Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Things are quiet here right now because I'm squeezing in as much time as possible to work on the manuscript from hell. I have talked about it before and announced often enough that I'm just around the corner from finishing it. Well, as you all know, turning those corners often take an awfully long time and the paper isn't done yet. But I'm getting there. It actually feels like I'm moving forward now that I can put in several hours a day, but still it's two steps forward and one step back. Yesterday I spent the entire afternoon revising a section that I had considered done. It IS much better now and the revision WAS needed, but geez going back and forth like this is slowing me down. It's really good to think about that I have plenty of material to publish in the future, but going at this rate I will probably never get around to most of it.

Although its slow like hell I love having time for research again. I haven't had the possibility for this kind of full-time dedication to research since working on the dissertation, and I had forgotten how much more enjoyable research is when time for it actually exist. I'm pulling away from department obligations as much as possible and try to keep my admin responsibilities to a minimum. I'm not uninterested in the well-being of the department, but there are some weird dynamics going on with the current department head and since I'm not going to be there in the long run, the easiest thing right now is just not to get too messed up in it.

When I'm not working I'm day-dreaming about going to a warm place and soak up some sun. I don't know why I have ended up in these cold climates with my sun and heat loving mind and body. I just function better when its warm. The fall is beautiful here, on good days, and we have had quite a few of those recently so I shouldn't complain, but I'd give anything for a bit of heat right now.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

A place in the world to be called home

Breena Ronan from Who doesn't love roses asked how the location is for my new job and let me just say it's special and give you all a few hints.

It's somewhere on this map

It is a small town in a cold place, but it's a nice and friendly community in spectacular nature in the middle of my new field area. It's a small university with a good reputation (let's see about that once I arrive, hope I don't ruin it) and it's a really good environment for what I do. It's not so much for heels (gonna miss those) or business suits, but it does have some nice places for going out and it is possible to buy a decent cup of coffee and a good meal. I guess we will do more outdoors activities than we do now, but there are local cultural events as well. It will be difficult not to out my location once I'm there, but so far my lips will be tight. If you can guess where it is, please don't mention the place directly in the comments.

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It's not all work

Tonight I'm going out with Husband to celebrate the anniversary of the day we met. I was a grad students on a study abroad programme in the Arctic and mightily impressed with this guy who seemed to know everything worth knowing about how to navigate the dark and icy north. Our first dates were shaped by our somewhat unusual surroundings where dressing up for going out means multiple layers of fleece and wool and where it seemed perfectly natural to have a first date that consisted of an excursion to an old industrial installation on a mountain side. Sometimes I wonder how we were able to figure out that we would also be a good match in the more civilised parts of the world, but I am very glad we decided to give it a change through long-distance phone-calls and commuting across borders and chose to live with all the inconveniences of nomadic life until we were able to settle down together here. I cannot for the life of me imagine where I'd been, if it hadn't been for him.


Saturday morning


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Writing for fun

I am slowly reengaging with research after the summer of craziness and a year of unusual obligations. I remember how I in the beginning of my postdoc sometimes found it frustrating to be in my office with myself and my papers all the time and wanted distraction and new challenges. Now I think it is pure bliss to close my door and work away on my own things all day. In a way I have achieved what I wanted in the short term now with getting the job, and I don't see the need to spend a lot of time on teaching or admin or any other complimentary CV-building activities right now. I have seven months left in this position and I've decided to live the postdoc life in all it's glory to the fullest and enjoy having all the time in the world to work on publications. It's interesting how it's much easier to be enthusiastic about this prospect now, when I know it will not last forever than in the previous two years when I had plenty of post doc life ahead of me and the mere title made me feel unenthusiastic.

