Personal versus work email

Rutgers is moving to a new email system based on Microsoft Office 365 and we’re required to conduct all University business through that emai address. This is all happening after a brief stint with Google Apps, around which I have built a lot of my work processes, so who knows how this will shake out. Our faculty union is concerned because Rutgers is exerting more corporate-like control over the email — they reserve the right to delete our emails without notification, and it’s unclear if they also reserve the right to read them. Time to adopt stronger encryption, methinks. In the light of email monitoring at the University of Wisconsin I imagine New Jersey may be headed down the same path.

All of this got me thinking about how I have tried over the last few years to keep separate work and personal emails, but that this is a bit of a new thing. Many people got their first “real” email address from college, and I sent all of my personal email from my MIT account. After college I developed an inconsisten approach to email: I used my forwarded my to my grad school account, used it as my login for Manuscript Central and reviewing sites, and even used it as my contact email for publications, since it was ostensibly “permanent.” However, in the last year I finally switched over and forwarded my college address to my personal address — as a student my email was personal, not professional, and I shouldn’t use that “identity” as my academic identity.

Every once in a while we get a story about inappropriate emails being sent from work addresses and I wonder if some of that comes from this blurry line between work and personal email addresses. How has that division evolved over time?

Bob Gallager on Shannon’s tips for research

One of the classes I enjoyed the most in undergrad was Bob Gallager’s digital communications class, 6.450. I was reminded of what an engaging lecturer he was yesterday when I attended the Bell Labs Shannon Celebration yesterday. Unfortunately, it being the last week of the semester, I could not attend today’s more technical talks. Gallager gave a nice concise summary of what he learned from Shannon about how to do good theory work:

  1. Simplify the problem
  2. Relate it to other problems
  3. Restate the problem in as many ways as possible
  4. Break the problem into pieces
  5. Avoid getting locked into thinking ruts
  6. Generalize

As he said, “it’s a process of doing research… each one [step] gives you a little insight.” It’s tempting, as a theorist, to claim that at the end of this process you’ve solved the “fundamental” problem, but Gallager admonished us to remember that the first step is to simplify, often dramatically. As Alfred North Whitehead said, we should “seek simplicity and distrust it.”

Family leave for graduate students: how does it work at your school?

I am trying to understand how family leave works for graduate students at different schools. More specifically, I am interested in how the finances for family leave work. Graduate students at Rutgers (as at many schools) are covered by a union contract. The contract specifies that in case of a pregnancy, the mother can take 6 weeks of paid leave recovery time plus an additional 8 weeks of paid leave family time. Non-carrying parents can take 8 weeks of paid leave for family time. While not generous by European standards, it’s better than what I would expect (ah, low expectations) here in the US.

This raises the question of how the university pays for the leave time. Students are either teaching or research assistants. 14 weeks off from teaching might include most of a semester, so the department needs a substitute. Trying to give the student an “easy TA” and still expecting them to come and teach when they are entitled to the leave is shady (although I have heard this idea floated). If they are paid through a grant, how should the leave time be charged?

I recently contacted authorities at Rutgers about this, and their response was not encouraging. Rutgers foists all charges off onto the department or grant/PI. If you are a TA and have a baby, the department is on the hook, financially, for finding a replacement. If you are a research assistant, they just charge the paid leave to the grant, as per the fringe rules in OMB Circular A-21.

I wrote a letter back about how disappointing this all is. The current system creates strong incentives for departments and PIs to deny appointments to students who have or may develop family obligations. This lack of support from the University could result in systematic discrimination against student parents. Whether examples of such discrimination exist is not clear, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Allocating the financial burden of leave to departments creates great inequities based on department size and budget, and not all departments can “close ranks” so easily.

For PIs covering students on grants with “deliverables,” the system encourages not supporting students on such grants. The rules in OMB Circular A-21 say that costs should be “distributed to all institutional activities in proportion to the relative amount of time or effort actually devoted by the employees.” It also implies that leave time should be charged via fringe benefits and not salary. It’s not entirely clear to be how a particular grant should be charged if a student participant goes on family leave, but the Rutgers policy seems to be to stick it to the PI.

