Friday, November 17, 2017

A random day in the life of a faculty

As a PhD student, research seemed hard. Protocols did not work, data did not make sense, and I often found myself stuck between false positives and false negatives. We have all been there.

As a faculty, research seems the most cherished part of my day. And that is because I actually get so little time to do research. Here is what a random workday of my life looks like:

1. 6:30 am: Woke up. Stayed in bed for the next 45 minutes, wondering if the "revise and resubmit" comments I wrote last night would work. Then hurriedly scampered to work.

2. Made a mental note not to miss the Skype call tonight. The last time, I thought that it was at 9pm while the meeting was at 8pm and I missed it.

3. Made a note to reply to the fifty-seven emails that have been pending a response for the past five days since I was traveling.

4. Chatted with a colleague who hates the words "seminal work" and "dissemination" because of their roots in the word "semen" (hence, male; hence, power). I added my bit by saying that I hate the morbid terms in academia such as "deadlines," "terminal degree," and "publish or perish."

5. Almost slept through a committee meeting that lasted ninety minutes. I have no idea what they said. I was more surprised by how much people talk, make printouts, and waste paper at these meetings. I am pretty sure everything they said could be summarized in ten minutes.

6. Checked my Google Scholar citation for the umpteenth time. The numbers haven't changed since the past month. It is a strange addiction of seeking external validation I have developed of late, similar to counting Facebook Likes. This is only more consequential and more harmful.

7. Kept thinking about the annual review that I will be writing in January. Have I made enough progress this year? The process is so rigorous, it makes the PhD defense look like child's play. How can I hit a couple of sixes in the last six weeks of the year and look great on my annual review?

8. Read a bunch of student assignments. One, most students have horrible handwriting. I wonder if they ever had compulsory, daily, cursive writing lessons in schools. Two, many have bad grammar too, which is surprising since most people here can get away knowing just one language- English. I was also amazed by the number of times they used the word "cool” -- The book was cool. The program was cool. The class was cool. The professor was cool. Such informal language in academia- not so cool!

9. Registered for an upcoming conference in Boston. This is the first time I paid more than a thousand dollars for registration alone. So I sat at my desk and whined for a while.

10. Filled out a bunch of paperwork to get my student enrolled in the system.

11. Filled out a bunch of doodles indicating my availability for future meetings. Created a Doodle myself and sent a reminder email to those who need to fill it out on time.

12. Conducted an interview to collect data, which also meant inputting mundane information into an excel spreadsheet that my hypothetical undergraduate student should have been doing. Hypothetical, because I do not have one.

13. Prepared a bunch of expense bills from a previous conference travel. This involved painstakingly putting together every receipt with comments and scanning all of them.

14. Called our communication manager to chat about how I would like my new business card designed.

15. Thought of new research ideas. It means mostly sitting at my desk, staring blankly into the ceiling until a new email pops up or someone knocks on the door, and repeating the process till it is time to go home.

These are not necessarily research. Just a bunch of mundane things that may lead to research in the future.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Read like you are eating rice

As academics, we read a lot of journal papers. This is the foundation work that helps us understand what is happening in the field. Long before we start doing our own research, we need to know what has been already done and what needs to be done next. The same is for grant writing. The precursor to good, productive writing is plentiful, goal-driven reading.

Speaking in analogy, have you ever climbed atop one of the churches in Europe? You keep climbing the spiral stairways and every few floors there is a tiny window that looks outside. The lower you are, the less you see (whatever you see is also in a lot of detail). The higher you climb, the more you see (the level of detail also decreases). Learning about a field is just like that. You keep reading papers until you have a bird-eye view of the field. But in order to attain a bird-eye view, you have to start with the detailed view first.

Reading journal papers is time-consuming. Typically, they start with an abstract and introduction followed by a literature review, methods, results, discussion, limitation and conclusion. The order could vary depending on the field, but this is a general overview.

Abstract (a summary of the study)
Introduction (what you are going to read)
Literature review (what others have already done)
Methods (what the authors did and how they did it)
Results (what they found)
Discussion (interpreting what they found)
Limitation (what they could not find)
Conclusion (closing along with a note on what could be found in the future)

As a novice reader, it is easy to get caught up in the details of a paper until you realize that it’s been hours and you are still reading it. A good program or department offers a lot of classes that involve critically analyzing a paper. It’s an art you master with time and practice. Students read one or multiple papers beforehand and spend time in class critiquing singly or in groups. I used to find myself being caught up in reading because I would read very slowly and in a lot of detail. This is especially because I was not familiar with the methodology (another reason why I always recommend that PhD students take as many methods courses as they can, even if they might not seem immediately relevant or rewarding) and often wondered how to make sense of what the authors did. I would soon lose attention and start doing something else, not wanting to come back to the paper again. Then I got some great advice from my advisor.

