Archive for: September, 2011

Advice for the new grad student.

Sep 08 2011 Published by under Academia, Mailbag, Teaching and learning

This post was prompted by an email from a friend who is about to start graduate school requesting words of advice (or warning). After I replied to that email, I noticed an excellent post by Prof-like Substance that may also be helpful to newbie grad students, so go read that, too.

The ordering of this list has less to do with importance than the order in which these occurred to me.

The financial stuff (written assuming a graduate program in which the graduate student receives some sort of financial support):

1. Find out the schedule to pay fees for the term (as well as what the prevailing policy is on late payments), and get 'em in. (Even though the part you have to pay as a grad student is likely less than the support you're getting in terms of tuition reimbursement, etc., late fees can snowball.)

2. Find out the schedule for your RA/TA paychecks (assuming you'll have some sort of stipend) and check them religiously to make sure they are neither smaller nor larger than they're supposed to be. Why you do not want to be paid too little is obvious. But, it's also a hassle to be overpaid, because eventually someone who's doing the accounting will discover the error, and you will have to write a check to pay the money back. If your too-big paychecks have gone unnoticed by you except to the extent that they have let you buy fresh vegetables to eat with your ramen noodles, you may not have extra money sitting around when you need to fix the error if it has gone on for awhile.

3. If you're in a situation where you're paid a lump sum at the beginning of the term, find out whether you need to pay estimated taxes (since there often isn't withholding from the lump sum). You do not want to have the IRS on your ass while you're studying for quals.

Integrating into your department and university:

4. Find out which functionary in your department knows how all the gory details of registering for classes, getting an advisor, filing the right paperwork for candidacy, getting paid, etc., work and who is disposed to share this information with new grad students. Cultivate this person's goodwill, regularly.

5. Cultivate grad student friends from outside your department. They will help you figure out which features of life in your department are weird and which are typical of graduate programs in your university. They will also help you maintain something resembling perspective. (Plus, they might know some good, cheap places to eat meals.)

6. Locate the library stacks where dissertations from grad students in your department are shelved. From time to time, browse a thesis or two to absorb the local expectations about format, the appropriate level of detail for literature background and description of materials, methods, and results, etc.

7. Make it a habit to attend the public portion of thesis defenses in your department so you become familiar both with the format of the defense and with the approach of the faculty in your department (collectively and individually) to grilling the candidates. (This may help you develop a short list of faculty you'd be happy to have on your own committee.)

8. When shopping for a research group, spend as much time as you can with the grad student members of your prospective group. Go to group meeting (to see how they interact with the boss and with each other). Arrange to drop in while they're doing research-like activities. Trust your gut about whether this is a social setting that will suit you.

9. Research advisors who already have tenure are often (but not always) more open-minded about the diversity of effective work habits of grad students than are research advisors who are trying to get tenure.

10. Have fun! Grad school may be a means to an end you are pursuing, but it will also eat up at least a few years of your life. Those years ought to be enjoyable as well as productive.

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A thought for Texas Governor Rick Perry about science.

Despite my best efforts to steer clear of debates between presidential hopefuls at this point in the calendar (because I have important job-related stuff to do with those waking hours, and also, I have been cautioned that the budget will not provide a replacement for my existing desk should my head eventually break it), bits of information from these debates do manage to get my attention. For example, in the September 7 Republican debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, Texas Governor Rick Perry (with an "E") made some comments on science and the state of scientific agreement, especially as relates to what we know about climate change. The following exchange began with a question from John Harris of Politico:

HARRIS: Governor Perry -- Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

PERRY: Well, I do agree that there is -- the science is -- is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans' economy at -- at -- at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet, to me, is just -- is nonsense. I mean, it -- I mean -- and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell.

But the fact is, to put America's economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country is not good economics and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.

HARRIS: Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you've done that.


Are there specific -- specific scientists or specific theories that you've found especially compelling, as you...


PERRY: Let me tell you what I find compelling, is what we've done in the state of Texas, using our ability to regulate our clean air. We cleaned up our air in the state of Texas, more than any other state in the nation during the decade. Nitrous oxide levels, down by 57 percent. Ozone levels down by 27 percent.

