Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Publication Venues in Computer Science

In academic Computer Science, there are basically three publication venues that "count": peer-reviewed conferences, peer-reviewed journals, and peer-reviewed workshops/symposia. There are of course many other perfectly credible ways to publish one's work (e.g., technical reports, books), but these are the top three.

Unlike in most scientific fields, including our closest cousins Engineering and Mathematics, journals are not the de facto place to publish papers. I can't speak for all subfields of CS, but basically everyone I know only publishes in journals because they feel they have to (e.g., multi-disciplinary tenure and promotion committees that expect journal publications, research rankings organizations that still don't seem to 'get' conferences, etc.). Some subfields this is not the case, such as in interdisciplinary fields like Bioinformatics and CS Education, but for most major areas of CS, conferences are where the action is.

For these fields, the top conferences have extremely low acceptance rates, many less than 17%. The program committees are comprised of the top scholars in the field. And in some fields, anyone who is anyone attends these conferences, so managing to get a paper accepted is a pretty big deal that gets a researcher much visibility.

Some journals have similarly rigorous standards of review and are known for their quality, for example the IEEE Transactions and ACM Transactions family of journals are highly regarded. There are occasionally other journals that are good, but the vast majority are either decidedly mediocre or utter rubbish. We don't really have any comparable C/N/S type journals.

Workshops and symposia generally have a much higher acceptance rate than conferences and journals, but they are still peer-reviewed and are often archival (e.g., ACM Digital Library, IEEE Xplore). They have quite a few advantages. First, they are usually co-located with a conference, which means you can often go to both on your University's dime. Second, they present a fantastic opportunity to float half-baked ideas and get one-on-one feedback from your peers. And third, oftentimes workshops are the only place you can meet other scientists interested in the same area of specialized research as you, which nearly always leads to good things.

But the most useful thing about conferences and workshops over journals is that you have the opportunity to tell potentially hundreds of people about your work. These are all people who learn your name and face and start to match it to a research area. This is invaluable, because it leads to professional relationships that will see you through your career - jobs, funding, tenure/promotion letters, etc.

Journals don't really get your name and face out there as well, unless some news outlet picks up on your article. People do read journals, but I suspect most readers associate papers more strongly with an institution than a name, particularly if it's a new name on the research scene.

So I think it's nice to have a diverse portfolio when it comes to publishing. It's good to have a mixture of papers in the top conferences with low acceptance rates, in journals that are well-respected, and in workshops that are useful to the researcher.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"You only got in because you are a [woman, person of color, person with disabilities]"

I recently stumbled across a fantastic blog called "What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy". Philosophy probably has more underrepresentation than CS does, or maybe we're tied, I'm not sure. In any case, this blog is set up in such a way that women in Philosophy submit anecdotes which get posted anonymously.

Today I read this post, and the lines at the end really struck a chord:
"As one of the only female graduate students, I was very involved in a recent job search in which the only fly outs were women. After the final job talk I was stopped in the hall and asked by a group of male faculty members what my thoughts on the candidates were. I said that I thought they all seemed equally qualified, but that candidate X was particularly friendly, approachable, and outgoing while also setting an excellent example of professionalism for the female grad studens. One senior male faculty member interrupted me midsentence with: 'Well they’re all women, so what more do you want?' This was the same faculty member who told me in my first year that I had only been accepted to the PhD program because they 'went out of their way to accept more women' that year. None of the other faculty members reproached him, they all just wandered away into their offices."
Two things about this are problematic. First, someone from a majority group telling someone from a minority group that the only reason they achieved (or can achieve) something was because they are a minority. Statements like this are extraordinarily hurtful because in addition to implying the minority person is not capable of quality, competitive work, it also says very clearly: I do not accept you, and you are not a part of my club.


But double ouch is this: the other faculty members did nothing. This makes me sadder than I can say. Are these faculty members so risk and conflict-averse that they don't stand up to such malarky? When my cousin-in-law made racist jokes at a New Year's Eve party last year, I immediately splashed water in her face. It's like when the cat scratches the couch and you spray them with the water bottle. Conditioning 101.

For the menfolk and other majority folks out there who want to help:  if you truly want to make your workplace hospitable for women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc, you have to help socialize the people who didn't get the memo. Pick those fights - take some risks to help out someone else. This is what it takes to help change things.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Wikileaks Drama Continues

In recent news of this drama-riffic story, hackers have been attacking any organization or individual who has been deemed "unsupportive" of Wikileaks. This includes Swedish prosecutors, MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, and the Swiss Postal system. Largely these attacks have been ineffectual and meaningless, or, as one writer put it, "More like a cybermob than cyberwarfare".

As for the 1337 hackers, I have to say I'm not really following the call to arms. Because the scorecard as I see it is:
  • Someone stole raw data that was not theirs to steal. (Which, as the NY Times put it, "The Pentagon Papers this is not.")
  • These data were leaked it to Julian Assange.
  • Instead of caring about, well, anything, Assange acts like a megalomaniac drama queen pretending to be a journalist. So he dumps this raw data out on to the Internet. He encrypts some of it. Some of it he doesn't.
  • The guvvies try to get their data back, but, well, we know how that worked out
  • Assange carries on the drama by saying, "boy-o-boy, watch out guvvies, touch me and I release the key to my insurance file!!111!!" 
  • And all the bozos on Slashdot and Digg and elsewhere keep up their battle cry of this ludicrous Save Assange! Hack the Planet! Swiper No Swiping! 
This whole thing is like a teenage romance novel, except without the vampires to keep me entertained.

Frankly, I wish the black hats would actually come together to do some useful vigilanteism, like, say, help prevent child trafficking, or use computing tools to help find missing children. Assange just isn't worth it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Digging to America

Under an avalanche of deadlines, travel, and other sundries I have been finding refuge in lightweight fiction. Last weekend at the library I borrowed Digging to America by Anne Tyler, which has at times had me rolling on the floor laughing. Other times it is less lightweight than I would have liked, but halfway through the book I'll still recommend it*.

Several passages in this novel have reminded me of anecdotes told by online friends Pika and GMP. There is one character, Maryam, has lived in the US for a very long time but due to her Iranian accent people still always ask her where she's from. For example, Maryam is at a party:
First he talked to Sami, on his other side... then it was Maryam's turn: How long had she been in this country? and did she like it?
Maryam hated being asked such questions, partly because she had answered them so many times before but also because she preferred to imagine (unreasonable though it was) that maybe she didn't always, instantly, come across as a foreigner. "Where are you from?" someone might just ask when she was priding herself on having navigated some particularly intricate and illogical piece of English. She longed to say, "From Baltimore. Why?" but lacked the nerve. Now she spoke so courteously that Lou could have no inkling how she felt. "I've been here thirty-nine years," she said, and "Yes, of course I love it." 
My favorite thing about this book is that the writer is extremely subtle and clever in how she brings up American cultural unawareness. There is one character, Bitsy, who tries so hard to get others to be "culturally sensitive" to her adopted daughter Jin-Ho that she is inadvertently over-the-top culturally insensitive to her Iranian friends. I find this character almost too embarrassing to read at times, but then I realize that's the entire point.

