Thursday, October 27, 2016

Building on an abundance model

The first recommendation letter I ever wrote for someone was under extremely ironic circumstances. An international colleague I had briefly worked with wanted a letter of support for their green card/permanent residency application in the US. I was a postdoc in Germany then, trying very hard to find a faculty position in the US. I applied for innumerable positions, almost a few every week, got Skype-interviewed by some, but never heard back. I never got invited for campus interviews. It was one of the darker times in my career when I was constantly engulfed in worry, self-doubt, and fear that the situation would never change and I might be a postdoc all my life. To write a letter vouching for someone about why they should be able to stay and work in the US long-term was ironic.

I did write that letter eventually, and a stellar one too. My situation was independent of their situation, and as colleagues, we support each other to get established. But this was not before I emailed them back asking why they were considering me as a potential referee. What I did not ask directly was, "Why should people reviewing your application believe me when I myself have been unable to find a faculty position in the US?" I asked if a letter of support coming from someone outside the US would be effective at all. What they said was eye-opening.

“Are you kidding me? You are an international scholar who has worked in both the US and Germany. A letter from you would be incredible.”

The revelation was eye-opening. As intuitive as it is, I was not viewing myself as an international researcher. I was viewing myself as a researcher who was struggling to find a position in the US, and was hence working in Germany. Rather than approaching my situation from a position of abundance, I was approaching it from a position of deficit.

In life, reality is subjective, not single, and there are often multiple perspectives to it. The fact that I was struggling to gain my foothold in the US was a reality (more real for me). And the fact that I had work experience in multiple countries as a result was also a reality (more real for my colleague).

It made me wonder how often had I undermined myself similarly. How often I had focused on the “don’t haves” and not on the “haves.” No one knows why. There could be interesting age and gender trends to it too. I grew up in a culture where highlighting one’s accomplishments was considered bragging or showing off. And I now work in a culture where it is not just necessary, but imperative to highlight one’s accomplishments. We do that in conferences and meetings. We create websites to show the vast expanse of the work that we have done. It’s a cultural shift that takes some time and experience in getting used to.

I often tend to think, “Shit! I have no experience running structural equation models.”

However, I usually don’t think, “I have some good grant writing and collaborative experience now.”

This email exchange taught me to position myself from a perspective of abundance and NOT from a perspective of deficit. I started enlisting every achievement I should have highlighted earlier. The list wasn’t spectacular, but not bad either. Along with being my own critic, I also became my own champion.

My colleague eventually got their permanent residency. And I got my faculty position. The department told me how excited they are to have a colleague with international experience. People started viewing me in a certain way only after I started viewing myself in that way.    

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Gender Bias in Reference Writing

Sharing this informative document that gives excellent advice on writing letters of support for women.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Read like you are eating rice

As a graduate student, you will soon realize that you have to read a lot of journal papers. This is the foundation work that helps you understand what is happening in the field. Long before you start doing your own research, you have to know what has been already done in the field and what needs to be done next. Speaking in analogy (this blog is all about analogy), have you ever climbed atop one of the churches in Europe? You keep climbing the spiral stairways and every few floors there is a tiny window that looks outside. The lower you are, the less you see (whatever you see is also in a lot of detail). The higher you climb, the more you see (the level of detail also decreases). Learning about a field is just like that. You keep reading papers until you have a bird-eye view of the field. But in order to attain a bird-eye view, you have to start with the detailed view first.

Reading papers (papers in this post mean journal papers) take quite a while. Typically, they start with an abstract and introduction followed by a literature review, methods, results, discussion, limitation and conclusion. The order could vary depending on the field, but this is a general overview.