So I have been typing up my field notes recently and while this is a completely brain-less task it is still a way of reconnecting with the work we did a few months ago and get an overview of the kind of data we have brought back. Yesterday, after finishing the typing, I sat down with the notes, went through all the localities and started scribbling down which data have the potential to become which kind of publications. I've always been a bit frustrated with the way these projects are organized, because the control-freak inside me, loves the idea of having a proper hypothesis, finding a good place to test it and see what the outcome is. Sadly my field doesn't really work that way. Of course we have some sort of a hypothesis, but since we don't know how and where we will find the pieces for the puzzle, it always ends up with a situation where we come home with the data and then we begin to figure out what it's all about.

This project has been running for two years now and until yesterday I was seriously worried that my publication outcome of this post doc was going to be embarrassingly small, because I just couldn't see where it was all heading. After yesterday's combing through the material for publishable bit and pieces and bigger arguments I've counted 10 potential publication topics that we could start writing right now and 7 more that require more data, but are work in progress. I mean, how could I not see that before? So, obviously I'm not going to write 17 papers tomorrow (and some of the topics would not be me as a first author anyway), but looking at this list makes me so much more inspired to write than I have been in a long time.

It will probably be years and years before all of this will appear in print and some of the ideas will probably never fly, but it was so cool to go through this process of connecting the dots, identifying ideas and seeing the potential in what was so far just a couple of dirty notebooks with loose pages and weak binding. I have written so little over such a long time that everything has been revision of old manuscripts and that process is so tedious and drab that I get tired just from thinking about it. I have been thinking about how to make the most of my workdays and I think I shall try to sneak in a small portion of writing for fun each day and get started on some of these new ideas.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Balance of the mind

I tend to think that I'm an efficient and well-functioning person who can push myself hard and get results. I'm generally healthy, care for what I eat, where I buy it and how it's produced and am in relatively OK shape despite my preference for the sedentary lifestyle. I get really stressed when needing to finish something, but on average I don't work extremely long hours and I do take time off at home and to travel to visit family and friends. So what's to worry about.

The other day we had a seminar at work about stress and how to deal with it. I almost didn't go because I had too much to do, but realized the irony and went anyway. As an introduction the presenter said that sometimes people who were in the middle of dealing with long term stress symptoms had been uncomfortable with attending the seminar or even started screaming. I was pretty sure that I'd be one of the people who would find it uncomfortable, but also hoped that I'd at least not act like a lunatic and start screaming. I didn't, but I found it downright terrifying when she talked about how stress leads to all sorts of physical reactions and diseases and how it could take years to recover from burn-out once it got that far.

I don't have a crazy day to day schedule. When I'm at home, going to the office every day, doing some research and some administration and replying to some emails it's not bad at all. But my work life is only like that for part of the year. From about May to September I rarely have weekends, I'm always on the move - preparing to go in the field, being in the field, working hard, sleeping in a tent, reorganizing equipment when I come back, preparing for the next trip, preparing field teaching, reorganizing, travelling etc. It's rarely under 14 hours work days, sleep is limited and the responsibility on the expedition leader when travelling with people in remote arctic regions is immense. It's tiring under the best conditions and it's exhausting when any sort of difficulties arise. This year I got sick while I was in the field. Not a cold or a flu but some seemingly more serious digestive problem that had lingered for a while and hasn't subsided yet (although it is much better now). I had a couple of warnings earlier in the summer with sudden problems with sleeping, outbreak of some already known skin problems, strange aches and just overall feeling tired and not being able to snap out of it.

When the stress-seminar lady showed a list of physical stress symptoms and asked us to write down how many we had experienced lately I was too embarrassed to actually put the number down on paper. I know I have been wearing myself out lately. The last year has been crazy. First with the visiting professor appointment that was supposed to be a 50 % appointment, but ended up being more like a 200% appointment with a 50% postdoc on top of it. Then the six month stint as department head, which was again a steep learning curve and a lot of work before being up to speed and then this crazy summer in the end. It's hardly rocket science to figure out why my body cried for a break.