I find the "mommy wars" in this book exceptionally comical and well-penned, because all I can think is how I know people exactly like those characterized. Bitsy is often judgmental (and/or jealous) of her friend Ziba's parenting; her daughter Susan is a peer to Jin-Ho and was adopted on the same day.
A while ago, Sami and Ziba had gone away for the weekend and left Susan with Maryam. Bitsy was amazed when she heard about it. During her own brief absences - never longer than a couple hours, and only for unavoidable reasons such as doctor appointments - she used a person from Sitters Central, a woman certified in infant CPR. Anyhow, her mother was too frail to babysit and her in-laws had made it plain taht they had their own busy lives. But under no circumstances would she have considered leaving Jin-Ho overnight. She would have been frantic with worry! Children were so fragile. She realized that now. When you thought of all that could happen, the electrical sockets and the Venetian-blind cords and the salmonella chicken and the toxic furniture polish and the windpipe-sized morsels of food and the uncapped medicine bottles and the lethal two inches of bathtub water, it seemed miraculous that any child at all made it through to adulthood.
Finally, for you academic types, I'll leave you a quote in the style of FSP:
Her family visited constantly. They showed up every weekend with platters of eggplant and jars of homemade yogurt. They hugged Sami to their chest and inquired after his studies. In Mr. Hakimi's opinion, European history was not the best choice of fields. "You propose to do what with this? To teach," he said. "You will become a professor, teaching students who'll become professors in turn and teach other students who will become professors also. It reminds me of those insects who only live a few days, only for the purpose of reproducing their species. 

(*) Though if this book turns into an awful ball of mush, I will rescind this remark. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Kudos to the American Mathematical Association

Hats off to the American Mathematical Association for creating a poster entitled, "Women Doing Mathematics". It highlights the accomplishments of nine women and has a personal quote from each about their interest in Math.

Print it out and put it up in your department, the library, the mall, your kid's school, etc. This is a great poster to have in circulation. If I was a young woman considering a career in STEM a poster like this would have far more reach than Computer Engineer Barbie.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Leaky Cauldron

I've been grimly amused reading about the latest wleaks webhosting drama over the past few days because of the astounding lack of understanding of how distributed systems work displayed by both the media and lawmakers. Perhaps this is our fault as technologists, maybe we're not explaining things clearly enough.

I've decided to draw some pictures on virtual cocktail napkins to help.

This is (mostly) how servers and data flow on the internet used to work:
One server, lots of nodes connect. Server distributing bad stuff? Shut it down, problem solved:

But in today's world of peer-to-peer file sharing, we actually see a model that looks more like this:

Not so happy about that file being shared? Well, you can try to stop it...

...but, well, good luck with that.

The cat is out of the bag, that file ain't never coming back. It's time to move on, folks.

I think it's hard for people to conceptualize decentralized networks. But it's really important to think about things this way, because this is what the internet is today. That first model is long, long gone.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Not sure if this qualifies as CS "cheerleading"...

...but I thought this video was cute. It's from "Melissa T", as well as a few other students from Waterloo's Computer Science department:

I love the lyric:
"Boys askin' me for my number,
I'm telling them binary,
They say that they don't get it,
They're not in CS like me!"
There was only one line in the song that seemed strange to me: "my professors are just too smart, I just don't get them, I'll switch to arts!",  but I'm guessing (hoping) this was a case of needing to fit the meter and being unable to come up with anything else. Or maybe it's some Waterloo inside joke.

Link from the lovely Comp Sci Woman.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Letters to a young graduate student: Part I

Every so often when a new batch of graduate students join our department, I often get tasked with telling them, in ten minutes or less, Everything You Wanted To Know About Doing a PhD Here (But Were Afraid To Ask). I'm not sure if they ask me to do this is because I'm a "mature" student, or friendly, or a woman, but in any case I don't mind. I also keep finding myself somehow giving impromptu lectures to whole groups of students on How To Do Research. I'm not sure why this keeps happening, but I figured I'd start writing the advice down here in case it was useful to anyone else.

1. Read these two books:
What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School: 199 Helpful Hints for Success in Your Academic Career , by Paul Gray and David Drew
How To Talk To Anyone, by Leil Lowndes
The first book's title speaks for itself - it is basically insider information on the bizarre world of academia. It's short, sweet, and 100% spot-on, in my experience.

The second book is a How To guide for networking - I actually heard about it from an NSF program officer. It's not scientific or academic, and the author can be occasionally quite flakey in parts, but it's been my manual for interacting with people at conferences, talks, etc. I'm reasonably outgoing by nature, but when, say, I'm sharing the elevator with the Huge Famous Program Chair of Big Conference, it can be pretty intimidating. This book has really helped put me at ease in interacting with others.

2. Get comfortable talking to people about your research. Have a two sentence blurb ready-to-go about who you are and what you do. Haven't done anything yet? That's ok - just talk about how you're going to be extending your Advisor's work on X, and ask the other person about their research. (Everybody loves talking about themselves)

3. Get comfortable giving presentations. Everyone is scared when they start, not to worry. Take classes that help you practice. Your university/department likely offers classes on this, and if not, there's a ton of books/lectures/etc. (A few people have recommended Even A Geek Can Speak). But I highly recommend a class - it's just so incredibly useful and helpful.

4. Write Every Day. Every day, write a few paragraphs. Keep a text file, google doc, paper notebook, blog, whatever you like - but write down your thoughts each day. Read a paper? Write it down. Wrote some code? Document it. Tried a small experiment? Write down the results. If you write as you go along, writing your dissertation and/or academic papers is much less daunting.

4a. Get Writing Help If You Need It. When I was an undergraduate, I TA'd a humanities course in my minor, and invited my CS friends to take it to fulfill some of their general ed requirements. (I loved the course, so why wouldn't they?). These students were super, super smart thinkers, but their writing... oh my. Let's just say it left a lot to be desired. And they were native English speakers, so it wasn't that, it was just that they hadn't had a lot of formal instruction or practice. So again, take classes, attend seminars, whatever they offer - do it. Also, great book is: Writing For Computer Science, by Justin Zobel.

5. Your Advisor Isn't Your Everything - Build Your Network. Somehow, people get to graduate school and think their advisor is the only person in the world who is responsible for their education. This is incorrect. You are responsible for your education. Your advisor is only one of many people who will help contribute to this education. Go to talks. Send emails. Read blogs. Talk to people at conferences. You need to build up this huge cadre of people who you can go to when you get stuck. That way, if Person A is busy, you can ask Person B, and so on. Also, it's really nice to have a big mix of experts to talk to for specific questions - not just academics, everyone. I once got a great lead on a job because a friend of mine who shared a common hobby had a brother-in-law who worked there.

Ok, I think that's it for tonight (and sadly probably this week. So many deadlines!).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

You probably think this post is about you

One of the songs that always makes me laugh is Carly Simon's song, "You're So Vain." In case you're unfamiliar with the tune, the refrain goes something like this:
You're so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You're so vain
I'll bet you think this song is about you
Don't you? Don't you?
I always start giggling when the chorus starts. (Sometimes I even yell things at the radio.) I guess I find it funny because I tend to think about some things rather literally, thus this song just seems so silly because of course it's about whomever she is singing it to. Also, it's self-referential, which is just fun from a math standpoint.

So I equally laughed when I saw this headline today: "Obama: 'I don't think about Sarah Palin'" Here's a snippet from the USA Today article:
President Obama is refusing to take the bait on Sarah's Palin statement that she could beat him in the 2012 presidential race.

ABC's Barbara Walters tried to get a rise out of Obama on Palin and 2012, but the president said: "I don't speculate on what's going to happen two years from now."

Pressed by Walters, Obama said: "What I'm saying is I don't think about Sarah Palin."
This reminds me of the Carly Simon song.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TSA Awareness FAIL

First there were the women who had their vaginas groped. (Including a rape survivor). Then there was the woman who had breast cancer who was rudely asked to remove her prosthetic breast. And now, there is a person who had bladder cancer (and an urostomy bag) who was treated rudely when he requested privacy pat-down, would not be listened to when he tried to explain his condition and how his urostomy bag worked ("don't break the seal"), had to sit for hours in his own urine because TSA was too stupid to follow directions.

I am outraged. I cannot tell you how outraged I am. This is stupid, useless, and ridiculous. TSA screeners, get a freaking clue and start treating people as HUMAN BEINGS, not terrorists. Think RESPECT not SUSPECT.

