Monday, December 5, 2016

Young Genius Professors

A couple of times per year, I will attend some kind of event - maybe a conference, maybe a reception at my university - where I have occasion to converse with a senior professor. In this case, "senior" professor refers to someone of the 60+ variety, often older, and often (always?) white and male*.

We'll start chatting, and the conversation may turn towards some kind of recognition or award I've received, paper I've published, or topic related to my productivity. The senior professor will then deliver a remark along the following lines:

You young people are really something. I wouldn't get tenure if I went up for it today. 
Wow, our junior faculty are amazing these days! Where did we find all of you?
It seems most young faculty are geniuses; I wouldn't fit in with you guys!

Now, such remarks are meant as compliments, and I take them as such. But they also give me serious pause, as I look around at all of my fellow young faculty members - whether at CMU or elsewhere. Do I see intelligent people? Yes. People deserving of their careers and eventually of tenure? Yes.

But do I feel like I am a genius walking among other geniuses? Do I stand around wondering how on earth Carnegie Mellon ever amassed so many genius junior faculty in one place? No, never.

Quite simply, I work in the midst of other young people who are busting their asses, just like I am busting mine. I see smart people that work long hours, that sacrifice weekends, holidays, and evenings with their children, significant others, and former hobbies - all so that they can elevate their work and reputation beyond what used to be considered normal or acceptable. The world has not suddenly started producing more geniuses, and I believe that, on average, young faculty are working with the same average level of raw intelligence present in young professors 30 years ago.

 Figure 1. Not my business card.

I have never had a chance to sit down with a senior faculty member and ask them what it was like to work as a professor and get tenure in 1980. I don't know how much they worked, and I don't know what the "bar" was at that time in terms of productivity and ultimate academic impact. But I strongly suspect the modern world has not been kind to the lifestyle of the Professor.

Science has exploded on a global scale - for example, I receive on the order of 100 articles delivered to my inbox every week. I have to sort through these, trying to read enough to stay on top of my field(s) of research, worrying about the ever-expanding number of groups that may scoop my own work. And because of all of the added competition, I have to work harder and think more creatively about how to differentiate my work from that of others. Such considerations are ever present - in recruiting students, in writing proposals, and in "selling" my work to university or national media.

And then, of course, there is the obvious reason why young professors have to work harder than ever before - the state of funding. More people competing for a shrinking pot of money. Success rates used to be 30-50% at many agencies - now, we're looking at the 10-15% range (on average, which means even lower for very young faculty). Will these trends continue? If so, can someone please send me a memo, because I'm going to quit now and start flipping houses.

Add all of this to the fact that many young professors are no longer white men with stay-at-home wives. I love my husband, his professional aspirations, and the added dimensionality that comes with being a dual career couple. But I also know that I'd be more productive if I had a stay at home wife who could do my laundry, run the household errands, cook all of the meals, and take primary responsibility for caring for the children.

So, what is my message? My message is that if you're looking at many young faculty of today and thinking, "wow, what a bunch of geniuses" and "oh, I can't be like them because I'm not a genius" - stop yourself now. We are intelligent people who work hard. There are some geniuses, of course (I'm not one of them). The point is that you don't have to be stratospherically intelligent to do this job well. But you do have to be willing to put in the time (and even more difficult, the mental energy) to meet the demands of modern science, particularly if you want to be at the forefront of your field. It's the current reality - genius or not.

*I must make note that I have had many conversations with senior faculty, and the type of conversation mentioned here is atypical. Many senior faculty are very accomplished individuals (some even geniuses), and I am in no way trying to diminish the work ethic or accomplishments of any individual.

Friday, August 26, 2016

In Failure, There is Hope

I read an opinion article at Scientific American this morning that bothered me. But Katie, my husband would say, many things bother you. This may be true, but my feathers are ruffled enough this morning to write.

