Friday, December 08, 2006

Following Up

Tying up some loose ends...

...marathon training is officially off (for now). ITBS has sidelined me, but I'm hoping that 6 weeks of resting, stretching, and exercising the right muscle groups will allow me to resume training in '07. Of course, I'll have to see if I have the activation energy to get out the door in that cold, winter, morning air.

...paper reviews finally came after 7.5 weeks after submission. The two reviewers were evenly split. Ironically, the reviewer that accepted the paper had bigger beefs with it than the one that rejected it. I've got just one more experiment to carry out before we send it back. Unfortunately, it's going to be a bear of an experiment. If I'm lucky, it will be done in 1 week. If not, it could be another month.

...job search. Well, I've pretty much written off the job search and now I'm focusing on the post-doc search. Since I'm looking to completely change fields, I've essentially been "cold calling" people to inquire about postdocs. I think I'm batting around .500 for people being interested, which I would consider pretty good considering they have no idea who I am (other than what I've represented on my CV). I'm nervously looking forward to meeting them in person. I'm looking for a healthy lab environment with a nice, sane, smart advisor. Hopefully one of these labs will fit the bill.

...this blog. Ummm... I guess I've been on hiatus unintentionally. I guess sometimes you get so busy with everything else that you have to let other things go. Well, I'll see if I can get back into blogging at least every week, if not more often.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Still waiting....

I heard back from the journal about my first paper when I was vacationing in California. I was sort of hoping that the same thing would happen this time since I was planning on being in San Diego 4 weeks after sending in my manuscript. The journal claims a 3 week turn around time, so I thought that it would probably come back right around the 4 week mark.

Well, we're now at 6 weeks. My advisor gave me permission to pester the journal about the status and I was told that the reviewers have been taking their time getting the manuscript reviewed. I'm not sure what that means. My advisor says that they're probably just simply busy. This is a better answer than I had predicted (that they had to send it out to an additional reviewer because the original ones were split).

So, I'll have to find some ways to distract myself for a few more days so that I don't break the F5 key on my keyboard as I refresh the "Review Status" page on the journal's website. Maybe I should find a job...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Boiling a Frog

There's a story that says that if you want to boil a frog, you should put it in cool water and then slowly raise the heat. Apparently, if you drop a frog in hot water, it will just jump out. The point of the story is that frogs (and people, I suppose) can get acclimated to things when change is gradual, but react sharply to drastic, severe changes.

The principle could apply to a number of thing in life (for instance, as I write this, my mind is running off on a tangent about politicians and how they treat the average citizen), but I've been thinking about this story lately because I came up with the bright idea a couple of months ago to train for a marathon.

Most marathon training programs require the runner to do one "long run" each week (or every other week as you get into longer distances). In my case, I went from 6 miles to 8 to 10 to 12 and finally to 14 miles. This means I've successfully run my first half marathon (13.1 miles) and I'm just a little over half way to a full marathon. After a two week break from my last long run, I'm up for a 16 mile run on Saturday. It sure doesn't seem like 16 miles should be much worse than 14, but just like the frog, at some point you realize that you're boiling. I'm hoping that I don't hit my boiling point at 16 or 18 or 20 miles (my longest scheduled training run).

I won't ever run more than 20 miles until the day of the marathon. Conventional wisdom says that if you can go 20, then you should be able to handle "just another 6 miles." At the 20 mile mark, most runners also hit "the wall," which makes me think that maybe those last 6 miles aren't going to be as easy as they're supposed to be.

So this Saturday I'll turn the heat up a notch, and we'll have to see how it goes from there.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Keep on Trucking

Each year, I have a "big picture" talk with my advisor. I think that this kind of talk should probably be happening 2 or 3 times a year, but my advisor isn't much for advising and this is about as much as I can get out of him.

Anyway, I've blogged about how these chats have gone in the past. Each time, I ask my advisor for one major piece of advice I should remember to be more successful during the upcoming year. During this year's talk, his advice boiled down to one of my favorite cliches: Keep on trucking.

Basically, he said I'm doing great. I know what I'm doing technically. I know what the important questions are in the field. I've got some good projects going. I've got a talented undergrad that is cranking along. So, what more is there to do, but keep on trucking?

My advisor also gave me the green light to prepare to defend my dissertation in March/April of next year. I guess that means I have to write my dissertation now and prepare myself to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops positioned between me and my PhD.


