Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year status

2013 has been flying by like nothing. It totally does not feel like New Year again, I'm mentally still stuck somewhere between June and September. If I think about all that has happened this year, it seems to be enough to fill 12 months, but still my soul did not quite follow the fast pace of the passing days.
And even though it is just one day following another the turn of the year is always a good milestone to check the current situation and clarify the boundary conditions to make proper plans for the following months.
This where I'm at:
  • The most important point on this list is of course my pregnancy, which will last another month or so. My private life has been very settled with quite a bit of nice routines and there was not much to worry about - which I totally didn't mind. This will certainly change when the LittleOne takes his first glimpse of Australian summer and a slight nervousness about his arrival has already set in. He will certainly not only turn our private life up side down but my professional life as well and then we'll see if all my preparations were enough to keep my science on a good track - between nappy changes and sleep deprivation.
  • The second most important point is that I have used last year to work on my future career. I've started in Feb already to talk to people about different options post-Australia, about different fellowships or general employment and until August or so I was very confident that I'll have this sorted out until..... welll.... now! Which did not happen. I'm writing on a big fellowship application but at the moment I can't progress because I don't have enough technical information from my host institution. And as I predicted: if I don't get this information before Christmas, I won't get it until the New Year. So I am stuck and I'm really worried, if I messed up the communication with my hosts so badly at some point, that they are not willing to support me at the moment. At the same time I'm hoping that this whole mess-up has nothing to do with me but is just a bad coincidence of a lot of work and unis closing over Christmas. I'm starting to think about other options, even though I really want this project proposal to be handed in, because it is a great topic and it would be an even greater opportunity for me if it would get funded. But for my sanity I had to sign up on every academic job portal I could find.
  • In the meantime while my project proposal is on hold, I am writing on another big paper. It's a summary paper of the huge project my PhD project was connected to and as my PhD advisor is too occupied to write it himself, he offered me to take over his part. This is a great opportunity for me and it prevents me from pondering too much about the messed up communication situation.
  • Publication-wise I had the plan to publish at least 3 first author papers this year and in June this aim was still in reach. Finally, I only managed to publish one paper this year. But I finalized the "doomed project" and we might even get a cover page out of it. Even though it was not published with a 2013 stamp on it, this was a lot of work and a big achievement - and I will certainly not write such a big piece again any time soon!
  • My PhD students start in their final years and while I am quite confident about the progress of one of them I am a bit worried that the other got lost on too many tangents that can't be properly tied together in a good thesis. I've learned a lot about how much guidance, how much pressure, how much freedom they need to progress well and now I have to use this knowledge to get them on the writing track and to get the focused on the gaps that need to be filled before they can finish. All while being on maternity leave...
  • Mentally I am in a state that I really would like to move back home. Even though I know that coming to Australia has been the best choice for my personal and professional development and I used every opportunity my university offered me during this time. But here is not home and it is not even close to it. We came here with the plan to stay for a few years and even though everybody here told us that we most likely don't want to leave anymore after a few years, this has not become true for us. The time we had set for us to be here is over and now the longing for going back home becomes stronger every day. This is the main aim for 2014: to find a possibility to go back to our home country and if that is not possible then to reduce the traveling time at least significantly.
The New Year starts with a lo of open questions and besides the plan to move back I don't have any other specific plans yet. Too much depends on how easy-going the LittleOne will be and how long it will take to find our family rhythm. I'm very curious and a bit scared about all the things that will change this year. How we survive as a family, if I will be perceived differently in my professional context with a child, if we will find a new place to live and work that we both like, ...
Have a Happy New Year all you readers and bloggers out there, an exciting and fulfilling one, whatever that means for each single one of you!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

my favourite writing spot

During the last few months I have not been much in the lab - to my own very disappointment. I only made it there if some of the equipment did funny things and the students couldn't figure out what's wrong by themselves. All my other time was occupied by writing tasks. First, the doomed project, then the project proposal with my slow-responding-colleagues, parallel to that I tried to push another 2-3 papers forward, mostly with just medium success. Up until the Christmas break I did most of the writing in my office - which most of the time is a very good spot for writing: I have a big computer screen and quite an ergonomic chair-desk situation, which helps to not get an aching back even after hours of sitting and with a constantly growing belly. My colleague who holds a lot of discussions with his students in the office was not in for a few weeks and my other colleagues are in general pretty quiet. And if I needed a break there was always a colleague who needed a coffee or a lunch break as well.
Now the university is closed over the festive days and for me this time off will directly lead over into maternity leave. So I have to replace my office writing spot with something equally good. Writing at home at my desk is not as perfect as writing in the office: no large screen and not such ergonomic sitting as I just have a laptop. Working on the couch can be good but usually my bum gets tired after a while and the couch does not allow me to constantly change the position. So at the moment my favorite writing spot is my bed: I can easily adjust my position as soon any part of my body gets tired, if my whole body and my brain get tired I can just turn around and take a nap, it is very comfy (sometimes too comfy which leads to too many naps) and having the laptop on my lap is much better for my posture than if I had it on my desk. The downside is that in principle I don't get out of my pyjamas the whole day and sometimes the whole day passes by and I still feel like just after breakfast. But getting dressed to then work in bed is not an option either. But I (hopefully) still have a few weeks to get a bit of structure in my new writing routine - before the little one arrives and puts his own structure into power. Until then I will spend a lot of hours in bed, typing, reading, thinking, typing,.....

Sunday, December 22, 2013

email conversations - argggss!