I'm taking it easier now. I simply had to. Luckily the summer teaching is done and I'm not department head anymore and for the first time in more than a year I can actually just be a postdoc and nothing more. I get to keep reasonable hours, I've started biking to work, I've improved my diet and try to eat what seems to help and I've taken up yoga, which also really helps me to get out of my head a bit. So I'm probably getting there, but I still think I need rest. Actually I think the seminar presenter was onto something right when she said that people need to stay at home and relax when recovering from long term stress, but when will anyone in the research world ever get to do that unless they get really ill. I think that prospect is absolutely frightening. I have no idea how to deal with it in an environment where everybody being stressed all the time is the order of the day.


Blogroll update

The blog roll and my profile has needed of a serious make over for a while, but as you know I've been out of the loop for some months over summer, so I haven't attended to this pressing issue before now. I know lots of new good blogs have come up since last time I updated my blog roll and there are people I read who are not on it yet. If you read here and would like to have your blog included, please speak up or if you have any other suggestions for cool additions to the blog roll, that i might have missed. I probably won't get around to do this before the weekend, but whenever I get to it I will announce the whole new exciting reading list here.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Study techniques, anyone?

I did something unusual today. For me at least. I sat down and read through a full volume of Important Journal in my Field and skimmed through a dozen more and I didn't forget everything I'd read the moment I closed the door to the office. Instead I spent about fifteen minutes before leaving summing up the main new ideas and additions to ongoing discussions in the field and felt invigorated and inspired and, like someone with an overview. I tend to think that everybody else gets much more done than I do, and it's probably not unlikely that you're all way more on top of your reading than I am, but honestly reading is something I've almost cut out of my work schedule.

I mean I do skim the e-alerts from Science, Nature and the most important journals in both my fields. I do read papers when prepping classes or writing up papers or the occasional paper by a friend or close colleague, but I don't have the kind of overview I used to have when all I did all day was work on first my Master's thesis and later my dissertation. One reason is that I don't have that kind of time or continuity anymore, but another reason is, as I discovered today, that I've simply stopped using the good study habits I used to have. These days it's all about cramming in time for writing and data processing between all the other obligations and I tend to think that reading for overview is slow, time-consuming and requires my concentration in ways I rarely have when working in the office. The latter is true and I've started closing my door most of the time (much to the disgust of my chair who enters without knocking as a way of signalling that I've stepped over some openness and availability line). But the former is not necessarily true. I used to be able to read thick piles of papers, understand them and use them in my work in a reasonable time, by concentrating, working for longer time intervals and taking notes.

And that's what I've rediscovered. For some reason I've come to think that I should be able to suck out all useful information by flipping through new volumes of the journals while being preoccupied with other tasks, and if I don't get it that way I need to invest hours and hours in meticulously combing through the entire paper word by word. Today I closed my door, set a timer for two 45 minutes increments with a break in between, made myself a cup of tea, turned off the computer, sat down at my desk with a pen and a notebook and started going through the papers, quickly but seriously, writing down key sentences for each paper and it worked. Unbelievable. I've now promised myself to go through some of the other volumes lying around in the same way. It took me two hours and I feel more on top of things than I've been since I passed my defense. So easy, and I knew it all along. From now on I hope I'm going to be "someone who reads".

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday morning - progress report

I'm up ridiculously early for a Sunday to work on the manuscript from hell for a couple of hours before we leave for the christening of our friends' son. I obviously didn't finish the manuscript a week ago as I'd unrealistically promised myself (I've got to learn to judge the actual time I will need to do some work, soon), but I have made very good progress in the past week. I'm the type of person who loves schemes and schedules and calendars and planning, and I used to make overviews of deadlines and workplans for myself all the time. Somehow this habit has slipped recently with so little time available to work on research at all, and instead I've taken to vague goals of finish this paper in October and the next one in December etc. But this obviously doesn't work. For one that kind of planning goes without paying any attention to what is actually in my real-life calender already and second it's just too unstructured and too easy to dismiss. So earlier this week while battling with another bout of procrastination I sat down with a calender and tried to make a realistic estimate of when I could work on what, which deadlines I have to meet and remembered to leave in time for comments from co-authors, finishing the field reports, organizing the samples, meetings etc. I'm pretty sure this system will break down at some point, but if I can keep it going for a while, it might offer some support in terms of short term deadlines to make sure I'm not overwhelmed to the point where I do nothing.