PS: Also, at re-education camp, I highly suggest you enroll in a class on probability and statistics.  You need some serious help with sampling.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I'm male, yet again!

I just got back yet another revision back of a paper I reviewed, and once again, I am male! Check this out:
We'll fix XYZ... (also as pointed out by Reviewer 1 and addressing his comment as well).
And the first author is a woman, no less! For shame.

I wish I could write back that I am not a man. But that would surely out me, as, really, there's only N women in my subfield and you can count them on two hands.

I accept that in this day and age "guy" and perhaps even "man" are gender-neutral - I've given up on those battles. But "his" and "he" are most definitely masculine in English.

Interestingly, this is from the same journal whose editor called me "Ms." and my male co-author "Dr.", even though we are both still PhD students. And the re-invtation from the editor again called me "Ms.", but at least he didn't call me "Mr."

Anyway, this is all quite entertaining. I've decided I'm going to keep a scorecard of times I'm referred to as a male after giving anonymous reviews. New category and all.

This month we are batting .250. Watch out for that Mendoza Line, authors!*

(*) Yes, I just made two sports analogies. Maybe I am male!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Calling all the engineers

I was going to write another post in the "english-is-fun" category, but decided we need to discuss more computer science around these here parts.

So, I have Very Important Question for all the engineers out there:
If memory is so cheap and advancing so quickly, why can one not buy one of those cute MacBook Airs with half a terabyte of solid state disk? 
What's up with this 64G stuff? That's barely a few days of photographs from my fancy camera. I prefer not to have to carry around an external HD, because the entire point of a MacBook Air is to reduce weight. That's mostly why I'm trying so hard to turn my iPad into a computer. (Other than I think it's fun).

I asked someone this question, and they said, "Who needs local memory? You can just store everything in The Cloud!" This is not a practical solution. To upload 10GB of photographs would take weeks, and surely requires more bandwidth than the average cafe provides when traveling.

More importantly than photos, I run several things for my research that hog an awful lot of disk space, such as my "special" collection of virtual windows machines. (You know, there's some silly demo that only works under this particular configuration with this particular library under this particular version of the OS). If you have just 3 virtual Windows machines, that 64GB is gone.

So, I'd love to hear from the peanut gallery - what's the hold up on solid state memory? Why isn't it as cheap and easy to get as volatile memory? Where are my flying cars?!?


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hunting Heads

I delight in getting emails from headhunters, because it's really easy to tell if you're really being headhunted or if it's just Ooh-Look-a-Computer-Scientist-In-A-Prestigious-PhD-Program spam. The latter queries are particularly entertaining.

If you're truly being headhunted by someone good at their job, you get letters like this:
Dear Ms. Lovelace,
Your research on concurrent ducks is fascinating. I was especially impressed by your recent journal article in the IEEE Transactions of Quackery.  Please come work for us! 
Ze Headhunter
But if you're getting spammed, it looks something like this:
Dear Lovelace, Ada,
Our company is awesome awesome. Graduates of your university's computer science program are awesome awesome. Two great tastes that go great together. Come work for us! 
If this interests you, or anyone else you have ever met, in your entire life ever, please email me ASAP.         
Ze Headhunter
Do these spam approaches even work? I mean, it's like sending the exact same cover letter to every job you apply to. You don't make anyone feel special. Especially if you can't be bothered to put someone's first name before their last name, and figure out their formal title. Also this, "Please tell your friends" business is very silly too.

I received a letter of the spam variety recently, and felt tempted to replace myself with a very small shell script and write automated spam messages back, like:
After graduating, I am planning to continue my groundbreaking research on rubber ducks, using my PhD for more than just being a code monkey managing hedgehog funds. You see, the reason I got my PhD in the first place was to break out of code monkery. That's why I study ducks, not monkeys.  
If you, or any of your headhunter friends know of a good place where I can do leading edge rubber duck research, I am all pinnae-free ears. 
Love, Ada

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Letter Reminders

Since this is the season for writing and requesting reference letters, just a gentle reminder to all the letter writers out there to be aware of your language use when penning letters for female candidates. There's a nice article in last Wednesday's Inside Higher Education, "Too nice to land a job":
You are reading a letter of recommendation that praises a candidate for a faculty job as being "caring," "sensitive," "compassionate," or a "supportive colleague." Whom do you picture?
New research suggests that to faculty search committees, such words probably conjure up a woman -- and probably a candidate who doesn't get the job. The scholars who conducted the research believe they may have pinpointed one reason for the "leaky pipeline" that frustrates so many academics, who see that the percentage of women in senior faculty jobs continues to lag the percentage of those in junior positions and that the share in junior positions continues to lag those earning doctorates.
The research is based on a content analysis of 624 letters of recommendation submitted on behalf of 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at an unidentified research university. The study found patterns in which different kinds of words were more likely to be used to describe women, while other words were more often used to describe men.
In theory, both sets of words were positive. There's nothing wrong, one might hope, with being a supportive colleague. But the researchers then took the letters, removed identifying information, and controlled for such factors as number of papers published, number of honors received, and various other objective criteria. When search committee members were asked to compare candidates of comparable objective criteria, those whose letters praised them for "communal" or "emotive" qualities (those associated with women) were ranked lower than others.
For more specific letter-writing suggestions, here are some great tips from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) to consult when writing letters for women. It has suggestions for how to help avoid biased language, for example, focus on the technical/research/leadership skills as opposed to interpersonal ones, avoid "doubt raisers" (i.e., "it appears her health is stable...", "she sure managed to publish a lot despite having twins"), an so on. For research jobs, keep the teaching-gushing to a minimum - it's much, much better to gush over her research.

And for letter askers (of both sexes) - a really nice thing you can do for referees is to give them a bulleted list of things you'd like them to mention in the letter, particular action verbs you'd like them to use, and so on. And don't be shy about explicitly mentioning things you'd rather they didn't mention.  For example, marital status, parental status, family caregiving duties, disabilities, etc. Even if it's obvious to you these things don't belong in a letter, your referees might forget and mention them. That's where a checklist can be very helpful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Can't Cite This

In someone's blog a few months ago (Prodigal's? GMP's? I forget), there was a discussion about getting students to be better about citing articles when they prepare manuscripts. The problem was that someone's students were under-citing (e.g., they should have 50 references and they have 10).

This is not my problem.

In fact, this is so not my problem, I am utterly dying under a current journal's citation limitation. I cannot write a paper with only N citations. If anything, I'm an over-citer. Anytime I say anything even potentially contentious or isn't my idea, boom, citation. I once submitted a paper and one of the reviewers wrote, "Wow. I've never seen so many citations for a conference paper." That's me!

So with N citations, I am dying. I am scouring google scholar for good survey articles and books that have what I need, because it's just ridiculous I can't have, say N*3 citations. I have this secret desire to throw in N+2 citations just to see what the editor does. Particularly if those extra citations are from his own journal!

I understand why printed journals do this - space limitations, paper costs, etc. But I think citation limits ultimately engender plagiarism. I swear, I just wrote a sentence like, "Many people in the field of rubber duckery have found yellow ducks float better than evil, red ones by 10%." Yes, this is a fact, but it feels so disgusting to me to not have a citation after something like that, because it is not common knowledge.

Tonight I will have nightmares of my high school English teacher standing very tall over me, wearing a pilgrim hat, glaring and clucking her tongue.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I'm male - again!

Awhile ago I reviewed a paper, and just recently read the summary review an editor made of all the reviews. I was the third reviewer (mu ha ha!). The summary went something like this:
Reviewer 1 discussed blahblahblah. However, Reviewer 1 was also concerned about blahblahblah. (no gender)
Reviewer 2 noticed blahblah. And, later, Reviewer 2 also had some questions about blahblahblah. (no gender)
Reviewer 3 found the paper blahblahblah. However, he is concerned about blahblahblah." (it's a boy!)
I was at first really amused by this. As I said, I have a name that at least in Western culture is decidedly female. I have a picture on my website, and don't look particularly masculine as far as I am aware. Plus, the editor invited me to review this paper, so in theory I was at least somewhat a known entity.

