Saturday, July 15, 2006

Re: having it together

Sarah Werning, who does cool things with Tenontosaurus, is joining the Padian lab this fall. We have a couple of strong connections. First, she is just plain awesome, much like yours truly. Also, she did her Master's thesis work with Rich Cifelli at OU, who advised me on my Master's. And now we share the same Ph.D. advisor.

Sarah wrote this in response to the previous post, and gave me permission to post it. My response is below.



I tried to post a comment to your blog but couldn't, as both the visual verifier and the handicap audio verifier wouldn't work. So here you go, my response to your most recent post:

Yes Matt, you do give off the air of someone who's got it together. It was a teensy bit imposing as I toured Berkeley, because all of Kevin's students (and all the other IB'ers I met) seemed to have their shit together on a higher plane than I've ever experienced. The whole time I was there, I was thinking "What the hell am I doing here, this guy is a student, but he has like a dozen pubs and knows his shit backwards and forwards, and I have second- and third-tier degrees from public schools and no pubs and I still get things like when to use fewer or less confused, and am socially awkward to boot". It's even worse if you compare yourself to people like Kevin or Rich or Neil Shubin or anyone else that basically reinvented the wheel at 25 and went on to be the King of Science by 30. I mean, I'm 27, I'm just starting my PhD, I watch cartoons and read comic books, and I asked my mom to make me a pirate coat for my last birthday. How can I possibly compete with these other applicants to get into a school like this?

But then I remembered that you were five years into your PhD, had several pubs from your MS, had been meeting and collaborating and talking wih people in the field for five more years than me, and if there was any time in one's life that one SHOULD act like they know what's going on, right before you start hunting for jobs is a good time to do it. The thing to remember in grad school (as in life) is that comparing oneself to others is a neurotic exercise in pointlessness, because it's all relative. People who spend all their time ranking themselves against others make bad scientists and bad advisers, and ironically come off as insecure and unknowlegdible, in person and in publication.

You should ask me to give you the full version of my Broken Genius Theory of Averaged Humanity sometime (note: better with beer). The Reader's Digest version goes like this: At UIC, I had a Physics professor, an endowed chair who had some sort of genius grant and who knew how to make the quarks dance or something along those lines. But he had a personal assistant who, in addition to her other duties, had to go to his home and lay out clothes for him to prevent him from coming to school in his PJs. Now, I'm nowhere near that smart, but on the other hand, I can dress myself, so it all averages out. How many brilliant scientists do you know who are on their third or fourth failed marriage? Or who have serious alcohol or drug addictions? Or who have all the social skills of a depressed mule on crack?

So, yeah, it'll be ok.



You're dead right about the pointlessness of comparing yourself to others. First, I think we rarely make the appropriate comparisons. It always freaks me out how much work Larry Witmer has done, but he got his Ph.D. the year before I graduated from high school. Jeff Wilson is closer to my age and has done a hell of a lot of work, but he go his Ph.D. when I was halfway through my Master's work. So it's pretty ridiculous to compare track records with either one of them.

Hell, Randy Irmis is about to start his third year of grad school and he has more publications that I do after eight years of grad school.

And measuring yourself by comparison to others is a losing proposition anyway. Have you read The Dechronization of Sam MacGruder? It's a time travel novel written by George Gaylord Simpson. I don't think it was ever published in his lifetime. Stephen Jay Gould wrote the forward, which includes a capsule biography of Simpson. It's not a flattering picture. Simpson basically died alone. He'd alienated most of his friends by being an asshole, and he spent the last few years of his life almost crippled by insecurity. He was worried that he hadn't done enough, that he hadn't sufficiently left his mark on the field. That was a very good thing for me to read. If G.G. Simpson felt like he wasn't enough of a badass, strongly enough that it helped ruin the last years of a long, productive life, then there is no point in playing that game. Life is too short, too unpredictable, and the limit is one per customer.

I'm not great at delaying gratification. Or, maybe I am. Who knows? I haven't really checked. That may sound like a funny thing for a graduate student to say. The normal take is that we're all sacrificing our current happiness so that we can be safe and tenured someday. But it's never seemed that way to me. I've been really enjoying myself all along. Doing research is the most fun you can have with your clothes on, writing is not always fun but the results are gratifying, and publishing is a rush. That was true when I was doing my undergrad research, true when I was working on my MS, and it's still true. If I ever reach some stratospheric level of academia where it stops being true--or where I have to stop doing those things--then I will have gone too far. The fact that someone may pay me a decent salary and give me tenure to keep doing the things I love is pretty amazing.

Before she graduated this summer, Vicki lamented that we'd been in college for 13 years. And I was like, "Yeah, so what? You say that like it's a bad thing." The meaning of "school" changes completely between high school and grad school. For the first part of your life, "school" is that place that you have to go to do things that you hate. Once you start doing research, "school" becomes that place that you get to go to do things that you love. So the whole meaning of "I'm in school" changes utterly.

Since we've both brought up publication records a couple of times, I'll say a few words about that. First, it ain't quantity that counts, it's quality. Nobody is going to think of you fondly just because you publish a lot (I could name some names here, but I won't). On the contrary, one good paper is enough to fix someone's place in the field. One of the cool things about Berkeley is that the job search process is so transparent to students. It makes it really clear how much various factors contribute to someone getting a job. A good research track record is important, but it can be totally undermined if the person doesn't know how to communicate articulately about what they do, or if he or she is an asshole. And if you look at various faculty members, their publication records, and when they were hired, you can usually point to one or two papers and say, "Okay, those were the ones that helped them get the job."