So far it has been successful (counting since Tuesday). I've worked on the manuscript every day, put in four hours yesterday and hopefully between one and two hours today. Yesterday I finished some illustrations, which have been hanging over my head for years, and actually it was no big deal. I think the remaining illustrations can be done in about two to three hours, so maybe today, and then the text should be easier to handle.


Things that made me feel old recently

  • I went to a spinning class that promised workout to music from the 80's, just to find out I was the only one in the room who could possibly have known these songs when they were around for the first time.
  • I friended my younger sister on Facebook and her reply to my request was "wow, are YOU here, I thought this was mainly for students"
  • Along the same lines, I'm not able to find ANY of my old friends from home on facebook. I guess they are busy with raising kids, earning money and participating in the real world rather than spending their days playing around in cyberspace.



I'm going to be a professor and leave the postdoc world behind starting summer 08.

I'm wildly excited about it but also a bit apprehensive about the upcoming move, about leaving this place when we finally begin to fell settled and feeling weirdly guilty that it went so easily for me. I haven't told many people yet. That's a bit strange, I thought I would be yelling from the rooftops, but truth to be told all I feel when it comes to announcing the news to my colleagues is guilt for leaving, for having bagged a better job and for not appreciating enough what I have here. I told my PI who was excited on my behalf, but sad to see me go. I also told my department chair who was excited on my behalf, and maybe not too sad to see me go and I told some friends and colleagues in grad school city who ranged from through the roof happy for me, to well, OK if that's what you want. It's not as strange as it sounds, because my colleagues are mainly people from what I consider my secondary sub-field and I'm sure I could make a good career for myself here if I wanted to stay in that field and if I didn't want to teach. But my new job is a chance to switch to my primary sub-field and a chance to switch to a university environment rather than the more corporate style workplace here and I think that's what they don't understand.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Who reads blogs anyway? Do professional scientific blogs work?

As some of you may remember I have been blogging under my real name as an outreach activity from one of the research projects I'm involved in. I have been meaning to get back to that and discuss my experience and what we have learned from it, but didn't find the right angle to discuss it from, until yesterday. I was at a one day "Public outreach for scientists" course where invited speakers were brought in to teach us about how to promote scientific stories in various electronic media and how to work with journalists. An extraordinary opportunity and an eyeopening experience. Participation was optional, the number of participants limited and there was a waiting list to get on the course, so my immediate reaction would be that the people who were there were interested in working with the media one way or another. I would also think that most people there would be open to nontraditional means of communication to/ with the public.

Some of us had experience with scientific blogging from field work, data collection or expeditions to remote parts of the globe and eventually we got into discussing how those blogs could ideally be framed, who is the audience, what should be our goals in terms of readership etc. All fine. We are all fairly new in this arena, and learning as we go along. Even with experience from more personal academic blogging I think I have a lot to learn about how to use a professional blog. The discussion took place mainly between people who already had scientific blogs, which shouldn't come as a surprise, but when others started to chime in it DID surprise me how negative and demeaning their comments were. Some of the most common comments seems to be "Blogs are boring", "why would anyone read blogs", "when would they do so?", "so, you mean that people read blogs when they are supposed to be working", "who reads blogs anyway?", "kids?".