But on reflection, I looked up the editor's native language, and the language actually don't really have gender pronouns. In fact, speakers of it frequently use 'she' to mean 'he' in lots of different contexts. (Kind of cool actually.) So even if the editor was thinking in English when writing the summary, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that actually some native-language pronounery was slipping in.

(I just made up that word. And wrote this whole post without ever revealing the gender of the editor. Do I get a gender-neutral, gluten-free* cookie?)

(*) In case any readers were considering sending me cookies in the future, please, for the love of god, do not make them gluten-free. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Impostor Syndrome for Men

Pretty much every women-in-science workshop I've attended, book I've read, and website I've visited discusses the threat of Impostor Syndrome. If you're not familiar with it, this is the belief that .... *looks both ways*.. someone will find out your deep, dark secret that actually you're faking it! That you don't know anything about anything, and really you're just a pattern matcher in a Chinese Room - sprouting out clever things at the right moment, but actually you're lost and confused and feel like you don't really belong here.

It's funny, but due to how much this is over-emphasized at these women-in-science workshops on some level I think I must have really believed this was just something women faced. But the more time I spend in academia the more I realize that just about everyone faces this - and, in fact, the people who are the most pompous and the most boisterous about their intellect are the biggest self-doubters of all.

Take my recent acquaintance Sam. I watched Sam present some truly ground-breaking research. His work is so ground-breaking I imagine just about every funding agency and venture capitalist on the planet is begging him to throw buckets of cash his way, because this stuff is bigbigbig. But it's not just that - he has published an ungodly number of papers in the past few years in top journals/conferences, is PI on a large grant, is at a very prestigious place, etc.

Sam delighted in "telling me" (read: bragging) about all of these accomplishments. And truth be told, he really has the right to brag - his research is amazing, and he's got the paper trail to prove it. After awhile, I asked him if he was going on the job market this year.

"Oh, I don't think I will."
"Why not?"
"Well, I'm not good enough to get a job at the top places..."

Wha?!?!?! If this guy doesn't think he can get a job at a top place, something is clearly very wrong in the world. I told him he was nuts, and he should absolutely try. Of all my friends and colleagues at his career stage, I know of no one more accomplished or doing more interesting research than him.

Anyway, it was eye opening for me to come to this realization that Imposter Syndrome is an egalitarian epidemic, and as I look closely I now notice it more often. I saw a man who is one of the top researchers in his field presenting a poster recently, and as people came by to see it he kept saying, "Oh, this is just simple stuff. Nothing fancy, really unremarkable and unimpressive." This shocked me. And lots of other  examples recently have as well.

This is all comforting to me somehow. Especially Sam. If he's self-doubting, by induction it's no shock that we all feel that way from time to time. :-)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reason #452 why women leave academia: macho students

Recently I was teaching a class of students, let's say on the topic of rubber ducks. I give the class some exercises related to rubber duckery and let them get to work. After a short while, I ask if there are any questions. Student A, one of my "hat boys" as I like to call them, replied.

Student A: "Well, it would be a lot easier for me to study rubber duckery if the bath was better implemented to support multiprocessor floatation devices and had a better internal physics model of how fluids move." (I'm just making things up here, but you get the idea).

I realize he's just trying to show off. But I know enough about the gobbledy gook he's spouting and can hold my own, so what I intended to say was something like, "Yes, blahblahblah is true, but this exercise is about rubber ducks, so don't worry so much about this other stuff." But before I can get a word in edgewise, Student B interrupts.

Student B: "Uh, no. Multiprocessor flotation devices were, like, so last year. Now the fluid dynamics blahblahblahblah."

Student A: "Uh, no! Blahblahblahblah."

Me: "Look, I - "

Student B: "Blahblahblahblah"

Me: "But if we just - "

Student A: "Well, actually, blahblahblah."

I keep trying to interrupt to tell them to quit chit chatting about this silly tangent and get back to work, but the two students keep ignoring me. The other students start snickering at the interchange. Finally, I put my hand on Student B's shoulder, because he's so engrossed in arguing with Student A he's not even making eye contact with me. And I say, "Let's talk about all of this later, and get back to rubber ducks."

Then Student B has the audacity to say, "But this is far more interesting."

Sigh. Clearly I need to go sign up for those assertiveness teaching classes. Or else start teaching undergrads who have less of a chip on their shoulder. Because I have to say, moments like these, I honestly wonder why I'm interested in traveling down this path toward being a professor. Having to deal with hundreds of smarty-pants kids all at once does just not appeal to me right now. In general I actually enjoy teaching, but not these moments.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Everything new is old again

One recent trend I've been noticing in CS, both while reviewing papers and attending conferences, is the idea of novelty as a quality metric (i.e., how novel and exciting is this idea?) I feel as though as a community we have become jaded, always existing in a state of expecting The Next Big Thing, that we miss the mark when it comes to being careful and thoughtful scientists.

In some areas, I feel there is such an emphasis on novelty that people produce work that is utter garbage simply because they are shooting for The Wow Factor.

That being said, I too am a sucker for a new idea. After you've been in the field a long time, many things start to look the same. I recently met one senior academic who basically was of the opinion that just about every major hurdle in Field X was solvable within the next decade. (And subsequently said "Yawn." to just about every idea I proposed. Ironically the one they were excited about I said "Yawn" to, so there you have it!)

For me, though, good work is about Big Ideas, things that fundamentally challenge the things we know about the world. I'm not saying all CS papers need this element, but a new algorithm or device without being framed with the broader context I find very lacking. While I don't expect this from pure theory papers, I definitely expect it from people working in applied areas. Otherwise, I have a harder time appreciating the point.

How are things in your field? Is everyone perpetually chasing the shiny? I wonder if journal-driven fields are less prone to this than conference-driven fields like CS.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mobile Scholar: Part 2

Awhile ago I promised I'd write about my adventures attempting to turn my iPad into a laptop when traveling. I guess a lot of this is soon moot since Apple just announced the new Macbook Air, which replicates most of the lovely features of the iPad (solid state memory, for instance), but in the meantime what we have is what we have!

For my upcoming trip, the tasks I need to complete are: review several papers, work on a paper due in a few weeks, take notes in meetings, and keep up with the usual barrage of emails. To prepare, I've found a few applications to help make being laptop-less, and at many times network-less, a bit easier.

