Category Archives: Academia

Use PowerPoint for good, not evil

Chad Orzel offers advice on PowerPoint lectures, all of which is very sound. The closest thing we have in the Clarke group to hazing new members are the multiple rounds of “practice talks” that grad students must survive when preparing a talk for a conference. These sessions consist of ten minutes of actually practicing the talk, followed by at least an hour of going through the talk slide-by-slide while the rest of the group provides merciless criticism. This tends to instill the student with deep knowledge of the principles of effective presentation, along with some idiosyncracies passed on from senior group members, like putting titles in red and using Times New Roman everywhere. (I am a dissenter who uses black for titles and Verdana for everything on the grounds that sans-serif fonts are more readable on slides. A few people unaccountably use the dread comic sans, which I have tried in vain to discourage.)
Thanks to today’s colloquium speaker, I can offer some further advice: Dark purple text on a light purple background is a spectacularly bad color combination. If you want to be even less legible, use green as your alternate text color. This was one of those talks where I had to listen very closely to the speaker, because his slides were useless.

Newsweek on the gender gap at Berkeley

Newsweek has an article on the gender gap in science, and looks at Berkeley’s physics department in particular:

To get a sense of how women have progressed in science, take a quick tour of the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley. This is a storied place, the site of some of the most important discoveries in modern science—starting with Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron in 1931. A generation ago, female faces were rare and, even today, visitors walking through the first floor of LeConte Hall will see a full corridor of exhibits honoring the many distinguished physicists who made history here, virtually all of them white males.
But climb up to the third floor and you’ll see a different display. There, among the photos of current faculty members and students, are portraits of the current chair of the department, Marjorie Shapiro, and four other women whose research covers everything from the mechanics of the universe to the smallest particles of matter. A sixth woman was hired just two weeks ago. Although they’re still only about 10 percent of the physics faculty, women are clearly a presence here. And the real hope may be in the smaller photos to the right: graduate and undergraduate students, about 20 percent of them female. Every year Berkeley sends freshly minted female physics doctorates to the country’s top universities. That makes Shapiro optimistic, but also realistic. “I believe things are getting better,” she says, “but they’re not getting better as fast as I would like.”

Overall the description of Berkeley is positive; they highlight some of the female researchers here and mention policies that the campus is undertaking to improve the situation.

NAS Report on Women in Science

A National Academy of Sciences panel on women in science finds:

For 30 years, the report says, women have earned at least 30 percent of the nation’s doctorates in social and behavioral sciences, and at least 20 percent of the doctorates in life sciences. Yet they appear among full professors in those fields at less than half those levels. Women from minority groups are “virtually absent,” it adds.
The report also dismisses other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families. Instead, it says, extensive previous research showed a pattern of unconscious but pervasive bias, “arbitrary and subjective” evaluation processes and a work environment in which “anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a ‘wife’ is at a serious disadvantage.”

(Via Bitch, Ph.D.) Although the conclusion is unsurprising to anyone who has followed this issue, it’s good to see the gender gap getting attention at high levels beyond Larry Summers dismissing it as due to “innate differences”. The NYT article is short on recommended reforms, but I don’t know whether that is also true of the original report.
The panel included UC Berkeley’s chancellor Robert Birgeneau, and the late UCSC chancellor Denice Denton, who committed suicide recently, had also been on the panel before her death.
Back in March we had a pretty good comment thread on this subject.

“Qual Season!” “Prelim Season!” “Qual Season!” “Prelim Season!”

Gordon Watts and Chad Orzel have some thoughts on qualifying exam season. This confused me until I realized that what other departments call the qual is what Berkeley’s physics department calls the preliminary exam. Incoming grad students take the written prelims as soon as they arrive: these are a pair of six-hour exams given on consecutive Saturdays, one on classical physics and one on modern physics. After passing the written exams, one then takes the oral prelims which are an additional two hours (again divided evenly between classical and modern). One must pass the whole fourteen-hour suite before joining a research group.
This is every bit as stressful as the links above describe; the grading is set up so that only about two-thirds of the students pass each round, and officially you only get three tries. (In fact, almost everyone passes by the third attempt.) I don’t really have any advice for the written portion, but for the orals I had my faculty mentor give me a practice run that was incredibly helpful (especially since I got asked many of the same questions in the actual exam).
We do have something called a qualifying exam; it’s a two-hour oral exam set up on an individual basis, and meant to be taken after two years in research. The first hour is a presentation by the student of a proposed topic for the dissertation, and the second hour is an exam on the subfield relevant to this research. As it happens, I will be taking the qual “soon”. Some of you may note that I have been doing research for four years, and have been about to take the qual for two years now. Indeed, it is quite common for students to put off the qual until just before writing the dissertation, where the “proposal” actually becomes a presentation of results. Most departments call this the “thesis defense”.
On the other hand, we don’t have a thesis defense, so it all evens out in the end.

Types of laboratory scientists

Via Syaffolee, an over-the-top but amusing list of personality types one encounters in a science lab. In fact, I believe I’ve met most of these people. I’ve put a lot of effort into not becoming #5 (the obsessive perfectionist with no life), but this probably just makes me closest to #1 (the antisocial weirdo)—although my personal hygiene isn’t that bad and I’ve been more social lately. Of course it’s not an exhaustive list, so maybe I need to add to it:

7. The Blogger
He seems quiet, but he’s actually telling the world about the latest lab mishaps on the Internet. These scientists prefer highly automated experiments so as to spend more time surfing the web. They’re good with computers and publicizing results to a broad audience. They are communicative provided the medium is e-mail or IM, and happy to come to parties if there’s a proper Evite or MySpace announcement. If the network goes down they are likely to display withdrawal symptoms.

