Sunday, November 18, 2007

At night the monsters come out from under the bed

Yesterday I dreamed I was being fired from my job. The setting of the dream was clearly out of context, taking place in a carpenter's shop all complete with saw dust on the floor, old furniture and people dressed in work overalls, but the cast was people among the higher ups at work. The reason for the firing was that someone had pointed out something I had said in a meeting the other day, and although I only vaguely remember the reason, it was something along the lines of me saying something impolite to some service staff. Hardly a reason for being downright kicked out in the real world and the process behind it all was also a tad too Kafkaesque to be true, as it was only this one persons word against mine and the decision was already made.

Although I missed two days at work last week due to a cold I don't really think I'm up for being kicked out but the dream was distressing on it own for being so real and featuring the right people in the role of power. It also pushed on some very real buttons with some real situations lately brought about by my future change of workplace. Maybe it's all in my head, but I am having such a difficult time with the decision to go after my new job. It's not so much the move and the saying good bye to very nice colleagues here (although that in itself is taking its toll), it's more the guilt of not being grateful enough for the chances and opportunities I have been given here and maybe most of all the fear that in being open about my desire for New Job/ New Institution I am inevitably showing a lack of passion for Current Job or more correctly Current Institution. It is not so much about the actual work to be done in various projects, because I will continue to be involved in those and my closest colleagues know that I plan to be invested in our shared interests for the foreseeable future, it is more about the type of institution.

I am not unhappy where I am. I work with an extraordinarily good group of people who are excellent scientists and fun and kind people to be around. I like my workplace and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone and I appreciate many of the privileges associated with this kind of business. I also like the city and the place and in general I am not ready to rule out the opportunity of ever coming back. I might never do so, but at the moment I like to think of leaving a door open. But it is not a university and it has a different mission. Not a worse one, just a different one. It has a heavy emphasis on applied science and the potential to do great and important work that affects lots of people every day, but I don't know if that mission is for me. I am not sure it is, but with being a postdoc and being in an almost entirely basic research focused group I haven't really experienced the true side of this workplace. At the moment I have a hard time seeing how the kind of research I am most interested in right now fits into the main idea of this institution, but to rule that out forever is a bit of a long shot, I'd say.

Ever since finishing my Masters I have had a desire to teach. I love teaching and I am good at it. I have a passion for teaching that I just can't muster up for applied research, and my main goal is to work at a university. The position I have gotten now is my chance to do so, and may eventually open the doors to another university in a more desirable location (the place I'm going to is definitely desirable in its own right, but it's not a place most people would want to spend the rest of their lives) or it may not. There are not hundreds of universities to choose from here. There are maybe something like ten universities where my field is taught in the region of four countries where we could imagine living for the long term. In other words there are absolutely no guarantees for being able to sustain a lifetime career as a professor.

I have been trying until now to signal interest in both worlds (I mean who on the job market wouldn't do so, if they could possibly under any circumstances see themselves in both types of careers), and trying to get credentials in both types of work. I have actively been working towards getting as much teaching experience as possible, but maybe my colleagues haven't realized I thought of that as a way of making myself marketable towards another type of position. I have found it difficult to be open about my wish of switching to the university environment because I feared it would change how my commitment to the applied research type institution was viewed. I think that was rightly guessed, because that is what I am experiencing right now. Now when everyone knows I have accepted the other job I cannot really hide where my preferences lie, and some people don't like that. It's not only that they don't like it, but I'm fairly sure that some people also take this as disinterest in what we are doing here and may well remember this if they ever receive an application from me again in the future. What bugs me even more is that although I don't want it to be that way, it may be true and if it is I will not be able to return to this place, and that leaves me really sad.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

My job does not exist

After almost two years you would think I should have realized, but alas, no. A few weeks ago I got a questionnaire from the union I'm a member of, who were doing a survey among their postdoc members about work conditions. All fine and an excellent initiative. In one of the first questions the respondents were to choose their workplace among a list of institutions. My institution was not on that list and according to the explanation following below neither were any of the other non-university research institutes. Apparently according to the rules in this country one cannot be a postdoc if the position is not linked to an university. Huh?