1. Dropbox for iPad
This is just about the most useful application ever invented. I know, I know, rsync has been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth, but honestly I just never found it usable. I use too many different operating systems and machines and devices that rsync-based solutions were just a nightmare.
Dropbox has been positively a joy to use.  For this trip, on my laptop I downloaded the papers I need to review into my Dropbox folder. Then I synchronized them to my iPad/phone.
Also, most all of my past papers and work-in-progress papers (including my thesis) are stored in Dropbox. I guess this is a bit risky in case they're evil or their servers go down, but it's just a gem when traveling.
2. iAnnotatePDF
From Dropbox, you can send PDF files directly to iAnnotatePDF. I really like to use this application when reviewing papers, because I can put text notes in the margin, circle and highlight things, etc. I mostly use it for commenting on papers written by colleagues and students, but sometimes I use it for conference and journal reviews. 
Its cloud support is a bit weak. Your workflow turns out to be DropBox -> iAnnotatePDF -> [Annotate stuff] -> GoodReader -> Dropbox. 
3. GoodReader
This is the best $.99 you'll ever spend. It strangely claims to be a PDF reader, but really it's a just nice way to access the filesystem, and read/write files to Dropbox, GoogleDocs, WebDAV, and whatever else cloud service you might use. You also can use it as a nice wget/fetch service (e.g., grabbing files off the net and storing them on your iPad). It's indispensable.
Remember my last post about
pseudo-anonymity? I figured
handwriting recognition would
fail if I wrote like a 10 year old.
I'll have you know I am a
Picasso in real life.
4. AudioNote
Honestly, I didn't get this application for the audio recording feature (though that is nice), I got it because you can both take notes with typing as well as sketch with your finger in the same document. I tried about 10 different note taking apps, and this was the only one that handled this feature well. 
5. Instapaper
Every time I see an article I want to read but don't have the time for, I have a little function in all my web browsers, "Save to Instapaper". It pulls down the text (sans advertisements), syncs to a server, and then syncs to all my mobile devices. Then when I'm sitting around in airports I catch up on articles.
I also use Instapaper when I want to save local information about the city I'm traveling to and might not have net, such as train schedules. Sometimes I use Dropbox for that too, but Instapaper is even more convenient because it's a simple one-click process.
6.  RSS
I am still looking for a good RSS reader that syncs with Google Reader. I've just found Mobile RSS which seems pretty decent at first glance. I was using Reeder for awhile, because everyone was singing its praises, but I found it to be too minimal - to the point of being unusable. A few people spoke highly of Byline, but the one time I tried it my finger slipped and I unwittingly did something awful, like, marking several hundred articles as read or unsubscribing to some feeds. I thus deleted the application in a big puff of disgust. 
I'm all ears if anyone has RSS reader suggestions.  
7. Off Maps / OpenStreetMap / OpenMaps
A colleague recommended some open maps apps (heh) to me, and I'll be giving them a shot on this upcoming trip. I'm more inclined to just suffer roaming charges and use Google Maps, but I like the idea of open source maps, and will give it a shot.
8. VLC
This is a jack of all trades video player. It's probably the most useful app I have on my laptop, so I'm thrilled to have it on the iPad. It's great for copying video files to your iPad that you don't feel like converting to some goofy iTunes format (e.g, AVI, XviD, etc). 
9. iSSH
This application is indispensable when traveling. With it I can connect to machines anywhere in the world, easilly get a shell, tunnel stuff, get a nice VNC connection to someplace, etc. Well worth the $10. 
I think that's it. I'm still working on a workable LaTeX solution, which hopefully I'll figure out by the time I write Part 3 in this series.

Sadly blogger is practically unusable from the iPad, so I probably won't be around much for the next week or two.  There are a few blogging apps, but I'm not really ready to shell out for them - I'd rather just google give better support native editing on the iPad. *ahem, evil overlords, ahem*.

Hope you all have a good week and see you soon.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pseudo-anonymity: Defense

Back to our FIFO queue! Today we have...

The other day I made a mistake and left a comment on someone's blog under my own first name instead of the pseudonym. I deleted it as soon as I noticed, but then I got a bit paranoid if anyone could see who I am just from that one single comment. So I googled my first name.

And got the shock of my life.

I am there, my workpage pops up immediately, right on the first page of results... 
How googleable are you? 
I meant to post about this topic months ago, but found myself struggling with how to appropriately discuss it. The problem with me writing a post like this is I could give hints on how to 'out' someone who is blogging/internetting pseudo anonymously, and I don't really want to do that for obvious reasons. The good news is that most of the techniques to de-anonymize bloggers remain firmly in the realm of researchware, but I wouldn't bank on that being the case for too much longer.

Instead, I'd like to suggest a few defensive things pseudo anonymous netizens can do to help maintain their anonymity. Some of these suggestions are social, some are technical, but nearly all are grounded in the privacy literature.

1) Don't tell anyone you know in your open (non-anon) life about your pesudo-anonymous identity/blog. Someone will tell someone, and the next thing you know someone posts something somewhere revealing your real name. People are awful at keeping secrets, and if you ever become a famous (or controversial) blogger you run the risk of someone accidentally (or purposely) outing you.

2) Don't write things that would be devastatingly embarrassing for you if you were outted. As I said, right now it's easy to be a little bit anonymous online, but I would not at all bet on that trend continuing. I saw a paper presented at a conference recently that scared the crap out of me, so do take heed.

3) If you blog, turn on the comment approval settings. If you use facebook or other social networks, even if it's under your pseudonym, turn on the settings to approve your wall posts / picture sharing / etc. Seriously, lock that puppy down. Better to introduce a delay then suffer the consequences of someone commenting, "Great post, Imelda D! See you at lunch tomorrow."

4) Never forget: once it's out there, it's out there. There are no takebacks in the era of RSS feeds and google. There is no ephemerality. Be extra careful when you post something not to sign your real name, discuss something specific about your location, etc. You have absolutely no idea who is subscribed to get a blog's comments, and once their RSS reader grabs it, there's nothing you can do.

5) There is a lot of literature on how people can infer your identity based on your interests, social network friends, etc. (See references in this post). Some people who work in the security/privacy fields make their name on this kind of thing, no pun intended. Again, this supports my first suggestion to keep your pseudo-anonymous life and your non-anonymous life as separate as possible. If you need to share something personal, change some details here and there. You know, say you love dogs instead of cats.

6) Use Tor, or another anoymizer web browsing service when visiting other people's blogs/websites. Definitely anonymize your IP when commenting elsewhere under your pseudonym. While Google Analytics provides a slight layer of anonymity and lets your individuality get lost in the noise, not all trackers are so gracious. Remember, every time you hit a webserver, your IP address is logged. It is trivial to deduce who you are based on your IP. So you are completely relying on the good graces of the website/blog owner not to out you. By using an anonymizer, you can at least protect yourself a bit better.

I think that's it for now. Happy pseudo-anonymous blogging!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Things I don't have to think about today

John Scalzi posted an absolutely breathtaking poem in his blog yesterday - check it out.

(Normally I'd post excerpts to tease you, but I'm loathe to perturb poetry. Just trust me, it's worth the click!)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Bravo, Cornell and XKCD!

While writing my post the other day I visited a number of CS department websites. Cornell's has a rotating image highlight on its front page. Two of them really caught my eye:

Big kudos to Cornell - a picture is worth a thousand words.

Also kudos today to Randall Munroe (XKCD), for today's comic. In addition to beautifully articulating my frequent frustration with tech support, I love that the uber-smart CS superstar is drawn as a woman. Thanks for helping represent!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Firing Squad Science

When I was at my last place of employment someone recommended a book to me, "Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman." I can't remember a single bit of advice from it, other than to be bold and always sit at the main meeting table, because you are taken more seriously that way.

But one thing I seem to remember from it is, perhaps incorrectly, is that when a man walks into a room he quickly assesses who is in charge. He is trained to do this, either by his social upbringing or it's wired into his genes hailing back to alpha-male primate days. In contrast, women do not usually assess workplace/social situations with the same sort of hiearchical eye by default. Thus, I try to look at these situations from multiple perspectives when I am in them, just to try to get a handle on what might be going on.

Recently I attended a talk where I watched what looked like a monumental power struggle play out, and was really not sure what to make of it. A male grad student was giving a talk. Another male person (grad student? postdoc?) kept interrupting Every. Single. Slide. to nitpick one thing or another. About halfway through the talk, Senior Professor (advisor to the student, I think) started interrupting with clarification questions, which started out nice and then got progressively more aggressive as the talk went on. He and others also snickered from time to time at several of the slides, which as far as I could tell just had equations on them.

Toward the end of the talk, Outsider Postdoc starts asking questions and eggs on the first interrupter guy, while still trying to occasionally include the speaker in the discourse. A few other men start chiming in with their two cents, some reasonable, some insulting, and eventually the entire thing dissolves into a rapid-fire bloodbath with the speaker left lying on the ground twitching, croaking, "This work is preliminary...just a first step..."