The current situation leaves students in a predicament: when should they tell their advisor or department that they are pregnant? Many students are afraid of retribution or discrimination: I have heard from students that their friends say advisors “don’t like it when their students have kids.” The university’s policy on this issues only serves to legitimize these fears by creating uncertainty for them about whether they will be reappointed.

My question to the readers of this blog is this: how does your university manage paying for family leave for grad students?

LabTV, research stories, and video outreach

My lab was visited by Charlie Chalkin a few weeks ago. He was here to interview me and various students on our experiences in research for LabTV. LabTV was founded by Jay Walker and the NIH director Dr. Francis Collins with the aim of profiling NIH-funded researchers (as I now am). It was a great opportunity and a really short informal process, and I guess I can get some more hits from YouTube on the LabTV channel.

This experience got me thinking about how hard it is to connect with students at times. In particular, I think that many students don’t really see the process of how we got to where we are as their professors. Unless they have an academic in the family and also paid attention to their life story, they seem a bit mystified by it all. Obviously pop culture has a lot to do with this — movie and TV depictions of the professoriat are pretty far from reality. I have heard, however, from Ram Rajagopal that San Andreas has pretty much the most amazing interactions between professors and grad students. Heroism — that’s what we want.

But this experience got me thinking that departments might benefit from having short 2 minute profiles of their faculty members, but not from the technical achievements view. Instead, let them talk about what got them interested in the problems they are interested in, how they ended up in this position, and why they like the job. The answers may be surprising, but I think students might see a different side than they get in the lecture hall.

Linkage

Like many, I was shocked to hear of Prashant Bhargava’s death. I just saw Radhe Radhe with Vijay Iyer’s live score at BAM, and Bhargava was there. I met him once, through Mimosa Shah.

Most people know Yoko Ono as “the person who broke up the Beatles” and think of her art practice as a joke. She’s a much more serious artist than that, and this article tries to lay it out a bit better.

Via Celeste LeCompte, a tool to explore MIT’s research finances. It’s still a work-in-progress. I wonder how hard it would be to make such a thing for Rutgers.

In lieu of taking this course offered by Amardeep Singh, I could at least read the books on the syllabus I guess.

Muscae volitantes, or floaty things in your eyes.

Survey on Ac and post-Ac STEM PhD careers

One of the things about teaching in a more industry-adjacent field like electrical engineering is that the vast majority of PhDs do not go on to academic careers. The way in which we have traditionally structured our programs is somehow predicated on the idea that students will go on to be academic researchers themselves, and there’s a long argument about the degree to which graduate school should involve vocational training that can fill many a post-colloquium dinner discussion.

Since I know there are non-academic PhDs who read this, there’s a survey out from Harvard researcher Melanie Sinche that is trying to gather data on the career trajectories of PhDs. The title of the article linked above, “Help solve the mystery of the disappearing Ph.D.s,” sounds really off to me — I know where the people I know from grad school ended up, and a quick glance through LinkedIn show that the “where” is not so much the issue as “how many.” For example, we talk a lot about how so many people from various flavors of theory end up in finance, but is it 50%? I suspect the number is much lower. Here’s a direct link to the survey. Fill it out and spread widely!

Annals of bad academic software: letters of recommendation

‘Tis the season for recommendation letters, and I again find myself thwarted by terrible UX and decisions made by people who manage application systems.

  • Why do I need to rank the candidate in 8 (or more!) different categories vs. people at my institution? Top 5% in terms of “self-motivation” or top 10%? What if they were an REU student not from my school? What if I have no point of comparison? What makes you think that people are either (a) going to make numbers up or (b) put top scores on everything because that is easier? Moreover why make it mandatory to answer these stupid questions to submit my letter?
  • One system made me cut and paste my letter as text into a text box, then proceeded to strip out all the line/paragraph breaks. ‘Tis a web-app designed by an idiot, full of incompetent input-handling, and hopefully at least signifying to the committee that they should admit the student.
  • Presumably the applicant filled out my contact information already, so why am I being asked to fill it out again?

It’s enough to make me send all letters by post — it would save time, I think.