Category: Advice

How Not to Mentor Your Students

By Julianne Dalcanton | October 10, 2012 11:42 pm

As a vigorous defender of “work-life” balance, I am compelled to weigh in on the recent circulation of a letter sent to the graduate students in a “well regarded astronomy program”. The lengthy (10-point) letter was a summary of the department’s internal review of grad student performance, along with additional information and guidance. Such a review is not an unusual occurrence, nor is there typically any interest in publicizing routine intradepartmental correspondence.

However, what made the letter notable was that put in writing clear confirmation of pretty much every fear that students have about how they’re viewed and what they’re expected to sacrifice for “success”. On one level, it’s perhaps good to have this all out in the open, rather than having a secret set of criteria that students are never told about.  However, the criteria listed are, frankly, kind of nuts.  Kelle Cruz at AstroBetter and Ethan Siegal have gone through some of the highlights, with most of the outrage coming in response to the implication that failure to work 80-100 hours a week (or simply to not want to work 80-100 hours a week) was a sign that scientific research might not be for you.

Putting aside the fact that I’m highly doubtful that most faculty were actually pulling off sustained 80-100 hour work weeks even in their halcyon grad student days (90 hours a week is roughly 13 hours of work a day, every day — i.e., getting in at 9am, leaving at 11pm, every day, assuming 2 half-hour meal breaks — puh-leeeze), and ignoring the many points in the letter that others have addressed with well-deserved ranty vigor, I find myself agog at how far off the mark the letter is simply as a management tool. The letter was clearly intended to be helpful, but never in the history of modern academic life has anyone been goaded into success by a 10 point email.

So, if generic scolding is out, how is a department to deal with the fact that, inevitably, some graduate students will not be as engaged with their research as they might be, some will be engaged but not productive, and some will indeed failing to invest much time in their education? Failing to “put their heart and souls” into research can indeed be a symptom, but the most effective treatment depends on the underlying illness. The key is therefore why an individual student falls in these categories, and naturally, there will be no universal answer. From student to student, the reasons will be radically different, and successful mentoring and training should be focused on helping the student to identify their particular obstacle and figure out the solution. It’s hard, time intensive, and takes tact and perception. It is also fundamentally more nuanced that the original letter’s prescription for success: “Be more like me”.


Unsolicited Advice XIII: How to Craft a Well-Argued Proposal

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 24, 2012 11:55 pm

In almost any project, the path between “a good idea” and the “final exciting result” contained a proposal. It may have been a proposal to obtain access to scarce resources (like telescopes or accelerator beams), or it may be have been a proposal to obtain other more prosaic resources (i.e., money, to pay for the needed personnel and supplies). Whatever the nature of the proposal, however, I guarantee that the competition was ridiculously stiff, and that the odds of having any given proposal accepted were quite low (for reference, in most astronomy contexts, over-subscription rates tend to be factors of 5-10). These unfavorable odds can be incredibly demoralizing. They also can have profoundly negative impacts on a talented scientist’s career, if the odds never manage to tip in their favor.

Given the inspiration of the looming Hubble Space Telescope deadline, I thought I would share some of my “big picture” views on crafting successful proposals, expanding significantly on the more succinct advice given in an earlier post. While I’ve developed these opinions based on my experience in astronomy, I suspect they’d apply to many other fields, both within and beyond science. So here goes…

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Last-Minute Shopping List

By Sean Carroll | December 21, 2011 11:19 am

I’ve been meaning for a while to do a post on “Books You Should Read,” but I put it off until the last minute (of 2011), so now it’s a shopping list. I’m sticking to books that came out in the last year or two, on subjects vaguely related to what we often talk about here on the blog, since I know people get grumpy when we deviate from the prescribed topics of conversation. And I’m trying to highlight books that aren’t already bestsellers, but deserve to be; I’m assuming you don’t need me to tell you about recent books by Lisa Randall, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, or Brian Greene. (Or me, or my lovely wife.) Note for late shoppers: Amazon will get you all of these in plenty of time for Christmas. And pre-emptive apologies to anyone whose book I didn’t include — probably because I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown. My Caltech colleague Mike Brown is the person most responsible for getting Pluto demoted from planetary status, by discovering Eris and other Kuiper-belt objects. For a long time I thought it was silly to go to such trouble to re-classify a celestical body, but this book convinced me otherwise. Part of the reason is that Brown (or plutokiller on the Twitter) is an enormously engaging writer; few quasi-autographical science books have managed to mix the personal side with the science so effectively.
Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed, by Carl Zimmer. My sleeper pick for book of the year, Carl Zimmer’s compendium of science tattoos is a real delight. I’m not especially fascinated by tattoos or their own sake, but the beautiful photography here is matched by Carl’s fascinating descriptions of the science behind each one. This would make a great gift for just about anyone.
The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, by Owen Flanagan. Western atheist/naturalists are occasionally criticized because we speak disapprovingly about traditional Western religions, while not paying attention to Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. Here’s the book that redresses the balance, but in a very sympathetic mode. Flanagan is a thoroughgoing naturalist, but appreciates some of the insights into human nature that Buddhism has to offer. In this book he offers a careful philosophical examination of Buddhist beliefs and practices, in the light of modern scientific understanding of humanity and our universe.
The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe, by
Frank Close
. “Quantum Field Theory” is the scientific concept that, in my opinion, features the largest ratio of “people should be familiar with” to “people are familiar with.” Frank Close looks at the historical development of the subject, one of the great intellectual triumphs of the 20th century. I could nitpick (Ken Wilson isn’t even mentioned once?), but this book is full of great insights.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Advice, Top Posts, Words