Now that I am getting closer to being on the job market, it affects the way I think about every paper. Even before I start writing, I'm thinking about where I'm going to send it, and wondering if it will be out by the time I'm going for job interviews. This is inevitable, but I'm not entirely happy about it. When I wrote my first few papers, my academic career was still far enough off that I was not thinking about the papers as job-getting devices, but just as ways to communicate cool stuff that I'd learned. I think those papers were probably better for it, and I certainly had more fun writing them. The only pressure was to do good work, not to appear tenurable.

And this is probably self-evident, but when you just try to do good work, you're probably more likely to produce one of those career-making papers than if you set out to produce one by artifice.

I have more to say, but I'll save it for another message/post.



Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Is it, even theoretically, actually possible to do cool things with Tenontosaurus?

1:58 AM  
Anonymous dinogami said...

One paper may be all it takes to secure one's name in a field, but it ain't enough to secure a job...witness the increasing importance institutions are putting on stuff as moronic as ISI rankings to "evaluate" someone's publication "worth." Mostly this is done by people not in the same field as the insane is that?!? And then there's those of us who aren't even tenure track...though I shouldn't complain, because I don't have publication or grant requirements, either. 8-P

And if Matt ain't got his shit together, then ain't none of us do.

Besides, Matt, you're quite correct that the socializing/schmoozing/contact-making/partnership-building aspect of it all is just as important, if not more so, than the science itself in terms of making the best of things. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, but none of us are going to become giants in an ever-more crowded field all by our lonesomes.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Hi, Jerry! I was kinda freaked out until I remembered who Dinogami was.

Ugh. Don't get me started on academic institutions and their fetish for judging people by numbers, whether it's scores on student evaluations or ISI rankings. You'd think academics would know better!

It's particularly painful right now. My heart tells me that open-access journals are the morally acceptable route to publication. My head tells me that if I want to get a job, I need to do my damnedest to get a paper into Nature or Science. Thank goodness that PLoS Biology's ranking is high and climbing. Let's hope they can avoid becoming as selective (and arbitrary!) as the Big Two.

2:50 AM  
Anonymous dinogami said...

Hey Again - Yep, that's me...half dinosaurs, half origami (in case anyone wondered where the bizarre "dinogami" came from...). I don't wonder if the propensity for numerancy in academia stems largely from the shift of academic institutions from being run by academicians to being run by business people, for whom if something can't have a number assigned to it or be otherwise quantified, then it's worthless. Stupid economics ruins everything...

I still don't have much against traditional journals, although for some of my recent papers, I've not been able to buy reprints because their costs are exorbitant (for Palaeontology, $10/page in sets of 50, so for my 31-page paper of which I now have proofs...well, you get the picture). This I don't understand: they make PDFs available for free (to the authors, at any rate, which can then be distributed freely), knowing full well that pretty much nobody has the capability of printing stuff out at even remotely the resolution at which the publisher prints them, but they make it insanely difficult for anyone to get a hold of something with higher resolution. I guess they must think that this will drive people to subscribe to the actual hard-copy of the journal, but of course those prices are typically also exorbitant. I just do not get the publishing industry... But I do think that this has been part of the problem with journals like Palaeontologia Electronica and now PLoS Biology (which I hadn't even contemplated as a potential place to put stuff just because it seemed to have a very non-paleo-oriented focus) is that people can't print out stuff from many of their papers, particularly the ones for which figures are 3D animations and such -- most paleontologists are still from a generation that prefers to look at stuff on paper instead of a screen. That will doubtlessly change, probably sooner than later, but there it is for now. But anyway, you were referring more to journals that produce PDFs but don't make those PDFs freely available, and yeah, it's frustrating as hell. But surely Berkeley's library has access to great heaping gobs of those things...?!?

As for jobs...well, from my (probably biased) perspective, it does seem that, with the ever-increasing numbers of people going into and coming out of paleo programs, there's been an increased tendency for them to take jobs at smaller schools -- ones that lack resources (libraries, collections, etc.) and often have heavier teaching burdens than bigger schools, but that also don't impose publication requirements or demand that faculty bring in grant money. Witness, for example, Phil Senter, who's at a college I certainly never heard of but is producing gobs of interesting work. I'd like to think I'm in the same boat -- certainly, no one here is publishing anything, and no one here ever dreamed that a faculty member was capable of getting the school's name in Science (!), but they seem quite happy with the result. (Of course, now I have to worry about having set my own standard so high in their eyes that I have to continue to meet it...!) I guess it all depends on how badly you want to be employed at a Berkeley or Harvard or Yale vs. a smaller, cozier institution. It basically boils down to trade-offs, and what you're willing to sacrifice.

But...this is all talk that will certainly be better over beer in Ottawa! And I wanna hear this "broken genius" hypothesis of yours, too!

And Mike: yes, perfectly wonderfully interesting things can be done with Tenontosaurus -- had I stayed at SMU, I might've ended up doing just that! (Silly sauropod me, there's a lot to be said for working on specimens that don't require three people to move off a shelf...!) ;-D

7:51 AM  

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