Writing emails often makes me anxious. Especially, if it's about important stuff or emails to people I don't know in person, so I have no clue how they interpret writing styles. If I write in my mother tongue I have my emails checked by my partner by now - because  the recipients sometimes thought they were not appropriately phrased even though I thought they were polite. He is the master of being polite and additionally the master of punctuation. My emails have improved a lot since then. Emails in English I have to master on my own. I found that especially Australians are quite forgiving if  I miss the right tone, but it's nevertheless an art I want to master.
Now the tricky situation is, if I am very polite and everything in an email about an urgent matter, but I don't get any replies. The matter is urgent to me and not necessarily to the emails addressee, even though it is about a project proposal we both agreed to get started. So after my first email I might wait 2-3 weeks until I write a polite follow-up email. I know that everybody is busy and I don't want to step on anybody's toes. After my follow-up I get a short reply that does not answer even half of my questions. My deadline on this urgent matter moves closer and I start to get nervous. I write another email a bit later, more detailed, collecting everything I want to discuss in one email, so I don't have to bother my colleagues more often than necessary. I'm still very polite, but I point out my deadline - knowing that it is my deadline not theirs. After about a week of waiting with no reply I write another follow up. I get a reply the next day saying that I'll get the answers to my questions in the next few days. After "the next few days" I get an email saying that it'll take a bit longer, at least until after next weekend.
After next weekend there is Christmas, my colleagues won't be at uni and maybe they are on holiday until January - which would be very nice for them and an understandable reason why they don't reply on emails. But as I urgently need their detailed replies and maybe even a bit of discussion about one or two things, it might as well mean that I miss my deadline - which is of course mine and not theirs.
These are the moments when I find it very hard to keep my writing polite without having the sarcasm dripping out of it. It's very hard to convince people to reply with decent answers if you are not high up on their priority list and I'm certainly lacking the mind-reading abilities to find each persons individual trigger to move me up this list. However, so far I thought that at least replying about when the decent reply will come (and then sticking to it)  without the need for frequent follow-up emails was a generally accepted etiquette. As I'm not in the position to test my skills in writing increasingly angry emails, I'll have to stick to the polite ones - and it's good that my partner can prevent me from sliding into the angry-category. Maybe I should attend an email writing seminar, maybe I should just collaborate with people I have at least the Skype contacts off. I really can't deal with being so dependent when all I can do is sit, wait and write polite follow-up emails - this is SO FRUSTRATING!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

work-related Christmas wishes

The last weeks before Christmas are always a bit strange at uni. While the campus is getting more and more quiet since early December because all the undergrads have left already, the labs and offices usually stay busy until the last day. It is hard to get some measurement time on shared equipment, because everybody wants to finalize something before they leave on their holidays. A lot of our international graduate students will be gone for about a month to visit their families overseas. My last student has left today, my supervisor will leave this weekend as well. 
For me this hopefully means less distraction. I'm still writing on my huge project proposal and have now additionally accepted the offer to contribute to a larger paper with deadline on my due date. Why did I do that, when writing the proposal is already a lot of work for the next 1.5 months at least? Because it sounded like a low investment high return project. It is on a similar topic as my "doomed" project, so all the tedious literature collection is already done and I "just" have to write the piece. Sometime in between my project proposal writing. Not quite sure when this will be.
The proposal is actually developing quite well, but the progress will certainly slow down over Christmas. Not necessarily because of me taking a long break from it, but because I need quite a bit of information from my host institute to continue - and they will be on a long break. 
So right now I hope everything will just fall into place somehow: I'll get the information I need in time, I'll get some feedback from colleagues on my writing in time, I stay physically and mentally fit enough to continue writing, the little one does not arrive earlier as expected (we have a made a deal about that!) and I can hand in my proposal and my paper draft before the family business starts - and I stay relaxed through this whole process. These are my work related Christmas wishes!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

pre-Christmas treats

The "doomed" project, which had cost me over three months to finalize just came back from review and it got really nice, helpful and easy to fix comments! Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic! It was a massive amount of work and I'm very relieved that I don't have to do much more to get it out to the world.
Additionally, my promotion application was granted, so I will jump to the next academic and salary level at the beginning of next year!
I'd say, the December has started well so far!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

the four horsemen of writers block

I read this post when I was caught in the claws of horseman No 4 - it put everything back into perspective.

Post image for The Four Horsemen of Writer’s Block (and how to defeat them)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

is there something like a "perfect supervisor"?

When I think back about myself as an undergrad and a grad student and how I perceived more senior people around me, I'd say that a lot of them appeared to me as authorities. Authorities in a sense that I would take their opinions serious and I'd respect the time they'd take for me as well as their knowledge and experience in general. When I'd been given a task by them I'd try to complete it in a timely and satisfactorily manner. Authoritarian people were my professors, my direct undergrad and PhD supervisors, other more senior people in the faculty, collaborative partners of our group,.... . For most of them I had and still have deep respect even from a personal point of view. For some of them I had not much respect regarding to their general character, but still for their scientific expertise and experience. Recalling the behavior of my fellow students back then I'd say most of them shared a similar view on what makes a person an authority and how to behave in that context. In that sense we were a very homogeneous group and I never had the impression that our professor treated some of us different to the others.
Looking at myself now, a few years out of my PhD and after having supervised a bunch of students, I wonder if I am perceived as an authority by them - or not at all. What I didn't like as student were people who tried to build their authority on "impeccable knowledge". People who'd never admit a mistake or a gap in knowledge and who had a talent to make you feel crappy if your own knowledge is not as flawless as theirs. I think this behavior stops real learning and inhibits good research, which is never flawless, and I never wanted to become like that. 
However, some my students seem to demand this kind of behavior. They seem to expect that I have to know everything about their research topics even before they have done a single experiment and they express their disappointment when I don't. I can see my "score" on their respect scale drop significantly in that case and it rises again when I appear "knowledgeable enough". This seems to be a constant and very tiring game and they play it not only with me but with everybody from student to professor level - sometimes more, sometimes less obvious. Instead of working together on an interesting project acknowledging each others abilities and experience I feel like I am under constant surveillance and rated against some imaginary "perfect" supervisor. The only way out seems to be to play the impeccable supervisor. But that would be tiring as well and against everything I'd like to be as a supervisor. So, how to be an authority in this case without pretending to be someone I am not?
I am convinced that the way you decided to lead your group has to fit your personality. But I am convinced as well that to do so you have to be able to choose the students you want to work with to avoid major personality clashes. At the moment I can't choose the students I work with and most likely it will take a few more years until I can if at all. And even then it'll always happen that the expectations of a student don't fit with your style of heading your group. Some people seem to be naturally authoritarian not matter what kind of situation they are put into or what kind of people they have to deal with - unfortunately I'm not. 
So how can I deal with a group of very diverse students with very diverse expectations about what a good supervisor should be like? How much personalized care does every student need, how much do the students have to adapt to the supervisor I am and how can we still work together to improve our scientific output? How much distance is necessary and how much interest in each other beyond the research? How can I keep everybody motivated if what motivates them is so different and often not even clear to them?

