“I got this new research idea that I would like to share with you. I am very excited about it. May I describe it to you now?” I am hearing this from Dave–one of my Ph.D. students. I just finished discussing with him my evaluation of his progress in the program. Dave is a non-traditional graduate student. We used to be Ph.D. classmates. I finished my Ph.D.; Dave did not. Last year, I convinced Dave to join our graduate program and complete his Ph.D. He put his trust in me, so I feel responsible for his progress. I mark his progress this academic year as “Satisfactory” in the online form. Despite all the difficulties of restarting his graduate studies in a new research environment, Dave is getting the hang of it, so I feel confident that he’ll succeed in our program. And now he wants to share with me his exciting new research idea. Oh, how much I want to hear about his idea!
As a professor in a research university, I like to think of myself as a man of ideas. It is for the opportunity to create, evaluate, and disseminate new ideas that I hang in a small secluded university town, making a fraction of the salary I could be earning at an industry job. Good ideas bring in research funding, publish papers, and propel graduate students toward their career goals. Besides, I know that Dave’s idea is not a fluke—he already has a solid publications record. In my evaluation for him, I have written “Next year, he should plan to publish a research paper that would set the trajectory for his Ph.D. dissertation. This publication will solidify his prior research record, showing to the faculty that he is able and willing to do quality research.” Dave seems to be pleased with my evaluation. In my mind, I am already planning to petition the faculty to allow Dave to skip his qualifying exam, enabling him to start working on his dissertation right away.
Dave is really excited about this research idea and starts drawing something on the whiteboard in my office. I wish I could learn about his idea right now, but I can’t! I have a deadline to meet—I supervise 9 graduate students, and their progress evaluations are due this week. A diligent student, I have never missed an academic deadline, a habit I carried throughout my life. Hesitantly, I turn to Dave and posit: “Well, unfortunately now is not a good time to discuss research ideas. I have evaluations to finish up, and another student is already waiting to meet with me. How about if we get together next week, when I will be able to give your idea the time and attention it deserves? I would like you to create a PowerPoint presentation—I am sure you’ll get to reuse this presentation on multiple occasions as your idea starts yielding publishable results.” Dave says that he’d be glad to do it. Over the weekend, I text him: “Let’s shoot for Wed night to talk about your idea. I’ll be done with my teaching for the week, and we can spend as much time as it takes to have a quality discussion.” When I don’t receive a reply, I am a bit surprised, but I don’t read much into it.
Well, Dave never got a chance to share his idea with me, nor will he ever do so. The very next night, he passed away from a coma induced by undiagnosed diabetes. He was only 55 years old. I feel as shocked and heartbroken as everyone else who knew him, but I am also devastated by the fact that Dave’s idea perished with him. If only he had shared his idea with me, my students and I would make sure to follow upon it and include his name as a co-author on the resulting publications.
Dave’s passing has taught me a valuable lesson. I will never again postpone the opportunity to learn about a student’s new research idea to meet an administrative deadline. I hope my colleagues would understand and won’t be too upset with me. Life spent in constant pursuit of deadlines loses its meaning. Life is too short to leave ideas unshared.
“What classes do you recommend I should take next semester?” I have been asked this question too many times, usually by graduate students who are just starting their studies. Because my take on this issue is a bit unusual, I have decided to express my thoughts on this matter as a blog post.
Taking a graduate class is first an opportunity to learn about the professor’s research and second to learn about the actual subject matter. When it comes to graduate classes, with some minor exceptions, professors teach those classes they want to teach. This situation is in contrast with teaching undergraduate classes—some undergraduate classes need to be covered, and faculty are often assigned to teach them out of necessity. In a research university, professors are researchers who occasionally teach, and research is what occupies most of their time and efforts. When teaching a graduate course, professors will always try to use it as an avenue for introducing their research to the students. If you are not interested in the professor’s research, do not take his class.
When shopping around for graduate classes, one should pay more attention to the instructor’s recent publications and research grants than to the actual course curriculum. This advice is motivated by the following observations. Few graduate courses have a required textbook, so the majority of reading assignments usually come from research papers. Course instructors decide what these papers should be, and their research interests heavily bias the selection of reading assignments. Course projects in graduate classes are also commonly open ended, and used as an opportunity for professors to try out new research ideas. Oftentimes, even the course’s title may not accurately express its content. For example, an HPC researcher teaching a graduate networking course is likely to focus on the networking topics relevant to HPC. A student not interested in HPC may feel disappointed.
Overall, taking a graduate course is a great opportunity to try out the instructor as a potential thesis or dissertation advisor or a committee member. By taking a graduate class, one learns not just about the instructor’s research interests but also about her research style and personality. What kind of open-ended questions does the instructor pose to students? What kind of feedback does she provide? How much attention does she pay to the quality of written or oral presentations? All these questions can guide the decisions of whether it may be worth your while to get involved in the instructor’s research or invite them to serve on your committee.
There are some exceptions of course. Some professors may not be active in research, while others may decide to follow a state-of-the-practice curriculum. The easiest way to identify such courses is to see if there is a required textbook. No research focused graduate class will have a required textbook. A graduate class may have a bunch of recommended textbooks to consult for the background information, but most of the reading will come from research papers. Finally, if not sure, just ask the professor how they plan to teach the class.