Granted, nowhere on my contract are the words "postdoc" mentioned. My position says research scientist on a contract that runs out four years from the start date, but the name tag on my door and my business card says postdoc. How's that for confusion? I don't really care whether my particular position is called postdoc, or contract-based research scientist or worn out young scientist waiting in line for a permanent job, but I do care about the implications following from the postdoc position only being associated with universities*.

For one this brings up my favorite pet-peeve, about the postdoc being considered a second educational step beyond the PhD. This bugs me to no end and I have written about it several times on this blog in the past. I have no problem with the postdoc as a time to refine ones ideas, get the dissertation research published, get a foundation of new research to publish from in the future and to provide some preliminary results for the first big grant applications. But, emphasising that this must happen at a university, sounds to me like saying that one must be in a degree-granting learning environment under supervision of teachers in order to do so. Sounds to me like the next step will be the "postdoc degree" achieved by defending a set amount of research in front of a board of academics.

On the flip side, this rule might be well intentioned and signal the need for a training ground where postdocs can get experience with teaching, interaction with students, advising etc. If it is so, even I might agree that it makes some sort of sense. But as far as I know, the goal at many institutions and various associations with postdoc's best interest at heart is to shield post docs from teaching loads, student advising and too much interaction with students. The ideal postdoc in my field seems to be considered ample time for research and development, without "wasting" too much on taking part in department commitments.

Last, but not least, how on earth do the union people imagine the research institutes can be effective in churning out papers to the degree they are now, if postdocs weren't involved in the process? Do they have no idea how a research group or the grant proposal process works? I wonder who they think do much of the science in the government subsidised research institutes if not young contract researchers, and what these people are entitled to or not, if they are not postdocs? If the postdoc title somehow suggests that one is under training, does that give the university real-postdocs access to development tools, that the research institute contract researchers haven't? Or is it the other way around that the non-postdoc contract researchers have more freedom as scientists because we are considered average slaves rather than people in training? If that is so, I'd like the title on my business card to be changed.

*I should emphasise that I am at a research institute, in a department with a strong emphasis on basic science. We are not associated with a particular university, but many senior (and some junior) scientists hold associate/ full professorships at universities in addition to their position here. We do not do commercial science and compete for grants from research councils and other public funding bodies on equal terms with the universities.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Field photo Friday

One of my field areas is this mid-size river in subarctic Eurasia. It is not only an important waterway, source of freshwater and (sadly) a major outlet for industrial waste, it is also a potential climate archive for the past 100.000 years and an example of what some oil and gas reservoirs look like inside. It is several hundred kilometers long and a thorough study of its deposits and the mechanisms they reflect is probably going to be a lifetime of work. So far we are only scratching the surface. This year we went to five or six sites near the river mouth to investigate what happened to this river as sea levels fell and rose during the last ice age.

I have been a bit obsessed with this story ever since I worked on my dissertation and my advisor talked me into working on some previously published data in a new context. I don't think he really understood this new context himself*, and it took me a lot of overtime and detours to understand where the potential was. At the time I mainly saw the frustrations related to having to write a manuscript for my dissertation based on some data that were not appropriate for the kind of study I was trying to do. But somewhere buried under the frustrations I was also intrigued by the idea of some day going back and collect the right kind of data and do this the way it was supposed to be done in order to work.

This summer I got back to do my own work. It was raining practically every day, we stayed in an awful hotel in town because the ground was too soggy to put up a tent anywhere and we had to go out for dinner in our muddy field clothes each night because we couldn't cook for ourselves in the hotel. But we got some nice results. They didn't change the world from what I knew already, but they did confirm and strengthen some previous ideas based on what other people had done at some of the same sites, and they gave way to more questions and more field work next year. Some of the data will go into the manuscript from my dissertation, which is still sitting, barely touched, on my desk, but which I need to submit to a special publication of a journal in two weeks time. Some will go into another paper I'm going to submit some time next year. But the best part is that I'm pretty sure this will form the start of a lot of future work and presently it's the best foundation I've got for some day applying for a real grown-up grant from the research council.

