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for today is the day of pain in the astronomy department at the University of the Frozen Tundra. Today is the one day every year the first and second year (and some third year) graduate students get to run the punishing gauntlet of the written qualifying exam.

When I started at the University of the Frozen Tundra the exam was the weekend after Martin Luther King Jr day. I may have pointed out at some point that if they moved it forward a week and kept with the standard week long grading scheme then people could sign up for thesis credits in the spring if the paperwork saying they passed the written exam was submitted by the Monday after MLK day. So somewhere in our department I expect there are some grad students cursing my name because they wanted an extra week to study.

In the end though I don’t think it matters. I was one of those third years taking the exam since I have huge test anxiety issues. And I have to say that year 3 went by much better on the exam, that time they actually bothered to proof read the questions before slapping them together on the exam so I didn’t find myself sitting there going What the hell are you asking like I did in year 2.

But even if students pass the exam they have to also worry about their “second year project” and their oral exam. I actually passed my oral before the written (in violation of uni regs, but whatever) and was happy I wasn’t like so many other grad students in our dept that got a pass with reservations (where reservations always seemed to involve a punishment of at least 25 page papers on the background of their topic of study). I think we’ve actually had one oral failure since I was a student and they’ve been allowed to redo their oral and are still in the program.

I’m glad to be done with all of that. Instead I’m thinking about my defense in April and how to squash what potentially may be 5 journal articles worth of material into an hour long talk with in depth background to convince astronomers that we really care about solar system studies. I may have just made a really awesome plot yesterday too for journal article #4 that made me giddy and may have caused a little squeeing. I’m not sure if that’s a sign I’m ready to finish or not, so many people seem burnt out and pissed towards the end. I’m just turning even bossier than normal with my advisor and squeeful.


So, I may have made a postdoc shortlist (the third I’ve made for sure since applying for postdocs last year). And I may have had a phone interview earlier this week.

Unfortunately I’ve only had one phone interview before and that experience was interesting at best. At times I lack a brain to mouth filter so I do recall referring to Janskys as “those obnoxious flux units infrared and radio astronomers use because they can’t use magnitudes” many years ago. Somehow however I got that job.

But I think this week the filter between my brain and mouth was lost again. When talking about the science I found interesting for the future, I was asked if I planned on following it up with JWST. My instant reply was that no, given the political situation with the budget overruns I’m not even counting on JWST flying. Shit. That was probably the wrong thing to say. But as it stands JWST is running billions over budget. It has/is going to be removed from the astrophysics division so it can be managed separately to help stem the flow of cash circling the drain. Ordinarily I’d say Yay JWST, but when some of the biggest supporters in Congress start to have issues with the cost overruns, I can’t help but be cautious when thinking of long term plans for the future.

And I’m kicking myself because there was other discussion about how this professor is the only one in *subfield* at this institution. I wasn’t sure if it was politically incorrect to correct them, but they were very wrong, there are people in a partner department and some others in the same department running on soft money that do some complimentary work, some of whom I see every year at the annual conferences and know on sight. In this case I held my tongue and I wonder if I should have.

But. . . now is the time for waiting. They mentioned maybe an offer this week, but nothing is on the rumor mill and it’s a holiday so I wouldn’t be surprised if all the uni admin types needed to make any sort of offer were already out until the new year. But until them I have at least one other postdoc application to churn out and a newer, better paper draft of paper #4 of my dissertation to write.

I’m ashamed to admit this week I’ve had a minor meltdown of sorts.

It started last week in the most normal way- I had a horrible nightmare about an observing run. Or rather an observing run that didn’t happen because I was an idiot and put off travel arrangements so much that I *forgot* to go on the observing run.

Now for most astronomers I don’t think this would phase them. As I’ve learned from twitter, the observing run nightmare is common amongst most of us. I think I actually qualify as some people’s nightmares as I’m rarely ever ready at dusk for observing, though in my defense it’s because I’ve learned to go with the flow because inevitability the instrument acts up at dusk the first night. But given that I’ve been in this field for way over a decade, having my first observing run nightmare scared the shit out of me.