Last Monday, I finally got my manuscript submitted. I keep calling it my paper, but I guess that isn't quite the right word to use until it's published. As with my last two papers, I finally reached the point where I was more interested in having it gone than making it better. I realize that's a dangerous place, but after so many drafts I completely lost patience with it. I gave my advisor a final draft to read over the weekend and I'm pretty sure he was sick enough of it to just okay it without even giving it a close read.

Now, it's in the hands of the reviewers. In another 2 weeks, I'll (hopefully) hear back from the journal. From my own experience and from what I've seen of others in the lab, I can only expect that the reviewers will want additional experiments, additional controls, and certain past published work discussed or at least cited. It's pretty rare to submit something and just have it fly through.

So, I'm enjoying these few weeks with fewer hours at my computer, fewer hours arguing with my advisor, and more hours at the bench. At the same time, I'm bracing myself for the storm that will hit when the reviews come back. With my first paper, the reviewers requested a number of additional experiments. Of course, you can't do them all since the journal wants the re-submitted manuscript within 2 months, so you pick the ones that are easiest and most relevant. For the rest, you argue your way out of it. The phrase commonly used is something like, "While reviewer #2 recommended experiments XYZ, we feel that these fall outside the scope of this paper." What this really means is that you know there is no way you can do it in 2 months. In essence, you have to say to the reviewers (and the journal), "look, we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and this is where we draw it." Otherwise, there is no end to the list of experiments that can be done.

What about the ones that you agree to do? Well, the two months after I got reviews back on my first paper were probably the most busy and most productive of my graduate career. Since I knew exactly what was wanted, I was able to focus completely on just those tasks.

Right now, I can enjoy the calm before the storm. I'm sort of hoping that the reviews come back while I'm on vacation later this month, or just after I return so that I'll be fully rested and ready for a couple of serious months of work. At the same time, if we get good reviews back right before I leave, I won't complain about that, either.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Financial Aid--The Con!

Let me preface this post by saying that I have never tried the scheme described below. I'm not any sort of financial planner or advisor, and I don't assume any responsibility for you screwing up your own finances.

Wow, my first attempt at a disclaimer.

Okay, now a little background.... A couple of days ago, I got an e-mail from a former labmate who graduated a few months ago. He told me that he just got his financial aid from grad school paid off, and that he managed to make about $700. Here's how:

My friend took all the financial aid he could get his hands on that only accrued interest or required re-payment after graduation. Each semester, he would get a check, and each semester he would put it straight into a CD at the credit union. He lived (frugally) on his grad school stipend alone, and never spent a cent of those loans. So, they accumulated interest for him over the 6 years he was in grad school. When he graduated, he paid off the loans in full, and kept the interest that he'd been earning on that loaned money.

It sounds a little bit like a plan that's a little too good to be true, and if my friend hadn't pulled it off, then I would agree with that opinion. Success comes down to two things:
  1. Read the small print. You have to make sure that you fully understand the terms on the loans, and they they aren't racking up interest until after you leave school. If they're accumulating interest, then you'll probably lose (unless your credit union is giving you a much higher rate than you're being charged for it).
  2. Self discipline. You have to guard that money and avoid the temptation to spend it. If you can't trust yourself with this, then don't even think about doing this.
I've had other friends who used student loans as down payments on houses, or for home upgrades/repairs. So, they can be useful in other ways, if you just look at them as a low interest loan.

I guess you also have to figure in that Uncle Sam is going to take his cut of your interest earned. My friend will probably end up making around $500. Spread over 6 years, that's not very much money, but considering it took little effort to do, it's not so bad. I think that most graduates would be happy to have $500 waiting for them at graduation.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Working Smart

In grad school, I've seen a lot of different "types" of grad students. There are the guys that show up just before lunch and are gone by 3. There are the guys that come in before sunrise and stay until after sunset. Then, there are the 9-5ers (which would best describe me).

The amazing thing is that the amount of time spent in the lab doesn't correlate very well with success. It probably does correlate pretty well with data accumulated (assuming the guy putting in 14 hour days isn't spending 13.5 of those hours blogging about grad school). The catch is that not all data is equal. Some data will go straight into a figure on your next paper, and some of it will never see the light of day.

If you define success in grad school by total published output, then it pays to think long and hard about what you're doing and why you're doing it. The grad student who publishes frequently (GSWPF) won't do an experiment that won't be a paper figure. GSWPFs ask themselves questions like, "will anyone care about this result (besides me and my advisor)?" or "What am I really going to learn even if I get this result?" The GSWPFs also know when to walk away from a project. You have to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em (thanks Willie). Some projects are blackholes that turn a 5 year PhD into 10 years of frustration.

