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.