Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Back from the dead

youngstellarobjects.net is back online! w00t!

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Good thing I never got around to deleting this blog, because it may just come in handy right now.

Due to catastrophic server failure, youngstellarobjects.net is temporarily down. I'm not clear about how to get the word out, and not quite web-savvy enough to figure out how to redirect that url to here until things are back to normal.

Anyway, here's hoping the interruption will be brief.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Changing with the Times

I've changed a lot over the years. Once in a while it will hit me: I've become a grown-up with a job and kids and mortgage payments, and not a carefree teenager anymore, although from the inside I don't feel like I've changed much at all in the past 15 years. Unsurprisingly, many of the biggest changes are correlated with major steps on the academic ladder: high school to college, college to grad school, grad school to postdoc.

A lot of the changes I've gone through in the past relate to scientific knowledge and sophistication. To illustrate what I mean, I'll relate it to the way graduate students give talks:
  • 1st and 2nd year students give too much background information because that's all they know.
  • 3rd year students have learned that they can skip some background information because everybody knows that stuff.
  • 4th years skip too much background because they assume that if they know something, everyone must know it too.
  • The 5th year and beyond is all about recalibrating.

Hopefully by the time a student finishes, they've adequately calibrated how much background to give, but don't count on it.

One of the members of my thesis committee once gave me the following advice: When you start out, you have an idea, and you hold onto it because you're afraid you'll never have another good idea again. By the time you're where I am, you have all these ideas, and you start giving them away because you have no time to work on them yourself. That's when you know you're ready to be a professor.

Another friend of mine created a whole theory about it, called bogosity theory. Bogons, which are packets of esoteric information, are emitted by professors. Students absorb these bogons. Gradually, they absorb more and more of them and become grad students. Eventually, their absorption rate slows, and they begin emitting bogons as well. Finally, they become full bogon emitters, or professors, in their own rights.

If that's really all it's about, the the spontaneous generation of ideas, then I feel like I'm totally ready to be a professor. I could really use a small army of minions grad students. However, it isn't just about having good ideas. It's as much about politics and networking and self-promotion and schmoozing as it is about writing papers and winning grants. My postdoc years have been a lot about becoming savvy about self-promotion and trying to get over being an introvert.

This is where I see being a woman becomes a real disadvantage. At earlier stages, it's easier to argue that it's all about the quality of research. But when it comes time to apply for faculty positions and tenure and all that, it's more about the impact of your research. This is where the networking comes in: you gotta give talks, go to conferences, talk important people up, promote your ideas, yadda yadda. You need to find people who will promote your ideas for you as well: advisors and mentors. Then social conditioning comes into play. It's hard to break into the old boys' network. Heck, it can be hard to speak up when you're talking informally in a group where you're the only woman. It's hard to get over the social conditioning that says you should be quiet and meek, and someday Prince Charming will notice that elegant but little-cited paper of yours and swoop in with a job offer on a silver platter.

I am hoping, really really hoping, that in the job cycle next year or the year after, I will land a tenure-track job. If I can't line up a tenure-track position after this postdoc, my career as an astronomer will pretty much be washed up. I know that even after that, I won't be able to rest on my laurels until I get tenure, but I'd rather not think that far ahead just now. It seems difficult enough just to clear the next hurdle.