Unsolicited Advice: Non-Academic Careers

By Sean Carroll | June 2, 2011 2:16 pm

Since I know nothing very useful about the job market outside academia, I solicited suggestions for specific pointers and helpful websites. A bushel of useful advice and thought-provoking comments resulted.

My original idea was to summarize what I thought was the best advice, and turn it into a single post. This idea has been undermined by (1) me not knowing which advice is best, and (2) a wide variety of occasionally-contradictory advice, presumably all applicable in different circumstances.

So instead here I’m just going to link to some of the most promising-looking resources that were mentioned. I encourage you to read the comments on the original post to get more ideas, and chime in here to keep the conversation going.

Collections of Online Resources

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Advice, Top Posts

Soliciting Advice: Non-Academic Careers for Ph.D.'s

By Sean Carroll | May 18, 2011 2:05 pm

While the previous post bemoans the lack of simple world-changing ways to make the career path for aspiring academics more pleasant (other than bushels of money falling from the sky, of which I would approve), there is one feasible thing that everyone agrees would be good: better career counseling for Ph.D. students, both on the realistic prospects for advancement within academia, and concerning opportunities outside.

I always try to be honest with my own students about the prospects for ultimately landing a faculty job. But like most faculty members, I’m not that much help when it comes to outside opportunities, having spent practically all my life within academia. I’m happy to give advice, but you’d be crazy to take it, since I have no idea what I am talking about.

But that’s a correctable state of affairs. So: I’m hereby soliciting good, specific career advice and/or resources for students who are on the track to get a Ph.D. (or already have one) and are interested in pursuing non-academic jobs. This might be particular jobs that are Ph.D.-friendly, or websites with good information, or relevant fellowships or employment agencies, or just pointers to other resources. (For example: do you know the difference between a CV and a resume?) The more specific the better, and including useful links is best of all. General griping and expressions of bitterness should be kept in the previous thread; let’s try to be productive. And there’s no reason to limit it to physics, all fields are welcome. Advice that is useful for only a tiny number of people, but extremely useful for them, is certainly sought. We’re looking for things that have a nontrivial chance of actually helping some specific person at a future date.

Most of all it would be great to have input from people who actually got a Ph.D. and then went on to do something else. But it’s the internet, everyone can chime in.

I will take what look like the most helpful suggestions and collate them into a separate post. Spread the word, let’s get as much input from different sectors as we can.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Advice, Top Posts

How to Get Tenure at Almost Every Other Research University

By Julianne Dalcanton | March 31, 2011 4:14 pm

Yesterday Sean wrote (yet another) comprehensive insightful post, this one about what’s involved in getting tenure at a “major research university”.  There is a tremendous amount of good advice in that post, and in the comments.


I have to point out that the advice is very heavily weighted not towards “tenure at a major research university” but instead towards “tenure at one of the top 10 schools in the US”.  As evidence, here is a plot of the latest NRC rankings (red) and US News rankings (blue) of physics departments (shamelessly lifted from here — thanks HappyQuark!).  I have helpfully circled in green the departments where Sean has been on the faculty:

Physics Rankings

Now, this is not saying that much of Sean’s advice isn’t generally applicable, but one should recognize that the vast majority of people who may be seeking tenure advice are not going to be at institutions with tenure criteria as strict as the ones Sean is considering.  There are scads of fantastic scientists doing interesting work at places that aren’t in the top 5 of the NRC rankings, and probabilistically speaking, you’re more likely to be working towards tenure at one of those.  While MIT may have a <50% tenure rate, the odds are far better at many institutions.