Finally, what about the prerequisites? You really like the instructor’s research, but you feel you have not had sufficient background in that area. In most classes, this limitation should not be an issue. If you genuinely like a research area, you should be able to get up to speed fairly quickly. Besides, quoting Einstein “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” particularly when talking about research related issues. If the majority of your grade comes from a term research project, your ingenuity in coming up with new ideas will be more important than almost any background knowledge you may lack. Grades matter little in graduate school anyway. Always remember that in graduate school, “A” means average; “B” mean bad; and “C” means catastrophic.
One of the common software myths is “once the software is delivered, most of the work is behind us.” In fact, nothing can be further from the truth, as it is estimated that between 60 and 80% of all software engineering effort and cost is expended on software maintenance, the process of modifying software after its initial release.
Whenever I interview people for faculty positions, I always ask them why they want to get a job in academia rather than in a research lab. Most of the interviewees have thoughtful answers that range from the ability define your own research agenda to developing long term mentoring relationships. However, once in a while I get an answer that goes something as follows: “I have done internships in research labs and saw how much time researchers spend on maintaining research software rather than on actual research; I’d rather not do that.” I am usually proud of my restraint when I don’t counter this answer with: “You think there is no maintenance in academia–what do you think I am doing right now talking to you rather than working on my research?!”
This answer indicates to me a fundamental misunderstanding of how the academic research enterprise operates. In fact, I find that similarly to software maintenance, academic maintenance takes between 60 and 80% of the total time and effort of an academic researcher. Teaching, grant preparation, committee work, manuscript reviewing, recommendation letter writing–all are essential activities without which the research enterprise cannot function. However, these maintenance activities combined commonly consume more time than direct research activities, including reading and writing research papers, meeting with your graduate students, and crafting research prototypes, even in a research university. That’s the basic equation of the academic research enterprise, and anyone who thinks that academic researchers live the posh existence of spending the majority of their time on research rather than on research maintenance are sadly mistaken.
During my somewhat haphazard workouts, I often cross ways with a full professor, who’s been working for the university for more than 20 years. I enjoy these encounters, as my more experienced colleague never fails to impart useful advice on me regarding both my lifting technique and academic matters. When I mentioned to my colleague that I was going through my tenure evaluation, his reaction was “Oh, I am so sorry–I hope you’ll be able to overcome your post-tenure depression quickly.” According to my colleague, the tenure evaluation process is almost always followed by bouts of depression. It is understandable why people get upset when they fail to get tenure, but the prevalence of post-tenure depression (PTD) seems counter-intuitive.
To make the long story short, I had a mild case of PTD, and even though I am not completely out of the woods yet, I believe I am steady on my way to recovery. This blog post, after a semester-long hiatus, is a testament to the veracity of this claim. The purpose of this post is to share some of the strategies I have followed to overcome PTD, with the hope that someone in the same situation may find them useful.
Much has been written about the causes of PTD, so I won’t bore you with repeating what others have stated so eloquently. In summary, PTD is a direct outcome of realizing that earning tenure does not automatically change anything in a faculty’s life. Overcoming PTD requires both realizing the new opportunities that tenure affords and following through on at least some of them.
In the following discussion, I list some of the opportunities and benefits of tenure I have discovered and how I am trying to leverage them.
- Rejection is easier to take philosophically. While on the tenure track, every rejected paper or proposal would increase my doubts whether I’d be able to build a strong enough tenure case. Now rejections no longer automatically conjure up images of receiving the message of “Tenure Denied!” As a result, I am better able to leverage rejection as a learning and growth opportunity. An additional benefit is that now rejected papers affect my graduate students more than they do me (I already earned my Ph.D. and tenure, while they still haven’t reached even the first milestone). This is really a win-win situation, as it causes my students to get ownership of and be responsible for their work.
- I can pursue my educational interests more freely. While on the tenure track, I single-mindedly focused on research as all pre-tenure faculty in a research university. With respect to teaching my biggest concern was how I could do a decent job as a teacher without taking too much of time away from my research activities. As I am realizing now, some of these concerns were purely psychological: at times, I was mentally restraining myself from pursuing my educational interests too far. Now, I am looking forward to trying educational innovation in my classes, an investment of time and efforts I can make without agonizing about jeopardizing my research productivity.
- I feel like I can pursue my other interests without feeling guilty. In my previous life, I was pursuing a career as a professional classical clarinetist. While on the tenure track, I had no time to practice. I felt that working toward tenure required a single-minded devotion, and pursing any other interest would detract from reaching my main goal. Ever since my successful tenure decision was announced, I brought my clarinet to my office and started practicing on a regular basis at the end of my workday. Even though I usually do not get to playing my clarinet until the very late hours of the day, engaging in an activity that once used to be my primary occupation provides me with a certain balance to my life. To keep myself motivated, I am now planning a solo recital some time in the near future.
Leveraging these opportunities have helped me feel better about my job as a faculty. Even though tenure has not changed my work habits (the same number hours with unchanged intensity), having reached this milestone has positively affected my perception of my job.