The thesis of the SA article is that scientists are "fascinated" by rejection. That we love to hear stories of failure, of ground-breaking science that was rejected by many journals, of excellent scientists that were declined jobs at many institutions. The author posits that we are "fascinated" because:

1) We are saturated by news of others' successes on social media.
2) Rejection runs contrary to our belief that the course of science is a rationale one, where great discoveries are always met with accolades.

Perhaps these factors contribute to our preoccupation with rejection. But they aren't why stories of rejection are so popular. The author barely touches the REAL reason:

"Apart from being a source of comfort,..."

Ahh, here we go. A source of comfort. We are human, no? Not robots.

We are highly trained professionals that have reached the alleged pinnacle of scientific success: tenure track jobs in which we sit in our "ivory tower", doing what I hope each one of us believes to be important work. Because most of us tend not to hate ourselves, we are biased towards thinking that we've done a good job, that our work is of value, and that we've tried really hard. And we've bought into a narrative in which we're told that academic scientists succeed (at least the wide majority of them).

Yet, this outward perception of the successful world in which we live is juxtaposed against the fear and pain that privately lives in our hearts. We are all too intimately familiar with the sweat and blood, the personal sacrifices and loss of sleep that have gone into each one of our scientific endeavors. And when our efforts are rejected - efforts that we have coached ourselves into believing are worthwhile - we hurt. We hurt, as any normal human would.

When I was a grad student and postdoc, I was faced by occasional failure, but this was equally balanced (or so it seemed) by successes. And then I began my faculty position, a "reward" for being an excellent (e.g. successful) scientific trainee. And I submitted twenty-eight external proposals over 3.5 years before having one funded. If that isn't enough to give a person imposter syndrome, then I don't know what is. We all have different specifics - maybe you had to apply for faculty positions three times, maybe you had 12 or 172 proposals rejected at this stage of your career, or maybe you had grants funded, but your manuscripts were being rejected because you were simply ahead of your time. Whatever the case, I bet this made you feel crappy, too. And I bet you wondered if this was what you were supposed to be doing with your life-

Name: Katie Whitehead
Occupation: Banging My Overgrown Head on the Wall
Favorite leisure activity: Vodka

But then, there is a ray of hope. A famous scientist, or even just a successful one, tells a story about how he or she was once rejected, too. And it makes you feel like maybe you have a chance. Maybe you're not an imposter, maybe rejection is simply the way it is, and it's something we just need to get through. We are not "fascinated" by stories of rejection followed by success - we are encouraged by them. We keep going because of them.

My postdoc advisor, Bob Langer, tells a story in many of his seminars that has become a source of great comfort to me. It's the story of the drug Gliadel, the most ground-breaking therapy for brain cancer that the world had seen in decades. Bob tried to get funding to develop Gliadel from the NIH maybe 10 times over a span of 12 years or so, and every time, the reviewers came back with a show-stopping reason why the drug wasn't going to work. Ironically, Gliadel was FDA-approved in 1997 before Bob was ever able to get research support from the US government's main health-related funding agency. Gliadel was extending real human life before other scientists monetarily acknowledged that maybe this idea could work.

And there's the part of me, the part of many of us that believes that if Bob Langer's breakthrough idea was able to succeed despite heavy criticism, then maybe ours can, too. As human beings, we thrive on hope. Hope is more powerful than fear.

And so, in conclusion, scientists are not fascinated by failure. What a weird word to describe this phenomenon. If not fascinated by failure, then, we are embedded in it, sometimes overcome by it. And we want to extract from whatever sources are available the motivation to put our heads down and keep going.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Different Kind of Tumor

My season of summer conferences is over for the year, which included two Gordon Research Conferences (GRCs). I've come to enjoy the intensive networking and animated scientific discussions at these conferences - but I'm always reminded of my first GRC, in which I learned the importance of professionalism towards all academics, regardless of career stage.