Monday, November 18, 2013

if in doubt leave it out?

The topic is: manuscript writing with students.
Manuscript writing with students can be a breeze but mostly it is not. Which is of course because there is a lot of learning involved, not only for the students about "how to write a paper" but as well for me about "how to explain to this student how to write a paper". Depending on their background and experience it can be quite a challenge to explain why a section flows better this way compared to the other - esp because I'm not a native English speaker as well. My favorite discussions at the moment evolve around the statement "but this is how you would say it in Chinese" - yes, well,.... still it doesn't make sense in English.
However, one issue that has nothing to do with language or writing style has crossed my way more often recently. In the beginning of my collaborative-writing-career I thought it was just connected to a specific person but it seems to be a more general phenomena than this. When I comment on a manuscript written by a student - can be one of my students or one from a collaborative group - it happens quite often, that instead of addressing my comments the corresponding sections are just deleted without any further statement. This is easy to recognize if the changes are still visible, but often I get a completely "clean" draft and I have to compare it side by side with the former version to find the bits and pieces which were changed. Often the comments that belong to deleted sections were questions, because I didn't understand what the student wanted to say with a certain statement. So re-phrasing would have been more helpful than deleting. Being aware that my statistics are not good enough I'd say that it is mostly Asian students who prefer deleting over explaining and re-phrasing. Do you know if this is really a cultural thing or is it just coincidence that I got this impression? 
My own students got much better in discussing their manuscripts and it just happens occasionally that they try to avoid the re-phrasing - I guess, mostly when they are sick and tired of working on manuscript draft 10+. But it needed a bunch of discussions and explanations with them about this topic. However, I wonder how to deal with students from other groups I'm collaborating with. Do I have some "educational responsibilities" there as well or would I just mess up my collaborators terrain?

Friday, November 15, 2013

where is the progress?

This is the question I ask myself every day since a few weeks. I'm working on a big project proposal which I want to have finished before the little one takes its first glimpse of the outside world. It is my top priority and I spend a lot of time on it, not only during "working hours". The rough plan for the project is there - already since a few months - but since then it seems I am not progressing at all. Parts of the project are a bit outside of my general expertise, so I'm reading a lot of papers to get a solid literature background, but for some reason this does not help my project idea to grow. When I did my PhD I thought that reading 3 papers per day is just as much as I could intake - this number has increased significantly and I got a lot better in deciding if a paper is worth reading in full length or not. So besides from my general displeasure when I realize that I printed out a bunch of papers from the same set of authors and they all show exactly the same stuff, sometimes even with exactly the same wording, I'd say my reading evolves very well - just not the project.
So what is all the time spend on reading worth if I can peal a good project out of it? My head says it is still progress and the turning point will come, but emotionally it is deeply frustrating that I can't see obvious progress steps and that I can't tick entries on my to-do list, because none of them is really finished yet and will not be finished until the stuff is handed in. And the weeks fly by *whoosh* - there seems to be no significant time between Monday and Friday and all my effort to get started on the project early on (and I got started early on!) went down the drain already months ago. Can somebody please drop a bag of motivation and confidence at our door?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

finally, the announcement

Just about 3 months after the expected announcement date are the result of this years ARC round finally published (ok, "already" last Friday). Would be interesting to know how many people won't accept their grants, because they have already moved on with their life, maybe to a different university or maybe even away from this weird place.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

PMPS 2013

Even though we had a lot of political hick-ups during the past few months and even though the new government has not been able yet to announce the outcomes of the Fellowships and Grant applications in the ARC system of this year, they managed to hold the annual dinner for the Prime Minister's Prize for Science award. On the one hand this is a bit cynical as researchers all over Australia don't know yet - at the beginning of November - if they will have funding for their students or even a position for themselves from January on, because the political situation holds up the announcement. But on the other hand some very impressive (and quite young) personalities were honored with the various prizes this year and it is important to give this appropriate space and attention as well.

Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, Associate Professor Angela Moles from UNSW
Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, Associate Professor Andrea Morello from UNSW
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools: Mr Richard Johnson from the Rostrata Primary School in Perth
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools: Ms Sarah Chapman from the Townsville State High School

 Congratulations to all of you and your impressive achievements in  teaching and research!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

differing eating habits - or social habits?