Total Request Blog: My research in a nearby possible world

In the requests thread, Kyle asks: If you had to research in a different area than you are now, what would it be? It can be as different as you want, but can’t be too similar. At the least you have to be publishing in entirely different journals.
This is an easy one: philosophy of science. I took several great philosophy courses at Caltech (which you might imagine had a scientific focus in its philosophy department) and got really interested in issues of what science is and why it works. I still think about these topics in idle moments and I could definitely see myself doing research in this field if I hadn’t gone for something more practical and experimental. Indeed, many of you have had to sit through my digressions on problems like the grue paradox (sometimes presented in Dinosaur Comics form). Imagine if I could get paid to do this—although I’d have to write serious papers, unless there’s a Journal of Philosophical Letters as Presented by T-Rex. The downside is that I wouldn’t get to play with expensive high-frequency electronics with lots of buttons, and having qubits to experiment on is pretty cool.

Jorge Cham, New York Times on/as distractions

Jorge Cham, who writes/draws PhD Comics, is doing a book tour and gave a talk at Berkeley yesterday. (He did his grad work at Stanford and is now an instructor at Caltech.) This is one of those comic strips that hits home a little too often, but in doing so is frequently pretty funny. Cham is also funny as a public speaker, with an excellent sense of comic timing. He sometimes played the straight man with jokes appearing on his Powerpoint slides, and sometimes reversed this dynamic.
The talk was about staying sane under the pressures of grad school, and the main theme was that procrastination is a powerful tool for this, both for taking the pressure off and regaining motivation and creativity when one returns to work. Needless to say, I had already figured this out, as the three-plus years of archives on this blog will attest. It turns out that there is also scientific confirmation of a sort: via Chad Orzel I read in the New York Times that distraction is key for relieving dread.

The first study ever to look at where sensations of dread arise in the brain finds that contrary to what is widely believed, dread does not involve fear and anxiety in the moment of an unpleasant event. Instead, it derives from the attention that people devote beforehand to what they think will be extremely unpleasant.

Grad students in the Berkeley physics department have their share of unpleasant events to devote attention to, beginning with the prelim exams and ending with actually writing the thesis. My personal source of dread lately has been the qualifying exam, and maybe my ability to find new distractions lately is related to this. However, I definitely plan to take it next semester. (I’ve been saying this for three semesters now, but that’s the power of procrastination for you.)

The pro wrestling school of abstract composition

Via Christine Dantas: Now this is an abstract. From astro-ph/0604410:

Occam’s razor meets WMAP
Authors: Joao Magueijo, Rafael D. Sorkin

Using a variety of quantitative implementations of Occam’s razor we examine the low quadrupole, the “axis of evil” effect and other detections recently made appealing to the excellent WMAP data. We find that some razors {\it fully} demolish the much lauded claims for departures from scale-invariance. They all reduce to pathetic levels the evidence for a low quadrupole (or any other low $\ell$ cut-off), both in the first and third year WMAP releases. The “axis of evil” effect is the only anomaly examined here that survives the humiliations of Occam’s razor, and even then in the category of “strong” rather than “decisive” evidence. Statistical considerations aside, differences between the various renditions of the datasets remain worrying.

Yes! I need to write more papers which use words like “demolish”, “pathetic”, and “humiliations” when describing the effects of my research on competing theories. Also, I am not sure whether I am amused or horrified that there is an “axis of evil” effect in astrophysics. (According to the paper this is “the embarrassing statistical anisotropy exhibited on the largest angular scales” in CMB data.) Who knew Bush was making contributions to this field?

More Postdoc Commentary

Since this is becoming a theme around here, I’m linking to another perspective on the postdoc experience, this one embedded in a rant about public perceptions of scientists.

This is not reality. If you want to do science, you’re in the lab. You’re in the lab a lot. Sometimes you forget what the sun looks like. You gotta pay your dues. That means laying your intellect bare for harsh criticism for years on end. Committee members and advisors constantly challenging you. Who the hell do you think you are? What makes you think you can succeed in this field?

The underlying point seems to be that the academic career path selects for scientists who are dedicated and intellectually rigorous, although this is not explicitly stated. The author’s “job description” for a neuroscience postdoc is amusing. (Via Pharyngula.)

Postdoc unionization

Some excellent comments have been posted on my earlier entry regarding working in science and the gender gap. Much more insightful than what I wrote. On a related subject, I find via The Daily Transcript an article in Science describing moves towards unionization of postdocs. Berkeley is naturally one of the schools at the vanguard of this movement. The article is very positive towards this development and describes some significant improvements in conditions at one school (the University of Connecticut Health Center) that has unionized.
I think this is probably a good idea. The way postdocs are currently used as cheap labor strikes me as tremendously exploitative, and a union could alleviate this. Of course this will ultimately mean that it’s more expensive to hire postdocs, and funding scientific endeavors will likewise become more expensive. But as a society we’re willing to pay more for clothing that’s not produced in sweatshops—we should also be willing to pay more for science that’s not produced by overworked and underpaid scientists.
There is one problem that comes to mind, though: much of what currently drives the exploitation of postdocs is the scarcity of top-tier academic jobs in science, and the corresponding pressure to produce high-quality publications during the postdoc period. So you will get a lot of people who aren’t willing to, say, go on strike, because they need to be taking data in order to advance their case for a tenure-track job. I’m not sure how to get around this.