Are you surprised? I am. But I have heard these and similar comments from enough people in scientific fields (at this meeting and elsewhere) to speculate why it is people think blogs don't work. I should say that none of these comments were related to any particular blog and I doubt any of the commenters have seen the research blog in question before commenting. I tried to explain what it is I think blogs can do that other media cannot. That we have a chance to show how we do science while we're doing it and where our shared knowledge actually comes from. That we make science accessible to anyone who are interested and that people can talk to us if they want to. That even if no one ever visits our blog it forces us to reflect on our own work in a way that's rare in science but which might eventually help us communicate our science, goals and visions better in any media or any setting. I think they somehow saw the point in using blogs as a self-development tool, but self-development is not highly rated in the sciences.

What do you think? Does professional, scientific blogs make sense or should those of us who absolutely must share our dirty laundry with the world stick to write personal blogs for our friends and shut up about it? Is the blog media worth using for scientific communication and would anyone ever read? Is it the scientific dorks who are behind and should just get in the loop and follow up on what has happened in the blogosphere during the past 5-ish years or are we as bloggers just at the extreme forefront of things and should wait for other people to tag along?

Please share your opinions. I will get back to this topic, but would really like to hear what you have to say first.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Do you have a research agenda?

I am trying to finish a manuscript for an article before Thursday morning when I travel to grad school city to meet with the co-author. I have a few comments to address, need to fix some details on illustrations and should polish the discussion, and the actual work remaining is totally doable in a couple of days. Yet, there is something holding me back. Partly this is probably my own laziness, but it is also fear and seriously I think some sort of post-partum mechanism. The time spent working on this thing is downright ridiculous. It is research from before I started my PhD and while I obviously haven't worked on it continuously for ten years, I have revisited the project with one-two year intervals since my early twenties. I know it was good research when it was done, and as I'm in a somewhat slow moving field it is not outdated as such, although it has been re-framed several times and might need another serious make over if it isn't published soon.

Part of the fear comes from my coauthor's (and then advisor's) lack of confidence in getting anything published in the top-tier-journals in our field, and the way her extreme perfectionism rubbed off on me during my years as her advisee. I have over the years wiggled myself out of the idea of nothing is good enough for anyone to see, ever, but apparently she hasn't, and since this work was originally shaped under her critical guidance, my own judgement of the quality of work goes out of the window as soon as the question of showing her a draft arises.

This is the last piece of research from my grad school years that is dependent on my former advisers and haven't grown into an independent shape. I'm still mining additional publishable research from my dissertation, but more in the sense of ideas and preliminary data for further studies. Although the focus of the current manuscript has also changed significantly from my MSc thesis it is after all still the same basic idea and as such the last reminder of an ironically rewarding but extremely difficult period in my education and a time it took me years to recover from.

It is however also the time where my views and interests and foundation in my field were shaped and since I have never again been through such a rigorous programme, it is also the one sub field where I feel most confident. It is where know the literature in and out and still ten years on am able to jump straight into discussions, it is where I am able to find ideas and gaps in explanations and the background for any contribution to my current sub field. This is research I want to come back to and where I can see a way forward in applying ideas from my current sub-field. I cannot let this article slide, as I need it to demonstrate that I can handle both sub fields, before submitting research proposals that combine the two. I cannot let the opportunity of drawing on two lines of experience go, and I cannot let a ten year old advisor-advisee relationship bog me down. More important, I can't let this feeling of inadequacy tied so closely to the whole project hang around forever, it is really time to let go and free up some energy to actually develop those future project ideas.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

What not to do when applying for a job

I've been reading through a number of job applications recently and considering the wealth of information available everywhere on how to write a good application I am seriously mystified by shortcomings of those we've received . With being on the job market myself and all I'm not above giving people the benefit of the doubt for typos, minor redundancies or overdoing the self appraisal a bit, but man, some of this is unbelievable.

So please, if you recognize yourself in the following and I have been slaving away reading your application, I don't feel sorry for you. You can consider this a wake-up call and join the nearest job search course or type in "advice for job applications" in Google, and I'm pretty sure you will not be recommended to do ANY of the following.