Two to three times a year I go on field trips involving collaborators and students. Sometimes I am the "principal investigator" on these trips, sometimes I just come along as an extra pair of hands. During the last two years we were just women during most of these excursions, before that and just recently there were just 1 or 2 women in a larger group of men. While all the trips were productive and professional there is one thing I've noticed to be different: the group eating habits. And this does not mean that the alcohol and meat consumption in just women groups was lower, but it is about the social aspect of eating.
By now I have worked in several different groups on different continents and I find myself to prefer groups which have some kind of social eating habits, such as going for lunch as a group, having a coffee meeting once a day, having group BBQs every now and then,... . I usually feel a bit lost if everybody brings their own food and eats in front of the computer or just not at all.
On my field trips I've noticed that women seem to pay much more attention to this social aspect of eating. If possible a common breakfast time is arranged and the working shifts will be arranged such that everyone can still make it to the next pub or restaurant before they close. When working with just men this is not necessarily the case. Even if a breakfast time is arranged this can mean that nobody shows up at the designated place and if you meet them 15 min later some of them already had breakfast and some will go later and some are still asleep. If the group has to split to go for dinner it might be that the first group forgets that pubs close at a certain time and the second group then has a dinner consisting of gas station sandwiches and chocolate. Even though I have experienced this already a lot of times, with each new field trip I  forget that the social aspect of eating is not as important for my male colleagues as for me. This then leads to a very rushed breakfast (if at all) on the first 1-2 days until I have adopted to this behavior again. And I would feel very unsocial if I would go by myself directly on the first day - because maybe this group of guys is different. I really wonder where this difference comes from - in the end most people like food as well as company.

growing circumference

The moment you really realize that your pregnancy must show is when you walk past an automatic hand dryer installed at your favourite loo and it switches on because your belly or your bum was too close. I really have to adjust to my growing circumference.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

men have been taught to grow out, women have been taught to grow in

This poetry slam says a lot of true things! Starting questions with "sorry" is just one of them.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"doomed" project - check!

Much later than originally planned, but finally of my desk! The "doomed" review paper is handed in, the kazilllion references I included are filed away and now we have to hope for good reviewers. In the meantime I have to find the motivation to work on all the other stuff that piles up on my desk, but right now I'm just very relieved - with a big smile on my face!

Friday, October 18, 2013

responsibilities towards your co-authors

Publishing a paper, writing a grant application or handing in a conference abstract involves co-authors in most of the cases. Comparing publications written in the 1950's with some of today clearly shows that co-authorship has become much more important. While preparing samples or conducting the experiments saved you only a place in the Acknowledgements a few decades ago, today these contributions push you in the author list. In the era of publish or perish is it important to have a lot of publications and as one can only write a limited number by themselves a spot on the co-author list is usually not declined - at least not by early-career researchers. The decision who makes it on the author list and who not has certainly led to some heated debates and broke some collaborations.
But even if you safely make it pass beyond this critical point and you have designed the perfect co-author list, there are some more pitfalls along the way:
Just very few manuscripts are written in one go, read by all the co-authors once, everybody is happy and the whole piece is handed in and gets accepted right away without further modifications. All the other papers go through a more evolutionary process. They are roughly drafted in the beginning, somebody is not happy with the content, the flow or some specific wordings, graphs are added, edited and deleted again and sometimes the story from the beginning is replaced by something totally different. All before a reviewer has even opened the file for the first time. Some main authors try to include all their co-authors along this way, asking for opinions and aim to keep everybody on the same page. But it is a lengthy process, esp. if the authors are distributed over several continents. It can sometimes take weeks (or months) before the last co-author has replied to the latest version and the whole writing process becomes very lengthy.
Some main authors try to cut this time shorter by not including the co-authors so much. This can mean that several iterations are done "in house" before a more polished version is send around again - and that is fine, as everybody has enough on their plate to not be bothered by too much detail. But the other strategy to speed up the manuscript development is to vanish with the manuscript after the first iterations and show up with it again after it is accepted by the journal. Without a notification that it was handed in at all, without sending around the final manuscript for approval, without discussing the changes suggested by the reviewers. This is not acceptable but happens all the time! And besides that having your name on a published document without your consent is surprising, it can if you are really unlucky drag you into the depths of scientific misconduct  - and you didn't even have the chance to avoid it.
This "time saving" behavior is not only common to speed up the publishing process, but to be able to hand in a conference abstract a day before the deadline and I guess a few people have found their names on grant applications as well after they were handed in. It is a tricky situation to deal with as usually the main authors are least somehow your collaborators and as an early-career researcher you need publications. So why shoot yourself in the foot by complaining to the main authors (or maybe even to the journal). Most of the time the content of the publication is still fine, even though the general behavior is not acceptable. On the other hand: this kind of behavior is not acceptable! It is disrespectful and patronizing, it shows that your main authors couldn't be bothered less about your opinion but think that maybe for political reasons your name should be on the paper. If possible I try to avoid working with people showing this publishing habit.
Sadly, the "time saving" virus infects grad students as well. It is sometimes very hard to explain to them why having the consent from your co-authors should never be harmed by their poor time management. It should not be too difficult to write the conference abstract quite a bit before the day of the deadline, so that the co-authors on the other continent in a different time zone have sufficient time to reply.
There are certainly difficult situations, e.g. when you have to deal with more than 10 authors. Keeping them all on the same page is a big task. But if you try - and lets assume the author list contains only people with a general interest in the paper and not a bunch of "political authors"- the time put into this "net working" project is well spend and last in better collaborations. Everybody likes it if their opinion is valued.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Do you know that when something happen that makes you really upset and angry and you can't just let it go? It is circulating in your head the whole day and prevents you from working and if you've managed to distract yourself for a bit it sneaks back into the front seat of your attention at the first possible moment? And you know you really have to let it go to make a rational decision about how to deal with the upsetting situation. Especially if it is work related and your emotions on in shouldn't matter - or at least they are not helpful. Oh, how I hate this! It does not happen very often, but if so it has a tight grip. Aaarrggss! I hope sleep helps my head a bit to sort this situation!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

the "doomed" project

Beginning of this month I wrote about my currently "doomed" project, which is a review paper, that I had to finish this month. For a while it looked like it might actually be possible to send the manuscript off before October. Even at the beginning of last week it still seemed to work out just fine, but today on the last day of September I must admit: "nope, not possible". And it's not because of my terrible time management, but mostly because since the beginning of last week I'm waiting for my co-authors final remarks. Which I need before I can start the lengthy submission processes including cleaning up all the ~150 references. This is a bit disappointing, as I did most of the work on this manuscript, I was well (or at least ok) on schedule and I'd have loved to hand it in on time. And now I'm sitting here waiting: 

Friday, September 27, 2013

exciting times...

