Monday, August 31, 2009

How Many Grad Students?

I have 3 graduate students working for me right now.  I find this to be enough, along with the undergraduate students I advise on projects (usually 1 or 2 at any time), other faculty I collaborate with, and post-docs or research scientists that I support and/or work with around here. There are a few faculty in my department who have 5 or 6 PhD students at a time.  I am not sure I want that many people reporting to me and looking to me for direction and mentoring.  I know of a few in our field who claim to have 10-20 graduate students in their group.  I don’t see how this is humanly possible.  In fact, I don’t see how that is even remotely responsible. 


To me, having more than 5 PhD students, let alone 10 or 20, is irresponsible on several levels. It means that the faculty member is continuously in meetings with these people (assuming that they have regular interaction with each student).  This cheats the faculty out of time to do their own research investigations, and they are probably giving up all home life in order to publish the first-author papers that I see from them.  It also means that the students don’t get very much one-on-one time with their advisor.  Perhaps this is fine for some students, but I have found that most PhD students like regular interaction with their advisors.  In the early years, they like it so that they learn the field and discover a research project that suits them well.  In the later years, they like it because they have results and need to show them to someone and get feedback.  It is also not good for the field, because such a faculty member is replicating themselves (well, at least producing new PhDs in the field), which increases the pressure on the already over-subscribed traditional funding sources for the field.  It is probably only acceptable to have so many PhD students if you know that most of your students will leave the field and not pursue research careers.  In this case, under-advising and over-producing them is fine.  But, even still, for the few grad students in your group who want to continue as a researcher in the field, life in a huge group might not be the optimal situation.


I will probably have a student graduate this year, and I will probably take a new PhD student next fall.  Somewhere between 2 and 4 grad students seems like a good number for me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Homosexuality and Christianity

I was recently sent this link:

It comments on the recent proposal before the governing board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) to allow open, practicing gays to serve as clergy. The article is posted on NewsMax, so it is written with an anti-gay slant and hints that the ELCA will be split apart if this proposal is passed.

So, the question is this: is homosexuality incompatible with Christianity? As a Christian, should I hate all homosexuals and make it my mission to point out their transgression and actively persuade them to give up their life of sin? Should I protest Gay Pride marches and vocally oppose gay marriage laws?

I think the answer is no. As the article states, the ELCA, and in fact most Christian denominations, do not follow a literal prescription of every verse in some English translation of the Bible. Like the article states, what about women? Paul says that they should be silent with covered heads and no braids. What?! I don’t get the no braided hair rule at all. Why should I not braid my daughter’s hair? She likes it!

In reading the Bible, especially Paul's letters, I believe that you have to take into account the context of the culture and the local circumstances that the particular church was facing. The braided hair concern of Paul most likely was directed at a local custom of another religious sect (like the followers of Isis or Aphrodite). I think he was concerned about people trying to turn Christian worship services into worship of one of these other gods. He probably wrote it to preserve the integrity of the local Christian community, and physically distinguishing themselves from the actions of other religions was a way to do this. Did he mean for the no braids rule to become part of everlasting Christian doctrine? No.

So, what about homosexuality? The book of Romans has a lot to say about this. All negative. It is easy to think that Christians should be anti-gay. However, the local custom was that gays were promiscuous. I believe that this is what Paul was arguing against, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual promiscuity. Paul would probably dislike the scantily-clad leather outfits I have seen on groups of gays in the French Quarter, and would probably have strong words against the one-night-stand mentality of gay pick-up locations. However, I do not think that he would condemn loving, monogamous homosexual partnerships.

Why? Because I believe that our relationships with others is our relationship with God. We should treat others as we want to be treated, and I cannot see how two consenting adults in a loving relationship is against God or creating any problems for me. I fully support gay marriage and I hope that other Christians realize that allowing someone to fully care for their life-partner is the loving, compassionate, Christian thing to do.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Old White Men

After a week of frantic proposal writing, that document is done and sent in to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. I am now at a meeting organized by this same agency on this same topic. Why they scheduled the meeting on top of the proposal deadline is truly bizarre, but that’s what they did. I suspect most of the people here did not write proposals, as it was only open to universities, and there are only about 3 of us here from academic institutions. Tomorrow I get to give my pitch, and hope that those here from the military like it. As I have never actually done anything with modeling (or any research) of artificial radiation belts (i.e., from a high altitude nuclear explosion), I call my talk a pitch because I will only show “natural” radiation belt results, and talk about how the model could be used for this specialized source term. There are about 40 of us here, and I’d like to describe this crew. One of the attendees is female. She also looks Native American, and works for the Air Force in LA. There is another guy here from the Naval Research Lab who is Indian born (now a US citizen, as is everyone in the room). Everyone else is a white guy. About half are over 60 years old, a good number of them over 70. I don’t think I am the youngest in the room, but I am pretty darn close...perhaps 2 or 3 are younger than me. Many at this meeting are a crew that began in this field at the dawn of the space age 50 years ago. The field has lost interest over the years, and I am sure there is some decay lifetime for the number of researchers in this field. In the last few years (okay, since 9/11), this field has gotten more attention within DoD. So, that’s why there are the younger people here, but the younger crew is not a particularly diverse population, and the room (and the opening speaker list) is certainly dominated by old white men.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pittsburgh Day 5: Going Global

Today, I heard the leader of the Stephen Ministries organization, Ken Haugk, say that they are very close to unveiling a “whole church leadership system," analogous to the Stephen Ministry leadership and management system that I have been learning about all week. This is truly fantastic, as I think that this system is universally applicable to any management situation (see Day 2 post below). I think I might quit my tenured faculty job and go to work for Stephen Ministries to help them develop a “whole scientist leadership system." I did not receive any leadership or management training when I became a professor, or a research scientist, or whenever it was that I had to start writing proposals and funding myself and hiring grad students and building a group. I know that our department offers nothing like this for any of our junior faculty, tenure-track or research-track. While I am not actually serious about quitting my job, I am serious about developing a leadership and management toolkit for scientists...unless someone can tell me where such a thing already exists.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Pittsburgh Day 4: Humor

They keep throwing in funny little tidbits at the beginning of the training sessions. Most of them are very good.