I came to the conclusion however that this was all because I hadn’t seen the fall telescope schedule yet. See in October while I was at the DPS meting I may have requested a week of observing in the spring. And I may have put Feb to April as acceptable months. Back in October this date range hadn’t made me think twice, but now with a defense date set in late April and a committee submission date of April 1, I was a little stressed out.

Well apparently a comedy of errors took place and in fact the night I had that nightmare was the night the preliminary spring telescope schedule was sent out to every institution except University of the Frozen Tundra. A kinda soul at one of the other universities forwarded me the schedule Sunday night. . . Guess who got scheduled for a week of observing starting March 30th?

But of course I didn’t know that University of the Frozen Tundra hadn’t gotten the schedule. . .I just though my advisor “forgot” to tell me the schedule had gone out. I spent Sunday night freaking out and trying to figure out how to draft an email with a minimum amount of 4 letter words yet a catchy subject line. Apparently the subject “Preliminary Spring Telescope Schedule, oh crap no” was what was needed.

In the end the run is getting cut down to 3 nights which I find more reasonable. Otherwise I was looking at 10 nights of travel (with the 7 nights of observing and then travel days) like I did in Late October for Hartley 2 observing support which really wore me out. And I’m still not clear if I’m observing or if my advisor is doing it for me (or drafting one of the poor grad students out of the lab that doesn’t even do solar system!) but I’m glad I had a meltdown because the resolution was a huge weight off my shoulders.

Now I just need to submit paper #3 of my dissertation and finish writing paper #4 on the wee asteroids (or weesteroids as they have been termed by some) and then maybe I can stop having meltdowns about my dissertation deadline.

So when thinking about my advisor and my suspicion of his desire to poach my best gal pal, I got to thinking of the gender breakdown in my department.

Since I entered the department 5 years ago, four women have graduated with their PhDs. Two of those four were advised by my current advisor. We also had two women in classes ahead of mine “drop out” with master’s degrees due to advisor conflicts (and in one case it was pretty nasty as I think she was darned close to finishing).

So then I started to ask: how many people has our department graduated in the last ten years with PhDs? How many of them have been women? Thank goodness for a webpage that tracks alumni and tells me what degrees people graduated with.

The answer? We’ve graduated 29 individuals in the last 10 years. That seems almost on par with most entering classes being a class of 3 as it was with my class and the class right behind me. Of the 29 individuals who have recieved PhDs in my department, 7 of those have been female.

When I graduate, my advisor will be responsible for more than 1/3 of the female graduates with PhDs in the last 10 years in our department. God, that’s sad.

So I may have mentioned that I’m not actually at University of the Frozen Tundra as I dissertate. I relocated because I sold my services to another research group for a year and was able to relocate to the town my fiance lived in. Then the fiance became my husband and he decided that he wanted to move, and now I’m in my personal definition of hell- a city I hate with a spouse I’m not so thrilled with who spends every night with at least half a bottle of wine. Lovely. (that would be the spouse drinking all the time, not me. I would be, but I know not to mix depression and depressants like booze, especially when I have to bust behind applying for jobs.)

But advisor and I keep in contact via cell phone and skype. We’ve kept to skype since the advisor-ly unit has been “home” this semester so it doesn’t burn our respective cell phone minutes. The most recent session went over things such as oh yeah my defense, but he also asked about the status of undergrads who have since graduated from the department.

It’s not an out of place question as he knows I’m friends with some of the undergrads, and in fact one of them I like to count as one of my best female friends, however the question is sort of odd given our faculty. Our faculty aren’t very involved with the undergrads if they can help it. That includes the Director of Undergraduate Studies (the DUGS) not learning the names of the undergrads even though he needed to sign their enrollment forms every semester, so I’d hear horror stories from the seniors about how they went to teh DUGS office and got asked “Who are you? Why are you here?” *headdesks*

My advisor on the other hand knows the names of most of the undergrads in the department even though he hasn’t taught them (or if he did it was for astro 101 their freshman year). Admittedly he gets some name refreshers with the weekly TA meetings for Astro 101 when he is teaching that course, but he even manages to remember the names of students even after they’ve graduated. I recently saw a post on Facebook that he ran into into one of the former undergrads on Mauna Kea and the former student was shocked he remembered said ex-student’s name.