I was a fourth year postdoc and was one of five postdocs from my lab that attended this particular conference (of about 200 people). I postdoc'ed in the Langer Lab - a mega biomedical engineering lab of about 100 trainees at any given time. The Langer Lab is some kind of brand name in academics and biomedical start-ups, and I am one of many successful products of the machine. Behind the machine, though, is Bob Langer himself, who is an incredibly kind, non-assholish academic superstar who cares deeply about his trainees (aka, he is a rare bird).

At this particular GRC, I experienced what I'll call a strong anti-Langer sentiment. This surprised me because the people I was meeting didn't know me, they didn't know anything about me or my work. They just knew that they didn't like the Langer enterprise. I hadn't been to many conferences as a postdoc, and I despaired that this sentiment might permeate the rest of my career (it has and hasn't, depending on the context).

On the second day of the conference, I was viewing posters and introduced myself to an Assistant Professor whose work I found interesting. He asked me where I worked, so I told him. A disgusted look then fell upon his face as he snarled:

You people are like f**king tumors, you metastasize everywhere. And you make me sick. 

I don't remember how I responded. But I remember his exact words, and I remember my shock. I didn't understand his anger, and I didn't understand why anyone would ever say such a thing to another academic*. As a grad student and postdoc, I often got the impression that professors at conferences thought of us as disposable, temporary. That they could say whatever to us without repercussion. But I understood then what they never did, because they didn't know me: I was going somewhere. One day, I was going to be a professor, too, and I was going to remember them.

Amusingly, I was at a conference this summer, and met someone I vaguely remembered. It turned out he was at that first GRC I attended. During our conversation, he remarked, unsolicited, "It was a pretty good conference, except there were all of these Langer people there." I looked at him with amusement: "Oh really?"

He paused for a moment, and then eyed me up warily: "You're not one of them, are you?"

I smiled and said, "Indeed I am. And really, we're not all so bad."

Our conversation continued, and I'd like to think he changed his mind, if only a little bit.

The lesson here is clear: It is not uncommon to become bitter when faced with the success of others. We all deal with this. But we need to watch what we say, no matter who we're talking to. You never know when a snide remark or unkind interaction is going to come back to bite you in the ass.

*I am generally not one for schadenfreude, but I felt quite satisfied, a few years later, upon learning that this jerk had not earned tenure at his reputable university.

Friday, March 25, 2016

My Advice for Young Faculty

Hindsight is 20/20, and the gift of a retake is rare. We do our best with what's in front of us.


I met with a new engineering faculty member this week, and he wanted a run-down of my top advice as he got started. Here are the four big points from what I told him:

1. Limit your teaching time. If you're at a research university, you need to be a good teacher, not a great one. Teaching a new course is a serious, serious time sink. You can easily spend 5+ hours prepping for a one hour class, particularly if you're teaching a difficult core subject. The thing is, as much as you'd like to be 100% prepared for every lecture, there is a law of diminishing returns here. The students usually can't tell the difference - you are the expert; they are not.

In order to limit my time, the strategy that has worked best for me is to leave teaching prep until the last minute - and it's only having to physically go to class and lecture that keeps me from prepping longer. For example, both new classes I've taught met twice a week from 1:30-2:50pm. I spent the first part of my day preparing, so I was capped at 4-5 hours per 1.5 hour lecture. Of course you'll need to grade and do administrative stuff on top of all of this - so my estimate for a new course with 3 hours of class time per week is ~20 hours of your time.

2. Submit a blend of collaborative and solo grant proposals. I didn't do this, and I think it's kind of bitten me in the ass. When I started, I thought, hey I have lots of my own solid ideas. And I was worried about not getting "credit" for collaborative work with a senior PI. Well, these concerns are moot if you can't manage to bring in your own money. You need $$$$ to do your research. You need $$$$ more than you need pride or credit in the beginning, because everything else can flow from the monies. I hope you have better luck writing your own, single PI proposals than I have. But hedge your bets by riding some coat tails. Many senior PIs like working with junior PIs, anyway, because... enthusiasm. It can be a win-win.