If your wider field is, say particle physics, why would you think it would be worth your time to apply for a post doc in archeology (or whatever similarly far fetched field it is that I work in)? A particularly surprising aspect of this is that we actually got two applications from people with the same irrelevant background. I'm now considering putting these two people in touch with one another. Maybe they can figure something out together.

If you haven't finished your PhD yet, you shouldn't write "PhD degree expected spring 2007" in a CV updated a mere month ago.

If you have ever been in the same class for a grad school course as someone on the search committee, don't state in your CV that you are an expert on the topic, if the course is all you have ever done. (What do you think, I was there, I'm not even close to being an expert on the topic). If you can't help it and really think you are now an expert on orange-growth in cold climates, at least don't state the course as the reason for this.

If you don't write who you are or why you are applying, please, don't expect me to invite you for an interview.

If you can't come up with a single sentence about why you would want to work with this topic or what you have to offer, don't waste your time, and go do something else.

If you don't have a PhD, are in the process of doctoral studies or were ever admitted to a PhD programme, you are not eligible for a post doc position - and yes, that actually goes for two applicants out of the pile.

If you have applied before for the same position and we re-open the search it doesn't help you to change the titles of what you were doing in various stages of your life (it was not about the titles in the first place, but because you don't have the necessary experience).

If we mention in the add that it is very important that you have a good network in your particular discipline as you will be responsible for starting up a new line of work in our group, it is not good enough that you think our field is exciting and of importance to humankind, when you have no experience whatsoever.

Seriously, what is the matter with you people?

Sorry about the rant, but this took HOURS out of my day. I'm off to calm down at yoga class.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The cat is out of the bag

The application is sent and will be evaluated very soon and I have done the right thing and told my PI that I'm applying to prestigious-job at good-school-in -the-high-north. He is less than thrilled, although I think he has come around a bit and see the opportunity from my perspective, but I feel horrible. I know it's just a job and no one owns me and I'm just a post doc who should be expected to leave some day. But I also know that I'm a really good fit in my current department, that I'm doing good science with my current group and that a significant amount of resources have been spent me and my future potential at this place. I feel bad about maybe leaving my colleagues and research group and I hope that my leaving won't mess up our good relationship. I know they'd like me to stay, but no one stays in a job just to be around good colleagues and have coffee with them on a regular basis, right?

I have two years left on my postdoc project and am sure I would have interesting things to work on in that time and that effort is being made to turn the postdoc into a permanent position, and that it's not unlikely that those efforts would be successful. I don't feel that I'm turning my back on something that's not working, rather looking for something that's even better and I'm torn between accepting my own ambitions and possibilities to go for my first choice and staying here where people care about me and where I'm basically satisfied although not all dreams will be fulfilled. I've had difficulties getting friends in this town, but it's getting better and I'm actually enjoying living here right now. I like my work place. It's a well-functioning institution with a better work climate than most university departments I have seen. I could probably be happy here for many years to come. But I would also be forced to stay in the sub field I'm in right now, which is slightly on the side of what I really want to do and I would not be able to have to influence in teaching that I wish to have. Granted, my department and bosses have been generous and let me run quite a bit of teaching activities on the side, but it bothers me that I get no credit for this since it's not part of my job description here. It bothers me when I want to go up for salary negotiations that all effort put into teaching is basically worthless and just leave me with even less time for the stuff I'm evaluated on. It also bothers me that I'm the only one in my group in my discipline and that the fight for doing my things my way did not end with the dissertation. I have lots of influence on projects, but only as long as my perspective fits into the whole frame, which is always shaped by people seeing things from a different angle. I really want to see what I can do if given the possibility to create something myself from my perspective and based on knowledge from my discipline. That being said, I'm also terrified that everything will crumble under me and that my ideas are really better in my head than in real life and that I will regret leaving this safe haven for the great unknown. It's not every day one is specifically asked to apply for a dream job and the verdict will come through soon. Meanwhile I'm heading to work for another round of intertwined guilt and suspense while waiting to hear back.