*My former advisor is an excellent scholar in his field and I'm not trying to imply he doesn't know what he's doing, because generally he does. But, in this particular case I think he had gotten a bit too excited about some new technology that he didn't really know much about, but thought that probably a bright young PhD student could work something out with applying this method to "bunch of old data". Sadly no, either the PhD student wasn't bright enough or the entire idea was rubbish. It cost me about a year in overtime on the PhD, a whole lot of money and gave me only a database of "bunch of old data" which is not very much in demand.

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Small rays of light in an otherwise crappy week

Good news of the week

I got an invitation to submit a paper for a special volume of high profile journal in my sub field based on a talk I gave earlier this fall

A student contacted me asking if I would be her advisor for her Master's as she'd heard from a friend what an excellent teacher I was (Ha, those are the moments that makes it all worth it)

Misbehaving senior colleague closed the discussion* with the words "I see now that you do, indeed, have some experience with "our shared field" (I guess this can be consider a success under the circumstances).

*The discussion ended up in a series of emails in which we did eventually find some common ground and he did sort of explain his point of view. Despite the seriously peculiar start, I have the feeling that we will probably be able to do some good work together, eventually.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

It's done and in the mail

It is about time I chime in here with an InaDWriMo update. I am far behind my goal and have been embarrassingly quiet here. I have been working a lot to make first the original deadline and then a couple of later ones, but alas, things take time. But, as of this night, the first paper is done. It is still going out for a last round of comments from the co-author before being submitted, but I have a good feeling about the paper this time. The argument is stronger than it was before. I have tied up some loose ends, rewritten parts of the results section where some unclear writing covered up some gaps in my understanding of the data and, I think, come to a conclusions that is neither too adventurous nor too trivial.

The manuscript is standing firmly at 13.275 words, or just about the same as I started out at about two months ago (see why I didn't do a word count for InaDWriMo). That's fine. It's a little on the long side, and technically I think one part could be left out completely or moulded into a separate paper, but just the thought of major structural changes now makes me want to puke. So I'll wait and see what the co-author/ reviewers suggest before doing anything major.

Manuscript 1:
To do (list for InaDWriMo posted Nov 1):
Finish revision of pages 21-25 - DONE
Edits to figures - DONE
Rewrite discussion + add sections (currently 6 pages and shouldn't get much longer) - DONE
Write conclusion - DONE
Re-read introduction and revise according to final discussion - DONE
Re-read abstract and revise according to final conclusion- DONE
Check reference list - DONE
Burn CD with text and all figures - DONE
Print manuscript - DONE
Mail to co-author - DONE

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Why would you want common courtesy in Academia when we have so much fun without?

Perplexing email conversation with senior colleague (whom I have by the way never met)

Chair (to Esteemed Professor of rocks, cc to saxifraga):
"Dear Esteemed Professor of Rocks. Dr. Saxifraga is our new faculty member in Speciality of Rocks and will be the future coordinator of your course. I suggest she gets involved somehow in the teaching this year in order to become familiar with the course content and structure"*.

Saxifraga (star struck): "Dear Professor of Rocks. I understand I will be the future coordinator of your course and look forward to meet you. I will be able to give some of the lectures/ practicals or participate in field trips, whatever you think suits the course".

Esteemed Professor of Rocks (not impressed): " Dear Saxifraga. Who (the hell) are you? This is a graduate course, what do you know about graduate teaching, I am sick and tired of having newly minted PhD's teach other PhD's some textbook crap, they just read last night. Where did you learn about this subject? Who were your teachers? Which textbooks do you know? **

Saxifraga (HUH???): "Dear Professor of Rocks. I suppose we will meet when I start my position and I will be happy to discuss my research activities and teaching ideas with you in person. Until then I am sure the university can provide you with information on my background. I suggest I don't participate in your course this year (because, hello dude, why would you want me there when me presence obviously fills you with rage).

