Thursday, May 24, 2007

Blog break

I am in the field with no internet. Blogging will resume later this summer.

May retrospective

I think the post below sums it up quite nicely. The rest of this month will be spent in the field, doing actual research. Although the past few weeks have been loaded with logistical concerns and practical questions such as "did we remember to buy batteries" and "who brings a ruler" I am probably doing more research this months than any month earlier this year.

So what did I do so far:

  • Made final preparations for six weeks field expedition
  • Attended a full-day seminar about improvement of working conditions
  • Made presentation and work plan for department meeting
  • Made admin report (financial reporting for first part of the year)
  • Read and commented on draft xx of soon-to-be submitted manuscript
  • Searched for additional literature on problem topic on manuscript and read several papers for overview
  • Reviewed applications for postdoc position
  • Dealt with multiple smaller and larger admin issues in the department
  • Attended committee meeting on community-related topic I will be coordinator of
  • Wrote recommendations for students applying to grad school*

*Actually this is not really done yet, but on my list for tonight


Random bullets of field preparations

  • The field season begins tomorrow. The good thing is that regular life obligations will be left behind. The bad thing is that I'm ridiculously tired from dealing with regular life obligations for the next two months. Planning a wedding and two field expeditions at the same time cannot be recommended.
  • I am going to live in a tent far out in the forest for the next six weeks and right now the thought of simple life in the nature seems quite appealing. This will probably change as soon as the first mosquitoes make their way into the tent or at least the first time dinner will consist of a random, grey substance coming out of a can.
  • I am bringing about 15 unread scientific articles and a manuscript for an article. I wonder when I think I am going to work on all that. 10-12 hour days of hard, physical work doesn't leave an awful lot of time for studying. I seemingly have no memory of previous years or am expecting a lot of rainy stay-at-home-in the-camp days.
  • I am also bringing 4 novels, which are totally unrelated to my work. Somehow my imagination of how I will make time for these is much more vivid. One of the good things about living in a tent for weeks on end is plenty of uninterrupted reading time.
  • Yesterday I bought the most ridiculous piece of clothing I've ever owned. It's a fishing* vest, that looks a bit more stupid than this, but otherwise the idea is the same. A particularly weird thing about mine is that it had a small patch of white, teddy bearish fabric on one of the pockets. I have pulled it off now, but I suppose it was there for a reason. *I am not going fishing, but need it to carry all the equipment and tools I need for my fieldwork. Yes, sometimes I could just as well have become some sort of handywoman.
  • We are bringing 8 big boxes of equipment for a field party of four people (our personal luggage come in addition to this). We would like to believe we're travelling with a lot of important scientific equipment. In reality most of it is camping gear. Some clothes pegs, a blanket or 22 bottles of mosquito repellent, anyone?
  • I have also brought a language course on CD and a phrasebook because obviously I think I will have lots of time for spare time activities.
  • In reality fieldwork doesn't really deal with spare time or alone time. We live together in the forest in a camp, eat together, work together all day long and return to the camp for dinner and some social life around a campfire. Not too different from living in prehistoric times (although we do have drinks and chocolate and laptops with many, many extra batteries for full function without access to electricity).
  • I'm going to return in excellent shape, as field work is just a really strange way of getting some exercise. There is really no better way for me to force myself to get fit, but it's not going to be fun for the first few days.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Lifting the veil

I recently figured out who someone I only know from the Internet is in real life. I don't consider myself a stalker type and would never dream of outing anyone against their will, but I couldn't resist the temptation of Google. What happened was that I was immensely impressed by this persons accomplishments and while that was not surprising given what I already knew about this persons alter ego, I think my reaction was somewhat surprising. I was not only impressed but also immediately felt that this person was completely out of my league and I would never be able to compete with someone so succesful. Up until that minute I knew that this person experienced the same struggles as I do and that was exactly the reason in the first place for both of us being in this particular Internet forum. Why is it that as soon as people get a name and a face and a CV I suddenly think they are unapproachable, scarily successful and dealing with everything in a much more elegant way than I do, while I am convinced they are just like me despite all successes as long as they present themselves as an avatar with a fantasy name? Isn't that a little sad?

