Pro tip #2: Vision

I hope you read my post on the importance of writing.  This post is a follow-on, focusing on the most important piece of writing you will do to get your next job (or next student position in college or grad school): your application essay/statement.

For academic positions, your job application is a proposal, a proposal about you and the science you want to do.  My #1 first tip is to read Julianne Dalcanton’s unsolicited advice on how to craft a grant or observing proposal.  We’ll be using her core principles to break things down.  Read it?  Good. We’ll start from there, with a bit of framing first.

What hiring and admissions committees are looking for is vision.  What do I mean by vision?  I mean, an excellent proposal about yourself and your science which demonstrates the

  1. importance,
  2. feasibility, and
  3. efficiency

of your plan for doing science and adding to your community.  You want to sell a committee on a big-picture future that involves you and the science you do, and a path to get there that is compelling and doable.  It’s the Dalcanton approach to writing a successful grant proposal, but a proposal about you.

Importance means that you’ve identified a big broad problem, identified a barrier to progress in the field, and found some way to break through that barrier.  Importance also means that you’ve identified a vision for the type of scientist and educator that you think the field and that institution need, and the values that you think matter.  If you’re applying to grad school in STEM, you are almost certainly not going to be in a position where you’ve identified The Thing in research that’s prevented progress in some field.  For grad school applicants, you should show that you’ve identified broad subjects that are interesting to you, demonstrate that you know why they’re interesting to people other than yourself, and that you have some sense that you know what it’s going to take to make an impact in the fields in which you have interest. But if you are applying for postdocs or faculty positions, you need to show that you understand the broad context of your field, that you have really identified a niche where you can move things forward, and explain it in a way that a non-specialist can understand and get really excited about.

Feasibility means you have a well-defined path forward to breaking your identified barrier to progress and achieving science/education/career nirvana.  Demonstrate that you have a plan, that the steps make sense, that you’ve SWOT’ed it out (identified Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats).

Efficiency means that you identified your plan and yourself as the best/robust/fastest (choose your combination of metrics for success) path to solving the problem you identified, to achieve the goals you identified as important.

Having read hundreds (if not thousands) of applications and proposals, my observation is that the majority of the problems are with step #1, importance, and with step #3, efficiency.  Most people are pretty good at #2, feasibility, in the sense that they know what they want to do, can describe a calculation and measurement pretty well, and have a well-defined definition of success.  The front-end problem is usually that a good introductory section on importance is missing, and a concluding statement (or even introductory–I always address this on page 1) on efficiency.  The usual issue is that people will dive into discussing a set of calculations or measurements, without explaining their broader context (for either the science or field/institution), showing the reader why these action items are the critical ones to do to make progress, that this set of tasks (and your vision for the field/institution) is the key to solving the problem best/most robustly/fastest, and that it can really only happen because of YOU.

Most postdoc applications are focused almost entirely on scientific research, but grad and faculty applications typically need to cover much more ground.  For grad applications, you need to explain the story of yourself, and why a particular department should be chomping at the bit to make an offer to you.  For faculty applications, you want to sell a vision of yourself as a good faculty colleague and mentor.  You can identify a problem you see at an institution (or your field), and propose a plan to fix it.  You can describe the legacy you want to leave in the students you will advise or teach.  You can describe your values when it comes to education or research, and how that institution will benefit and grow from having you and your values in residence.

In the words of my PhD advisor, no one is going to care about your career as much as you do, so make sure to bring your A game for your job applications.  You have to make the case to the grad program, postdoc institution, or faculty search committee that you would be indispensable to them.  Ask not what that institution and field can do for you, but ask them to imagine just how much greater that institution and field would be by having you there for the long haul.