Esteemed Professor of Rocks: "I get the feeling that you were annoyed by my previous email. Why the fuss? I was just trying to find out something about your background and didn't even know you were coming. Even if you are very famous, you shouldn't assume everybody knows you***.

Two days pass where saxifraga has other things to do than reply to grumpy old professors.

Monday morning the saga continues….

Esteemed Professor of Rocks: "Are you still angry with me, stop being such a baby"

Saxifraga (WTF, does this never end): "Dear Professor of Rocks. I am not angry, I am busy and haven't had the time to reply to your email. I understand why you would want some background information about me, but refuse to write a job application to teach in your course. In brief my specialty is such and such, I have this kind of teaching experience and you can read more here (link to department webpage). Whether I will participate in your course or not depends on whether my contribution is appreciated or not. I have a full course load already and suggest we will keep my participation in your course minimal.

Esteemed Professor of Rocks: Cheer up, listen to this and smile (attached mp3 file of actually quite good song possibly with some hidden meaning)

* Chair explains in another email to Saxifraga that this is just an option and not a demand since her formal teaching obligations are already filled with other courses.
**Sadly I am not making the questions up. The rest is not the actual words, but close. The meaning is certainly the same.
***Hell no, surprise or not, I don't assume anybody knows me, but I assume the university who hired me somehow guaranties a minimum expected standard for their faculty.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Blogging about science II

In connection to the previous post I'm delighted to see that science blogging seems to be in a healthier shape in other parts of the world.

Dr. Freeride at Adventures in Ethics and Science is involved in an upcoming conference on Science Blogging in North Carolina, January 2008 (head over to Dr. Freerides page if you're interested in attending). For me this is on the other side of the world, so I won't be there, but can I just say that I'm equally impressed and inspired and ever-so slightly jealous for not being able to go. I have no idea whether a similar community of people exists here in these parts, but I doubt it as I have never ever heard a peep about such a thing. Anyway I'm exited that it's possible to gather more than a hundred people (number of attendees still counting I suppose) for an event like this and maybe particularly excited about the number of non-bloggers attending. One thing is to get a bunch of bloggers together who already think blogging is a cool way of communicating, but taking the step outside of the blogosphere and get other people excited about what is happening here is where I think it is getting difficult.

When I was digging around on the conference web page I also found a link to this seemingly excellent book - the first ever science blogging anthology. How could I have missed it? But I did go straight to the check-out counter to buy it. I have put a link in my side bar where you can nominate posts from the science blogosphere to go in the 2007 anthology (until December 20 as far as I understand)

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Blogging about Science

I promised a follow-up to my previous post on "Who reads blogs anyway - do professional scientific blogs work?"* a long time ago, and while I have been thinking quite a bit about the topic, I haven't followed through and written anything.

I wrote the post after a seminar about public outreach at which I got the impression that no one except for the bloggers themselves really cared about blogs and found them rather boring.

Since then I have been thinking about how I select the blogs I read and which blogs come across as boring to me, because yes, there are lots of blogs that don't interest me at all. My favorite online newspaper has a tendency to attach a blog to anything and everything they are writing about. Upcoming elections - let the politicians blog about their life; book fairs or movie festivals - lets get some live blogging and see what the journalists are up to; armed forces in Iraq - let's show the human side and give the soldiers their own blog; expeditions - let's talk to people while they are struggling towards the peaks of the world or crossing oceans. All good causes for blogging. I find it generally interesting to get a peak into the minds of people who affect my life and my world and that's what good interviews or feature stories are for among other things. However, I don't really follow the newspaper-based blogs and the reasons surprise me, because maybe these are some of the things we need to think about if we want people to engage in our scientific endeavours through blogs.

So what is wrong with those blogs I don't read

1) Often they are not particularly well written. Maybe the young first time soldier in Iraq is not always an exquisite writer. Fair enough, that's not why she's there. But maybe it's also a matter of not spending the time on crafting a good piece of writing because blogging conflicts with the real matter at stake. This is something that's highly relevant to me and others who blog from field work/ expeditions because we just don't have the time to do this properly. My creative juices are as good as gone when I get back to my tent after 12 hours outside in rain and wind and a dinner consisting of something that came out of a can. I have field notes to write up, expedition accounts to take care of, plans to make for tomorrow and blogging is at the very end of my to-do list. When I finally get around to it, it has become a chore I need to get out of the way as quickly as possible and at that point I'm certainly not at my wittiest.