I have nothing for you today, it’s late and I am tired. So, just in case you have not yet discovered this website, here is something that is sure to make you laugh:

A truly funny website. Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pittsburgh Day 3: Leadership Training

This is one of the few meetings I’ve attended where I come back from the sessions more energized than when I went down in the morning. This stuff is great.

I have this nagging fear that I will forget it all when I get back to reality next week, and that the excitement I have for implementing good management practices will fade away and I will simply continue on with how I am doing things now. Actually, I am not that far off from the system they are presenting this week, except perhaps on the planning stages. I think I do a pretty good job with defining tasks to achieve near-term goals (vision and strategy) and pretty good at supervising and mentoring those in my group. Where I need help is in the long-term thinking section of the master plan: defining core values, defining a mission/purpose, and assessing progress against such universal principles. In short, I think I am becoming a good manager, but I have not yet become a good leader.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pittsburgh Day 2: Management Training

I am enjoying this Stephen Leader Training Course. It’s basically an intensive bombardment of information and activities on how to lead a church program, specifically a Stephen Ministry program. They seem to have taken fundamental management practices and put a Christian twist on them. It’s very nice for me, as I am essentially a manager at work and have never had a formal managerial training course like this. While the day was long without much time for wandering my thoughts to other topics, I’m taking some time this evening to reflect on how the day’s lessons could be applied to my work environment.

The 10 steps in the system:
-- Leadership: picking the right team to lead the program. For work, this is me, but should I expand into a scientific empire, then I need to pick the right people to lead with me.
-- Vision: I should create a long-range, in some sense unattainable, vision statement for myself and my research team, then keep this on my mind as I do everything else I do as a professor.
-- Awareness: I need to publicize my work in multiple ways so that (a) other researchers know what I’m doing and (b) potential students/hires will know what I’m doing.
-- Recruit: I need to actively and conscientiously pursue the best students and potential hires for my group.
-- Train: I need to have a plan for training new students and group members, and then diligently implement that plan. I can see that this will be a hard one to follow, because doing science is an inexact science, but I think I should come up with a general philosophy about training, at the very least.
-- Commission: graduation of undergrads and grad students? Promotion of research scientists?
-- Referrals: not the best translation, as this is Stephen Ministry specific, but I think it means, for my work life, getting my students directed toward the proper project for each one of them, and thinking seriously about these assignments.
-- Supervise: I should regularly meet with them, as a group, to provide affirmation of their accomplishments, support for their ongoing endeavors, and constructive feedback on areas where improvement is needed.
-- Affirm: this is not only part of the last one (affirmation during supervision), but also affirmation in other venues, especially public ones, like promoting my students to other researchers while at meetings.
-- Evaluate: I don’t think I want to implement a periodic evaluation of my students and group members, but I do think that I should occasionally think critically about how things are going, especially with regard to the vision/plan mentioned above.

They give advice and examples on how to do each of these steps. While their material is all slanted towards Stephen Ministry, I can easily see how it is universally applicable to whatever program you are leading and/or managing. So, this is going to be a good week.

Still not much progress on my funding proposal for the military. I will spend time on that now. More tomorrow.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pittsburgh Day 1

Woah. That was quite a week. Last weekend, we took off for a weekend to my wife’s high school reunion. It’s amazing how quickly complete strangers open up and spill their life histories to each other. I especially find it odd the way some of the reunion-goers’ spouses instantly revealed the details of their lives to other spouses of reunion-goers. We have basically nothing in common except that people we married knew each other several decades ago. No matter! Let me tell you about the time my son threw up in the family minivan while going to see grandma last summer... It was a good time, but just a little creepy at moments when a person you really don’t care to get to know has you cornered for a while. Otherwise, a nice evening.

On Monday, my daughter got sick. Coughing and fever. Then wheezing and shortness of breath. With her asthma, we decided to take her in to the doctor’s office. They sent us on to the ER, and then she was admitted. Respiratory issues, with a low blood-oxygen level. She was finally released Friday morning.

Just in time for closing on the sale of our house Friday afternoon. We actually got a small check back, which is something to be thankful for in this day. But, you know what that means...packing, moving, and cleaning, all week long. With one parent in the hospital at my daughter’s bedside. Oof da. I’m tired, and work (let alone this blog) were neglected. It was my summer undergrad student’s last week, too. Fun for him, I only spent about 20 minutes with him all week. Not enough, but it couldn’t be helped.

So, now I am in Pittsburgh at a training conference for a church leadership role (a Stephen Ministry training conference, for those that know about this). It’s going to be a long week of drinking from the firehose, I think, but I have to make time for work, considering the last 3 weeks were blown on programming and then moving/caretaking. The military money proposal is due in mid August, and I am nowhere near done with it, like I wanted to be by this time. Wish me luck.