After a very long and uncomfortable time, my colleague and I managed to escape the seminar room and as we were walking back to our department felt extremely unsure about what had just happened in there. My colleague remarked that they actually weren't sure who the speaker was, because the audience members talked so much.

The funny thing is, of all the things those audience members said, I think only about 10% of the points were really about the research. The other 90% were "Look how smart I am" and "My slide rule is bigger than yours."

In science, I think there is a difference between precision and nit-picking. You can help someone in their research to find the clarity necessary to be strong as scientists without publicly humiliating them. You can ask useful questions politely while still demonstrating your intelligence to whomever it is you're trying to impress.

Having been executed this way before, sometimes I just want to stand up and call out for a cease fire.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Content suggestions for departmental websites

I'm sure you've all seen the now infamous XKCD comic on this, i.e., why the heck can't we find anything on most universities' websites?

I can (kind of) forgive universities et large. Professional web design is expensive, and if a university shelled out a lot of money in 2006 to make a flash(y) website, in this economy I can sort of forgive them not wanting to update.


Computer Science departments honestly have no excuse. They have a plethora of free labor (undergrads) who have likely been writing web code since they were tweens. All they need is someone (department head? faculty committee?) to figure out what sort of content they want, write it down, and let a few undergrads loose on it. Done, problem solved.

Honestly, it's not about fancy designs, it's about allowing people to find the information they need easily, and keeping that information current. Here's all a department needs. This information helps everyone - new people, old people, visitors, etc.

  - Faculty:  Name, Title, Contact Information, Research/Teaching Interests.
  - Staff: Name, Title, Contact Information, Job Duties.

Bonus points if this information is current. I find it really weird when I go to a department's website and someone who got tenure 3 years ago is still listed as "Assistant Professor", or someone who left to go to another university is still listed.

Staff job information is useful too. One of the new students in our group didn't know where to go to get pencils. Why wasn't this info on the webpage? (i.e., "Office Supplies, Mr. Wile E. Coyote, Room 227")

Bonus points for a headshot. When I attend an event where I know a particular person will be, I like being able to identify them in advance. I had to attend something last week and talk to someone, and due to lack of a photograph, I had to go up to every person and ask, "Are you so-and-so?"

  - Address
  - Phone Number
  - Email address for general questions
  - Directions

You would be shocked how many places don't list directions to their department, or don't put their address in an easy-to-find place. I know, in this day and age, people can use google maps, but it's the principle of the thing. It should be easy for visitors to find the information they need - there's no other reason to have a website.

  - Main areas of interest
  - Links to relevant faculty/staff/students

This section honestly doesn't need a lot. If the department wants to throw in something about student project highlights, that's fine, or maybe a mission statement of some sort. But honestly, this should just give people a quick overview of what this department is all about. Short and sweet.

 - Degrees Offered
    - B.S.: Overview
    - M.S: Overview
    - PhD: Overview
 - Courses Offered
    - 2010 Course Listing
        - Schedule
        - Syllabus

  - Upcoming Talks
  - Whatever else is important (new grants, new faculty, new graduate students, etc).

That's it! Done.

Frankly, not having this stuff and having tons of other useless stuff is just embarrassing. It reflects poorly on the department, regardless of institution/program prestige. It simply displays an inability to organize and be responsible for content. Who'd want to attend school / work / visit a place that can't even build a website?

Also, again, being consistent with wanting to hire people / have students with disabilities, make sure your website is accessible. This is not about grumbling about having to comply with some law, this is about making sure that the millions of people with disabilities out there who have an interest in Computer Science can actually learn how fantastically wonderful your department is without having to go to great effort. This can be woven into a lesson to the students - inclusive software/hardware design is hopefully already a strong component of the department's teaching anyway.

Monday, October 11, 2010

And the Truthy Shall Set You Free

I've just read about a great project at Indiana called Truthy. (Here's a linky). The idea is simple: during the upcoming election, their system will detect smear campaigns on social networking sites in real time, and post some visualization of how the meme spreads over time. The idea is to try to prevent "astroturfing", which are well-organized political campaigns masquerading as grassroots efforts.
"The team will then generate diffusion network images that visitors to can view as groups of nodes and edges that identify retweets, mentions, and the extent of the epidemic...
Menczer got the idea for the Truthy website after hearing researchers from Wellesley College speak earlier this year on their research analyzing a well-known Twitter bomb campaign conducted by the conservative group American Future Fund (AFF) against Martha Coakley, a democrat who lost the Massachusetts senatorial seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy. Republican challenger Scott Brown won the seat after AFF set up nine Twitter accounts in early morning hours prior to the election and then sent out 929 tweets in two hours before Twitter realized the information was spam. By then the messages had reached 60,000 people.

Menczer explained that because search engines now include Twitter trends in search results, an astroturfing campaign -- where the concerted efforts of special interests are disguised as a spontaneous grassroots movement -- that includes Twitter bombs can jack up how high a result shows up on Google even if the information is false...

'One of the concerns about social media is that people are being manipulated without realizing it because a meme can be given instant global popularity by a high search engine ranking, in turn perpetuating the falsehood,' Menczer said."
Definitely a clever approach to the problem, and if you're a twitter user, get involved!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Honeybee Mystery Solved!

This article made me really happy. In case you weren't aware, since 2006 honeybees have been dying in droves, and no one knew why. All I could figure was that some seriously weird X-Files stuff was going on. But it turned out it was a virus-fungal double whammy. So, no aliens or mutant corn, just something pretty humdrum as far as nature is concerned.

Image by BrainPop
The nice part about the article was how the different scientists collaborated - all due to some clever networking:
"Human nature and bee nature were interconnected in how the puzzle pieces came together. Two brothers helped foster communication across disciplines. A chance meeting and a saved business card proved pivotal.
But it took a family connection — through David Wick, Charles’s brother — to really connect the dots. When colony collapse became news a few years ago, Mr. Wick, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Montana in the 1990s for the outdoor lifestyle, saw a television interview with Dr. Bromenshenk about bees.

Mr. Wick knew of his brother’s work in Maryland, and remembered meeting Dr. Bromenshenk at a business conference. A retained business card and a telephone call put the Army and the Bee Alert team buzzing around the same blossom.
I love that. (And not just because I'm a sucker for bad puns.). Person C connects Persons A and B, and fabulous science happens.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Diversity hiring - walking the walk

As as mentioned earlier, I like to keep my ear to the ground when it comes to jobs, both inside the academy and out. So reading various ads, I've become fascinated by their wording. The way things are phrased and formatted conveys a lot of information to me.

For example, when the ads says, "We expect candidates to have 18.5 years experience studying the effect of RF signals being used near the great barrier reef, and can teach advanced classes in fluid mechanics and 20th century literature," I think, inside job. The phrasing implies they have a particular candidate they wish to hire. I exaggerate here, and don't wish to call out any particular institutions, but, seriously? Why are they even advertising? I suppose laws / their institution requires them to advertise broadly, but this ad really excludes just about everyone, which completely defeats the purpose of those laws.

But even more than that, I am intrigued by how statements of diversity are phrased. According to institutions that are Equal Opportunity (EEO) and/or Affirmative Action (AA) employers, federal law says they must at the very least include this:
 FooBar is an Equal Opportunity / Affirmative Action Employer. 
But some institutions go beyond this, and actually craft wording into their ad which makes me believe they mean it. For example, when they say something like, "We are committed to building a diverse organization, and strongly encourage people from minority groups, women, and people with disabilities to apply," I am far more likely to believe them. And when they even go beyond that and explain what steps they've done to build a more inclusive workplace, such as on site childcare, a fully accessible campus, etc., I am even more likely to believe them.

When it's just written as a a token phrase, particularly if it's in a tiny tiny font at the bottom of the page, and particularly when I go to their webpage and see that all their employees/faculty look like this -

- I tend not to believe them.