Personally, I found Sean’s advice really really dispiriting, and it probably would have freaked me out to read it as a postdoc. And yet, I find myself with “tenure at a major research university” without ever having lost sleep to fears about achieving seemingly impossible standards.  I worked steadily, but not insanely.  I had a couple of kids.   I “dabbled” in other research areas, some of which turned into major research areas down the road.  And it worked out (although, it likely wouldn’t have “worked out” if I was at Chicago or Caltech).

I think if one wants to make a more general statement about “how to achieve tenure”, I think the key is to show that you’ve got “traction”.  Look at recently tenured (<10 years) people in your particular department at your particular university, and evaluate what they tend to do well (say, undergraduate teaching if you’re at Swarthmore, or running giant experiments if you’re at Harvard). Then, demonstrate that you’ve got traction that is pulling you in that direction.

For example, if all the tenured faculty have research grants and students, and you don’t, then you’ll appear to be spinning your wheels.   Instead, if you have a grant or two, and are showing increasing success with your proposals, the tenure committee can believe that you’re evolving into what the department expects of its tenured faculty.  For most universities, you don’t always need to be completely at your destination, but you need to show that you’re actually traveling down the proper path at a decent clip.  The closer you are to the destination, the better your chances, and the more competitive the tenure process, the closer you’d better be.  (Sean’s point about “firing on fear” is basically saying that a tenure denial is based on their fears that you will not wind up getting to where they need/want you to be.)

The final point I’d like to make is my concern that Sean’s fairly conservative prescription eliminates the real “upside potential” of taking risks.  A colleague and I have had many discussions about the fact that, because we were more than willing to leave academia, we were more willing to take risks.  These risks paid off in more interesting research than the path we were headed down as young postdocs.  (The one caveat is paying attention to timescale though — trying to establish a new field of research won’t be a good bet if it takes 10 years to pull off.)

In summary, while Sean’s suggestions are excellent rules for guaranteeing tenure in a physics department at any university in the US (especially that one about being a productive genius!), you can still likely achieve tenure with a less terrifying set of recommendations.


How To Get Tenure at a Major Research University

By Sean Carroll | March 30, 2011 9:56 am

[Update: added a couple of useful points.]

This is the time of year when prospective graduate students are visiting different universities, deciding where they will spend the most formative years of their scientific lives. Amidst the enthusiastic sales pitches, I try to make sure to remind everyone that the odds of success are long — there is a bottleneck that shrinks as you go from grad school to postdoc to junior faculty to tenure. Probably the biggest hurdle is the leap from postdoc to junior faculty; it’s easier to get tenure once you’re a professor (statistically speaking) than to become a professor in the first place.

But it’s not guaranteed! As many of you know, I was denied tenure myself. This actually puts me in a pretty strong position to talk about the ins and outs of what it takes to succeed, having seen lack-of-success (is there a word for that?) up close and personal. I’ve avoided talking too much about this topic, partly because armchair psychologists have trouble resisting the temptation to take anything general I would say and attempting to match it to specific people and aspects in my own case, despite a pretty thorough lack of familiarity with the facts. On the other hand, maybe I can offer some actually useful guidance to people who are trying to do something difficult and important for their future lives.

So here goes: how to get tenure. But first, caveats. My own experience from grad school on has been at top research places, so those are the only ones I can speak usefully about; the situation will generally be very different at places that put more of an emphasis on teaching, for example. So really I’m talking about places that think of themselves as being in the top 10 or so in their research fields. And of course, to every set of rules there are exceptions; it’s not hard to find people who violated one or more of these guidelines, so don’t take them as written in stone. Every case, and every department, is different. Finally, don’t think of these as too bitter or cynical; I’m simply trying to be honest, with perhaps a small slant to counteract some of the misinformation that is out there. (This misinformation doesn’t usually arise from willful lying, but from the slightly schizophrenic nature of the mission of research universities; see The Purpose of Harvard is Not to Educate People.) I’m generally in favor of the tenure system; like democracy, it’s the worst system out there, except for all the other ones that have ever been invented.

With all that throat-clearing out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks. Here is the Overriding Principle: what major research universities care about is research. That’s all. Nothing else. But even once you recognize that, there is still some craft involved in shaping your research career in the right way. This isn’t the place for me to pass judgment on this principle; I’m just elucidating its consequences. This is a how-to manual for the real world, not a roadmap for Utopia.