I sometimes give away my real email or my real name and location to people I've connected with in the blogosphere or internetfora. I almost expect people to google me if they get hold of my name by chance (not because I'm hugely interesting, but because Google is a huge temptation for the curious mind). But I never thought about how getting access to my real life info could change anybodys perception of me (it is really quite harmless, I have never been a sumo wrestler or anything really surprising).


What does a postdoc do - part II: The research

I was hired as a postdoc on a four-year research project beginning in December 2005. My contract runs the full lenght of the project and will end in December 2009. I packed my belongings, moved abroad and started my new position within the week after my dissertation defense and arrived with four papers from my dissertation in press and two yet to be submitted. I also brought one half-finished manuscript from my Master's research five years previously, which had been in and out of the dissertation several times due to disagreements between advisers.

The new project had barely started. What I do relies heavily on fieldwork, which is done in summer, so the first six months were mainly about getting acquainted with the new topic, planning the field season and trying to get my old manuscripts published. The new topic was closely related to my dissertation topic, though seen from a slightly different angle. I performed literature searches, went to field site country to meet with potential collaborators and got to know my new surroundings. I also wrote a reasonable full first draft of the old manuscript from my Master's and sent it off to my former advisor and fretted about how one of the dissertation manuscripts should be revised. My research group decided to participate in a collaborative proposal for a big grant. As one of the things we wanted to do was originally my idea, I wrote that part of the application and was involved in the fitting-it-all-together process. I don't remember how long time I spent on this, but as a group we were probably engaged in the grant writing activity more or less full time for a month. As summer was coming closer I spent almost all available time prepping for the field season. It is maybe not at the core of our work descriptions but for field scientists logistics takes an awful lot of time. It is paperwork and planning and booking and packing, shopping for personal gear and field equipment, figuring out a train table in a foreign land with a different alphabet, vaccinations and health checkups, learning how to use equipment, packing lists and did I mention shopping. At the same time I was offered a six months stint as a visiting professor in another place and made arrangements to continue my postdoc research alongside with the teaching while I was away.

While summer is the quiet time for many academics with time for in-depth thinking, reading and writing, summer is the busiest time of the year for someone in my field. Summer is the time for week-long field expeditions, for student field trips and for conferences. In the summer 2006 I spent 5 weeks in the field for my postdoc project, came home for four days, left for six months away beginning with twenty days of student field excursions and then preparations for the semester. Five weeks in the field ought to generate a lot of data, but often it feels like nothing has been achieved yet when we arrive back home. Much of the interpretation actually happens in the field along with data collection, but like everybody else we need time to dive into the literature and to connect the dots before getting to the writing phase. Most of all we wait for one specific kind of lab analysis to tell us whether the results are useful or not, and it is not unusual to wait for a year for those results.

Before I started the visiting positions I had ambitious ideas of all the work I would get done when I was not teaching. In reality I could barely keep up with necessities such as eating and sleeping. Teaching three courses - one of them an intensive undergrad course - and all of them for the first time was just not compatible with research activity. During the fall I went to one conference (at which I spent more time in my hotel room studying material for an upcoming graduate seminar), wrote one proposal for a field excursion (which I later had to cancel), wrote one proposal for a small independent grant (which I got), did some revise and resubmit work on the big grant proposal from spring and had a few meetings about some background material for the postdoc project. I didn't touch the manuscripts besides when moving the paper piles around in the office to make room for more class-related articles.