Lesson number 1: Good blogging takes time and brain activity and must be made a priority

2) Often they become private e-mail accounts in a public space with well-wishes from parents and friends and personal comments from people at home. I have seen this in all kinds of travel/ expedition/working abroad blogs and while the occasional comment from a family member doesn't bother me, it puts me off when this is all there is. I get the feeling of entering a personal conversation where I don't belong. I like to read about peoples lives, even the mundane pieces about what they do with their days, because this is something I can relate to. I also do laundry, take my car to the garage and argue with my husband, but when it oversteps the boundary between between the generic and the private, I loose interest, and I don't care whether some blogger is making arrangements with his friends to meet when he gets back from his mountain climbing expedition.

Lesson number 2: Limit exchange of private information and arrangements in comments - use email for God's sake.

3) I lack interest in the topic and don't feel part of the community

This is where I think it becomes crucial for blogging about our own research. I think it takes some extraordinary good writing to get me interested in life behind the scenes at a movie festival or in the holy halls of my government. I think it takes writing at a level the average blogger is just not capable of/ interested in investing the time in, because I'm not all that interested in neither movie making nor national politics. This doesn't mean these blogs shouldn't exist, it just means that I won't read them. The reason I do read academic blogs to name an example, is that here I find a community where I can listen to conversations and speak freely about topics I find that most people in my everyday life don't want to talk about all the time. So why would anyone be interested in a scientific blog if it is not giving the feeling of belonging to some sort of wider community and to some degree triggers interests this person has already. This is where I think mine/ our research blog is failing miserably. There might be people out there who have a penchant for the part of the world where the research is carried out and an interest in the scientific questions, but we do not give our readers any feeling of being invited into a whole new world of cool people who share their interests.

Lesson number 3: Pick your audience, link to other blogs and make an effort to provide access to a wider community than just your own blog.

Kjerstin at PlusUltra who responded to the original post also brings up an important point

"....On the other, I've come across a gazillion science blogs, and most of them just seem to share science news that they pick up from journals and newspapers, which is not what I'm looking for in an academic blog. The science blogs that I read, are the ones that let me see how the research and the thinking is done from the inside, and what the scientist finds interesting about it. Unfortunately, most academics feel compelled to blog pseudonymously, so they can't be specific about their research. That's why I think your blog project sounds interesting".

Lesson number 4: To make a scientific blog interesting one must be able to be share scientific details about the work in progress

The blog project in question is a project blog written together with colleagues, so it is not entirely up to me how it is framed, but I think I am beginning to get some of the mechanics for making that kind of project/research blogging work and to understand some of the reasons why the blog doesn't seem successful to me as it is. I have been toying with the idea of a private research blog under my real name as well for a while, as a way of exploring my own thought process. I think it would be easier to play around with new ideas if I didn't have to confer with a panel of fellow contributors and also if I didn't have to simultaneously market a specific research project to a funding agency (which is also part of the mission for the existing blog). That is also one of the reasons why I'm thinking about what a blog can do that other media can't and how/ if it would be possible to integrate such a blog into teaching activities. Earth scientists are not generally huge on blogging and I have yet to meet someone who has taken blogging into an earth science class room, but that's of course not the same as it can't or shouldn't be done.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Enough is enough

I have spent all day updating my blog roll (and do go and check out some of the new links) and tried to update the technorati cloud. Somehow the technorati thing doesn't work and it is driving me crazy. I can't get my new tags added to posts to show up (isn't that what they are supposed to do?) and to top it all off there is a snippet of old info about this blog on the technorati page, that I just can't seem to get to update. I'll have to give up for today. If anybody knows what the problem(s) might be, please let me know.