3. Learn to say no. Oh, this is a big one, folks. Requests on your time in the first year won't be so bad, but it will gradually get worse. Remember, everything you do is at the expense of something else. You no longer have a job in which you can "get everything done". So, you need to choose very, very carefully. Here are my strategies:
  • When I'm asked to do something, I consider whether or not I'd be willing to drop everything to do this task tomorrow. The thought being that if I don't want to do it tomorrow, I won't want to do it 3 months from now. Don't say 'yes' just because your schedule is free. Think in terms of opportunity cost.
  • I have a 1 day waiting period before I allow myself to say yes to requests. I allow myself to say no at any time. 
  • Now that my students are getting "older", I delegate when I can. This is tough to do in the beginning if you are working with 1st/2nd year grad students.
  • Don't give specific excuses. They are an invitation for the requester to invalidate or attempt to work around your reason for saying no. I almost always say I am overcommitted (which is true), and I leave it at that. Sometimes I will acknowledge the importance of their cause and say that I wouldn't be able to lend it the time and attention it deserves. 
  • Do not give into feelings of guilt! STAY THE COURSE. Each and every time you say yes to meeting with a prospective undergrad and their parents, every time you agree to meet with some random seminar speaker from a different department or guest lecture in someone's class because they're traveling or talk to students from the college of business that want to start a cloud lab service... you are prioritizing other people's needs over your own - which is to do research. No one is denied tenure because they are an amazing researcher but just didn't do enough service. And don't even get me started on how being a woman or underrepresented minority increases the numbers of requests we get to sit on panels or other such stuff. Because... diversity! No, no, no. My research and my grad students come first. Yours should, too, if you want to keep your job.

4. Let go of your perfectionist attitudes for your publications and PUBLISH EARLY. In the field of drug delivery, the utility of our engineered systems is often unclear until we demonstrate effectiveness in an animal model. These types of studies can take years, even when you're working with postdocs. In a new lab with young Ph.D. students, animal work is even more daunting. And yet, I didn't want to publish until our experiments lived up to some "standard of excellence" that I had concocted for myself while working in a $ and resource rich, incredibly privileged lab as a postdoc. So, I held off on publishing my first couple of years.

And the grant proposal rejections rolled in. Plenty of comments about not demonstrating my ability as an independent investigator. I often felt like I'd started from square one, like no one believed I could do work since I hadn't published as corresponding PI. So I got off my high horse about what constitutes "publishable work" and we started writing, submitting, and publishing papers. Check. I'd better not see this issue come up again on my proposal reviews. I also FEEL better, having done it. There is now irrefutable evidence that we have our *!$# together and can publish solid work in solid journals.


So, there you have it. My four top pieces of wisdom. Take them with the grain of salt that this advice is based on my personal experiences. Your path will be different, and there are many "correct" paths.  Just remember to turn on your navigation system, leave your pride in the driveway, and be willing to course correct when need be. You'll get to where you're going.

Friday, February 12, 2016

What's behind you

When I was in grad school, I went through a major life change that caused me to question myself and my decisions more deeply than ever before. It was one of the darkest periods of my life, and I was searching desperately for direction and a sense that I'd be ok.

It was during this time that I found myself at a Krispy Kreme donut shop - vulnerable, but ready to delight in the comfort of a freshly brewed cup of caffeine. When I picked up my coffee at the counter, the Krispy Kreme employee looked me in the eye and said, with gravitas,

What's behind you is behind you.

Those words hit me like a brick, and I stood there, staring. I felt... comforted. It took a minute before I turned to my not-yet-husband to say, "I didn't realize they had started giving fortunes at Krispy Kreme." He looked at me with confusion, but then laughed, "Katie, he was talking about the sugar and the cream. They're behind you."


It's funny how our receptiveness, how our vulnerability can make us malleable. How we can hear things that others don't. I went in for a coffee, but I walked out realizing that my path, my life's work, wasn't wallowing somewhere behind me. It was facing forward.