Abstract (a summary of the study)
Introduction (what you are going to read)
Literature review (what others have already done)
Methods (what the authors did and how they did it)
Results (what they found)
Discussion (explaining what they found)
Limitation (what they did not find)
Conclusion (what needs to be found in the future)

As a starting researcher, it is easy to get caught up in the details of a paper until you realize that it’s been hours and you are still on the same paper. A good program or department offers a lot of classes that involve critically analyzing a paper. It’s an art you master with time and practice. Students read one or multiple papers beforehand and spend time in class critiquing singly or in groups. I used to find myself being caught up in reading because I would read very slowly and in a lot of detail. This is especially because I was not familiar with the methods section (hence you need to take as many methods courses as you can) and often wonder how to make sense of what the authors did. I would soon lose attention and start doing something else, not wanting to come back to the paper again. Then my adviser gave me some great advice.

Treat a paper as if you are eating a bowl of rice. You do not eat rice one grain after the other. You do not individually chew the grains. You take a mouthful and chew until it is of digestible consistency before you swallow and go for the next spoonful.

Similarly, don’t read a paper word by word. Don’t get caught up in the mundane details. Read the abstract very well. Skim through the introduction and directly go for the methods. If you are not clear about why they did what they did, come back to the literature review later, but do not spend a whole lot of time on it. Methods done, go to the results/discussion to see what they found. Again, skim through it until you find the area that gets your attention. Read that well. Don’t get caught up in words. Skim until you see something interesting. Read that in detail. Repeat process. Don’t read word by word or line by line. Read idea by idea.

I found this advice very helpful. For my dissertation, I had to read more than 500 odd papers (some were not relevant, but how do you know they are not relevant unless you read a little bit of it?). I had attacked those papers like a bowl of rice. As a faculty, I read between 30-40 papers every week, and many more when I am doing a literature review. On an average, I give myself five minutes for each paper. I start with the title, read the abstract, and go straight for the research questions and methods. If the paper doesn’t make much sense to me, I do not put a whole lot of time into it. It is a skill you master with time. The more you read, the more you can get away reading lesser of a paper. You learn to directly attack the core, the meat.

Time yourself when you read. If you take 30 minutes for a paper, try reading the next one in 25 minutes. The idea is not to read lazily, but be able to find and attack the meat of the paper directly. Read fast. Read smart. Good luck! 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Build your processor while in graduate school

I spent a lot of time during my PhD (that lasted exactly 3 years) resisting whatever my adviser said. He had a clear plan for me to graduate on time, but I was the one who did not believe that I could meet my graduation deadline. As a result, we argued a lot.

Once we were arguing about my scintillating academic life (or the lack of it) and how much coursework would be enough to make me a desirable PhD candidate when I start job hunting. We started our conversation about job hunting pretty early, at around 6 months when students were still comfortably settling in. “I never want you to feel comfortable or settled in. That way, you will never graduate,” he said bluntly.

We were arguing because my adviser wanted me to take as many methods courses as I can. Being able to analyze and interpret data is vital in my field. I think I eventually took 5 levels of statistics courses and 3 levels of qualitative methodology courses alone other than the core courses and a mixed-methods class. I made a face and told him that I do not want to drown in methods courses, that I would learn on my own or take online classes later. To that, he gave me a great analogy that I will paraphrase because I found some wisdom in what he said.

In graduate school, we are like a computer processor in the making. With new courses, we get to learn new skills and thereby build our processors. Our configuration is constantly improving. We get to take classes, write exams, get feedback (through grades) and interact with peers which is great way to learn new skills. By the time we are out of grad school, the features in our processor are set. It is not malleable anymore. Sure, we can go for an external upgrade, adding a feature every now and then by auditing a class or attending a conference. But these are external features. The core has already been built by then.

Graduate school learning builds the core, the inherent qualities of a researcher. Therefore it is important to take every remotely relevant methodological course, write exams (and not just audit courses), and learn every new skill we hesitate to learn (because we are too afraid to fail) fooling ourselves into believing that we will once we get a job. Graduate training is the only chance to build the processor from the scratch. The rest gets added along the way. One can afford to skip a "Writing literature review" class because that is a skill one can pick along the way. However, one cannot afford to not take a class on methodology. So go take that class because it is free and paid for, and because once you graduate, you will never get to take a class again, not this way.