No more secrets

Well, it appears it's no longer possible to hide one's country in the blogger profile. Can that really be so? Does anyone else know?


Thursday, November 01, 2007

A day off

When I sometimes complain about the corporate style work environment in a research institute compared to universities I tend to forget that this job also comes with it's perks. As much as I loathe the punching in and out and the lack of spontaneous flexibility, the fact that we are actually counting overtime and being encouraged to take it off is no bad treat. We count all hours we are at work and no hours for work done at home. This system sucks in many ways, I think, as it encourages people to stay inside the building even if they are not doing anything or are tired and unproductive and would get more done by moving to a coffee-shop or going home to take a nap and continue later. BUT we also count all hours away on job related travel, and for field work people this means that we rack up loads and loads of hours each year. One reason we often don't get around to taking all this time off is of course that we wouldn't be able to get all the work done if we were away on vacation for half of the year, and many people end up never getting this extra time. But for someone like me, who is generally longing for more flexible days and possibilities to work at home or basically anywhere outside my office, this system is actually great.

So I'm taking Thursdays off work. I'm taking out overtime hours to stay at home and since I'm officially not working I can do whatever I please. I might work some, but from home, or I might sleep the whole day and work some other evening or Sunday or whenever it fits. It gives me some of the freedom I have been dreaming about, it cuts my week in two and I don't need to feel bad about it, because I did officially earn the right to take this time off. It also has the added benefit of seeming extremely enthusiastic and hard-working if I do decide to reply to a work email or pop by at work on a home day.

So what did I do with this lovely day of freedom. Well, first I went to a day-time yoga class (strangely exotic to me by know to do anything in the city during the day), then I met with a friend for lunch and dress shopping*, spent the afternoon watching some lame TV (also become increasingly exotic to me these days) while browsing blogs, cooked a nice dinner, spent a lot of time searching for the perfect laptop backpack online and attended a bit to this poor too-often- neglected blog of mine. I didn't do a thing work related, except getting involved in a weird email conversation with a future senior colleague at New University who sent me a rude email and has apparently decided to dislike me, although he has never met me.

* The dress-shopping was a long-planned event and I bought this gorgeous latino-inspired dress, that fits me perfectly. The photo doesn't really show it's true beauty, but I almost didn't want to take it off in the shop. Now I can't wait for the upcoming christmas party season.

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International Dissertation Writing Month, or InaDWriMo has begun. Dr. Brazen Hussy explains it here and has a whole long list of people who have signed up to do some serious writing. As I am one of the poor souls who have promised to produce a lot of words come end of November I'd better get my behind in gear and get started. I also need to set up some sort of word count, but I'm not sure how to do it yet as my writing goal is revising rather than producing new text. I have however sneaked in a teensy bit of new writing and hope I can keep it going.

My goal for InaDWriMo is to finish two manuscripts:

Manuscript 1: needs to go the co-author at the end of the weekend (Nov. 4th)

To do:

Finish revision of pages 21-25
Edits to figures
Rewrite discussion + add sections (currently 6 pages and shouldn't get much longer)
Write conclusion
Re-read introduction and revise according to final discussion
Re-read abstract and revise according to final conclusion
Check reference list
Burn CD with text and all figures
Print manuscript
Mail to co-author

Manuscript 2: Submission deadline Nov. 30 (and actually yes, that's the real deadline from the journal)

This has to be revised pretty much from scratch, so I'm not sure exactly what the bullet points on a to do list are going to be yet.

Field report: Submission deadline Nov. 30 (and yes, once again this is the real deadline from the funding agency)

This is not going to be long. Something like 5 pages I guess, but it does require some steady work on the data from this summer every day until the report is due.

and writing for fun: 20 minutes a day

Here I am not thinking about blogging or emails or starting a novel, but about 20 minutes a day dedicated to new research writing. Either on outline for new paper I just started, making outline for upcoming paper or revisiting manuscript I worked on last year but abandoned due to not-very-nice comment.

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Postdoc carnival

Propter Doc put together a very nice Halloween Postdoc carnival. Go and read.