doesn't know we're there. I know that last time I said I tend not to think of her as a research project, but . . . maybe I kind of do.