So far my pregnancy has been a really pleasant one. I had pretty much no morning sickness, I wasn't much more tired than usual (and the more in tiredness was mostly due to the reduced coffee consumption, I guess), the tugging and twinging and itching in various parts of my body was bearable most of the time and until a couple of weeks ago I could still wear my usual stuff. Now I'm about half way through the 9 month prep time and some things start to become tricky:
1) I sorted through my clothes today to see what still fits - and now I have a pretty much empty wardrobe. I already bought some nicer maternity things, because I have a conference and a promotion interview lined up, but the number of wearable every-day clothes just went down dramatically. And as the warmer season is just about to get started but is not really there yet it is hard to decide in which type of clothes to invest.
2) The little Wallaby has grown enough so I can feel its movements. Which is mostly funny, but sometimes Wallaby is kicking me in uncomfortable places - like my bladder - which makes it impossible for me to sit or even stand. The only thing that helps is walking around for a while. This is no problem as long as I'm not in my office working at the computer. however, this is where I usually am, because the plan is to write a big fellowship application until the end of the year, which will determine where the family will settle down next. So far I thought that I have plenty of time to do so, but with this new kind of interruptions I get a bit worried. And I'm sure there are some more unexpected hick-ups lined up already, which will break up my established working routine. I was really hoping that I could continue working in my own pace for a few more months, but maybe that was a bit naive.
Exciting times...

Saturday, September 21, 2013

paper reviewing

I always wonder: how long does it take for the average university scientist to review an average paper. Not a paper that can be published without comments, but a paper somewhere between minor and mayor revisions. A paper where one has to check a few of the citations, because they seem to be out of place or you are not sure what exactly their statement is. A paper that is not so well and fluently written, so that one sometimes stumbles over a sentence and has to re-read a paragraph to grasp the meaning. How long does that take?

I talked to a colleague about it and he at first said: one hour! Then he corrected himself and mentioned that it might take a bit longer than that.

For me it takes about 5-6 hours stretched over several days. From reading the manuscript for the first time to get a general impression, then re-reading it to make comments, mark paragraphs and download citations I'd like to check, to finally writing the review. Some journals allow you to see the comments of the other reviewers (which I think is very useful and I learn a lot from that) and usually my comment list is 2-3 times as long as theirs. Does that mean that I am too picky? Or still too enthusiastic about the peer-review system? Do I invest too much time in the paper review?

I'd love to know how long people in the blogosphere take to review an average paper, which is somewhere between minor and major revisions. How long do you need for that?

Australian peculiarities II: Australians and their cars

Australians love their cars. Preferably big cars with a huge thirst. Cars that look like they are meant to be for the wilderness, but mostly they are used to drive here to drive the kids around and to conveniently get the groceries from A to B. The average car here is at least twice as heavy as the average car where I come from and as people here on average are shorter as well there must be some who need a ladder to get into these cars.
But the existence of these cars is not the peculiar thing, it's more how they are used. Or how they are used while they are actually not used. Because for some reason people hate to switch off their cars. On my way between home and office which is about 15min by foot I usually see at least 3 cars parked at the side of the street with their motors running. If it is a very hot or cold day I'd guess people sit inside a running car because of the AC. But on most of the days that can't be the reason.
It's interesting to see what people do in these cars: having lunch, refreshing their make-up, checking something on their laptop, chatting with a friend,... . Nothing what you would need a running motor for. And it's not that they just take a 2-min break and then they are on the road again. The "chatting with a friend" incident took over half an hour and occurred late in the evening under our bedroom window. Another example is the one with the dad and his two sons waiting outside the hospital for the mom plus child number 3. They were not even inside the car but were sitting outside enjoying the nice weather with the doors of the car wide open - and the motor running.
I once asked a lady why she does not stop the motor of her car. We met in the middle of nowhere, where we both took photos of koalas sleeping in the trees. I found it inappropriate that she pestered the habitat of the koalas with exhaust fumes while taking photos of them. She answered, that her car is a Diesel and it is supposed to cool down before you stop the motor. I really wonder, who told her that: maybe the guy from the petrol station.
Keeping motors running is actually not only restricted to cars: maintenance guys having lunch while the chain saw or the leaf blower or the lawn mower is chugging along is a very common sight as well.
Maybe petrol is just still too cheap down here to get people thinking about environmental stuff and with the new government, which will sack the carbon tax and a bunch of climate institutions right with it, one can't expect a positive impulse from that side - at least not in the near future.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

being proud vs being annoyed

Sometimes the impression I have of my students can change from one day to the other.
A few days ago I was quite proud (and relieved) because one of my students finally seemed to have grasped the concept that setting up your experiments properly right away might cost you more time before you can start your experiment. But having thought of all the tiny things that can influence your measurements and maybe having fixed a few issues might save you a lot of time in the long run. He learned that the hard way by being forced to re-do a bunch of his measurements because the original experimental procedure was too sloppy. Finally it seemed that he understood the concept and he even started searching for answers for some of the peculiarities in his data without being pushed by anyone.
Then he stumbled over a new issue just recently, which is based on sloppy sample preparation. I had told him already a year ago that he has to implement a special sample prep step to avoid this problem, but he did not believe me at that time and prepared the samples the way he thought was sufficient. So, now the bad sample prepping finally shows its full impact. And he says: "You certainly never told me about this!", AAARRGGSSSZZZLLLL... even if for some reason I would have kept this information from him, he should have been able to filter it out of the literature (that I guess he must have read by now) or even figure it out by just sitting down and switching on his science/engineering brain, because it is a very obvious an reasonable step that needs to be added. But just saying it's my fault? Will I get the PhD title for his work or will he?
So the "being proud" is gone on holidays and the "being annoyed" took its place!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

election - done!