That's the way you need to do it, not by some scientist somewhere saying, "Here is what we think is happening out there." The fact of the matter is, the science is not settled on whether or not the climate change is being impacted by man to the point where we're going to put America's economics in jeopardy.

(Bold emphasis added.)

In less than 500 words, we get some insight into Gov. Perry's attitudes towards science.

He thinks it would be a mistake to be guided by "some scientist somewhere saying, 'Here is what we think is happening out there,' " although, presumably, he can bolster Texas's success in cleaning its air with empirical measurements of nitrous oxide and ozone taken by some scientist somewhere.

He's aware that weekly, maybe even daily, scientists are bravely coming forward to question the idea of anthropogenic global warming, but when asked to identify the scientists that he has found most credible on the subject of climate change, Perry either cannot name any of these scientists, or won't identify them as credible ... or maybe is keeping their names to himself to protect them? (From whom is he protecting them? Does this mean that these scientists have not "come forward" to state their views within their scientific communities -- or to the public -- but that they have "come forward" to Gov. Perry in private?)

Perry also references Galileo, stating that this hero of scientific progress also "got outvoted for a spell." I leave it to full-time historians of science to explicate the problems with Perry's understanding of Galileo, but I will note that there is a difference between having one's theory accepted by one's fellow working scientists and having one's theory accepted by the Roman Inquisition of the Catholic Church -- and I'm pretty sure Galileo himself did not have a vote in the latter.

But, here's the piece of Perry's position that really struck me: He states that climate science is not settled enough that it ought to guide policy which, by Perry's lights, would jeopardize the American economy. But this turns on an assumption that economics is a more settled (and more reliable) science than is climate science.


I suppose, then, we have the awesome predictive power of economic theory (about which there is strong consensus) to thank for warning us about the great recession before it happened, and for laying out a set of effective interventions that, once implemented, will save the economy and put millions of people back to work!

The economists, I'm sure, will be holding a press conference to explain their theory, describe the interventions that are needed, and call on our political leaders to implement them, just as soon as they've gotten their academic terms off to a good start. I'll be here (with my unicorn) waiting for that press conference.

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Mandatory training violates my rights (and tenured faculty are chickensh*t)!

Via the Twitters, DrugMonkey paged me for a consult:

Loon-tastic. Where's @docfreeride? RT @CackleofRad: Sexual harassment training is an attempt to brow-beat the tenured.

The post linked in the tweet contains some interesting tidbits:

I wanted to call your attention to the story of Dr. Alexander McPherson who resisted the attempts of  the University of California Irvine to take the mandatory sexual harassment training:

“I have consistently refused to take such training on the grounds that the adoption of the requirement was a naked political act by the state that offended my sensibilities, violated my rights as a tenured professor, impugned my character and cast a shadow of suspicion on my reputation and career,” McPherson said.

“I consider my refusal an act of civil disobedience. I even offered to go to jail if the university persisted in persecuting me for my refusal. We Scots are very stubborn in matters of this sort.”

It’s so good to hear that such things still take place. Normally, at every campus I have visited or heard of, the most beaten down, brown-nosing, terrified folks who are ready to kiss ass of every minor administrator are not the tenure-track faculty, the adjuncts, the instructors, the grad students, or the secretarial staff. It’s the tenured profs. It’s as if the moment you got tenure, you somehow immediately learned to tremble in the presence of any minuscule administrative pseudo-authority. I have no idea why that is but I have gotten used to the fact that any resistance even to the greatest act of stupidity on campus will not come from tenured people. ...

Every year, I am forced to take the so-called “ethics training” that teaches me in the most condescending way you can imagine not to accept bribes, not to divert university funding to my relatives, and not to steal office supplies. So I know where McPherson’s outrage is coming from.