Sometimes, during the course of our careers, we may look with regret upon a suboptimal year, a lousy grade in a course, a botched proposal, an unwritten manuscript. There is so much emotional baggage there, and thinking about all of the things we could have done or should have done if only we had worked harder or submitted to a different journal or hadn't spent so much time role playing Angry Birds in the backyard...  It doesn't get us anywhere. If you aim to be better, if you want to do more, no matter if your goal is a higher H index or a better relationship with your mother- you can't worry about yesterday's crap. Yesterday's crap is going to bury you.

What's behind you is behind you.

Leave your baggage at the front door, pick up your pencil, and move forward.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What's Tenure Got to Do With It?

The fall is the season of travel for me, days spent whizzing through airports in smart blazers, conference sessions filled with prime science, and conversations with my long lost colleagues over beer. Three years into my position, the topic of tenure and promotion is nearly inevitable.

For those of you who aren't aware, most schools "do" tenure the same way: you put in your paperwork near the end of your fifth year. If things go well, a year later you will be a tenured Associate Professor, and the world will be your oyster.

Carnegie Mellon is different. Here, we put in paperwork for Associate Professor without tenure at the end of the fourth year, and paperwork for Full Professor with  tenure at the end of the eighth year. Letters are procured for both promotions. The first promotion is up or out. In the second promotion, tenure can be given without awarding Full Professor, but in most instances, both are given.

Because I started in the middle of the academic year, I had the option of pushing my clock forward or backwards. I decided to push it back, and wound up signing some ridiculous paperwork saying I'd have to leave the university if I didn't receive tenure by the year 2058. It was so far into the future, it was practically laughable.

Everyone talks about tenure, everyone wants tenure, everyone seems to feel sorry for me when I tell them about my tenure-getting situation. But why? Carnegie Mellon has it right with the tenure process.

The first five years on the job is a super short (and strange) period of time in the span of a career, and they're going to judge me up, down, and sideways solely based on that five year period? So many one-off things can happen in a five year period that can skew perception either in the faculty member's or in the university's favor. For example (and these are not necessarily things that have happened to me):
  • One of your first Ph.D. students fails, quits, or otherwise leaves without accomplishing anything. So you've sunk time and energy into project, and two years in, you're back at the drawing board. Are you cut out for your job?
  • You start two projects when you open your lab, and one of them fails after three years. You're left holding a paper bag filled with your own tears. Does one failed project mean that you suck?
  • You win a $1.5 million dollar grant in year three of your position, and are awarded tenure after year 5 without having secured any other funding. Are you actually a phenomenal grant writer who will be able to keep your lab afloat over the course of your career?
All three of these events could have serious implications on a 5-year tenure case. An 8-9 year tenure case? Not so much. The anxiety-prone part of me LOVES, LOVES, LOVES my tenure clock. All sorts of random crap can go wrong for me, but I strongly believe that it will all even out over an 8-9 year period. And if I can't be awesome over a span of eight years, then this job is not for me.

But here's the other thing: why do we all want tenure so much, anyway? 

Is it so I can blather on more freely at faculty meeting? Is it so I can put minimal effort into teaching and not worry about my teaching scores? Is it so I can feel secure in having a job for life?

For me, it's none of these things. There is nothing that I really want in this job that requires tenure. And there is nothing about not having tenure that is keeping me from what I want.

I want to do amazing science. But tenure won't make me a better scientist. I can be an amazing scientist today, right now. I want to bring in the funding I need to do my work. But there isn't some stamp that goes on my grant applications the moment I get tenure. Tenure isn't going to magically solve all of my problems.

But it can create new ones. Like, the heavens break open and start raining down extra service assignments. WHO ON EARTH walks around and is like, oh yes, please put me on extra committees, I would love to serve on the strategic planning committee and come up with phrases like "we will seek to excel in the expansion of the intellect and the propagation of knowledge for the legions of students with aptitude and wherewithal".

I don't know why you come to work, but I don't come because of any wherewithal. I come because I love the science. And a long tenure clock allows me to focus on exactly that. I know I'll get a fair shake.