The election is over, the coalition won very clearly! Hopefully the politician bashing is done now for a while and this energy is more used to do the actual job of a politician!

Monday, September 2, 2013

the deadlines haunt me

aaahhh, why does everything, really everything take so much longer than I expected? Even if I give myself what seems to be very generous time frames? Even if I start early on a certain topic and work continuously on it?
My actual "doomed" topic is a review paper that I plan to finish ... well planned to finish this week. This will certainly not happen. I have totally miscalculated how long it takes to find all the relevant literature, load it in my data base and have meaningful bullet point descriptions of the content somewhere in a nicely structured file. I spend days already just going through citations of papers that I've already implemented in my text to find another 10 papers each day that need to be included. It's just a nightmare at the moment, even though the core part of the review is already written and I "just" need to put the framework around it and give some tables with material parameters and include some graphs and write a summary section. But even this will include something like 30 additional citations, which have to be extracted from the vast amount of material that is out there.
After all my experience with deadlines, time-management is still a meaningless phrase to me!

Friday, August 23, 2013

pre-election science hick-ups

In most societies politicians or the people in the background of politics have a great influence on science. How much funding will go into science, what kind of research will be funded, how stressful and competitive it is to get funding, ... . Often enough these things might change when a new government is elected and the new responsible people have a different opinion about this topic than the former responsible people.
Struggling towards the election with all the more or less usual campaigning and political sandbox fights (see: Rudd vs. Gillard) Australia could be in such an "unstable" funding situation, but universities and research and science is actually not on their agenda. And even though it seems likely that we will get a change in government, nobody really expects great changes for the research funding.
However, the political situation still takes its toll on researchers. Endless amounts of hours have been sunk into writing grant applications at the beginning of the year. Usually the outcomes are announced in July or August. But for some reason the political situation hold up this process and right now nobody knows when the outcomes of the fellowship and grant applications will be made public - some time after the election, when the new government has warmed up their seats in the parliament. I'm sure all the reviewers and all the panel members already did their job and the decisions about who gets how much are already made. So why holding up the announcement? Because some not-yet-elected Minister of Science wants to give a press conference on that? Do politicians understand that other people's professional and to some extend personal lives depend on these outcomes? That they want to know if they still have a job at the beginning of next year or if they still can fund their post-docs?
I do think that Australia fosters scientific research very well and gives a lot of opportunities to get funding. But I really dislike the attitude of Australian politics to sometimes forget that their decisions have impact on people's lives and that giving them sufficient time to adapt to changes instead of changing the rules from one day to the other would create much more trust in the abilities of the government.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Whoot! Today I got my first invitation to a professorship job interview! That is quite amazing!
The non-amazing part is that they don't want to cover any costs related to this interview. Which wouldn't be a problem, if the interview was in Australia. But because it's in my home country this would mean I'd have to spend quite a bit of money for flights. And then it might be that I was just invited to fulfill their "invite more women" quota and I don't have a chance anyways.
But wouldn't both be an argument to cover my costs? Either they invite me because they actually are interested or they invite me to fulfill their quotas - both ways it would be a win-win if they'd really invite me!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Australian peculiarities I: Shower heads

I just had shower and simultaneously an idea for a slightly off-topic branch for my blog. And as the best ideas come to us under the shower - as proven by Jorge Cham with this nice drawing - the idea must be good and I'll directly turn it into reality while my hair is still dripping wet.
"Australian peculiarities" will be about all the little things that I've discovered while living in Australia and that I still find weird even after a few years of adaption time.

The topic today: shower heads
if you want to rent an apartment in an area where the last construction boom took place in the 1960s you'll find that shower heads are tightly fit on the wall at a height of about 1.6m (about 5.2 ft). Usually they can't even be turned in any way and as there is no shower hose it takes a bit of gymnastics to get all the bits of your body wet enough. Esp. for people taller than 1.8m (about 6ft) taking a shower is an act of balance and physical exercise. I've seen this type of construction in New Zealand before and I wonder: is this some kind of a Commonwealth thing? Or was the nutrition supply in OZ and NZ so bad in the 1960s that people did not grow taller than 1.6m? Does the Government want to encourage a minimum amount of muscle stretching each day? Or has the plumber guild a body height restriction rule for some reason?
If there are any theories or pieces of wisdom out there on this topic please share!

Friday, August 16, 2013

higher chances for women?

