Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy Healthy

Happy Healthy New Year to all of you!
As usual we've been one of the first ones to jump over into the new year and in case you haven't yet: it's awesome over here!
I wish you all a sparkling year, where you meet interesting people, achieve what your heart desires, have good and deep thoughts and move your life in a direction you've chosen yourself. Have good adventures, times to take a break and heaps of fun and joy!

Friday, December 28, 2012

environmental guilt

A while ago I had a short conversation with a student, which made me thinking about my job from a different perspective. The student studies environmental engineering and did some internships with companies to improve their environmental standards. He seemed to be pretty enthusiastic about his studies. But after a couple of beers he mentioned how tired he is to live and work in this constant atmosphere of guilt and that he is grown-up and smart enough to estimate the impact on the world climate if he once in a while drives a crazy fast car. And sometimes that's just what he wants to do without feeling guilty.
Talking, reading and thinking about environmental impact and "how to save the planet" has become an everyday topic. It comes and goes in the major news but it's always present and I'm sure a lot of people have it in their heads - even if just for complaining about a bunch of politicians flying around the world to meet in Doha for the Climate Change Conference and there doesn't seem to be much change afterwards. Still I don't have the impression that the majority of the people actually cares very much about the footprint they leave in their everyday life. So I was surprised about this outburst of "feeling guilty". I'm not sure if feeling guilty is the best starting point for planet saving activities, but it's certainly better than not caring at all.
When reading through blogs of scientists, the topic about the importance of attending conferences pops up frequently. Being present and visible, meeting people, starting new collaborations, presenting your work, pushing your career and with this your science. The science we do is meant to be for the greater good of our society. We do research to expand knowledge and develop a better world for everybody, so everything (within certain ethical frameworks) that is necessary to achieve these goals is well invested. Right?
I usually attend two international conferences each year. My boss is more in the region of 6 or more. From Australia these travels can only be done by long-distance flights, but no matter where your home university is: conferences involve flying most of the time. So even if my private me takes great care of her carbon footprint to keep it small, my professional me just smashes all efforts. And estimating from the amount of time my boss spends in planes, it will get worse.
This is a part of my job that actually makes me feel guilty and I'm thinking a lot about if it’s really necessary to attend conferences. Are the outcomes of a conference for my research high enough to justify the travel? Or was it just nice to meet the science crowd again? Are there alternatives to keep and get in contact with other researchers and be part of the community - we live in such a well connected world! Or would my chances to have a career in the research world just vanish quickly if I'd reduce my attendance rate on conferences?
Are there people seriously thinking about this problem, which not only affects researchers but a lot of employees of international operating companies? Besides fossil fuels a lot of money and time could be saved... Are there possible solutions proposed or already in use? And can we really justify to drive a crazy fast car?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tweed or speed...

This article here describes a normal working day of Andrew Whitehouse, Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia. He barely seems to catch a breath in between all his different appointments - but still finds time to write his own publications. *thumbsup* And of course there is always time to sneak in some coffee!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

being a student? - being a professional?

Recently I have been thinking about the pros and cons of the PhD student system here in Australia and I sometimes find it a bit odd. 
Here are my thoughts - I'd like to hear yours about this.
Doing a PhD is considered to be part of ones education, which is finalized by getting a degree. Therefore people doing a PhD are considered as students. On the other hand, to get a PhD degree one has to contribute to the knowledge in a certain field in a substantial and unique way. The work needed to get a PhD degree is very different to the work that is needed to get a Bachelor or Master degree. No lectures, no exams, no clear time table, no crowd of other students doing exactly the same homework, quiz, assignment. Instead the opportunity to work on a project that does not have a defined end product, to solve questions without the solutions already written down in a text book. The possibility to find amazing new stuff, publish in great journals, present on conferences. And the possibility to have the most frustrating time of your life, when nothing works and you don't understand your results at all.
These two situations are very different and the expectations from the people who finally grade the student are very different as well depending on if we talk about a Bachelor or PhD degree. But still one is called a student in both situations - "title-wise" no progress has been made when one enters a PhD program.
And as the future PhD is still a student, he still has to pay fees on his way to a degree. At the same time he is maybe contributing to the success of his advisor's projects - professional projects, which were rated so important, that the ARC or the NHMRC or whoever funds them. A student who is doing work on a professional level. Something is odd about this.
But not only the academics / the supervisors see their future PhDs mainly as students. The PhD students themselves do that as well. The "common" student life style comes with a bunch of advantages and esp. with a lot of flexibility in how to arrange ones day (I'm not talking here about the students who have full-time jobs additional to their studies). Skipping the class early in the morning? Postpone studying for just one more day? The decision on how much time students spend on their studies (additional to compulsory lectures) is their decision alone and besides studying for their exams, they learn a lot about time management, stress handling, learning styles and efficiency "on-the-go". However, for a "common" student it all comes down to his or her degree alone. If they fail it's maybe not good for the universities statistics, but in principle it's not affecting anybody else than the student.
For a PhD student the framework in which they work often doesn't change much compared to a "common" student. Their working times are still kept very flexible and they might have the impression, that their work/studies are still "just about themselves". Usually they work on quite confined projects and not all of them get the opportunity to see the larger impacts their work has in the context of their supervisors grant, the faculties' success, the long term achievements of the university. Their projects might not seem to be significant in a bigger context. But in reality their everyday work is embedded in larger projects, more people are involved and might depend on the outcomes of the PhD students work. Certainly the future funding situation of their group is determined by the outcomes and quality of their projects - but still they are "only" students.
How much PhD students see themselves as students or as professionals certainly depends a lot on the culture of the supervisor with his/her group. But the general university culture of referring to them as students with everything that is involved in that - from student fees to total freedom in their time management - does not fit with the high expectations their supervisors and the universities (and in principle the funding agencies) have when it come to the outcomes of their projects.
To be successful with ones projects, a researcher often needs a bunch of highly motivated and curious PhD students. And it's not always clear on what the motivation of a PhD student for his/her PhD project is based on. So, one can be lucky (or talented) and only pick those student who are curious about the science, who see themselves already more as a professional and who are committed to their projects. Or one has to find ways to change the view (and the motivation?) of those PhD students, who still see themselves mostly as students. And maybe a general change in university culture that somehow "upgrades" the PhD student would help as well...?