As an aside, let me tell you about the importance of Julianne Dalcanton on my own career, aside from telling me (and the whole world) how to think about writing a proposal.  I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.  As was typical of the time (and sadly, also now–the numbers haven’t really changed), I encountered VERY few women in my physics classes, especially in instructor/TA/mentoring roles.  I had one TA during my freshman year who was a woman, and she always took time to talk with me.  She was great. I didn’t take a STEM class from a woman professor till the second half of my junior year.  That year, I took two astronomy classes from two great woman professors: Paula Szkody and Julianne Dalcanton.  I was just so surprised at the time to take classes from someone who wasn’t a man.  I learned a LOT about stars from Paula, which I especially appreciate now as I mull over problems that involve the types of variable stars she taught me about.  Julianne was  impactful for my career because she worked on the kinds of problems that I imagined myself working on one day, and also because she was not much older than I (as in, most of my professors before that point were at least as old as my parents).  I admired her approach to science, in addition to her choices of specific problems.  In her, I could see my future.  Ever since, her career choices have inspired me to be more bold with mine, to take chances on new directions, and not be afraid to tackle ambitious projects.  Thanks!

#ProfLife #1: Top 5 surprises about the job

I learned the term #ProfLife from my colleague and mentor John Beacom when I showed up (late) to a journal club, consuming a lunch of desk drawer jellybeans while frantically typing out emails and half-listening to the presentation.

A lot of physics undergrads want to go to grad school in physics (or related fields) in order to become professors at universities with a strong focus on research.  Certainly this was me as a baby undergraduate.  The vision I had for myself was that I would be one of the best particle theorists in the world, that I would be a professor at Harvard.  I was motivated by wanting to “win”, the perceived prestige of faculty members, and an enjoyment of physics.

As it turns out, my motivations are not the same as the ones I have now that I’m actually in a university professor job (although I still like physics!).  This is both because I am not the same person as I was as a baby undergraduate, but also because the job is very different from my naive vision.  The fact that it the job is what it is, and not what my 18-year-old self envisioned it to be, is actually pretty great for me; the reality is better suited to my strengths.

There are many things I can say about this job, many of which I will defer to later posts.  Today, I focus on the top five surprising things about my professor job.  Note that experiences vary widely, depending on the person and the institution.  So, this is my experience, but my hunch is the themes are generally applicable.

Number 1: Being a professor is WAY different than being a grad student or postdoc.  As a grad student and postdoc, I spent most of my time working on my projects.  They were MY projects, and I did almost all the work for them.  I knew each piece that went in.  I went to some talks.  I read a lot of papers.  As a grad student, I participated in university and department leadership.  As a postdoc, I started working with many students.  But still, I largely sat in front of my computer or my notepad and thought and calculated.  This is not at all how my days look now!  Most of standard business hours, I am meeting with people—teaching, speaking one-on-one with my advisees, participating in committee meetings of all sorts, going to journal clubs, holding office hours, etc.  I do some writing, reading, and thinking during daylight hours, but not much.  Most of what I get done on that front happens after my kid goes to bed.

My role in projects has shifted a lot.  I set the broad vision for my group, help define projects, consult, send comments, etc.  But I don’t do the vast majority of the calculations and analysis that goes on in my group, and there’s a lot my advisees do (like write code!) that I never see. I do a lot of resource generation for my group (writing grant, observing, and computing proposals) so that everyone has what they need to do their science.

There are a lot of other things I do.  I talk with various people in the university administration.  I help set a national and international vision for my field.  I fill out a lot of paper work.  I try to improve the climate in my departments and my field.  I write problems for my class.  I think a lot about how to improve how we do science and how we teach science.  Someone once said that she thought that university professors were like small business owners—we have to be jacks-of-all-trades.  Part of this division of my time is self-imposed—I have a big group tackling ambitious projects, and I have to fund them and keep everyone marching in the same direction.  But part of it is intrinsic.  Every faculty person does a little bit of everything.  But some people focus more in one direction than another, because, like anything else, some faculty are more skilled at and devote more time to some things rather than others.  Every department hopes that, on average, they have all their bases covered.  The chair of one of my departments made a comment to that effect today (NB: I am writing part of this during another faculty meeting; paying attention, but I’ve heard the presentation going on right now already this week; multitasking! Also, writing this post has taken about a month.).  But still, the small business owner model is apt.