Uh, I have been really quiet for a while. Mostly because I was on conference/job hunt travel and before that it was the usual craziness to get your students on track and everything else more or less done before leaving.
Now I'm back, jetlag is pretty much conquered and I've already spend a decent amount of time in front of my office computer. The weeks away were full of different impressions, not only because I went to a really big conference so pretty much everybody was there and the whole socializing and catching up gives a colourful picture already. But the impression that stands out the most and makes me thinking a lot comes from the job-hunt part of the travel.
As the end of my fellowship slowly dawns I thought about my options afterwards, esp. the ones including getting closer to home again. One possibility to transfer back to my home country and continuing on the academic track would be if I'd applied for an early career research fellowship. The specific one is a pretty big thing and includes enough money to pay yourself, a Post-Doc and 1-2 PhD students for 4-5 years, plus money for equipment, travel and what else is needed for successful research. It's a personal award, but one needs a host professor, who'd be willing to have this person + project planted in his department. The likelihood that such a project gets funded increases if the reviewers have the impression that the hosts labs and experience fit very well to the proposed project. That's why I visited a few groups, who work in related fields, to talk to the professors, see their labs, get an impression what it would be like to work there, see if the personal chemistry fits and if they would be willing to host me. Overall, these trips were very positive and interesting for me and I see several options where to settle down with my next project (in case it gets funded). 
But there is one thing I heard at each of these visits, that makes me thinking and that is the sentence: "You have a bonus when it comes to applying for this fellowship, because you are a woman." I'm sure everybody meant this in a very encouraging way: "You should apply, because you even have a bonus which increases your personal success probability." And in the beginning I thought that this is really great for me. But by now I'm wondering if it is actually true! And if it is not true, what does this sentence really mean? Everywhere you go you hear that women in STEM fields nowadays have higher chances, because universities get asked at every project renewal why there are not more women in leading positions. And men in my age feel threatened by that. So people seem to believe, that women have higher chances to succeed. Even though in the Schools in my home country I have worked in so far there is no sign of increasing numbers of women in the permanent staff ranks - just the temporary positions are given to women quite often.
In Australia there is a huge awareness for this topic as well, but looking at the success rates for grant applications, the women chart usually shows lower numbers. And while still a third of our students up to postgrad level are female (which is a lot for a science/engineering field) the number drops to 12% for the academic staff in our School (including both fixed term and permanents). The leaky pipeline...? No sign of "higher chances" just yet.
At the moment I think the sentence "women have higher chances" is just interpreted wrong by the people who don't make the decisions. It does not mean "women have higher chances compared to men", because it does not make sense to hire a woman just because of her gender, if there is a more qualified man available.   It just means "women have higher chances compared to women 20 years ago", which maybe means that my application will not directly go in the bin but gets a decent amount of attention. And if I stick out enough it maybe even goes one the pile for the next round. But I don't think that any woman would be hired or get funded instead of a man if she is not obviously better than him - even though as a woman you get told otherwise and even though men freak out because they don't know how to compensate for the lack of "female bonus". This is all very disturbing and misleading - I hope we can settle for something a bit more honest and relaxed in the next 10 years. And if I'm wrong, I'd like to see the statistics!

Friday, June 28, 2013

a winter of deadlines

Ahhh, where did the year go. It was just February a little while ago and now the summer is already long gone, the rainy and miserable season has started and all the deadlines have piled up to a huge mountain.
My life is dictated by deadlines right now and I just try to keep up with them: application deadlines for jobs (yes, starting to look around what other unis have to offer), deadline for an invited paper, a field trip coming up and some conference travel combined with semi-formal job interviews. Oh, and deadline for my promotion application as well. At the moment I'm still on top of things but the point where I have to start working crazy hours gets closer and closer. Weekends are already occupied with "administrative" stuff such as proposal and paper reviewing. Luckily the weather is just horrible, so it feels almost like a treat to snuggle up in bed with a cup of hot tea and a bunch of stuff to read. At least I'm not missing anything outside.
I wonder if there will be a time, when I'm able to plan a year ahead and avoid getting into this maelstrom of deadlines that I saw coming already 6 months ago.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


fascinating Australian politics! Kevin Rudd, who was kicked out of his position as Prime Minister by Julia Gillard three years ago has now kicked Julia Gillard out of her position as the Prime Minister to maybe become Prime Minister again after the next election. It must be fun to have to vote here!

Friday, June 21, 2013

how much trust, how much control?

This is a question I ponder about a lot. How much freedom should you give your students in their work and how much should you trust them that they stick to the rules of scientific working even when there are so many tempting options that could make their life easier.
GMP wrote this great article about taking over paper drafts that don't come along good enough or fast enough if written by students. This is one great example about the boundary between giving freedom and trusting that the students will do a great job - even though it might take a while - and taking over control at some point to get that paper out to the public.
Another related point is plagiarism. We all would love to have students who don't copy and paste sentences or whole paragraphs from other peoples work and it would save so much time to not have to check at all. I often feel bad, that I do check my students works for plagiarism, because -hey- they are not little kids anymore, they are grown-ups in their mid 20s, they know the rules, they understand why these rules are in place. But often enough I get reports written in more or less heavy accent of whatever nation the author comes from and in between there are these flawless, well constructed sentences. Pasting them in Google gives a straight hit in 99% of the cases - very sad, but at least you know that they had a look at some of the famous papers in their field. So I continue to check on them, which is annoying, takes a lot of time and does not build my trust in their general scientific work.
Because if they copy and paste from other people for their reports, what is their standard for their own work? How well do they conduct their experiments? Do they just show me the one flawless data set and don't mention the other 10, which look "unexpected"? I had a case like this once and it made me dig through the persons raw data, which was a real pain. Of course there are people with very high standards, who prefer to measure 5 additional data sets just to be sure and who are not afraid of data that does not look like textbook but instead ask the big "why is this" question. If I'd dig through their raw data I'd understand that they would feel treated like little kids.
Another sensitive topic is the communication with collaboration partners. I'd love to have my students discussing their projects with more senior scientists and this means that there has to be an initial contact at first. If they don't meet in person on a conference or during a visit, this contact will be most likely via email - and there are so many pitfalls to be aware of. Some students just write perfectly polite emails just by themselves, but others come across quite rude - even if from their cultural background they should be very good in expressing respect towards a more experienced person. Does that mean I have to check emails before they are sent? That again feels like massive paternalism.
How do you determine the level of control a certain student needs? Do you fully trust them in the beginning and adjust the control level on the go? Or do you control a lot and let them run free if they seem to get the concepts of scientific standards? What if they don't care and try to take the "easy path" again and again?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