Our PhD students have already left or are about to leave for their long Christmas breaks. Most of them are traveling to their home countries for family re-union. They take about 4-6 weeks breaks - at a stretch. That's more than my whole annual leave! 
One of the nice perks of being a grad student....

Monday, December 3, 2012

Pre-Christmas vibes

I just love the campus in the weeks before Christmas. It's very quiet. The few students who haven't already left are mostly sunbathing on the lawns. The lines at the coffee places are short. Some of my colleagues are in Pre-Christmas mood already, so they come in late and leave early, which makes the whole building pretty quiet as well. A good time to round up stuff, get my head around all the paper ideas, that are on my list since forever and enjoy reading papers in the sun. Love it!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

coffee breaks

Going for a coffee break is a very essential part of my everyday life at work and not only of mine. We're a bunch of people taking coffee breaks in various constellations, talking about work, last weekend's activities, sports, the latest news.... . But there is one topic that is pretty much completely left out and this is talking about our partners. I don't mean in a serious way, but just like you could mention your partner in an everyday small talk conversation. I know that all of the coffee crowd members have partners, but for most them I don't even know their names. For some of them I don't know it through them but because somebody else talked about it. The coffee crew members who have kids are happy to talk about the kids once in a while, but the "partner topic" seems to sit on a different level. I sometimes mention my partner, but I'm starting to think this might be some kind of "unprofessional" as nobody else does that. Maybe it's because all the other coffee crew members are guys? Maybe it's just a strange habit of our group? Or do I have to learn to keep the partner topic out of coffee break conversations to enter the next level of professionalism?

Thursday, November 15, 2012


... traditional Christmas decoration at the beginning of summer is just weird. The southern hemisphere really should get some very own Christmas traditions!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

funding and the people who pay you

A couple of days ago the Australian Research Council (ARC) finally announced the outcomes of this year's proposal round. Everything was kept on hold for a while until the government had decided where to cut a serious amount of money from the tertiary education sector. All researchers, who had put in proposals this year, kept their breath first because they were worried, that the money might be cut from the grants they applied for. And after they knew that this will not be the case, it was the usual breath-keeping during the days before the results are announced.
The very nice thing about ARC funding is that the outcomes are published online and are separated into all potentially interesting aspects: how many applications were funded, how much money did they get, what were the success rates in general, in each field, for each university, for women, for men, separated by age, separated by years after obtaining a PhD,... . And of course one can look up each proposal abstract plus names and institutions and how much money they got for what kind of topic. 
This is how it's supposed to be in a funding scheme based on tax money! Every person can look up what their tax money is spent on. And everybody can just write an email to the person who got the money and ask why they think the money is well spent in their project. Usually nobody does that, but at this point the system gives the opportunity to engage with democracy, because everybody can inform themselves very easily. Where I come from politicians don't care about the projects that are funded - or at least, if they do, it's not transported to the public. Here the opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb complained that a lot of the money goes to projects, which do not seem meaningful and innovative enough. And they made a whole list of projects, that should not have gotten funding from their point of view. AND some of these projects were mentioned in the newspapers. Sounds harsh, but it's a great starting point for some discussions. Esp. a big Center of Excellence is in the focus of this debate. The director of this center responded to the complaints and explained how this research is important for Australia and why it's worth spending the money. Stepping out of the ivory tower, getting involved in "the real world", explaining your stuff to people, who usually do something totally different. But they pay you, so they have the right to know. And if some are even interested for more reasons than just for the money - even better!

Friday, November 2, 2012


Last Wednesday the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science (PMPS) were awarded. Since 2002 the Australian government awards these prizes for outstanding contributions in research and teaching of science. This year the recipients were the following:

Prime Minister's Prize for Science
Kenneth Freeman 

Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year 
Mark Shackleton 

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year 
Eric May   

Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools 
Michael van der Ploeg 

Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools 
Anita Trenwith

What I really love about this award is that there are prizes not only for researchers, but for school teachers as well. Having an engaged and inspiring school teacher in no matter which subject can create this little spark that makes the students really interested and curious. And self-motivated curiosity is what we all want to see in our uni students. But it is as well something that I whish everybody to have. There are so many people, who don't have "their own field" and lack this deep interest in something. They don't get excited and curious and want to know more about something just out of general interest. This is very sad as there is nothing more satisfying than successful learning. Having a great teacher early in life can make a huge difference and its great that this is officially valued by the government through this prize!

More info about the whole thing can be found here: Link to the PMPS website

Friday, October 26, 2012

funding cuts

And the funding cuts continue. After cutting the LAFHA tax benefits for everybody on the same visa class as me since this month, the Australian government announced another great money cut just a few days ago. This time it's the universities turn to tighten the belt.
There were rumors about this since quite a while and a lot of the research staff on grant funded positions were really worried, that maybe the number of research grants or the money attached to them will get reduced.
But luckily this doesn't seem to be the case and everybody who applied for funding this year is still in the game. However, there will still be a cut of 500 million$ over the next 4 years. This money is not directly attached to grants, but used by the universities to cover the indirect costs of research. Distributed over the roughly 40 universities in Australia, this is a huge cut for all of them. The first "victims" of these cut have already been announced. I'm not sure if more big projects like that will be affected or if the cuts will be distributed "downwards" to the individual researchers, but one thing is certain: it's interesting times!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

