Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Work-life Balance: Professors' Comments

Some professors were not happy with the content of my previous post, about "work-life balance".

"It should be Work-Work Balance! Grad students are not supposed to have a life.", argued one professor.

Another professor was more agreeable. "Of course grad students should maintain work-life balance. Work is what counts towards their graduation, and TA pay. Life is what they do to help us (their advisors), from reviewing papers to troubleshooting our computers."

Seriously, professors are skeptical about work-life balance advise to grad students. "They already have a lot of free time, compared to industry workers. This sort of advise only makes them spend even less time on research!", grumbled another.

Talking about my own experience, my boss at the time was not amused when I told him that I attended a work-life balance seminar (he was attending the same conference, and wondered where I was during the lunch time). He thought that kind of seminar is not relevant to the conference.

Industry people are much more tolerable with this kind of stuff. The research scientist who supervised me during my first internship (in Japan) said "I do not work on weekends, and do not expect you to do so. You can go out and have some fun."

The point is; you are most likely not making your advisor happy, by telling him that you are focussing on work-life balance. But you don't have to tell him, just do it!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Work-life Balance

A while back, I attended a seminar on work-life balance. This was conducted during a conference (experimental biology 2011). Here is a quick summary of the seminar, I hope you will find it useful.

1. How do you find better balance?

  • Track your time. Find out how much time you spend on activities ranging from FarmVille to calling your parents. 
  • Drop activities that are not fun, sap energy, or take loads of time away
  • See if there are things that your friends or family can help with
  • Use the time you save, for important activities that you so far devoted less time to.

2. Which "work" is important?
  • Divide all your professional (and academic) activities into two categories; "your work", and "their work". "Your work" is what helps you graduate, advance your career, or at the very least what keeps your position (as TA, PostDoc, whatever). If what keeps your position does not help with the other two, prepare for a change.
  • Drop "their work" wherever you can, and focus on "your work.

3. Learn to say "no"

  • Make sure that your schedule represents what YOU want to do, not what others want you to do.
  • You have a right to say "no", do not feel guilty about it.
  • If you are still not so good at saying "no", find a partner who can do that for you. But remember, you need this skill; the earlier you learn it, the better.

4. Edit yourself personally, and professionally
  • Regularly have a good look at how your time is spent; make adjustments 
  • Example: If you seem to spend too much time on Facebook, divert half of it to LinkedIn; you will get a professional network with similar effort
  • An easy-to-get-in conference in a pacific island is tempting, but think whether the time spent on writing a paper with the same old work, getting visa and other travel arrangements done, getting rid of jet lag etc. worth it. If you really need a break, meeting the family is probably easier, and most likely much better.

5. Set time frames, and have small goals
  • Writing your thesis in 3 months is not realistic when you just finalized your topic; try surveying 50 recent and related papers in two weeks, instead.

6. Communicate and ask for help
  • If you feel that your advisor asking you to reinstall Windows Vista on his age-old desktop every week is a waste of your time, say so.
  • If you cannot find a free version of an important research paper, and your lab does not have a subscription to the journal, write to one of the authors.

7. Collaborate IF AND ONLY IF there is synergy
  • Synergy is not wasting your time in more meetings, or letting others get longer publication records when you do all the work.

8. Know what is important for your career
  • Spend one hour a week, learning something that might help your career

9. Meet deadlines
  • Every time you miss a deadline, both you and somebody else suffer
  • When there are deadline extensions, stick to the old deadline and use the extra time for more important work

10. Additional tips for a more balanced life
  • Don't have desk lunches; eat at a place where you can see far, using the time to rest your eyes.
  • Spend another hour every week, learning something totally unrelated, but fun
  • Don't miss breakfasts.
  • Sleep early, and sleep at least six hours.
  • Make sure you spend some time every week, if not every day, with family, friends and loved ones.

I kept that pretty short. Hope this helps!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Doing Favors

Research community is seen by outsiders as "fare" and unbiased. After all, their work has been assessed by peer review for the past few centuries. However, in practice, there is as much favoritism in the research community as anywhere else. If your prof is well known, you will be enjoying this situation; sometimes fully unaware of it. Otherwise, you might end up frustrated.

I was a publication co- chair of ACM Multimedia 2012. My main job was to handle the proceedings, but I was involved in a few other tasks including conference registration. Here is one of my experiences with paper registration.

As most of you are aware, authors of accepted papers have to pay full registration fees per each paper, and make sure that at least one of the authors attends the conference to present the paper. Some authors try to save money by not attending the conference, because once the paper is in the proceedings, it is permanently in their publication record. This is called a "no-show", and some conferences threaten to blacklist authors who are involved in no-shows.

Immediately after the list of accepted papers for ACM Multimedia 2012 was published, a student from Malaysia contacted us. She had a paper accepted as a poster, but her university was unable to provide enough funding for both registration and travel. The conference was accepting travel grant applications, so we asked her to apply.

Two weeks passed, and we were approaching the registration deadline. The results of the travel grant applications were still not announced, and the student got worried. She asked whether she will be blacklisted for no-show if she registered the paper anticipating travel grant support, but later could not secure enough funding.

Since none of the big guys - old profs who were the decision-making chairs- responded, one of the younger chairs raised the matter in our mailing list. One of the top 10 responded with the textbook reply: if you don't attend, it is a no-show.

Okay, so far so good. But a few hours later, the moment of truth came. A professor who had four papers (let's call him Prof. N.) wrote to one of the top three (say prof. Z) asking for a discount for his registration. And Prof. I wrote to the mailing list, supporting this request.

We strongly objected, because there were more than 25 authors with 3 or more papers, and more than 50 with 2 or more. To make matters worse, all the other authors with 4 papers had already paid. "We will go bankrupt if we start giving concessions", argued one of the web chairs. Prof. Z retorted "a conference is only as good as its attendees, and attendance of this person is important for the conference". But I knew the real reason for the request; prof. N was slated to be one of the big guys in ACM Multimedia 2013 organizing committee, and was a good friend of Prof. Z. The argument was continuing over several emails.

We, the younger chairs, thought this a good time to raise the issue of the student from Malaysia. One of us sent an email to the mailing list, reminding that we haven't advised her, and asked which options should we offer to her. "This, in my opinion, is more important than giving a discount to an author with multiple papers, as discussed in another thread", I shot back. This angered Prof. Z, and he tried to defend himself by saying that the student is a one-time author (implying a noob) who is trying to not pay, unlike the valued prof. N. But a few others, including a program chair from the industry (thanks, R) supported the student. In the end, one of the more sensible out of the older chairs advised us to let the stiudent register first and look for alternatives later. "We have to accept the realities of financial problems, when it comes to students with less funding", he summed up.

Throughout this time, I was unofficially in touch with the student, asking her not to get discouraged. She was thankful to the younger chairs who were fighting on behalf of somebody they never met. We won this time, but it left a bad taste in everyone's mouth (for completeness, let me mention what happened to Prof. N's request; Prof. Z approved it as "an exception", but I am not exactly sure how much was discounted).

Some of the old guard might say that favoritism is everywhere in the society, and the research community is no exception. I think that is a pretty lame excuse for those who are entrusted to spend large amounts of public funding with relatively loose conditions, and evaluate their own work.

So, the message is: if you are a grad student who has a known advisor, make sure that you play fair. If you are not, make sure you play fair when you graduate, if you happen to stay in the research community.