juggling academics

juggling the schedules of academics and getting a bunch of them together for a meeting is an incredible difficult task - even if the meeting involves food. I had a few occasions recently, where I had to get some of my more senior colleagues together for some meetings and it was just a pain. Emails describing clear schedules way in advance were not read properly and two days before the event everything had to be re-scheduled (which involved messing with the schedules of a bunch of non-academics as well) because another meeting had to be squeezed in. Knowing the own calendar seems to be an incredible difficult task sometimes such that an "I'm free all afternoon" turns into something involving a lot of constraints after the "final" schedule was sent around. All my respect goes to all the assistants of academics who juggle these calendars every day - this job would drive me nuts within a week! I'm sure they all know some tricks to make this juggling job smooth like in this video here. Unfortunately, I don't.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

equipment rant

My dear, beloved equipment fooled me today. It pretended to work fine in the beginning of the experiment to then develop more and more flaws on the go and I couldn't figure out where they were coming from. 2.5 hours of wasted experimental time and I am sure that tomorrow everything will be working fine as if this nasty box had never misbehaved at all.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

not quite polite

A while ago I had a meeting with a colleague in his office. While we were talking it knocked on the door and one of our senior professors came in. He had a visitor that day and wanted to introduce him to our colleague. And obviously only to him, because he did not even greet me! Hello? We work in the same School since a bunch of years and you don't even greet me when you see me? Even if I would have been "just" a student, it would have been rude not to at least recognize my presence! And he just talked a few sentence with our colleague and walked out again. I was so baffled I couldn't even take the initiative myself. Very weird! Maybe I should walk in his office and officially introduce myself again and give him my CV or something like that.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

the requirements for promotion

Promotion: the process where you have to wrap up your work, your achievements, your aims on a few pages and present yourself in the best possible light to climb on the next career step and be allowed to bear a new title.

This process is totally new to me. On the one hand, of course, because I am still a "newbie" and the only "promotion" I had was from grad student to post doc, but on the other hand because the process here is totally different to the country where I did my PhD. In PhD-country there are no titles like "Associate Lecturer" or "Senior Lecturer" - you are either a Postdoc or a Professor. And because of this there is no small-step promotion process - there is just the big jump to the Professor-level. In PhD-country the salary depends on your age and maybe on how long you have worked at uni and it is automatically adapted each year. In Australia we have the same system, but just within one salary group. As an Associate Lecturer my salary will increase up to highest salary within this group and then I have to go through the promotion process to the Lecturer level, if I want my salary to increase further. This is the situation I am in at the moment. I've been here for a while now and have a decent track record, so I thought it would be good to apply for promotion! There is a bunch of boxes I have to tick and I have to put a big application together which shows all my achievements since I am here.

Out of curiosity I had a look at the promotion policies of other Australian universities and it appeared that they vary quite a lot from each other.
I certainly didn't do a comprehensive search, but from my impression most universities have quite comprehensible promotion requirements.

For example the University of Technology Sydney has the following requirements for promotion from level A to B:
The staff member’s overall performance should:
(i) consistently exceed that normally expected of a level A academic
(ii) demonstrate the staff member’s capacity to perform at the level of Lecturer
(iii) demonstrate the staff member’s capacity to pursue a successful academic career as evidenced by, for example:
• the commencement of an academic portfolio. [...]
• the ability to achieve an appropriate balance between teaching, research and service over time
• the ability to make linkages between these three areas and understand how one can inform the other
• the ability to form productive relationships and work collaboratively and in teams
(iv) reflect at least competent performance across each of the three areas of academic activity (a)-(c) described below. .[....]
(v) demonstrate high personal standing in terms of workplace behaviour, including ethical and professional behaviour, respect for others, a collegial approach and support for equity and diversity in the University community.
So, to get promoted one has to be at the top level of the Associate Lecturer cohort and show promise to be able to perform well on the Lecturer level. Sounds feasible.

The University of Sydney gives a little table to explain their threshold levels for promotion, which for Research focused promotion (there is teaching only and research and teaching combined as well) looks like this:

The explanation for the different levels is the following:
Exceptional - An applicant whose achievements are Exceptional should demonstrate highly significant achievements and contributions in relation to the criteria at the level for which the applicant is applying.
Outstanding - An applicant whose achievements are Outstanding should demonstrate achievements and contributions which clearly meet the criteria at the level for which the applicant is applying.
Superior - An applicant whose achievements are Superior should demonstrate highly significant achievements and contributions in relation to the criteria at the applicant's current level.
Satisfactory - An applicant whose achievements are Satisfactory should demonstrate achievements and contributions which meet the criteria at the applicant's current level.

So, at the University of Sydney one has not only to be at the top of the current level, but one has to show significant contributions compared to the people in the level above. This is a significantly higher hurdle to take compared to UTS. 

But the most specific promotion requirements I found for the University of New South Wales. They give a neat little table as well, giving the option to go for research focused, teaching focused or combined. But they are much more specific about on what level they want an applicant to perform. Here is the table:

And the abbreviations mean: 
Outstanding Plus is expected standard at the top quartile of level above current appointment (O+)
Outstanding is expected standard between the midpoint and the top quartile of the level above current appointment (O)
Superior is expected standard at the midpoint of level above current appointment (Sup)
Sustained is expected standard for the bottom quartile of the level above the current level of appointment (S) 
Not Sustained is a level of performance that is no higher than at the current level (NS)
Acceptable level of performance requires evidence of engagement with the university in both teaching and service (A)

To get promoted on the research focused track your research achievements have to be above the midpoint of what people in the level above you have achieved. So, you have to perform in the upper part of level B for at least some time while you are still level A, to be able to be promoted to level B. Which means you must be as good as or nearly as good as the people who plan to become promoted to level C, for which the same criteria are in place. This sounds to me like a crazy strategy to ensure the quality of each level is constantly increasing (which is not a bad thing per se). And what happened to the people in the lower two quartiles of a certain level? They must have started off somewhere above midpoint by definition. And where is the upper limit for this "quality increasing" strategy?