new media

Nowadays smart phones, tablets, e-reader,... they are everywhere. I see 4-year old kids handling smartphones better than their parents and when I'm on the bus it seems I'm the only one younger than 70, who can survive this bus trip without starring at some kind of electronic device. Our world became "connected" during the past few years, 24/7, non-stop. People get nervous if their phone can't connect for a couple of minutes and how often do run people into each other because both were starring at their phones. Isn't there even an app that tells you, when you are about to run into someone, while you are in virtual worlds?
Sometimes it seems, that there is no awareness in the general public for this kind of "addiction", because it's so accepted and it's even expected, that everybody is always connected. Not only in private but for job purposes as well.
More and more guidebooks and news articles are published on this topic, telling you how to disconnect without feeling guilty, how to get back in touch with the real world or even just how to manage the massive amount of emails, so it doesn't stop you from doing all the other work you are supposed to do.
Of course, one might say that being able to check your emails wherever you are makes you more efficient and flexible - and in parts I guess that's true. But lately I recognized a trend, that disturbs me a bit.
We tell students to keep their phones off the table during lectures, so that they concentrate on the content and because it would be impolite in general. But it seems totally acceptable if academics check their smart phones every 5 minutes, while sitting in a meeting or "listening" to a students talk. If there is a big audience and the speaker will not recognize it anyway - no problem. But even if there are just 5-10 people in a small room listening to highly recognized speakers, I found that at least 2/3 of the academics drift off every few minutes and check their phones.
Maybe someone high up in the hierarchy doesn't care so much anymore, if people actually pay attention - I don't know. But students certainly recognize, if the academics in the room seem to have better things to do than to listen to their talk. Not very encouraging!
Is everybody really so busy and important these days? How did academics do that before the age of the smart phone?

I'm a great fan of the real world and sometimes I feel odd, because I don't have a smart phone to stare at, while I'm on the bus. On the other hand, I'm happy, that I'm not so busy and important, that I still can get through without any of these devices. And hopefully, if I ever get so busy and important, the general culture and expectation about being connected has changed and I can still only look out of the window while being on the bus or just listen to a students or professors talk, without being distracted by little *bing* and vibration alarms, telling me that my attention might be needed somewhere else.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

different styles

My current and my former supervisor are very different personalities -not only in their general character, but especially in their style of leading a research group. 
My former supervisor is a very organized leader, who seems to have everything from deadlines for proposals to latest possible thesis defense date for each of his PhD students always present in his head. He says things like: "If you give me your paper draft until tomorrow at 3:30, I can read it on the plane and send the comments to you next Wednesday before 10am." and that is exactly what happens. He is running weekly group meetings not only to have all his students presenting their stuff once in a while, but he organizes who attends at which conference, who takes care of the next exchange student, the next group BBQ,... during these meetings and he lets his group know way in advance when he will be out of office.
My current supervisor is much more flexible with these things. Everything gets organized well and people know when they are in charge of something. But usually these decisions happen behind the scenes and often enough a new student arrives and only one of the grad students (the responsible one) knows about it. Same applies for his "out of office" times. If you need to be aware of them, because i.e. you have to hand in your thesis soon and there must be enough time for him to have a look at it, you'll know that he'll be away. But there is no general “keep the group informed” strategy as with my last supervisor.
While working with my former supervisor I found his perfect planning and thinking ahead very admirable yet sometimes even intimidating, as it set the standards very high for everybody who worked with him. Now I recognize that this actually brings the individuals in a group much more together. Everybody is on the same page and knows which deadlines, conferences, students, tasks,… are lying ahead. In my current group, the information gets transported where needed, but people work much more separate from each other – which has advantages of its own.
When it comes to my students, I often find myself acting not very strategic or long-term planned. I tell them when I’ll be away, but not very much in advance and I’ll let them know, when I see interesting conferences or workshops coming up, but I don’t have a specific timeline in my head for each of them. Even though I really appreciated that my PhD supervisor had this distinct plan and timeline for me as his PhD student.
I guess this is because I’m not their main supervisor, so I don’t actually make the strategy for them. I just push them, annoy them, motivate them, guide them, cheer them up on a daily basis. 

What is a good point in an academic career to have some deep thoughts and first actions about styles of leading a research group and strategies for successful PhD supervision? While you are “only” co-supervising? Or when you start with you first 100% responsibility student?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

culture clash or what?

Since a few months I have a new colleague in my office: smart guy, very focused and concentrated, but always nice and friendly. Somebody you can chat with for 5 minutes and then go back to work. 
All seemed well and the sun was shining innocent in our office and no one expected the thunder storm that recently broke out - or at least I didn't!
A PhD student and I had a discussion in our office while NewColleague was there and suddenly NewColleague switched on his music. At first I thought that was not on purpose, but he didn't stop the music after a few seconds. So I thought, that might be a "hint" that our discussion is disturbing him and I asked him about it, but he negated - twice! So I told him, that his music is actually disturbing us and if he could switch it off. Ooohhh, totally wrong move! He just went so crazy, telling me in a very aggressive way, that there are rules - internationally accepted rules! - for offices and people should stick to them. But he of course could not make people stick to these rules and yes, sometimes discussions turn out to be longer than expected, but still... one has to stick to the rules. And if a discussion takes longer than 15 min, one should leave the office for that, there are meeting rooms and coffee shops for these occasions,.... . 
I couldn't make out his point from what he was saying, because he never said, that we are actually disturbing him. He just went on about internationally accepted rules and that he sticks to them. I told him several times during his speech that in case I'm disturbing him, he must tell me that. But he didn't! And as I thought it was very rude of him to "educate" me in front of my PhD student, I was not willing to follow his un-spoken wish. Instead I turned around after he was finished and continued my discussion. He interrupted us once more to continue his speech and after that I again turned around and continued talking to my PhD student. And finally then he managed to say, that we are disturbing him and we should leave the office - what we then did.
The temperature in the office dropped by a few degrees.
A few days later the discussion continued, after I - not very diplomatic, I know - reminded him of his internationally accepted rules, after he had a discussion in the office, which exceeded the magical 15 minutes. There was nobody else in the office at that time and he got so mad at me, interrupting half of my sentences, was offended, when I asked him to repeat something, because I didn't understand it through all the anger,... .
I offered that we could set up some rules together with the other colleagues in the office, but he said, that's not necessary, because I am the only problem in the office. As I did not agree to his point of view, he decided, that it's a waste of time talking to me and dropped out of the discussion.
The temperature dropped below freezing temperature and there it is.
I know that I could have been much more perceptive in this situation and could have stopped the escalation of the topic. But if I would have given in, while my PhD student was there, I would have lost my standing with both of them - and the situation was just to surprising and ridiculous and rude!

