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.