Deadlines for undergraduates in research

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Students might not be aware of the time horizons of applications for opportunities. Oftentimes, these things need more advance planning than expected.

Here I suggest timelines for undergraduates doing research and applying to grad school, particularly within the United States. Please make sure that students working with you are aware of these deadlines.

Applying to graduate school

You should be deep into grad school applications at the start of the Fall, one year before you plan to start grad school. Continue reading

Dealing with caffeine addiction

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large-shirt-you-want-some-coffee-spies-like-us-parodyScientists drink more coffee than anybody else. (At least, according to those dubious pop-culture listicles.)

I didn’t drink coffee until graduate school. But when you’ve been working for too long, and a friend comes by to ask “You want some coffee?” there is only one good answer.

Now, I have a straight-up physiological addition to coffee.

What’s this addiction like? If I have an anomalous day and I don’t get around to enjoying at least one biggish-sized cup of coffee, then I’m in for a heinous headache the next day. A headache that’s substantial enough to keep me from working effectively.

I’m able to deal with withdrawal symptoms and kick the habit. I did that a few years ago, and after a few days of withdrawal, I was fine with lower-caffeine beverages. Irish breakfast tea was my favorite (maybe because it had more caffeine?). I stayed with non-coffee for a few weeks.

But then I went back to coffee. Why? Because it’s just so good.

I knew that I’d be going back to a physiological requirement for daily caffeine, but I decided that it was preferable to not having coffee. I don’t claim enough personal detachment to say that the decision was rational, though it’d be nice to think that it was my choice. I just wanted to drink coffee.

Is there a cost to this addiction, aside from the money you need to spend on the coffee itself? Yes, but it seems minimal compared to some other addictive substances. But it’s an addiction that requires that, at least once a day, I make or buy coffee, even if it’s inconvenient.

Perhaps it’s not so bad to have a physiological dependence that requires you to take a break from work once in a while.

Flexibility is wonderful, and horrible.

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Academics have a wonderfully flexible job.

If my kid is sick, or has a performance at school in the afternoon, I can change my schedule. I can work from home if I’m not teaching. I can focus on a crisis, or a grant, or revisions and drop everything else if necessary. I can get new tires for my car on a weekday morning instead of the weekend.

This flexibility shouldn’t worry those who think that we somehow have it easy. It turns out that we university scientists work far, far more than the 40 hours that is contractually required of us.

The downside to our flexibility in scheduling is that we grow to depend on that flexibility. And we have the capability to schedule ourselves into traps.

Because we are accustomed to flexibility, we have the latitude to schedule things that other, more reasonable, people might not schedule. We have the capability to create untenable and inflexible schedules.

Take, for example, my schedule at the moment. I’m now somewhere remarkably far away from home for two weeks. Before this trip, I was away from home for a week and a half. So, I’m gone for almost the entire month of January.

I’m traveling for two good reasons. I’m now setting up some students with exceptional research opportunities And I also found it too tempting to turn down an opportunity to join a field course, which was fun but also an important obligation in my view.

I also have two, more important, reasons to be home. My spouse and my kid.

This is a very long time away from home, especially considering that I spend weeks away in the summer on fieldwork. At the moment, I am a delinquent parent and a delinquent spouse. While I’m away, I’m missing important events (both good ones and bad ones). I’ve put an undue and undeserved burden on my spouse, who I clearly owe big time when I get back home. I don’t want to be the oafish not-adequately-involved dad who prioritizes science and career over family. This trip, I’ve pushed that margin too far.

We agreed to all of these scheduled things in advance, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. It looks different on the calendar than when you’re actually away.

What’s the fix to the inflexibility of our own flexible schedules? How do we make sure that we don’t overcommit ourselves, just because we can? The answer is simply to say “no” once in a while. But of course it’s not that easy. If it were, I wouldn’t be in this mess, having a remarkably fun time, but far away from my family with whom I want to, and should, be with.

Class duration and time for research

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If you had total control, how would you block your teaching time?

Would you want classes to meet frequently for short periods of time, or infrequently but for a long stretch each time? What is good for your research? What is good for the students? Are the two mutually compatible?

One end of the continuum (the block system aside) is having classes meet 3-5 days per week, plus a lab. When I was in college, my intro science classes met in the mornings, 5 days per week, for an hour, over 10 weeks.

At the other end of the continuum is where I am teaching now. Most daytime classes are either MW or TTh, so they meet for 1.5 hours twice per week. There are almost no MWF classes. Since most faculty teach four courses per semester, this presents enough flexibility so that scheduling is not impossible, though I feel deep sympathy for the chairs that have to schedule.

We also have a many classes that meet in the evenings, as I teach on a commuter campus. Plenty of them meet once per week, for three hours. My teaching load has included these for the last few years.

Tonight, after my kid already gets home from school, I’m teaching for three hours. I only see these students once per week. This semester I do this on two nights per week. I miss evening activities with my kid, but it does lead to having more time with him at other moments, including my being able to pick him up from school those other days. I’ve arranged my schedule so that I’m available for parenting the evenings I’m not teaching, and my spouse sometimes has weekend commitments. I think it evens out during the semester, in terms of parental effort.

How do feel about it, in terms of my research opportunity? I’m liking it a lot. On most days, I have massive blocks of time that I can protect to allocate to time-consuming tasks. It’s great. I also don’t have to rush into campus those days, and I can take care of business at home. It also leads to an expectation that I might not be on campus in the day, if I am there in the evening.

How does it work out pedagogically? At first I was reluctant and concerned that it wouldn’t work out. After doing the same class several times, I’ve been converted to this schedule. First of all, preparing for a class is three times as much work, though that also is less frequent. That’s something to take into account. But assuming that you’re prepared, how does it affect learning? I think it’s a net gain. Actually, putting my own schedule aside, I’d structure all of my classes to meet in a 3-hour stretches on a weekly basis instead of more frequent lectures.

Why do I think this time format is better? Because active learning requires focus and depth. I was reluctant to teach these long infrequent classes because, let’s face it, after three hours of lecture your mind is pulp. You’re exhausted and parched, and the students are on overload. All lecture audiences slow down after 20 minutes.

Once I learned how to stop lecturing, and to teach using other approaches, we have time to learn much more deeply when we’re together. And I have enough experience running a classroom to keep students accountable in the intervening week, so that their brains don’t shut off during that time span. I realize that it’s nearly impossible, at least in the short term, to shift class schedules around for many political and practical reasons. This is, though, a good thought exercise to think about what’s best when you do have the choice.

Grad students in the sciences who teach for a living learn to balance their time while teaching long class sessions. Usually, grad students are teaching the lab sections. I taught three 3-hour sections per week to get my TA wage (for a wage around the poverty line) in grad school. So, that’s not that different from what I’m doing now as faculty. If grad students with TAships have time for a dissertation, then if faculty plan well they should have plenty of time for research.

If you’re lecturing, I think short classes are best, or least bad, for the students, because the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to absorb lectures for long stretches, even when they are engaging. But if you’ve abandoned the lecture, then long classes will give you the time to let students consider topics in depth and learn a lot more. And, on the plus side, having classes in big blocks will let you schedule research in big blocks, too.