Number 2: I spend a lot of my time dealing with mental health issues.  The transition to adulthood is hard, and early adulthood is when mental health conditions first become symptomatic.  In addition to that, grad school is stressful–there are not many metrics for success, the apprenticeship model leaves many students vulnerable and exploited, and there is a significant amount of existential angst about what students will do after graduation.  There is a nice article in Physics Today outlining some issues, particularly in the context of graduate students, and recommending some changes about how we as a community think about mental health.

The direct consequence to me is that I spend an unexpected amount of time working through mental health issues.  This is such a serious issue, one which I was completely unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with.  I have been really scrambling to figure out how to help or support students and other community members.  I’ve learned that there are some things I can do, and some things I can’t.  I can tell students about on-campus resources, and nudge them to make use of them.  I can’t schedule appointments for students.  If you are an OSU student and you feel like you’re struggling, PLEASE fill out an online contact form at Student Counseling and Consultation Services, they will call you back and work with you to connect you to a provider.

Number 3: There are effectively infinite demands on my time, and I have to accept that I have to be defensive of my time and do a crap job at some things.  There is always something that someone wants me to do.  I just don’t have time for all the things.  I don’t even have time to do the things I really really want to do, much less the things I’m not so pumped about.  I am still learning how to let things go, and how to be more efficient with my time in order to accomplish more things.  I’m still learning how to prioritize.  It’s a work in progress, but I have come an astounding way since I started at OSU five years ago.  One thing that’s hard for me, as a person who aims to please and do well, is learning not to give it 100% all the time, and not to beat myself up about it.  There’s only one of me.  The very hardest part right now is scaling down my ambition to fit my life and to prioritize my mental and physical health.  It’s hard, people!

Number 4: Teaching is hard.  Where have I felt out of my depth with the least support?  Teaching.  In grad school and as a postdoc, I got some professional training for some of the key aspects of my job.  My supervisors helped me develop my research skills.  I got some practice at writing proposals and supervising students on projects.  I learned how to give a good talk (although my talks are even better now).  But I was not prepared to be the instructor of record for a class of eager and not-so-eager students.  There are a lot of big things that are hard: what is the right style for the course (note: lecturing is BAD; any sort of active framework is better)?  How do I deal with disrespect between any pair of parties in the class (me included)?  How do I design a course?  How do I deal with cheating?  Whom are we serving?  Whom SHOULD we be serving? There are also a lot of small(er) things that are hard: How do I set the curve?  What are the department’s expectations for this course?  What happens if a student’s grade is right on the line between two letter grades? What if my classroom is too small for the number of students who need to take the class?  What do I do with record enrollment for this class?

What I can say is that I’m a much better teacher now than when I started five years ago. Much of that improvement comes from trial and error.  I still feel like I am flying by the seat of my pants.  I read some physics education research literature and talk with colleagues.  I should make use of the university’s course design institute.  But I feel like I am making stuff up as I go along.  I don’t like this feeling, but mastery of anything takes time and experience.  A wise person (Prof. Lillian McDermott, one of the founders of the field of physics education research) once said that teaching is a scholarly activity. It is, but one that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.

Number 5: There are a lot of things I can and should learn from a huge range of people. I have learned so much from so many people in the past five years.  The women grad students in physics taught me a LOT about being a woman in physics, and about intersectionality.  My faculty colleagues have taught me A LOT about how to navigate the university and the field.  Postdocs and students have taught me to be a better coder.  Our program coordinator and department executive assistant have taught me how to university likes to inhale its (electronic) paperwork and keep my research operation from compliant with university and federal regulations.  The grad and undergrad program coordinators have helped me learn how to navigate the university’s student services.  I’ve gotten good advice from a lot of senior people, at OSU and at other places, when I was at a critical need for feedback.  My main recommendations here are to ask for help when you need it (I bang on A LOT of doors), and be gracious to everyone you encounter.


Being a faculty person has stretched me in ways I didn’t think was possible.  Compared to where I started five years ago, I’m wiser, faster, etc.  But the most important lesson I’ve learned is how to fail gracefully, and just keep trying to be better and do better.

Pro tip series

I’m starting a series of short blogs, on the theme of pro tips for STEM careers.  Expect that each tip will be short, bordering on Twitter-style length.  Good advice will come not just from me, but be gleaned from people I think are highly successful and awesome.