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.