I'm not sure where NewColleagues sudden emotional release came from. I never had any problems in the various offices I worked in and none of my "older" colleagues ever mentioned, that I'm disturbing them.

Three theories:
1) It's a woman-man problem, as I'm the only woman in the office and NewColleague has a problem to fit in his big Ego into the same room with a woman, without being accepted as superior right away.
2) It's a culture problem, as he comes from an Asian country, where people are maybe not used to being direct, when they feel disturbed. From his point of view being direct might be impolite and so he sent subtle signals to express his discomfort. I, on the other hand, don't have the sensing abilities to deal with this, as I never needed them - this might as well explain, why my other colleagues never said something so far, as they come from Asian countries as well ( that's a very generalized statement, of course)
3) I am an unpolite and rude person and was just lucky so far with the offices I've worked in, that the people could deal with it.

Any other suggestions?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

first baby steps in teaching

As I forecasted in the last post, my teaching kept me quite busy during the last weeks. It's the first class I'm teaching at all. I did a lot of lab course supervision for students from various disciplines during my undergrad and PhD time, but this is my really first serious class. I don't know how this is handled at other universities, but I just got pushed into the cold water. I got the old slides of my supervisor and the PostDoc, who gave the course last year. But that was about it. And slides, which mostly show graphs copied from various publications without any bullet points, are not sooooo helpful. So, I'm learning how to swim right now within a topic I haven't fully mastered myself. 
The first lecture was just awkward. I have never seen how a lecture within my school is "usually given", I don't know much about the curriculum and what the students are supposed to know. They are not all directly connected to our School. Some are enrolled in different studies and can do my course as an optional one.
 So, I gave a classic teacher-centered class, mostly me talking, mostly rushing too fast over important topics and I looked at quite a few confused faces at the end of it. I find it very hard to balance between explaining stuff on a too basic level and overwhelming them because I assume to much pre-knowledge. In the first class I definitely took too much knowledge for granted.
In the next classes I tried to implement more interaction with the students, asked more questions, let them use the stuff I talked about right away. That worked a bit better and there were a few bulbs lightening up once in a while. It still wasn't a totally amazing class, but at least I didn't drown half way through the course.
And now I just recognized how much I remind myself of all these young teachers I had in High School, who were fresh out of university, trying to test all the stuff they have learned during the last years on their students. Sometimes I liked that and sometimes I felt like a little lab rat with electrodes connected all over.
But its exactly what I'm doing right now for my class: Digging out everything I have ever heard of "engaging" teaching practices and test them out. And it's actually fun. I don't know how much for the students (I'll see in the evaluation, I guess), but at least for me. Next time I'll bring paper, cord and modeling clay. And then we'll see if this is a good learning experience or if my students feel relegated to pre-school.

Monday, July 16, 2012

still running....

Conference/vacation time is over and the data analysis was done, the slides were prepared on time and all the students had a measurement schedule before I left. So I actually could enjoy my time off!
The only thing that was unclear was if the lecture will be on or not. The number of enrollments said "no", but the teaching committee did not meet until a week ago. And even though the enrollments were below the official threshold they decided that my course will be on - a week before the first lecture had to take place. Yeah! Great fun! That will keep me busy for the next weeks.
And of course not everything worked out with my well planned measurement schedules for the students. One of them needs access to a shared lab and for some reason her electronic access was not activated during the last weeks, even though all the paper work was done - most likely because the main person in charge was on leave and nobody felt particularly responsible to take over the job. As the student is just with us for a couple of weeks this "laziness" delayed her project a lot and so her schedule will be busy as well - and mine with it.
Additionally, there are some reports with deadlines coming up, so it seems that at least until the lecture is over I'll be the first one in and the last one out of the office. Double-yeah!
A post-doc colleague of mine said once to me, that I should enjoy the first 18 month of my post-doc time. Afterwards it would start to be very stressful. He seems to be totally right!

Oohh, and one thing about the financial situation: the commencement of the new taxation rules (LAFHA) has be moved to September and even then it's still not clear who will be affected how much. I guess, everybody who moved house, sold their car, quit their job,... because of the expected massive net pay reduction, feels a bit taken for a ride. Everybody else is quite happy about this new announcement - me, too!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

leaving on a jetplane

The last weeks have been a bit crazy! After two long and more or less successful experimental sessions with lots of data to analyze, there was not much time to settle back in the office. One of our collaborators from the experimental session stayed a few days longer and we discussed and pre-processed our data - and had a few lunches/dinners/beers. Directly after that our group got "swamped" with short term exchange students, who all need the same pieces of equipment to do their projects. And of course they all just have limited time, whereof a lot is already taken by safety instructions and paperwork. All their projects are related to what I'm doing, so I'm their main contact person. Which is sort of great, because they are in very different stages of their studies and its great to see them progress. But of course it takes up a lot of time. 
At the end of the week I'll leave for a combined conference/vacation trip and until then there is still a bit of data analysis on my table and ... yeah .... the conference talk needs to be prepared and I still didn't come up with a great way to present my data. After the conference there may or may not be my first lecture to be given - which is as well not amazingly prepared yet. I mean, the first lecture - I refuse to think about the rest of it for now. Because maybe the number of students enrolled is too low and then the whole course is skipped - so my motivation to prepare a lot is quite low.
Sounds all like bad time management, I guess. But until the deadline/departure of the plane everything will be organized, slides will be prepared, I'll know if the lecture will take place and all the exchange students will have a plan for the time I'm not there and they will do great stuff and present exciting results when I'm back!
This is how it will be!