So on the skype call the other week the advisor asked about my best gal pal and how she was doing. Not just a have you heard from her kind of thing, but a what’s she doing, has she finished her masters yet, did you convince her to write up what I saw her presenting at AAS as a journal article yet sort of discussion. Admittedly, my advisor has some amazing schmoozing abilities, but I kinda like that he knows how to work the mentorship things from multiple angles, including the not so subtle reminders that I should be doing some informal mentorship myself.

That said, I question his motives. . . he may have just been feeling me out to see if he could try and recruit her as a grad student replacement for me.

Um hi.

This would be night 6 of a 7 night run at the telescope for me. Observing is just about the only time I get to get my real astronomer on. You know the “real astronomer” thing that involves being in a telescope dome freezing your behind off for no obvious reason.

I think most of the public would be very disappointed to find out that us “real” astronomers don’t look through eyepieces. The gigantic telescope I’m at now actually does have an eyepiece, however the camera I’m using is where the seconday mirror would be, so the eyepiece is pretty darned useless. That may be just as well, I recall a previous observing run where I was using the spectrograph and did go out to use the eyepiece to see how good the tracking was on the moon to see if maybe the telescope would be useful for the LCROSS folks. I must say I pretty much don’t recommend looking at the moon when using a telescope over 2 meters in diameter, the image ghosts hang around for quite awhile.

I thought about counting how many observing runs I’ve done total, and on just this telescope but I think I might forget a few. I’ve been using this telescope since *ponders* the summer of 1999 when I started observing low mass x-ray binaries for my undergrad advisor. And now that I’ve admitted that I’ve been using this telescope over a decade I feel really damned old. It’s interesting to see what has an hasn’t changed since I started using the telescope:

What hasn’t changed? The telescope control system is still has Windows-riffic as always. We still have telescope operators (TOs) that move the telescope for us, and one of them was my TO on my very first observing run. The observer’s corner is always so damned cold that I have to wrap up in a sweater and a blanket to keep from becoming a popsicle.

What has changed: OMG the computers! I remember the days of the big clunky Suns in the observer’s corner. Now we’re using a mix of Windows (for the camera control) and Linux (for controlling filters and for poking at the actual data) and somehow with this change the computer monitors have shrunk rather than gotten bigger (I recall a wicked 24 inch dual monitor setup here). The cameras. . . the spectrograph is the same as it was in the last decade, but we’re gone from a sweet little 2K camera at Cass focus to a big prime focus behemoth. Not that I should really complain, half my observing run is an asteroid survey so I’m damned happy to be able to cover nearly a square degree in one image.

But before I start to go crazy for the night, here’s one of our two comet targets of the run, Comet Hartley 2, which is the target of a spacecraft rendevous by the Deep Impact spacecraft in a few days (ignore the weird gain change running through the middle of the image. . .the amps have different gains that will be corrected when I reduce the data):

Comet Hartley 2 in R band

Dear fellow graduate students,

I hate to break this to you, but you look like an f*ing tool when you email all grads bitching about how you can’t find the green laser pointer and how this is completely unacceptable and it should always be stored with the outreach laptop!11! And you really look like a tool when you send the email out the next day saying “Oh I found it hidden with all the laptop cords.”

Perhaps along with the ethics training we do need to have some discussions re: professional conduct via email and how if you’re going to be a pill, maybe you shouldn’t do it from you work/school email account and should use a personal account for that sort of thing.


So glad I’m not there anymore.

So earlier this week I had to request a graduation packet from the University of the Frozen Tundra. It not only has handy documents like the Reviewers Report (the yes, this is or no, this isn’t ready for defense form), but it’s the only way I can actually get the formatting guidelines for the dissertation!