You’ll be pleased to learn that there are actually two different routes to getting tenure, so you can choose which one works better for you. The first one is simple to describe, and comes down to a single suggestion:

  • Be a productive genius. This deserves to be classified as a separate technique because, for the small number of easily-recognized true geniuses out there, the rest of the suggestions below are beside the point. Do whatever else you like, as long as you are revolutionizing the field on a regular basis. It’s worth stressing the word “productive,” though. The trash heap of history is littered with geniuses who thought it was beneath their dignity to actually produce anything; that won’t fly, generally speaking, in this game. So if the genius thing is working out for you, great; just be sure to put it to productive use, and you’ll be fine.

The rest of us schlubs, on the other hand, need a more explicit checklist. So here’s what ordinary people should try to do if they have a junior faculty job at a major research university, and would like to get tenure. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Advice, Top Posts

Unsolicited Advice XI: How to Write a 5 Minute Talk

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 4, 2011 10:46 am

In the American astronomical calendar, early January looms large.  Tis the season of the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (the AAS).  Thousands of astronomers are currently gathering up their rain gear, preparing to descend on Seattle next week.  A significant fraction of these thousands are currently preparing posters and talks for the meeting.

Unfortunately, AAS presentations are almost entirely 5 minute talks, in contrast to the more typical 50 minute colloquia on which we’ve all cut our teeth.  This short format presents a real challenge, and requires a very different approach.  So, in CV’s long running Unsolicited Advice series, I now give my basic guidelines for writing a short talk.

1. In a 5 minute talk, you can usually only teach people about one new thing.  The key to framing the talk is to figure out that One New Thing, and then build the rest of the talk around it.

2. So, the very first step is to pick the absolute best single visual to show the One New Thing.  This is usually an awesome plot.

3. Make this plot the first slide you prepare.  Don’t start with history and motivation and data acquisition and analysis techniques — if you do, you’ll prepare way too much material, and find yourself at 4 minutes and 59 seconds without having actually gotten to your results.  Instead, generate the one or two slides that show the One New Thing, and explain its meaning.   (If it helps, think of this as “How would I explain my results, if someone walked into my office and asked what I was working on?”  In all likelihood, you’d pull out the coolest plot, and start explaining it.)  If there are multiple features to explain about the awesome plot, consider repeating the plot on multiple slides, and explaining one feature of the plot on each slide.
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MORE ABOUT: AAS, unsolicited advice

A study on how to study

By Daniel Holz | September 7, 2010 8:16 pm

One of the most delightful aspects of being a scientist is that you’re always learning. Your colleagues teach you things. Your students teach you things. Journal articles teach you things. You sit quietly at your desk and figure things out. You’re perennially a student. But how to be a better student?

woman_asleep_at_deskThis morning the New York Times has an article on “study habits”. It argues against the conventional wisdom (find a clean, neutral space, and bear down on a single topic), and in favor of what might be called intellectual cross-training: “alternating study environments, mixing content, spacing study sessions, self-testing”. The basic philosophy seems to be encapsulated:

“The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” said Dr. Kornell. “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”…The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget.

You want to revisit the relevant material multiple times, in different contexts. And, in case you were wondering, all-nighters do not qualify:

Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn — it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out. “With many students, it’s not like they can’t remember the material” when they move to a more advanced class, said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s like they’ve never seen it before.”

Intermittent study sessions, coupled with testing, helps ensure comprehension and retention. And why not throw in some quantum mechanics?:

Dr. Roediger uses the analogy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, which holds that the act of measuring a property of a particle alters that property: “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.

I certainly wouldn’t take any of this as gospel. The article is full of anecdotal statements of this sort: “The children who had studied mixed sets did twice as well as the others, outscoring them 77 percent to 38 percent. The researchers have found the same in experiments involving adults and younger children.” We are not told how many children were involved in the studies, nor what the “error bars” might be. On the other hand, many of the suggestions are consistent with my personal experience. I often seek out new and different places to work, finding that changing the venue paradoxically helps me focus and facilitates progress. In addition, at any given time I’m often working on a number of different topics, and alternating between them seems to increase my clarity and productivity. I think the real message is that everyone is different, and there’s no “magic desk” to ensure that you become organized and brilliant. One thing that does seem apparent: hiding away in the corner for days at a time struggling with a single topic is not necessarily the road to enlightenment.


School Decision Time

By Sean Carroll | April 5, 2010 11:40 am

The day is approaching fast when grad-students-to-be need to be making decisions about where to choose. Probably undergrads, too, although I confess that I have no real idea what the calendar for that looks like.

So, good luck with all that decision-making! Here are links to our previous posts about the topic.

Not too much to add to the discussion there, but here’s an opportunity to chat about the process. My own strong feeling is that how successful you are in school (grad or undergrad) is much more up to you than up to the institution. Most places have more good opportunities than anyone can hope to take advantage of in a limited period of time. Take the initiative, don’t wait for good things to come to you, and have fun!


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