Friday, May 25, 2012

ticked off

Sample prep (half a truck full) - 90% done
Equipment check - done
Putting all needed data together - 90% done
The boss' writing task - done
Organization of my absence - done

Not too bad for Friday evening of the "deadline is coming up" week. Just a small bit of work to do on the weekend and a bit on Monday and everything can start smoothly - at least it looks like that at the moment.
And there was even time for an Ayurvedic treatment and a Yoga session - on the expense of two not so important workshops/trainings. Hopefully the good vibrations will last for the upcoming experiments - that would be awesome!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

other peoples deadlines

A deadline getting serious because I myself mess up my scheduling is one thing. Bad scheduling that gets additionally messed up because other people can't hold their deadlines and they "need my help" is something totally different:
my boss decided that I should do some writing for him, not much and even a nice task - just that his deadline was already last week, so I have to squeeeeeeeeeeeeeez this task into my already tight schedule of this week. But as I wanted to make "getting up earlier" a habit anyways, this is just a bit of extra motivation ...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

deadline coming up

Finally, after 19 posts without a single deadline topic, I can proudly present my first serious deadline since quite a while. And it is getting serious! 
There is a major external experiment coming up next week, for which half a truck of samples needs to be prepared. The samples come from two different collaborators. One of them has send the samples in way before schedule, so I had to delay the whole preparation process quite a while, to build up the right amount of mental pressure for this task. Even before this threshold value was reached, I checked if all the equipment needed for preparation was there - and, of course, it was not. Some significant parts got lost and the PhD student, who most probably new where they could be, was away for a few weeks. It took a while until we found out that some not-authorized person had "borrowed" the equipment and broke it in action - the secret person and the PhD student knew about it, but it seems they were all too busy to inform somebody. This first issue was luckily fixed very quickly and I was still relaxed in schedule.
Sample prep was already progressing well this morning, when I realized that the prep lab will be blocked by student classes half the week and I have to squeeze my prep time in between classes, group seminars, meetings about the upcoming experiment,.... - there goes my "still relaxed in schedule". But finally the other half of the half a truck of samples arrived today, so at least I can't blame it on anybody else anymore (= .
So the next days will be a great practise in prioritizing and keeping calm (and maybe humming "soft kitty" once in a while).

Friday, May 18, 2012

bad finance karma

The money story goes on and it becomes apparent, that I don't have a good touch with this topic at the moment. Our payroll people calculated my new net pay as it most likely will be after the LAFHA tax changes come into effect in July. It’s devastating! My net pay will decrease by 1k AU$ per month! That is A LOT! And still there is no final official statement about the whole process, so nobody who will be affected can actually make any sophisticated arrangements - 1.5 month before it all gets started! And it does not seem as if paying the full tax rate would come with getting the same benefits as the general full tax rate person.
But that's not the only bad news! When I signed my contract I was told, that I have to join a superannuation fund. That's in principle not so bad - but I was wondering what happens to this money, when I leave Australia for good. So I asked this question and was told, that I'll just get the money back. Sounded good, so parts of my salary are just parked somewhere, where it might even grow a bit (which it actually doesn't - that's part three of the bad karma story) and when I leave the country, I just get it back. This is correct in principle, just that the lady I asked forgot to tell me about this tiny tiny extra bit of information, that BEFORE the money is transferred back to me, it will be taxed with at least 35%. this is much higher than my current tax rate!
So, this is all very slow and bad information politics and I feel quite ripped off! And I'm still in a good position, as I don't have any big financial burdens. What is with the people who have kids, a sick family member, have to pay a credit back... and they planned with the net pay as it is right now? Can we please be informed about such harsh cuts so much beforehand, that we have the chance to adjust our lifes to it, dear Government?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

happy too soon

If the government suddenly changed their strategy or if it is just based on communication problems, who knows. The latest news say, that all of us on temporary visa will not recieve LAFHA anymore from the 1st of July on - this year, not next year. In 1.5 month we all will have to arrange our lifes with a much lower net pay - yeah! Very thoughtful strategy, thank you!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

good news

In a recent post I wrote about the governments plans to stop the Living Away from Home Allowance (LAHFA), which would lead to strongly reduced income for a lot of people on temporary visa. This income cut is about to commence in July and until today there was no additional information about how the whole process will be going on and who will be affected in which way. But today - finally - they let out a tiny bit of information, that at least for people who already could claim this tax cut, there will be a delay of the commencement date until July 2014. So people have a bit time to adjust their life styles if necessary - and I'm sure in a lot of cases it will be necessary - maybe search for a job with higher income or make arrangements with their current employers. We'll see how these taxation changes will affect the employment of international researchers at Australian universities.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

adjustments to the timetable

Recently I admitted to myself that something seems to go pretty wrong since I'm here. I used to be much more productive and organized during my PhD, but here I'm easily distracted, esp. by all the random thoughts in my head. So I decided to put my focus-helmet back on and dig out some of the old strategies which helped so much in the past.
One of my main problems - and this sounds silly now - is the general working culture here. At my former uni I worked mostly from 8am to 6pm, because I was commuting and bound to the timetable of the trains. This external condition structured everything a lot. If you walk in here at 8am in the morning, you'll maybe meet one or two grad students but certainly no postdocs. This was very confusing during my first days at work, but I adapted very fast and by now I come to work around 9-9:30am - even though I know that my most productive time is in the morning and the best thing I can do in the afternoon is a nap.
So this will be adjusted back to the original time schedule and I'll try to come to work an hour earlier, even though I really got used to sleeping very long.
To make things even more complicated I decided to combine this task with a second one, inspired by Tanya’s fantastic blog and the book The Clockwork Muse. I realized how difficult it is for me to find time for my writing, when there is no boss who gives you a deadline and asks for drafts. So I'll test some strategies to get my own self-motivated and self-structured writing going, starting with dedicating some fixed time slots of my working hours to the task "writing" and then working my way through all the posts on Tanya’s blog - maybe.
I'm very excited about these adjustments, eve though they seem tiny and very straight forward - and then we'll see what a quiet office and one more hour of productive morning time can do to my research.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

public holiday

Today Australia celebrates Anzac Day - a remembrance day for all who served and died in military operations. I think it's important to bring this topic to public attention and to make people aware that some of us do an incredible service for all the others - may we approve the specific operations or not. 
But I must honestly say that for me here it's "just" a public holiday. Maybe because I didn't grow up with a culture of war memorials and military parades or maybe just because its not my home country?
So what did I do on this public holiday?
  • I went running early in the morning to please my sporty-me, which has been pretty sleepy during the last months
  • I finally, FINALLY pressed the "submit" button for the publication I have been working on during the whole last year - YEAH!
  • I curled up in a big blanket in the sunshine behind the balcony windows, nicely sheltered from the strong winds, and read a book about the topic I have to teach in a few months, took a nap after the first chapter and then read a second one - while teenage neighbour tried to cope with her teenage life by listening to loud pop music
  • I had a good lunch and then curled up in my bed to have a long, way too long nap - which pleased the sleepy side of sporty-me, I guess...
  • And then I took a long walk - past my favourite Indian take away restaurant - mmmhhh 
  • The rest fo the day will certainly include some ice cream and some note taking about my teaching topic! 
Not too bad for a day off.

uni support - love it!