So, job ad writers, if you truly want to recruit candidates who have disabilities, minorities, and women, and you want to make that picture more diverse, then bring it out in your language. Just as you would like applicants to explain in their cover letter how they are a good fit for your institution, make it sound like you want your institution to be a good fit for them. Otherwise I think people are probably less likely to apply. I know I would be.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Scary smart women

I have a few things in the queue that I meant to write about ages ago, but I kept getting distracted by other topics. So, here we go! (We're FIFO)

Just a thought, but you may be interpreting intimidation as sexism. A lot of times people are discomforted by having a conversation with a smart person. This discomfort probably conflicts with the initial impression given by an inviting appearance.
I thought I replied to this comment, but it's not showing up, so perhaps I forgot. I'm not in any way meaning to pick on Tyler, because I am taking his comment completely out of context, but I have heard variants of this argument used before and would like to discuss it. The argument usually goes something like this: "It's not that he means to be a jerk, it's just that she intimidates him."

I can't think of anyone who intimidates me who is both friendly and smart. Once I had a friend who was a musical and programmer savant, and I suppose I found myself a bit intimidated by him just because he was so smart and so talented. And I guess a few months ago when I read about Terry Tao I felt like a slacker, because I always had to work my tail off in mathematics. You could take an infinite number of copies of me and an infinite number of pencils and I'm not going to win the Fields medal, I can guarantee you that.

But even when I encounter someone who is {smarter, more successful, more X} than me, I don't really view them as a threat whose Life I Must Destroy. I don't view them as someone who is going to take resources away from me. Like most warm-blooded humans, I'll probably feel a twinge of jealousy, but they'd never know it. I'm not going to start acting like a jerk to them.

In dating situations, I suppose I can forgive men being intimidated by women and acting goofy because of it. But in professional interactions, men being intimidated by smart women and acting poorly because of it is a form of sexism. It implies the inherent possibility of a non-professional relationship at some future time. And furthermore, it implies inequality between the sexes because a man with those same attributes is probably less likely to elicit the same sorts of goofy behavior.

I of course can't speak for all women,  but for myself and other women I know, we just want to be treated politely and respectfully, aka, professionally. Not strange specimens to act weird around, or to point out our Otherness at every possible moment, or to always be viewing us as competitors Who Must Be Destroyed. There's enough cool problems in science that we really can all peacefully occupy the same space. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Women and non-Asian minority CS faculty and PhD student populations (in 2006)

Well, people can say what they like about the NRC rankings, but just looking at the data for the CS departments, I see some pretty graphs here, and some potentially promising correlations.

(See that outlier on the right? Three cheers for Tufts! 56% female faculty, baby.)

(I'm not pleased with that huge cluster of 0% non-Asian minority faculty. But three cheers for FIU, Iowa, and Auburn!)

I haven't yet started removing outliers or doing anything fancy, but for kicks I ran some correlations on these four variables of interest:

For anyone not used to reading ugly SPSS outputs, we find a significant correlation between non-Asian minority CS faculty and non-Asian minority CS PhD students, r = .308, p < .01. We also find a sig. correlation between female CS faculty and female CS PhD students, r = .281, p < .01. And, it turns out if there are non-Asian minority PhD CS students there is also a high likelihood of female PhD CS students, r = .247, p  < .01.

These are not super-huge correlations, and it's likely the outliers are conflating things, but it's still promising just from the graphs. If I have time over the weekend I'll play with the data a bit more formally and see what turns up.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

For grad students who want a research career

Following my last post regarding how to get invited to give talks as a graduate student, a commenter asked:
How many days-spent-at-seminar talks+conferences/year is a good number for a grad student interested in a career in research? Obviously it depends on a whole bunch of factors, but just wondering what your best generalized estimate would be.
This is a great question. I may even rephrase it to be, "If I want a research career, what are some good ways to spend my time as a graduate student?"

I have some colleagues who get ideas just sitting in their office, alone, reading papers and thinking. This strategy sometimes works for me, but the truth is, I get more ideas from attending seminars/workshops/conferences and from talking with other people. A recent paper I wrote came entirely from seeing something wild at a conference a few years ago coupled with a recent talk I attended given by someone in a different department at my university. Somehow, these two very different things clicked in my brain, and off I went.

Coming up with research ideas is only half of the problem, though. You also need support to turn them into reality. For this recent project, I consulted with the person from the other department for tips on how to use some specialized equipment which was new to me. I then consulted with another person in his department for ideas on how to formulate my research questions. I ended up with a really solid paper having had these consultations.

So from an idea generation and cultivation perspective, I think spending time attending talks and conferences and chatting with people is a great use of your time(*).

But attending these events are also a great use of your time if you want to get employed some day. :) As I alluded to in the last post, I think being a superstar / having a superstar advisor is rare, and even if you are a superstar, a little extra insurance doesn't hurt. So the other advantage to spending time attending talks and conferences is being able to meet other people.

In many fields, the research world is a small one. That person you chatted with at the coffee break may one day be reviewing your paper/grant proposal, or may one day be offering you a chance to come give a talk at their lab, or even could one day be on the other side of the hiring table. This doesn't mean every interaction with someone matters, it just means more doors may open for you if you put yourself out there.

The goal of attending these things is not to go up to every person you meet and say, "HI GIVE ME A JOB PLEEEEZE". It's a way to casually chat with people and show them that you are a friendly person with good ideas. You form relationships that last throughout your research career. Your advisor may be able to help start you on this path of building these connections, but at some point you need to take initiative yourself. And I think it's good to start building these connections as early on in your career as possible, not two months before you go on the job market.

This all being said, you of course don't want to spend your life on the road. I suppose I did spend a lot of time attending seminars/workshops early on in graduate school, but I was geographically selective. A few times I traveled far, but usually I just went to seminars at my university or at other local universities, or workshops/conferences that were < 5 hours away. Pretty much everything turned out to be useful in one way or another. Even one conference which was a total dud introduced me to a great collaborator who I still work with today, as well as an invitation to give a talk.

(*) I should note, some departments will only fund attendance at conferences/workshops if you have a paper accepted. And if you're a first or second year graduate student, you may not have had any time to do anything publishable yet. However, it's super easy to get a short ideas-only paper accepted at a workshop so long as you can write coherently.  (e.g., a 2-4 pager like - "Here's an idea on X. Here's some background which makes us think X is true. We're going to implement and test X in the coming months"). Also, many big conferences have doctoral consortia, poster submissions, works in progress, etc. These are also definitely worth trying for, because it gets you a plane ticket. Most university accountants aren't going to realize/care that the poster acceptance rate was 99% while the conference acceptance rate was 12%. :-)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

How to get invited to give talks

It's good to give talks at other institutions as a graduate student. You get to meet new people, learn about new research areas, swap ideas, get feedback on your work, get practice giving talks, etc. And it looks nice on your CV.

As far as I can tell, there are about four ways to get invited to give talks:

Photo by Husky
1) Be a superstar, and people will just invite you to give talks all the time

This is pretty unlikely as a graduate student, unless you're like my friend Hedy, who seems to get talk invitations all the time. She also is often asked to serve on program committees, submit journal papers, etc. Her research is just that smoking.

2) Have an advisor who is good at networking

I'm sorry to say odds are stacked against you if you're a Computer Scientist, because we all know how the joke goes: "The introverted Computer Scientist looks at their own shoes while talking, and the extroverted Computer Scientist looks at yours." Lots of truth there.

Some people get lucky, and if they don't get advisors who are good at networking they at least get ones who are superstar researchers. What happens in this case is the superstar advisor is so busy being awesome they have no time to accept all the invitations they get, thus passing them on to you.

