Sunday, September 21, 2008

Two parties

Nope, not the political kind. A couple of weeks ago I was at a graduate student's oral qualifying exam. After we had all asked questions and it was clear that the the student had passed with flying colors, one of the other faculty asked the following question (accompanied with the qualifier that the student's answer's had no bearing on whether or not they passed):

You are going to hold two dinner parties. For the first you can invite any four scientists, living or dead. For the second, any four famous people who are/were not scientists, living or dead. Who would you invite and why?

I forget the student's precise answers, and for this post they're not important anyway. The first party was a test of the student's breadth of knowledge of science in general (including it's history). The second had to do with the student's knowledge of topics other than science. The faculty member wanted to stress the importance of knowing much more than just your own narrow little area of research.

I think I would invite the following (putting aside all potential communication issues):

Science soiree:

Josiah Willard Gibbs - he was the most under-appreciated theorist of his time. Perhaps ever.
James Clerk Maxwell - not just a famous theoretical physicist, but also a poet! Albeit not a great one... And a contemporary of Gibbs.
John Edsall - a protein chemist's physical chemist. I had the pleasure of meeting him once. A wonderful gentleman.
J. Robert Oppenheimer - someone who went from being the most influential scientist of his time to a victim of McCarthyism has got to be worth a dinner party. And he hiked around Corsica with John Edsall when they were both young.

Hmmm, obviously I have a thing for the physical sciences...

Celebrity carouse:
Ludwig von Beethoven - how he wrote his Ninth Symphony while deaf is something that has always fascinated me.
Picasso - no doubt he would keep the conversation interesting (and wine flowing).
Euripides - of the few authors of Greek tragedies whose work has survived, he is my favorite.
Charles Dickens - despite the best efforts of my high school English teachers, I really enjoy his books and their insight into Victorian England.

So, dear readers, who would you invite and why?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Five year plans

I had mentioned the use of a five year plan in a previous post describing my mid-tenure crisis. An anonymous commenter asked:

I was just curious about your 5 year detailed is it? For example, do you plan out the number of pubs per year? Do you plan out which/how many grant deadlines to target? (All Without knowing how the data will turn out!)

...which spurred this post.

I first came across the idea of a five year plan in Kathy Barker's At the Helm. I would recommend anyone about to start their own lab get a copy of this. I don't have my copy in front of me right now and I don't remember precisely what she says about five year plans (other than she recommends having one), so the following are my thoughts likely heavily tinged with hers.

Some opening points.

1) Not everyone will find this useful. Some/many people are quite good at managing their academic careers without something like this. I wish I were one of them.

2) This is something that needs to be referred to often and requires constant updating. Like your CV. You do update your CV regularly, don't you?

3) This is a medium- to long-term planning tool (i.e. six months up to five years). Anything short-term (less than six months) probably belongs in a calendar.

Why have a five year plan?

The simple answer is to get to where you want to be.

If you can't picture precisely where you want to be and what you want to be doing in five years, you need to figure out a) where and what, and b) how you're going to get there (i.e. a plan). Writing it down helps. If you can picture the where and what, you probably still need a plan.

Note that I used the word want above. No one can guarantee where you'll be and what you'll be doing. What is guaranteed is that you won't arrive at your destination without constantly thinking about how you'll get there.

What should be in it?

Anything that helps. But it must be obtainable. And somewhat specific ("get tenure", although obviously a great goal, isn't specific enough to be of any use). Entries must have definable target dates (which can be somewhat fuzzy, e.g. "late 2010"). What ends up in a five year plan is going to depend on where you are in your career and what the demands of your particular field are.

I use three (not mutually exclusive) categories for entries: Research, Career, and University.

This includes anything research-related. Most of my entries involve funding. Be reasonable here. Yes, it would be nice to have:

Fall 2009: Get R01 for work on thingamajigs.

But being realistic, I would have:

Fall 2009: Submit R01 proposal for work on thingamajigs.

I also outline possible specific aims under a grant entry. These tend to change as the work evolves.

I also follow up with entries like:

Spring 2010: Resubmit R01 proposal for work on thingamajigs if necessary.

Something else I've included in my plan is a major equipment proposal for a time-resolved fluorimeter. This is something we don't have that would be very useful in my work. It would also be useful for others on my campus. So I have a set of goals with deadlines leading up to submitting such a proposal. One such goal was to organize a group of funded PI's who would benefit from this instrument. I've done that and that item has been deleted from my plan.

I do not include publishing research papers. I seriously doubt anyone can predict what research papers they will publish two, three, or more years from now. On the other hand, I would include plans for reviews and/or book chapters.

Here I include anything to do with forwarding my career (other than the Research items above). Here I included getting myself on a Society committee (I was a little too enthusiastic with this and ended up on two...), some specific networking goals (I suck at networking...), volunteering for a foundation review panel, etc.

This category contains anything related to teaching and/or service within Big State U. For example, I recently became course director for an advanced graduate level course that had been stagnating for some years. I have goals for what I want the course to become and have entries in my five year plan dealing with each goal.

I also run a NSF-REU site and have specific goals for that outlined.

I do keep track of the goals I've met and those I haven't. As long as the former greatly outnumber the latter I figure I'm doing okay.

And that's it really. Nothing earth-shattering. Just a list of reasonable goals that help keep me on track.

Hmmm, the above sounds rather like an entry in a self-help book. Sorry about that.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Sounds like science

Why is this thus? What is the reason for this thusness?
Artemus Ward, US humorist (1834 - 1867)