I just realized again how much effort my uni puts into supporting and "growing" its staff. Besides all the mandatory courses a new staff member has to attend, esp. about workplace safety stuff, there is a large variety of workshops offered, which are really well set up and I always take a bunch of new ideas back to my office. In my former uni we didn't have support like that and if there actually was a workshop related to the topics a researcher is interested in, it was not well advertised, so that most likely you heard about it a few weeks after it was held. Here, you can't actually miss the announcements because your mailbox is swamped (in a positive way) with reminder emails.
Workshops are usually held for all disciplines in the university together and depending on topic for all levels of academic staff. So that besides attending a good lecture, you usually meet a lot of interesting people from other faculties, who sometimes have very different views on how to teach students good writing habits or how to structure your own research. And well established concepts from the business or the arts people (had a few very nice conversations with people from the School of Arts) can be very fresh for someone in my field.
A lot of my colleagues don't attend any workshops, because they think, they don't have time for that and they are too busy with their research, paper writing, student supervision, lecture preparation,.. to once in a while spare half a day for a workshop. Even though the topics of the workshops are about efficient writing and reading, being a supervisor, transferring research ideas into good projects,.... . Maybe some of them even think, they know all the tricks anyways and don't need fresh input.
But I think the uni does a great thing in providing these workshops and investing in the development of its academic staff. Thank you! Love it!

Friday, March 30, 2012

paper writing worries

During the last year I was working on a paper about stuff still from my PhD thesis. It's a large bunch of data and I found it difficult to really get my head around it and to make a readable story out of it.  The Post-Doc, who's on the author list, is of the kind who needs a pretty well written draft already before he feels motivated enough to give decent comments. And as he's still in my PhD-university far away, communication (means: motivating and pushing) over several time zones wasn't easy. So I asked two other colleagues, who work on related projects, if they were interested in getting on board. They both liked the topic and gave really helpful comments, sent me realted papers and even made some additional measurements. By now the paper had been grown enough to attract the interest of the Post-Doc, so we were four motivated authors by now. Then we decided, that so really pimp the publication we should include one more experiment, so we could show in our own graphs, what we had so far just based on literature. As neither of us was capable of doing these experiments we asked Specialist Colleague, if she could help us out with that. She said, that she'll be really busy for the next 2-3 month but after that she could spare some time. So we continued writing on our paper, re-formatting the graphs, improving the style,... while we were waiting for Specialist Colleague to have spare time. 
Last week - which is 5 month after she agreed to do the experiments - she announced that she's nearly done and she'll send the graphs within the next days.
And all out of a sudden I started worrying about, that her experiments might not show what we were expecting. What would we do with the nearly finished paper? Would we really sit down again and re-think the concept or would the motivation not be enough to do another round of email discussions? The first round had already taken so long and was sometimes so tedious, that I wasn't even sure, if I had the motivation right away to start it all over again. I really wanted to have it off my table.
Today her email with all the graphs came - and they look fantastic, supporting our concept very well! Very long breathing out! Very big smile on my face!
Now there will be 1-3 graph-shifting emails and then the babe is ready to go.
Hope the journal will love you! 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

proposal stuff

Just got the notification that I was "identified as a suitable Assessor for Proposal(s) within this current (ARC proposal) round". I got my first grant just a few month ago and now I'm already on the list of people assessing other peoples proposals. I'm not sure how to feel about that. Possible emotional states are:
  • honored - because the ARC seems to thing I'm capable of doing a good job
  • scared - because of the responsibility
  • freaked out - because of the unknown amount of work
  • proud - because I'm SO AWESOME
  • relaxed - because that's part of the job
  • happy - because of the interesting new aspect of my job
 I guess, I'll run through different stages of all of the above possibilities (and a few more, that'll surprise me), esp. after I have checked which proposals are assigned to me.
Any good advice about how to avoid the 10 most likely pitfalls that there are in proposal assessing (whatever they may be) are very welcome!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I was always pretty lucky with having supervisors and colleagues who were mostly polite and friendly and even if there was need for some clear words, they kept a high level of professionalism. I just know a lot of stories from colleagues in other groups about their not-so-controlled co-workers or supervisors.
Maybe this is why the following incident got me started thinking about the topic, even though it was not an obviously bad situation. I'm not sure if I'm in favor of any of the two people involved or if I just dislike the whole incident:
The professor wrote an abstract for an upcoming conference and circled it to all the co-authors on the list and asked for comments. The topic includes parts of a PhD students work (but not solely), so the student is on the authors list as well. However, the student didn't like the context in which his work was put and the whole abstract wasn't specific enough for him. He found strong words to express his criticism, but that was still ok. But at the end of his email he added a re-written version of the professors abstract. I thought that was odd and out of line. The professor addressed the students criticism very objective in an email, but no changes were made to the abstract.
In their next meeting, the student apologized and explained that he didn't want to appear rude and he had thought, that re-writing the abstract would speed up / assist in the finalization of it. So he had realized that his email was somewhat out of line and had the guts to apologize for it. The process seemed to head towards a happy ending.
But then the professor pulled out some old story, where the student had reacted in a rude way against him a few years back. And concluded that he was not surprised but had nearly expected some kind of not appropriate behavior of the student.
Again, I thought that was odd and out of line. Maybe the professor thought it was necessary to re-install the hierarchy and he certainly was more crossed about the situation than he wanted to be. But if measured in rudeness, I'd say they are even now.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

what your student wants

Recently, I sat in a very good talk about supervision and what students expect from their supervisors. It was a long list - lets see what I remember of it...