The grad college is quite helpful in that they make templates available in LaTeX and Word so you don’t run afoul of the ruler wielding person in their office, and they clearly state the margins on the website, but other items like font sizes are missing. I had to require the packet to find out that only standard fonts 10 point or larger are accepted and it must be double spaced (okay that one I figured out from the LaTeX template). Oh and there is an exception for examples, quotes, tables and charts that say “similar size and easily readable” followed by “no smaller than 9 points”.

Shit. Guess who has tables that only fit on the page in /rotate with /tiny in LaTeX? I guess I’m going to have to break up tables. And I need to figure out who to write to request permission to reprint my thesis articles in my dissertation. Guess with this last manuscript when I submit the copyright form I can double check things.

So what did I see in my inbox at University of the Frozen Tundra, but the colloquium schedule for the next term and at the end of the month, my advisor’s other senior grad student is scheduled to defend in the standard colloquium slot.

While this other student has been around longer than me by at least a year, it’s hard for me to not be jealous. Ze’s scheduled to defend because he has a job lined up. One I heard about last time I was in the Frozen Tundra which makes me a little uneasy. I don’t think he has the experience. I also think that this person defending is problematic as they have zero first authored publications right now.

In the end this all doesn’t really effect me, but I am a bit pissed that I have 3 first authored pubs right now (with 3 more lined up, one should be submitted in the next month) and I’m living in rejection city. More often than not I’ve been feeling like I can’t win- I don’t have a famous advisor and I’m not doing something like cosmology which is sexy and has like 80 million postdoc postings.

So for today, I think I may have a quality sulk with my next manuscript and will plot all my fellowship applications for the next two months.

Rather than my normal rambling post, I thought I might write a post on managing advisors from my perspective.

I have to come out and say I am absolutely spoiled rotten with my advisor. I was allowed to come into my program with an idea for a dissertation in hand and have someone advising me who doesn’t quite do this, but does something close, and was thus very interested. I must also credit my job between undergrad and grad for allowing me to identify a topic that has been mostly neglected in the last decade or so, but is becoming more and more important for various reasons (characterizing the source region of Near Earth Asteroids, determining the size-frequency distribution of asteroids in the solar system which may place come constraints on models of solar and extra-solar planet formation and more). The other senior graduate student who works with the same advisor has had some problems I haven’t had and I think it’s because my style of managing the advisor is much different (I don’t however think it’s a sexism issue as other senior grad student is male and I’m a member of the uterus havers).

What I do is the following:

#1- I don’t wait on the advisor, I set the timelines. This one took me a couple of years to get used to. At old job I was low girl on the totem pole and regularly got slapped (metaphorically) by management if I ever tried to push back (say if they gave me more than a mere mortal could complete in the timeframe they specified). As such, I had real issues with even asking for things like paper reviews on a certain timeline from the advisor as he’s the boss. I seem to recall writing in my self-eval a couple of years ago that I felt like a nag when having to ask for paper revisions after the deadline I had sent out. Perhaps it’s the desire to get the hell out now, but now when I deal with the advisor I’m less nicey-nice about deadlines and don’t tend to send out emails saying “please send me comments by blah”. My emails now read “deadline for comments is blah.”.

#2-I don’t start anything early any more that involves the advisor. This has been a newer one for me to work on. I used to be one of those overachievers that was writing grant and telescope proposals weeks if not months before they were due. Now I don’t care and wait. Part of it is that I’ve learned that my writing really sucks if I’m not under a deadline. The other thing I’ve learned is that advisor doesn’t look at things until the last minute. Or in the case of a recent grant proposal which could have gone to one of two panels, he doesn’t think about it until the first deadline has passed thus forcing us to send it to the second panel. I still hate writing at the last minute, but I also check now for deadlines and block out the week or two previous to them as absolute shit storms as things are frantically written and rewritten.

#3-When it comes to funding always ask earlier and often. So a couple of years ago I was in the lab and heard the other senior grad student shouting about how advisor is a “pathological liar”. WTF I said to myself. Upon further investigation I discovered that fellow grad student had assumed advisor was going to pay him for the summer term but never talked to him about it. I on the other hand had asked about 2 months previously because I know of the tricky accounting to pay everyone in the lab and was assured that my salary would be paid, no problem. I often check in with advisor regarding the money situation. Heck this week he told me that our NSF money for the next year cleared so I can get paid and we have money for my way too long manuscripts with too many damned color figures.