So, what do grad students who never publish (GSWNP) do? They're experts at following tangents. They're great at doing controls of controls of controls. They're even better at doing experiments that are so meaningless that they're too embarassed to present them in their weekly lab meeting. In short, they spend too much time and effort on doing experiments that a GSWPF wouldn't even consider.

Now, I don't really think that it's fair to say that publications=success in grad school. I'm also not saying that doing good science (like including controls) is a bad idea, or that tangents are always a waste of time. My first paper actually came from a tangent that paid dividends. Of course, there were about a dozen other tangents that I could have followed and luckily I chose the right one.

So, if you're worried about publications (and I guess we all are at some level), then what do you need to do? The simple answer is to work smart. While I'm far from mastering this attribute, here are some things that work for me:
  1. Organization. I struggle with this one a lot (my desk and bench are a mess). I think that more important than having a tidy workspace is having your thoughts organized. Think about your goals often. Think about what you have to do to get them. I find myself having to sketch this out on a piece of paper that I'll see frequently so I can stay on task.
  2. Think ahead. At the end of the day, think about what you're going to do tomorrow. At the end of the week, think about what you're doing next week. As you're walking to lab each morning, think about what you're going to do first each day. Too many people spin their wheels for the first two hours of the day instead of getting things done.
  3. Think ahead, part II. Depending on the nature of your research, you can often save a lot of time (and be more productive), by getting things started the night before. For my own work, I am usually short on work and long on spare time on Mondays unless I come in on Sunday night and start some cultures. It's a pain to do, but it's better than losing 1/5 of my work week.
  4. Think ahead, part III. A great exercise to do is to ask yourself, "what will I do if I get result X? and what will I do if I get result Y?" Think things out like you're playing chess--always thinking 2-3 steps ahead of where you're actually at. Sometimes, you'll realize that even if you get a result to your experiment, you're approaching a dead end and you should take a different direction.
  5. Talk it out. Finding a smart person to talk science with is super helpful. You have to be careful not to overdo it, though. If you have a good relationship with someone in your lab or department, then try running your ideas by them. Sometimes its good to do this with someone other than your advisor.
Having written this all out, I do have to say that none of these things are guaranteed to get you anywhere. That's really the nature of the business. The lazy, dumb guy can discover something just as easily as the smart, hard-working guy if he just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Hopefully, though, doing some of these thing will put you in the right places at the right times.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Writing Process: A Test of Will

Well, I'm still buried deep in the "writing process." Last week, my advisor and I bumped the manuscript back and forth a few times and then on Friday he dropped a major bomb on me. The 9 page (single-spaced) document was now 4.5 pages! Over half of the introduction was gone and the first and last sentence of most paragraphs were deleted.

We talked about it for about an hour and he pointed out a few things that he still wanted me to work on. I spent most of the weekend angry about what was happening and realized that the editing process ultimately comes down to a test of will. I can argue and argue for the way I want it to be. My advisor can do the same. Ultimately, one of us has to back down or we both have to bend. I'm not sure why, but my experience has been that bending doesn't work. It's like the paper ends up sounding to wishy-washy because you never come straight out and say what you want to say. After a couple of days of thinking about it, I decided to just let my advisor have his way. I decided that it would be better to get the paper done and published (even if it isn't exactly how I want it) than to continue through this torture of editing and re-editing with him.

So, on Monday, I took my poor, hacked up paper and made the changes that we discussed last week. I sent it back to him and within 10 minutes he came over to my desk (after all, it just doesn't take very long to read 4 pages) to tell me that the paper is choppy and it's like we've taken 3 steps backward. Well, why do you think it's choppy? BECAUSE YOU DELETED THE FIRST AND LAST SENTENCE OF NEARLY EVERY PARAGRAPH!!!

Well, things seem like they're going from bad to worse when he next says to me, " We need to make this even shorter. Let's get it down to three pages." So, my 9 pages are now three pages and my 6 figures are now 3 figures. Is this progress?

We're planning on contacting some journals this week to see if they're interested in it. If we can finally get this thing out there, I'll be happy to just have it behind me. I need to get on with my postdoc/job search and I've been waiting to get this off my plate first. I don't think I can wait any longer, though, if I'm still going to defend in March.