You students want you to ...
... be a respected and successful researcher
... be approachable
... respect the differences in each others characters
... give them freedom in their work
... guide them
... be a friend
... respect their work
... respond quickly, when they gave you something to do
... be in interested in and to push their career
... manage their projects
... tell them what's the next step
... take care of them

They want you to be a bit teacher, a bit friend, a bit role model, a bit manager, a bit parent, a bit boss, a bit psychiatrist - each of them in a different weighting. Seems as if one could only fail their expectations - always a good reason to relax a little bit...

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Today a student wanted to work in my lab, but when he started switching on the computers and the other fancy boxes, the general fuse tripped and all boxes and computers went back to silence.

From my point of view there were two possibilities for him to handle this situation:
a) walking over to the general lab manager, who lives just across the corridor and telling him about the situation.
b) in case the general lab manager is not in his office: calling me on the phone and telling me about the situation, because I'm the not-so-general lab manager and he has my mobile number.

For some reason he opted for the not so obvious version
c) walking away, without telling anybody
Back at his desk he wrote an email to me and went off to attend a class. 

When I found out about this whole situation, it was already to late to call the electricians in right away... *sigh*

Its clear, that he did not want to sneak out of the situation unseen, otherwise he wouldn't have written this email, but for some reason the direct approach - talking to a person in charge directly - was too difficult, even though the general lab manager is the kindest person you can imagine and I usually don't get mad at people as well - esp. not if they are obviously embarrassed about what happened AND its not their fault. 
I'm not sure what would be a good strategy to encourage shy students, how much I have to take their cultural background into account (both the shy-student-encouters were with Chinese students) and at which point I should stop being sensitive and start saying "Don't make such a fuss, student". I guess thats a continuous learning process on both sides...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

the arts of introducing

To be able to write a deep and meaningful publication, which at the same time s fluent to read and guides the reader through the different levels of it, is a very valuable skill in academia. If you can take your reader by the hand from the first sentence on and he doesn't want to let go until you are at the Acknowledgements, you are one of the very good "story-tellers" of your subject.

When I read a publication, I usually read through Abstract and Conclusions at first to get a feeling for the significance of the content. Then I check the experimental section, if there is one, for methods, sample preparation procedures, error estimations, etc. and then I read Results and Discussions.
The section Introduction usually does not get very much attention - maybe just the last few sentences of it, where the authors summarize what they will do. At some point during my PhD thesis I stopped reading Introductions because it was just so disappointing. In my field everybody seems to choose the same opening sentences on and on again - something along this line: "This research is so important, because it will save the world...". Which of course it will not, but that would be hard to admit. A while ago I had a discussion about this issue with some colleagues and one of them suggested to write something like this, instead: "Based on our investigations related to the funding level in various fields, this topic here seems to be the most lucrative one, so we decided to jump on it." This, of course, is a bit exaggerated as well, but it would be a bit more honest than the "we'll save the world" line.
So, the standard opening sentences are then followed by a line-up of "this group did this" and "these guys found that", which - if you are very lucky - leads to an "and based on this and for these five good reasons, we studied the following topic". Usually what you get is a totally not connected "and we studied snow flakes". So, usually, the Introduction does not give you much meaningful background and it's not used to set the scene for the authors work.
But some people really know how to use the Introduction in a way that the rest of their writing benefits from it. There will be a sentence about the general history of the topic to set the scene and to make clear why this is an interesting field. Then you'll be guided through the achievements of other researchers and the questions they tried to answer, to then finally arrive at the point where the actual paper starts. And you'll have the impression, that you start well prepared with some good background knowledge in this new piece of research - which does not mean, that you won't be hopelessly lost somewhere in the middle of the Discussion section. But at least the authors took care that you had a great start and the topic and you were well introduced to each other.
So far, I only know a handful of people, who can write engaging Introduction sections and I sometimes wonder, if they have a special skill or if they just try harder. And if this ability is reflected in the success rates of their funding proposals. And if they know about their amazing style of writing....

Friday, February 24, 2012


My current professor and my former professor are setting up a grant proposal together. In this context I was reading through their CV related documents today to do a bit of typo-checking. And I must say, that even though I knew already what amazing careers paths they both have, I was once more impressed by it. They are both very impressive chaps (imagine that I put a lot of respect in this word), each one in his own very special way.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

listen and think - no way

I really do envy people, who can just put their headphones on, vanish into their own world of music AND work at the same time. As soon as I have music on my ears, my whole brain seems to be completely focusing on that. I'm maybe able to do some stupid, repetitive data analysis stuff, but nothing more than that. No clear thought can move through my brain without being totally shaken into bits and pieces. I can start reading the same sentence 10 times and if it's longer than 5 words, I'll not make it to the end of it. This gets even worse, when someone else has headphones on and I slightly hear his/her music - that drives me nuts - even if its "good" music. At my last position I was commuting by train each day and I gave up the idealistic thought of "doing a bit of reading on the train" very quickly, because in public transport there is always at least one person, who seems to be half-deaf but still has to listen to music in public. Or forgets to actually plug in the headphones and doesn't realize that the French Chansons sound strange today.

Is that genetically fixed or are there any tricks or trainings to overcome this brain shutdown during appearance of music? Yoga? Scented candles? Mixed pickles?

(This article was written, while my neighbors were indulging in Indian pop-music)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

women and technical stuff

During the last two weeks I encountered two very different situations, which both fall under the topic "women and technical stuff".
1) the situation that was more familiar to me:
I asked one of our lab managers if we have a drill, because I need to drill a hole in a table. He said, that for sure we have one and I can have it any time after properly being inducted in the schools workshop. Then I could even use all the other fantastic tools that we have there. And the he asked, if I'm good with tools, because maybe it would be a better idea to ask one of the guys - means one of my PhD students - to do that for me. After reassuring that I have seen and used a hammer and a drill before without hurting myself, he agreed to give me the induction for the workshop.
 2) the situation that pleased me more:
A piece of equipment broke down in the lab and because we thought, there might be a problem with the labs electrical grounding, an electrician came by to have a look at it. Even though there were two male lab managers in the room he nearly exclusively talked to the person in charge - me.