For those of us who are (not yet) superstars, and/or have shy advisors, how do you get talk invitations? Well, I've found two tricks to work pretty well -

3) Talk swap

The idea here is you know someone who is doing neat research, and they either live close to your institution or they will be visiting some time soon. So you invite them to come give a talk. Often times, they will return the invitation. A colleague and I did this once recently. His institution is an hour away from me. So he gave a talk in my research group, and a few weeks later I traveled to give a talk at his research group.

4) Invite yourself

Academics, at least Computer Scientists, love to be entertained. So when we have someone who says, "Hi, I'm doing research in area X. I'm going to be in town the last week of November, can I come give a talk?" most places are very happy to have you. Especially if you come on someone else's dime. I've never done this cold - I've always at least known someone who knew someone - but I know people who have and I think it's perfectly acceptable.

You can do this if you're traveling for academic reasons (e.g., conference, project meeting), but you can also do it when you're going somewhere for a vacation. Though do keep in mind you're more likely to receive a "yes" if you offer to come during the fall or spring semester. Winter break and summer are usually not the best time to go give talks, at least at my university, because many people are away.

If you are shy yourself, it can be a bit nerve wracking to invite yourself somewhere, but it's worth doing. The worst that happens is someone will say "No thank you," but it's really a small risk and can pay off handsomely. I've made a lot of fantastic contacts and met quite a few collaborators due to giving talks at their institutions, and learned about new areas of research which later fed into my own work.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

For all the Gleeks out there

This interactive video, 8-bit Glee, is absolutely brilliant, and will bring back memories if you enjoyed playing Zelda back in the 80s. :)

Monday, September 20, 2010

More "levity"

Lately I've been reading some papers within a particular humanities discipline due to a very tiny bit of crossover with a new research area I am exploring. I read one paper where the author used quotation marks like they were going out of style. It was something like this:
The "green" tree was in the "park", as was the "balloon". This raises "interesting questions" for "park management".
I thought this was really funny, because as far as I'm aware, in Computer Science we only use non-quotation quotes when we want to be sarcastic. So for us it would be like this:
Compared to Linux, the Blackberry OS's "memory management" is like a herd of lemmings running into a tar pit.
So with this bouncing around my head, you can imagine my delight yesterday as I passed a new sign in front of a local restaurant which said:
Now serving "Authentic Indian Cuisine".
Ah, pseudo-food. Yum!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Academic titles for women, take two!

A male colleague and I once wrote a paper for a journal. I was first author, he was second author. We are both (still) PhD students, though he is perhaps slightly closer to finishing than I am. We mutually agreed he would be second author because I did the lion's share of the idea generation, research, paper writing, etc. Our websites both clearly indicate we are PhD students, as do our bios in the article.

Recently, one of the journal's editors contacted each of us individually to review a newly submitted article.

Here's the invitation to me:
Dear Ms. Ada Lovelace,
The following paper has been submitted for publication at Our Fantabulous Journal. Can you review it?
Thank you,
Journal Editor
Yet, here is the invitation to my fellow grad student:
Dear Dr. Charles Babbage, 
The following paper has been submitted for publication at Our Fantabulous Journal. Can you review it?
Thank you,
Journal Editor
I am intrigued. Why am I a "Ms." but he's a "Dr."? Is this one of those cases where the editor saw my colleague's name as second author and assumed he was the "senior author"? Even still, for a two-author publication, I'm not sure one can automatically assume the first author is PhD-less and the second author is PhD-full.

I guess this is better than the editor assuming I'm male.

Funny thing, though - a different (female) editor at the journal recently corresponded with us on another matter, and addressed me as "Professor Lovelace," and didn't address my co-author at all. We both found this highly amusing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What research pond do you swim in?

The funding / job fairies have come down from the sky and offered you a choice. You can be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond. Which would you choose? (It's not rhetorical - feel free to answer in the comments if you feel like)
Wasted Talent #473: Limitations of Modern
, Angela Melick

I have been contemplating this question for awhile. An unusual opportunity presented itself where I'd basically be a bright orange fish in a big pond of purple octopuses. On the one hand, there's a few octopuses who have a *tiny* bit of overlap to my research area, but, really, we're talking seriously different species. I'd definitely be the only vertebrate in the whole pond. (Yes, those other researchers are spineless! har).

On the one hand, you never really have to prove that you're an independent researcher when there is just no other option. But on the other hand, you seriously have to work extra hard to find the other fishies. Which helps you build networking skills, but can be seriously exhausting.

And I suppose it could be fun to get to know the octopuses. Perhaps we will be united by a shared love of Science which transcends the need to be working on similar genres of problems.

But I am unsure. I feel uneasy because in some ways my chosen research area already makes me an outsider within my current pond, but we at least have our fishiness to unite us.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday funnies

Don't want to be all doom and gloom around here, so here's some levity for Sunday. :)

1) In case you missed the link in this week's Chronicle, here's a lovely Simpsons montage of PhD and grad school humor:

2) This Joy of Tech Comic on technology addicts cracked me up, because it's so true. We had an outreach event recently for some local youngsters and every five minutes they kept asking (with similar sunken eyes to those zombies), "Can I check Facebook on any of the computers here?"

Monday, September 6, 2010

Research jobs outside academia

The Prodigal Academic has a great post on alternate careers for scientists outside of academia. I'd also like to add a few notes on CS/Engineering research jobs specifically.

Beyond what Prodigal mentioned, quite a few places support academic style CS/Eng specific research. Depending on what area you work in, you might be happy at places like IBM Almaden, SRI, Google, PARC, Microsoft Research, Apple, Intel, and Disney. There are also quite a few academic/research lab hybrids, like the Johns Hopkins Applied Phyiscs Lab (APL) and the Univ. of Washington APL.

I get the impression it can be tough to get your foot in the door at some of these places, but once you do you can often get something like tenure. Particularly older, well-established and well-managed companies are less likely to do layoffs I would think. This is especially true at non-profits/national labs (e.g., Hopkins APL), or at the "we don't need to make a profit right now because we have lots of cash" companies, like Microsoft Research or Google.

The cultures at these organizations can vary dramatically in how they support your research. For example, I had one colleague who did systems research at Apple but had to take vacation time and pay his own way to attend conferences. Whereas I knew someone who worked at a small company and she could go to as many conferences as she wanted, and get paid for it.

Another issue is publishing. For example, Microsoft Research and parts of IBM are big into academic publishing, whereas SRI is probably less so in general. This is something worth checking on if you want to publish. Same for open source code. You might need to go through a three month approval process to put a little perl script on your webpage, or submit a paper to a conference/journal.

If you interview at these places, even if the job title is something like, "Research Scientist", have them make clear exactly what expectations will be placed on you. Sometimes even a fancy title and gobs of money still means code monkey. It's better to know that going in - you don't want to expect to be leading research team and find out you're the new database programmer for someone else's pet project. And the job ad may or may not clue you in to these expectations, so it's best to ask.

Also check what they mean exactly when they say "flexible working hours". At some places this means you can come to work any time between 6:30am- 8:30am. Some places have a vaguely worded policy that leaves it to the discretion of your manager. Some places let you telecommute every day and just come in for meetings. In any case, also good to know in advance.

If you plan to do research at these places, it's helpful to know what it is you'll need to facilitate your work and what they already have. Do you need specific equipment? Animals? Human subjects? Even if you're joining an existing lab with existing equipment, you'll want to make sure you have access to it when you need it. Do you need to book the Cray eight months in advance? Will you have funds to pay human subjects or do you need to get grants first?

And on that note, what sort of support will you have? This also ties into expectations - yours and theirs. Maybe they'll give you a group of people who will work on your project part or full time. Do you need to bring in grants to cover their salary? Are you evaluated solely on the amount of external/internal research funds you bring in?

Just like with an academic job, do your homework, ask questions, and don't be afraid to negotiate for the things you need to be happy. I think the aforementioned organizations and the ones mentioned in Prodigal's post can be great places to work, but may take some maneuvering to be like what you imagine.