I'm a little pinched for time at the moment (it being the first instructional day after a long holiday weekend) and thus will have to postpone a deeper and more nuanced consideration of the constellation of issues raised by the post. But, if I can channel the advice-nurse from our pediatrician's office, here's a quick identification of some of those issues, and my shooting-from-the-hip response to some of them:

What to say about required faculty training in safety, ethics, sexual harassment (and how not to do it), etc.?

It's fair to say that faculty, among other employees, frequently grumble about such training. Many feel (and not without cause) that the training they are required to complete (whether in a face-to-face meeting in a conference room or by way of an online module with a quiz) focuses on stuff that should be pretty obvious to anyone who is paying attention. And, given the obviousness of much of the content, it would not be surprising to find that some of the people delivering it did so in a condescending manner (because it could be challenging not to be condescending to a grown-up who didn't know better than to accept bribes or to demand sex for good grades or what have you).

But, it's not clear that the obviousness of the content or the seeming pointlessness of the task raises it to the level of an attack on one's academic freedom. Without something like a positive argument, I'm not persuaded by the claim that mandatory training violates anyone's rights or impugns his character any more than having to turn in grades by the grade-filing deadline or having to take roll on Census Day does.

And, the mere fact that ethics training, or safety training, or sexual harassment avoidance training is delivered in a stupid way that is likely not to engage faculty productively in being ethical or safe or non-harass-y does not mean that faculty have no need for training in these areas. Arguably, the fact that a handful of faculty members each year will be caught doing unethical stuff, or sexually harassing their students or colleagues, or running labs that are death-traps, suggests that such training would be really helpful -- if not to the wrongdoers, then to their colleagues, supervisors, and underlings looking for effective ways to respond to the wrongdoing. It just needs to be good training.

Are tenured faculty more cowardly in the face of administrative edicts, and if so, why the heck don't they put on their Big Professor Pants and stand up to the stupid edicts?

I would love to see some actual empirical data to support the claim that the tenured professoriate are the biggest chickens in the academic pecking order. This has not been my experience of things (especially in a department with many senior colleagues who will go to the mat for their students and colleagues and department on a fairly regular basis).

But, in the absence of clear data one way or another, let me suggest that the underlying phenomena that might be observed in a coarse-grained manner as "taking a stand" or "folding like a card table" could be more complicated. For example, an apparently spineless tenured faculty member who doesn't publicly protest the annual ethics training may:

  • Be collecting actual data on the effectiveness of the training currently in place, in order to build a stronger argument to the administration for abandoning this training and/or replacing it with more effective training.
  • Be involved in ongoing discussions with administrators about the effectiveness of this training, and/or the size of the burden it puts on the faculty to complete it -- and may be reasonably confident that the administrators with the power to change the training requirement will be most receptive to such one-on-one engagement rather than public defiance.
  • Be picking her battles, having judged the required ethics training far less onerous than (for example) the new course assessment regime or paperwork requirement for ordering lab supplies or what have you; fighting all the battles you could fight in an academic workplace can use you up right quick.
  • Be of the opinion that actually, the existing ethics training, while imperfect, is doing some good (and that the people who seem to be making the biggest stink about it are actually the ones who seem most inclined to cut a corner or two when it serves their interests) -- in other words, she may disagree with you that this is a site of administrative inhumanity to faculty, and thus be disinclined to protest it.

It's also worth noting that, at least on campuses where administrators have been chosen from the ranks of the faculty, tenured faculty may be more likely to know the administrators from their time in the faculty. This makes it harder to regard administrators as pure evil in a suit. Dealing with folks you know to be human beings with commitments to the self-same institutions and principles you value sometimes requires some finesse. -- and using some finesse when dealing with an administrator does not make you that administrator's lapdog.

Finally, at least some tenured faculty may be casing the administrative joint, figuring out how they might bring about lasting change for the better from the inside. Flipping the bird to the existing administration might take that option off the table.

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A brief rhyming interlude concerning responsible conduct of research.

I recently became aware, by way of the Tweet-o-sphere, that I am regarded by some as "the Dr. Seuss of science policy."

I mentioned this compliment (I think) to the reliably hilarious SciCurious (who also blogs here), and she promptly produced this educational tale, which I post with her kind permission:
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