I don’t understand much of computers or technology (other than what I need for work), but I loved this analogy. Years after finishing graduate school, I see the value in what he said. No more arguments after that, I buried myself building my processor, and I have not regretted it. Although I do not apply the methodological know how in everyday work life, I know enough about it to be able to navigate my way around. For example, I do not dabble with differential item functioning or item response theory every day. However, when I read a paper that did those, I do not have the deer in the headlights look. I exactly know what they are talking about.

Listen to your adviser (not blindly though). For he may be as clueless about your future as you are, but given his vast experience, chances are less that he will give bad advice. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Your adviser is the driving instructor

In my last post, I draw an analogy between driving and doing research as faculty. The next obvious question would be “How do I know as a faculty where I should drive to?” It is not easy to know that, it takes years to figure that out (I am still figuring out, maybe some do it sooner). And graduate school training (doctoral training) plays an invaluable role in this. I use the terms graduate school and doctoral program interchangeably.

Role of your adviser

Consider your doctoral program a well-known driving school and your PhD adviser a renowned driving instructor. His main and perhaps only duty is to teach you how to drive (do research). Sure, you can learn driving from your parents, neighbors, or the distant cousin who is visiting from Kenya. But learning from a good driving school prepares you for real driving on the bumpy roads of life (getting your hands dirty with real data) and not just in the parking lot or in simulated roads on video games (made-up data we sometimes use to practice statistics in class). Sometimes, your adviser is a big shot training instructor in which case, other members of the lab such as senior doctoral students and postdocs take you out for a ride to teach you those driving skills. So it’s important that you have a good relationship with everyone in the lab. Your adviser doesn’t just teach you how to drive. He lets you go to conferences where you showcase your driving skills in front of an audience. He writes grants and gets you funding so that you always have fuel in your car. He writes you good recommendation letters so that other places can hire you as drivers. He advises you when your car isn’t running well or your engine is making a funny sound and you need to troubleshoot. He gives you a pep talk on days when it is snowing outside and you don’t feel motivated enough to drive. He teaches you life-saving skills such as changing lanes, looking at your blind spot, racing, parking on mountains, and avoiding drunk drivers on the freeway.

Couple of other things that happen in your doctoral training

1. You take coursework. Consider courses as the tools that help you to be able to do research. If you are training as a driver, it will help to know a little bit about the mechanics, the nuts and bolts, where the engine is, how the brakes operate, how the radiator works, how to change a flat tire, and why driving in a certain way may be better than driving another way. Coursework just doesn’t teach you the skills to drive, but also the knowhow to stop, park, check engine oil or maintain the car.

2. You build collaborations with your peers and other professors. In the world of research, carpooling is way more fun than driving singly. Sometimes, you get more gas/petrol (funding) if you are able to show that if you are carpooling (collaborating), rather than taking a lonely trip from Seattle to Boston and not being fuel-efficient. Gas stations most certainly frown upon single drivers. But how do you ensure that you get along with the other carpoolers and don’t end up going for each other’s throats on the freeway? Graduate school lets you find other drivers you might get along with. Big gas stations (funding agencies) like the NIH and NSF will not even give you any fuel if you are young and applying singly or as the main driver. That’s when established professors will be on the driving seat and you in the passenger seat.

3. You identify mentors in other professors. Remember, you have the closest relationship with your own driving instructor. But sometimes, he is too busy or gone. Sometimes, you don’t get along with him. Sometimes, he doesn't know a skill that you need to know because driving regulations have changed in your generation. That is when the other mentors ensure that you continue to do well and your car(eer) doesn’t stall in the middle of the freeway.