#4-Be an asset via stealth. . . or dogged determination. I think I may be working both sides here. Admittedly I was at a special place for undergrad and have an extensive group of friends in the field at large, so I’m a bit more tuned into the gossip mill than some grad students thanks to the joy of Facebook. I have however learned additional skills of stealth and picked up handy tidbits at conferences that I wouldn’t have gotten if I wasn’t sociable. I also find myself regularly writing grant proposals here even though I curse them every damned time (especially since none of them has gotten any damned money!). The combination of my knowledge of things going on elsewhere in the field and my regularly writing grant proposals makes me an asset my advisor likes and makes him want to keep me around. To some extent this can become a detriment. . . .I sometimes wonder what he’s writing in my postdoc letters as he leans on me an awful lot, but he at least seems to be writing them for me unlike for other senior grad student in the lab.

#5-Keep the advisor informed. . . and not just of the successes. I feel like my time here in grad school has dragged out a bit longer than it should have. Some of that is related to a program I did last summer (which realistically was awesome professional development and I’d recommend it to all planetary science types) and the rest of the time delay is due to general crap. I’m not in residence at University of the Frozen Tundra these days- in part because I got married and in part because the spouse got a job elsewhere and I followed because I didn’t make enough money to move back to the frozen climes. I informed advisor of this. I informed advisor after the move that I might be looking at postdocs as a way to get out of my marriage as the move just went so awesomely as I was informed of the move and not involved in the decision making process (this was actually a concern for postdoc applications as I needed to know I was not geographically limited to the region I’m currently in). I inform him of research progress- whether it’s a case of a paper being nearly done or trouble with a damned piece of code I just haven’t been able to debug. I informed him the other month when my harddrive crashed like holy whoa and the doods at the Apple Store were surprised that a member of the Uterus Bridgade could accurately deduce mechanical hard drive failure (uh duh, I can’t get past the BIOS startup douchecanoes!). We email and call on a regular basis. I fly out about once a term and spend a week in a freezing cold lab so we can go back and forth to each other’s offices about getting certain tasks done. Primarily email and phone works for us as he’s also often gone for some committee or other, but we’ve found what works for use and keeps him in the know. If any of the other faculty in the dept asked at any given time what I was up to, he’d be able to tell them and it’d be pretty damned closed to what I was doing at that very minute even though we don’t have anything like preset weekly meetings.

#6-Don’t ask, just tell. One of the adages I heard from the Education and Public Outreach group at my old job was “It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission”. Perhaps this is related to #1 in some respects, but these days I don’t ask about going to conferences and the like, rather I enform him that I’m going. Admittedly I’d expect to hear some strong words if I were signing up for something like a dark energy conference as neither of us do that, but I know that meetings like the American Astronomical Society and the Division of Planetary Science are fair game. In the end this is good because at these conferences I wind up networking. . . and now I have some great collaborators that I’ve picked up from the meetings I’ve attended all on my lonesome. Looking back on this strategy, this may have also gotten me into grad school- I recall a Sunday evening telecon at my old job with current PhD advisor where in the pre-business chit chat I point blank informed him “Name, I’m applying to your school for the grad program. Let ’em know.”

Of course, these techniques may not come easily to those who aren’t inherently cocky (like moi par example) or for students who are used to a rigid student-faculty class system (my undergrad was very fluid with the class system, though that may have been due to dating postdocs and grad students in the dept before I was even 18 but my grad dept overall is very stodgy and has a bit of stick up backside syndrome). I do believe however that learning to manage one’s advisor is very much like the rest of grad school- you fake it until you make it. Not all grad advisors are the same and one student’s coping strategies may not even work for another student in the lab, let alone a different advisor, but I think the flailing is also part of the grad education where you learn how to read those in charge and figure out how to keep them and youself satisified. It’s only taken my 5 years to figure out how best to manage my advisor and I’m hoping to blow this place and move onto a postdoc in the next year with a new manager/advisor to figure out.

July 2018
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