This spring, I'm one and a half year into the postdoc and I still haven't submitted any of the manuscripts I brought with me in a half-finished state when I arrived. I haven't written a word on any new paper related to the postdoc project (I finally finished the field report from last year less than a month ago). The postdoc project is still officially my main research activity and I do spend time on it, but mainly in terms of being responsible for the background material (involves drawing the strings to keep some other people working on this), organizing data from last year and planning logistics for this years field season. We got the big collaborative grant and while I am a co-PI on one of the modules I haven't really done any science in the project yet. It has a heavy outreach component which I have been quite involved in (attending meetings and developing ideas), but other than that others are keeping it flowing. I got the small independent grant and have been working on logistics and field preparations for that one for months. It is not a lot of hours per week, but it's always there in the back of my head and takes attention away from other activities. I am still working on the manuscript from my Master's. My former advisor finally got her act together and sent me comments in February and we have been working on it together on and off when time is available.

I don't dare to say when those darn manuscripts will be done, but hopefully I won't round the two-year mark without submitting at least some of them. This years field season begins in less than a week and I still need to participate in packing the shared field equipment, go through the results from last year, go to the dentist, pack my own stuff and spend time with Fiance, so it's not likely to happen right now.

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What does a postdoc do - part I: The beginning

Among all the more or less mysterious ways google leads people to this blog, the "what does a postdoc do" question is by far the most common. Some time in the not so distant past, when I was a grad student, I thought that a postdoc somehow equalled the grad experience just with better pay and without coursework, advisers and a demand for a dissertation at the end. What i mean is that I thought a postdoc equalled working on a specific research project for a set amount of time with the goal of publishing on x and y topic during that time. For some postdocs this is probably the way it is, for others it's something completely different. One thing I have realized is that the "postdoc" term covers so many variations that it's almost impossible to explain once and for all what it's all about. Most of us probably fall in a category somewhere in the middle. The "postdoc" title usually implies a position funded by someone else's project money. Depending on the PI's characters postdocs seem to be everything from research slaves to semi-independent participants in research groups, but I've also seen postdoc money fund people in more technical positions. Strictly speaking postdoc positions should not contain teaching or administrative duties, but most of the postdocs I know in real life as well as in the blogosphere find themselves participating to some degree in one or both of these activities sooner or later. As the postdoc employment should be a temporary experience most of us need to think along the lines of career enhancement at the same time, and often that means taking part in advising, teaching, administration and grant writing.

In reality only a small percentage of my time is being spent on the original research project that feeds me. One and half year in my responsibilities have developed to span three research projects, a heavy administrative load, some teaching, some advising as well as trying to publish articles from my dissertation and previous research activities. Is it good for CV building - yes, I think so. Is it good for keeping the work load at a sane level - No, I think not. Is it common - I have no idea. The specific combination of hats I wear on daily basis is probably not common, but I don't think development of side projects and additional responsibilities on top of the research project are uncommon at all.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Norwegian national day

I usually keep quiet about my location, but I think I am in a phase of maybe becoming more open about my identity on the blog (or at least where I am and what I do). Anyway, today is the national day here and we're just back from the parade.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Countdown to fieldwork

I am sick, but there is only two weeks left before I leave for a full summer of field activities so no time to wallow in self-pity and staying at home, but have to keep going at fast pace. There is so much to do before leaving and none of it are the kind of activities that will ever go on a CV. Sometimes I wish I was in a less field-oriented kind of science with some time, ever, to think and read and finish all those pesky manuscripts and conference presentations and half-baked ideas I have lying around. I have research ideas I want time to develop, especially one that already exists in a semi-finished manuscript, but needs serious refining and rethinking. I want time to think through how to present certain ideas in a light that will attract potential industry sponsors when I meet these at an upcoming conference. I want time to think about where my own career/ work situation is heading and how to get there (I've been spending so much time on doing annual reviews with everybody else, but haven't had the chance to talk to anyone about my own performance and goals). I need time to prep for teaching later this summer/ early fall and I want to do it well. I think teaching is seriously neglected in my field and often done in a boring and disengaging way. I want to make an effort to improve that pattern, and honestly to leave a good track record at the university that invites me to teach. I could come up with a million things I could do with my time that would make me feel like I was moving forward, being productive and using my postdoc time wisely, but in reality I will be packing mosquito repellent, sampling equipment and camping gear, making hotel reservations, reporting department finances, meeting with a group of journalists, writing up minutes from a meeting where I have taken responsibility for big institutional development thing.