Your research agenda

Your primary research agenda is usually an offshoot of your adviser’s research agenda (it could be different but I am speaking from my experience). You spend maximum time with your dissertation data that is based on your adviser’s project and research interest. Let’s say for my PhD, my adviser trained me to figure out the shortest, safest, and the most fuel-efficient way to drive from Seattle to Mount Rainier National Park. I demonstrated to my dissertation committee that my car runs fine, I can check blind spots, I don’t get killed while driving on I-5, don’t run out of fuel, and can apply the proper gears and brakes depending on road or weather conditions. Now the fruit doesn’t usually fall too far from the tree. So after this, perhaps my own independent research could look into how to find an optimal route that connects all three national parks in Washington State in the most efficient way. I create that knowledge for other people to use. Or maybe now, I base my research on a real-life problem, for example, why do most people who take a particular smaller state freeway from Mount Rainier to Mount St. Helens after sunset get killed. If I never took that Seattle to Mount Rainier training for my PhD, I would have never figured out how to move ahead in life from Mount Rainier.

And the convocation ceremony? Consider it as a public event where your adviser officially gives you your driving license. He comes wearing his driver’s uniform and you wear yours. The world rejoices, your parents fly to attend the ceremony beaming with pride and wiping tears of happiness, and some bigshot celebrity driver comes to give the convocation speech.    

I am waiting for the day I will be sitting in the main driving seat as the principal investigator (PI), my adviser and other colleagues in the passenger seat as co-PIs, and together, we will drive around the world with tons of fuel supplied by the NIH or NSF looking at interesting research problems.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Working for myself

I was recently hired as a tenure-track faculty at a research university. After the first day at work, my Ma asked me, "So what work did they give you today?" Soon after, a few friends who are not acquainted with academia asked me similar questions on saying that I am chasing an October deadline, "But you just started. What deadline/work did they give you?" I realized that these friends from the tech industry may know about coding and fixing bugs, but are not quite acquainted with how academia works.

The funny thing is as an academic, these questions, or the way non-academics see academia never dawn on you. So I decided to write this post especially for my Ma who taught me my first letters and numbers and takes a keen interest in learning things about my life, things that are completely alien to her.

To dispel a few wrong notions, this is a job where no one gives me work. I create my own work. I don't have to show up to office every day, or at a specific time. I could be Facebooking, chatting, or chasing Pokemons all day. No one is going to come at the end of the day asking me how productive I have been. Unless I am teaching or have a meeting with other colleagues, I could be anywhere.

Work-wise, no one tells me what to do. To give a simplistic analogy, getting this job is like getting a car with some limited gas/petrol (startup funding). Now where I go with my car and how much gas/petrol I spend is my business. I could take it to Glacier National Park. Or I could drive to New York City. Or I can keep my car in the garage and never use it. Unless I do something drastic like harass a student or smuggle and store drugs in the department, no one can fire me during my 6-year period.

Having said that, I have to meet high expectations during and by the end of my tenure review after 6 years. This includes consistent performance in terms of getting grant funding for my research (getting my own gas/petrol to be able to continue driving my car), publishing my research (showing others how well my car drives), meeting high standards of teaching and mentoring students (training novice drivers to drive), collaborating (carpooling), and doing service such as serving on committees and editorial boards (helping fellow drivers service their cars or helping them when their car breaks down or inspiring others to become drivers or ensuring I do not kill anyone while driving). I am putting this very simply with a car/driving analogy, the process is more complicated and labor-intensive than it sounds.

I have the freedom to do any kind of research that aligns with the department's interests. I can collaborate with anyone in the department, in the country, and in the world. There are three broad expectations (research, teaching/mentoring, and service) that I need to fulfill well in order to be able to get tenure. And these are not something that can be achieved overnight, in a month or even a year. I have been preparing to meet these expectations even before this job I got was advertised.

So to answer Ma's question, they did not give me any work on day one, and never will. I work for me now and have to give myself work, if that makes sense.