Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

How to choose a thesis advisor?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the process of choosing an advisor. It is interesting now, because I am about to start my TT position and I am on the other end of the fence for a change. I really, really need good dedicated students to help me get my lab going. I started thinking about what it was like when I was a graduate student looking for an advisor, and then from my perspective now, what a professor is looking for in students. It's kind of funny to think about.

When I was a prospective student, I met with many of my potential advisors (during prospectives weekend, when they fly us down to visit). To be honest, I didn't understand about 80% of what they said and was so downright intimidated I found it hard to ask questions. I think that we forget how wide the gulf between BS and PhD really is. At any rate, I muddled through the information provided and narrowed it down to a few individuals. I made my final selection based on the work/life balance at that university, the advisor, and the research area. I was pretty lucky, but now I realize there are a host of factors to consider.

1. Research area
This seems like it is the most important but now I'm not so sure. Selecting an advisor with a research area compatible with your interests is important, but if spending 5 years with this person is like Dante's 9th circle of hell, you might want to rethink. You can't go from studying semiconductors to particle physics, but you can go from studying proteins to studying cells. In retrospect, I should have cast a wider net than I did. The PhD is just a starting point and there are several paths that can lead to an interesting research area. One of my future colleagues at R1U works in mathematical modeling, but is now transitioning into some work in the bio field.

2. Your career goals
If you intend on getting an academic position pedigree is really important. Not that it is impossible to get a TT position with an unknown advisor, but it is much more difficult. Pretend that you are on the faculty search committee and you have two candidates. Both candidates have pretty similar CV's and research areas, but Candidate A has a glowing letter of recommendation from their advisor Dr. Well Known Nobel Prize Winner and Candidate B has a glowing letter of recommendation from Dr. I've Never Heard of You Before. The letter from Dr. Nobel Prize will hold much more weight than Dr. Never Heard of. Additionally, if you are interested in industry, some professors have connections with companies or have even worked at certain companies before. Those professors will be in a better position to help you when you graduate. Not to say you shouldn't take a position with a new faculty member (I'll be one next year!), but you should think hard about what your goals are and what that faculty member can provide.

3. Temperament of the Faculty Member/Lab
There are stories in every department of the one faculty member who forces students to slave through weekends and holidays working late into the night. If you want to build a great resume and graduate quickly, this may be great for you, but if you want balance you will have to seek it out. Ask other students their feelings about your potential advisor picks. Most students are not shy in telling you who is great and who is not. Additionally, the lab itself develops a personality. Make sure that you fit in with the other students. For example, I know one lab that has a reputation for being fairly ...uh.. masculine. Not the place that I would want to work. Also, there are labs that are really into sports. If you like to stay home and knit you probably wouldn't fit in with that group. You need to make sure that you are comfortable with the environment you will spend the next 5+ years in.

4. Big Fish vs. Little Fish
Should you go work for Dr. Nobel Prize so that you'll get that great recommendation and all those connections or should you work with Dr. Exciting who is just starting out? It really depends on what you want. An established professor will be less likely to have funding problems, have less difficulty publishing, and have more connections for you to take advantage of. On the other hand, many established professors are really, really busy, and you may only see them once a month (or less). Your primary mentors may be other grad students and postdocs. It can be really frustrating when you need help on an experiment or just a signature or okay on a paper and you have to wait many weeks to get an answer. New professors have less certain futures. There may be great problems with funding, but they will be enthusiastic and available. If you want hands on mentoring, this is a good option.

Finally, some thoughts from the Professor side. I realize that you may not understand what I am saying when I describe my research. I'm not always certain what level of explanation to use when describing things to you. I don't know your background. Feel free to ask questions. I would appreciate it, and if anything it would impress me not turn me off, because I would think that you are interested in my subject, which I think is the most fascinating thing on the planet (or I wouldn't spend so much of my time studying it).

From my prospective, I need a student who is serious, dedicated, and eager to work. Graduate school is a job. If you fail in undergrad, you suffer you get a bad grade, maybe your parents are upset. If you fail in graduate school, you could sink me and the rest of the lab. I also want students who love science as much as I do. I understand that many students go to grad school because they don't know what else to do with their life, but graduate school and what comes after are a cruel, cold world. It is publish or perish, even in industry it is produce or good-bye. If you aren't sure that this is what you love, that you have the passion, maybe you should rethink. But for those who do love it as I do, there is nothing more exciting than accidentally making Saran Wrap for the first time (one of my fondest lab accident memories).

Monday, May 08, 2006


I grew up in Texas, which any Texan will tell you is the best place on the planet. Unfortunately, the horrid place that I'm stuck in now is about as nice as Antarctica. Okay, maybe a little warmer, but in the winter it's cold, snowy, and dark. That's why I was overjoyed this weekend. It was the first time in about 8 months that I was able to go outside without a coat on. On Saturday, I took my daughter to the park, we tried to fly kites in absolutely no wind. I ran with the kite and she chased the tail, which was dragging along the ground. Then, when we got tired, we took in a little league game. We didn't know any of the players (she's only 4), but I used this as an opportunity to explain the wonderful world of baseball. Then, on Sunday, I took my son to the park and we played in the sandbox for a good hour. I listened to one Mom (looking rather more fit than one ought) who had just had a baby six months ago, but was in training for a half marathon. Then another Mom and one Dad stopped by who had both adopted babies from China, and they discussed the process. Meanwhile my son was enjoying putting sand in a bucket and then dumping it out. Repeat. The ducks were swimming in the Charles. There were boaters sailing and canoeing. It was fantastic. Moments like those erase all my guilt for not working weekends, or evenings, for not trying harder at my job. Because when it's all said and done, I really doubt that anyone is going to thank me for my contributions to interesting but esoteric research field A, but I KNOW that my children will remember and cherish the time that we spent together.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Last word meme

As seen over at See Jane Compute... the last word of my disseratation is (not counting the bio page,glossary, and references)


somthing to think about.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Unfortunately, things from my last post did not fall my way...as the chair put it. The nomination will go the the individual in the other department. The difference appeared to be the fact that he/she had done 2 postdocs (as is normal for that field) and I have done only one (as is normal for my field). So there really was no way for me to compete. I can't possibly have the same number of pubs given 1/2 the experience. The good news is that everyone liked my proposal, so at least I can write.

Things for me will get pretty crazy in the next few weeks so my posts might be a little erratic. I am moving in 2 weeks. Just thinking about it almost turns my stomach. I have so much to do at work, at home, everywhere. The worst part is that my final experiments are finishing up and are only sort of working. I have just enough data for one pretty good paper, and one questionable paper. Of course, I say this without having analyzed everything yet so maybe the outlook will improve. It is very unfortunate though. If the data for the 2nd paper doesn't start looking better, it will not be very strong, and there is no time for additional experiments. I hate to get nothing out of it, but statistics don't lie. If my analysis doesn't improve, I will be left with a very weak arguement. Oh well, bad break I guess.

On the otherhand, I am soooo excited about packing up and heading out to R1U. I cannot wait to finally become an Asst. Prof! I have so many ideas for research, teaching, and service I can't wait to get started. Of course, I imagine this mirrors the first year just give me a thesis so I can get started enthusiasm. I am sure I have much to learn.

As I am wrapping up things here, after two years , I finally understand the value of my postdoc. I considered going straight to academics (which is considered possible but a generally bad idea in my field), but decided in the end to do a postdoc. I am so glad that I did. The postdoc has allowed me to refine my research ideas, to gain new experience, and most importantly, to build confidence in my skills as a researcher and proposal writer. I now feel that I can stand next to another faculty member and hold my own.

Well, wish me luck!!!

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