Ever since the first time I got a washing machine delivered and hooked up, had questions about my Internet connection or wanted to buy a mobile phone, there were men, who ignored me and talked to my male companion instead or - if there was no male companion - lectured me about technical stuff as if I had been living in a pink, glittering Barbie world before. I got used to that by now and mostly I don't take it personally - I just think its stupid.
However, once in a while there are guys like the electrician, who just take your questions seriously and try to help YOU - not the random guys, who happen to stand beside you.  And I have the impression these kind of guys are slowly becoming more...   
I really like that! It makes my day! 

Friday, February 10, 2012

the "little girl"

A few month ago a new PhD student started in our group and as she decided to work in my field I became her co-supervisor. She is pretty smart and picks up new stuff very quickly. She is always well prepared for her meetings with our professor and gives nice talks in the group seminars, where she appears as very confident about her topic. But beside this "confident PhD student" there as well exists the "little girl". As soon as her talk is over the "little girl" takes over, which means, she does not just walk back to her seat, but she sort of runs with tiny girl steps. Sometimes the "little girl" even shows up during meetings and makes the "confident PhD student" press her hand on her mouth, giggle and blush for no specific reason. But what concerns me the most is that, even though the "confident PhD student" asks all sorts of questions about her project and even defends her ideas, when the boss doesn't agree right away, the "little girl" is too shy to tell him, when she literally doesn't understand a word he says, because her English is not yet good enough. So she sits in our meetings and smiles and nods, just to ask me directly after the meeting what the last 10 minutes were all about.

Luckily, she is at least not too shy to ask me about it later on, but I really wonder how I can move her, to tell us right away, when we talk too fast, with too much accent or just not accurate enough. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

money makes the world go round

The Australian government is recently discussing the pro's and con's of the Living away from home allowance (LAFHA). This allowance means for people from overseas, who come to work in Australia and are not a permanent resident, that they get some part of their salary tax-free. The idea behind it is that somebody who comes to Australia for maybe a year might still have financial responsibilities in his/her home town and this tax-free money is supposed to compensate for that. The LAFHA is mainly split into two parts: part one says that what one pays as rent will be tax-free, part two gives a certain amount of money "for food" as tax-free (how much that is depends on how man people belong to the household and the amount is calculated fresh every year). The weird situation is, that the more rent ones pays the more salary becomes tax-free and from the governments point of view, this possibility as been abused too much during the last years.
But instead of finding a better way to regulate that, it seems that the current plan is to stop the whole LAHFA thing completely - already from July on. This of course would bring in quite a bit of tax-money, but for a lot of people it would mean a very sudden and sharp decrease of their net income. If one can trust the numbers I saw in an information session of my uni, we talk about something like 10k per year less. That's tough!
In general, I must say, that when I came here I was surprised about this kind of "free money" and the amount of it. So I would have no objections, if the government would reduce this amount a bit or bring in different rules, that prevent the abuse. But cutting it off completely is a bit like changing the rules in the middle of the game. I'm sure a lot of people informed them self much better about how much money they'll have in their pocket, than I did. And I'm sure that quite a few of them would have reconsidered the job offer if they were told that they will earn 10k or 15k less per year.
If the new taxation comes as planned, recruiting new staff from overseas will become much more difficult for universities and its very likely that quite a few people, who already work here, will think about the duration of their stay once more.
Interesting times...

Friday, February 3, 2012

do it!

I love list! To-do lists! Where I can write down all the tasks that are swirling around in my head. I use to-do lists for my private and my professional me, so I don't loose track no matter what.

My first to-do lists date back to when I was a teenager and I noted down pretty much everything, just to have the joy of ticking tasks off the list a lot more often.

During my undergrads I had list of what I would like to do (seeing a movie, meeting with friends, writing a letter, going to a concert,...), because time passed by while I often was stuck in front of the TV or the computer and I needed to be reminded that my life can be more exciting than that. 
I still use this type of lists and they are very helpful to prevent me from "being too tired" every evening. By now I'm not using paper lists for that but a program that pops up little notes on my desktop (still sitting too much in front of my computer) once a week and once a month. They are reminding me to write postcards to friends, to go for a swim, to see a movie/go to the theater, to read a paper that is not related to my subject just out of curiosity or to cook something I've never tried before. I had a note that was popping up each day, which said "read a random Wikipedia article" and "make 20 sit-ups" - but my private me got bored pretty fast by the daily to-do list.
My most professional "professional" to-do lists were made during my PhD thesis. I was commuting every day to uni and used that time to make a list with the tasks for the upcoming day. And I became extremely good at judging what kind of work and how much of it I could handle. Sitting in the train on my way home in the evening with a completely ticked of list was always very satisfying.
For some reason this concept does not work as good anymore. Dealing with three PhD students plus my own projects and the responsibilities in the lab gives me the feeling that I can't plan my day beforehand anyways. So I sort of stopped trying. I started weekly list but even that is chaotic and often enough I can only tick off stuff like fixed appointments. I'm not sure what's the real cause for my to-do list dilemma: is it really the bigger diversity of my projects or maybe the lack of progress control by other people / supervisors? Do I become lazy or is it just bad time management? 
Maybe I need to find a new way to kick my own butt, at least the professional one - but I'll always love to-do lists!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

clean and fresh page

There was the idea, that writing about all the stuff that goes on in my small science world could be an interesting project and that it might help me as a non-native English speaker/writer to improve my writing skills. 
But before I opened up this first page of my fresh blog, I did some research and was amazed and delighted how many interesting blogs there already are. So I read for a few weeks what others have to say about their life at uni, their careers, their ways of work-life balance (and the discussions about the existence of it) and all the stories coming along with that. 
Then I searched for a good name for my project and again was amazed how many people had the same ideas - unfortunately often already years before me.
Now "Whooshing sound" is based on something Douglas Adams once supposedly said: "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."
And as the Grant writing season just started again in Australia, I'd say this a terrific name.