The roots and all that

I am back from the trip to the home country. Even though I haven't moved very far away I am sometimes homesick bordering on the pathetic. Back home the weather is much nicer, the nature is gentler, the cities larger, the food better, the jokes funnier, the people more diverse, the cultural life more sophisticated and everything better known - to me. A few years ago I would have ridiculed anyone saying the above. Anyone who would be opposed to emigrating or at the very least working abroad for several years would have been a looser in my opinion, especially if the abroad in question was a mere 24 hours road trip away.

The thing about Europe, aside from giving people from other continents the chance to visit several new countries in a matter of days, is that it's actually quite diverse. Even within regions that might seem superficially similar to the visitor. Although a neighboring country might not be far away in distance or language group it is still a new country complete with its own official rules and regulations, traditions, food, news, literature, music, TV-shows, ways of doing things, perceptions of good and bad, wrong and right and not least cultural heritage. Sometimes it is just a matter of getting that special kind of bread, listening to that song from the 80's on the radio or knowing who the heck they are talking about when referring to that comedian who used to be so funny. One of the things I love about going home (besides the yummy food and the hip and happening cities) is to get all these cultural references, to know what things used to be like and to have shared memories with someone else.

I am not more nostalgic than I remember some things that were less than ideal (say ridiculous real estate prices anywhere near hip and happening cities or complete lack of jobs in either of our fields). For the same and other reasons I also don't think we will be living there anytime soon. Instead I think I am on the verge of becoming obsessed-with-home-country-emigrant type who will go out of her way to get recognizable home country products, only cares about home country news and gets crazily happy about any chance to elaborate on home country ways of life. We already subscribe to the emigrant newspaper and have the kitchen cupboards stocked with Weird National Specialty, and I know more about what happened at home the last six months than what happened here yesterday, so I'm well on my way to achieving this. Watch my steps, I'm not sure I like this about myself.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Back to the roots for a happy occasion

I've bought an expensive gift, a nice dress and some accessories. I am off to a family event and a few days of indulgence in everything that is sweet and good about Home Country (since I don't live there anymore I don't have to deal with all the things that are just crappy and dull). See you next week.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Looks like I'm really far away from my true home

Who would have known?

Thanks to PropterDoc for leading me astray.

You Belong in New Zealand

Good on ya, mate
You're the best looking one of the bunch
Though you're often forgotten...
You're quite proud of who you are


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

April retrospective

I suck! That's pretty much the feeling I'm left with after another month of not submitting any publications. It's not that I'm not doing anything. I'm doing more teaching and more admin than any other postdoc at my institution, and this month I have actually spent more time on tasks related to my actual postdoc project (yes, I do have one such, although I almost forget it sometimes). Right now is the prepping-for-the-field time of the year, with activities such as equipment shopping, travel planning, customs arrangements, visa arrangements taking up an unreasonable proportion of time. It is also the time for wrapping up results from last year, figuring out where the potential lies and what we'd better forget about. In between endless logistics and Easter break and unforeseen events threatening to jeopardize the entire field season I've managed to get the following done in April:

  • submitted one conference abstract
  • transferred and labelled all photos from last years field season in new database
  • made new base maps for field area
  • figured out the nuts and bolts of new software
  • printed satellite images for field area
  • made sample list
  • made itinerary for this years field expedition
  • dealt with various logistics for upcoming field season
  • dealt with various logistics for summer teaching
  • made arrangements with student for summer research
  • written project plan for new project (funded by my first ever independent grant, however small)
  • had annual assessment meetings with everybody in department
  • had full day meeting with colleague at another university
  • had a couple of half-day admin meetings

To me it still screams - "but you still haven't submitted the papers you idiot".

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