Friday, March 23, 2007

Careering off the road

All the careers advice I see aimed at scientists, particularly women scientists, says "minimise teaching", "avoid administration", "be cutthroat about the committees you agree to join", "publish, publish publish", [pdf] "avoid the lure of the 'velvet ghettos'".

I used to think this was all overly cynical. Instead of a straight postdoc, or the lure of the industry and mamon - both of which were available to me after my PhD - I went into teaching in a new university. Full of the fires of idealism I embraced student contact time, I volunteered for committees and panels, I agreed to devise and run an new course. I relegated my research to evenings and weekends.

I had what I guess you might call a nervous breakdown.

I cried on Sundays, pretty much from the moment I got up, because of the thought of going to work the next day. I'd physically shake on the way into work. I forgot to eat - my body was so loaded with 'fight or flight' signals that mere drives like hunger and tiredness failed to register.

Sounds funny to say, but after the stresses of a PhD none of this seemed too strange. I don't think that either I or my husband realised at first what an awful trap I'd set for myself. I managed to grind out a couple of papers but I had no enthusiasm, no drive too do any research. It was only when I found myself contemplating "causing delays on the Northern line"[1] that we realised what a mess I'd got myself into.

I fled, a year ago, for the "straight postdoc" - even though I now only see my husband every other week, and spend 10 hours a week on trains.

Am I over it? Not entirely. Not yet. The thought of running a course, of being co-opted into being surrogate parent, agony aunt and punching bag for students makes me shake. I'm not sure that anyone who hasn't lectured can understand how it feels.

There are people (or so I'm told) that thrive on the teaching. There may even be those who find that teaching inspires their research as well as the other way around. But a novice, female lecturer will always attract this kind of awkward customer

I will plan to contest the grade you have given me in this class when I get it because I know it will be much higher with any other teacher. I am a very religious man and you are not a bad person but you do not choose your words with enough care like a teacher should. You try to be objective and the very attempt becomes your flaw because you try so hard to grade fairly and comment wisely that you become biased to your own ideas... You grade my papers poorly but do not realize that you do so because they reflect your teaching skills. Other people may have done well with your skills but I did not and would have talked to you but what you said about grading fairly made me uncomfortable.

As I read that I shuddered. The blogger who received this, Acephalous, still misses teaching. I don't.

I had 300 students on just one of my courses. Maybe only 15 to 20% were this bad. That's still 45-60 emails a week on average of this kind of mind numbing, soul sapping cant. "I didn't take the test because I didn't come to your lectures so I didn't know when it was", "I couldn't give my presentation because I forgot", "I don't like my grade. If you don't change it I'll complain".

It leaves you too tired to deal with the real problems: the student whose parents are pushing her into a marriage she's not ready for, the student who's had his jaw broken in a racist attack, the pregnant student who just needs an extra week on her assignment, because the morning sickness is so bad, the Chinese student whose English is poor and who is dreadfully lonely and is thinking of going back to China. In each of these situations, and a hundred more mundane, the coughs, colds and sniffles, you find yourself having to weigh up being supportive, just, encouraging and helpful. You end up acting as counsellor, arbitrator, judge and engineer: all roles I have no training for. The job so often requires the wisdom of Solomon.

I wasn't thick skinned enough. I couldn't develop the armour of cynicism that allows you to go home at the end of the day and say "not my problem anymore". I was trying to be, in the words of another Emma, the New Colossus:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; send these, the homeless tempest-tossed, to me.

But I'm not made of such stern stuff as her.

I'm emerging - just. I'm starting to like research again. I'm starting to care about science. I'm starting to be mindful of the fact that my husband and I both have jobs that will let us, incrementally, add to the store of human knowledge. But I miss believing that, by being a lecturer, I'd have the peace and freedom to throw open that store to others.

[1] A euphemism - thankfully I never made it into this paper.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Billy-an Logic

If you can print onto thin cardboard, and have a fiver to spare, consider investing in these very stylich Logic Goats.

And if you prefer your logic to be more philosophical than mathematical, ponder these answers from various strands of philosophy to one of the most pressing problems of modern human existence.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Food for thought

The Scientific American has an update on research that lead to the caffeinated donught, with suggestions for future research.

The "great global warming swindle" swindle

The brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant Ben Goldacre reports on a fantastic article from the Indie on the (increasingly laughable) Channel 4 doc "the Great Global Warming Swindle" (GGWS).

To whet your appetite, here are Connor's graphs:

Martin Durkin, the writer and director of the GGWS, has form in this area. The ITC ruled that his 1997 documentary "Against Nature" (also for Channel 4)

"The programmes breached the Programme Code in respect of the failure to make the four interviewees adequately aware of the nature of the programmes, and the way their contributions were edited. The Commission directed Channel 4 to issue an on-screen apology to the individuals concerned."

Durkin's editorial fastidiousness is apparent for all to see in the Connor article:

[C]rucially, the axis along the bottom of the [Global Temperature] graph has been distorted in the C4 version of the graph, which made it look like the information was up-to-date when in fact the data ended in the early 1980s.

Mr Durkin admitted that his graphics team had extended the time axis along the bottom of the graph to the year 2000. "There was a fluff there," he said.

If Mr Durkin had gone directly to the Nasa website he could have got the most up-to-date data. This would have demonstrated that the amount of global warming since 1975, as monitored by terrestrial weather stations around the world, has been greater than that between 1900 and 1940 - although that would have undermined his argument.

"The original Nasa data was very wiggly-lined and we wanted the simplest line we could find," Mr Durkin said.

Very "wiggly-lined"? And Channel 4 pay this man to make science documentaries? They'll be paying Jade Goody to make documentaries on race relations next.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ni Hao? No way!

I'm sufficiently seditious to be banned in China! I'm so proud!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Listen boss, I got a whisper of a blag going down in SW1

The DTI has ripped 68 million quid out of the ringfenced (hah!) science budget for the recompense of failed capitalists at Rover and BNFL. Us whitecoats have been worked over and no mistake. The villains claim that because the money is "only 1% of the science budget taken over the next three years" (significantly more than 3% for this year then, for those who can work out amortisation rates), it doesn't matter. Yeah right - I remember that defence working well in The Sweeney:


[slams table]

Don't lie to me Wicks you bastard- you're the draughtsman[1] for this blag[2] - it's got your dabs[3] all over it!

Malcolm Wicks MP, Minster for Science, DTI (for it is he):

It's a fair cop Regan. I'll turn Queen's[4]. To be fair though - we only took 1% of what would have been in that peter[5] over the next three years.


Oh well in that case boss, we'll just let him go


Yeah, alright then, hop it. We're the Sweeny son, and we haven't had any dinner[6].

[to Regan]

I fancy you meself in that moustache[7]


[laughs, draws deeply on cigarette]

Gis a kiss![7]

[Cut to Credits]

Glossary for non afficionados of 70s cop show slang:
[1] Planner
[2] Theft, particularly of payroll
[3] Fingerprints
[4] Queen's Evidence
[5] Safe
[6] Actual dialogue from The Sweeney - Ser1 Ep1: "Ringer"
[7] Actual dialogue from The Sweeney - Ser1 Ep7: "The Placer"