Read a paper as if you are eating a bowl of rice. You do not eat rice one grain at a time. You do not individually chew the grains. You take a mouthful and chew until it is of digestible consistency before you swallow and go for the next helping.

Similarly, don’t read a paper word by word. Don’t get caught up in the mundane minutiae. Read the abstract very well. Skim through the introduction and directly go for the methods. If you are not clear about why they did what they did, come back to the literature review later, but do not spend a whole lot of time on it. After methods, go to the results/discussion to see what they found. Again, skim through it until you find the area that gets your attention. Read that well. Don’t get caught up in words. Skim until you see something interesting. Read that in detail. Repeat process. Don’t read word by word or line by line. Read idea by idea.

I found this advice very helpful. For my dissertation, I had to read more than 500 odd papers (some were not relevant, but how do you know they are not relevant unless you read a little bit of it?). I had attacked those papers like a bowl of rice. As a faculty, I read between 10-20 papers every week, and many more when I am writing a literature review. On an average, I give myself five minutes for each paper. I start with the title, read the abstract, and go straight for the research questions and methods. If the paper doesn’t make much sense to me, I do not put a whole lot of time into it. It is a skill you master with time. The more you read, the more you can get away reading lesser of a paper. You learn to directly attack the core, the meat.

Time yourself when you read. If you take 30 minutes for a paper, try reading the next one in 25 minutes. The idea is not to read lazily, but be able to find and attack the meat of the paper directly. Read fast. Read smart. Read purposefully. Good luck! 


Monday, October 23, 2017

"We are going to Kolkata!"

This is a vivid memory from my childhood. I must have been around 5-6 years old, definitely not more than 8. We lived outside Bengal, and once or twice a year, we boarded the Madras Mail (an overnight train) as a family to visit Kolkata during summer or winter vacations. There, I spent significant amount of time in my mamar bari (my mother’s parental home). We were all a “joint family” back then, a family where parents, children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, everyone lived under one roof. They show a lot of that in Greek and Italian movies.

My dadu or grandfather had two elder brothers, Boro dadu (boro means bigger or in this case, elder) and Mejo dadu (mejo means middle). They all lived in one huge, two-storied house in Howrah with their spouses, children, and grandchildren. The house had a “dalaan” or an open central courtyard that led to the well. There was a large wooden table in that dalaan. The table was so high for me that I needed support to prop myself and climb it. It is the same table where every male member of the family ate their breakfast before leaving for office. The table had a deep gash on one side and a nail sticking out on another. Even when I close my eyes now, I can still remember the feel of the table. For it was my favorite spot to lie on my belly, prop my chin with my hands, and watch the ongoing of the entire household; my three didas or grandmas lighting up their stoves to cook, the smell of burning coal that still makes me cry out of nostalgia, the domestic help, “Mongola’r Ma,” scurrying around to get chores done, my uncles busy eating rice and fish curry before leaving for work (always finishing the meal with “ombol”), and the neighbors dropping by to spread or garner news. 

I was too short to reach the wooden table, so I would use the adjacent chair to climb. That chair had a history too. “Buri pishi,” our widowed grandma (grandpa’s sister) sat there in the mornings, the two of us (the oldest and the youngest) being the only ones not in a hurry to get anywhere. So we sat side by side, buri pishi on the chair and I, belly flopping on the table, both of us with all the time to observe the world around us. Buri pishi often tickled my feet, catching me unaware, a constant source of annoyance. Till date, I hate anyone touching my feet. Given my size and height, the table offered an excellent vantage point to keep an eye on the ongoing of the entire household.

Sometimes, boro dadu or mejo dadu decked up early in the morning, wearing a fancy dhuti (a garment tied around the waist), a smart, cream colored shirt buttoned all the way without tucking in (unlike trousers), and dab generous amounts of Pond’s talcum powder on their face and chest. My own dadu never wore dhuti on a daily basis unless it was a wedding. He mostly wore a lungi or pajama. Anyway, the dadus would preen themselves, put on their best shoes, tuck a huge black umbrella under the armpit, and sit at one corner of the huge table for brunch before leaving home. Still lying on my belly, my chin propped on my hands, I would ask, “Where are you headed, dadu?” To which boro dadu or mejo dadu would beam proudly, “I am headed to Kolkata. I will be back in the evening.”

These words always made me giggle. I found this conversation hilarious. What do you mean, I am headed to Kolkata? We were already in Kolkata, weren’t we? How could one go to Kolkata while living in Kolkata? Back in our home, my mother used to tell everyone, “We are visiting my parents in Kolkata for the vacation.” To me, everything was Kolkata. I now understand the difference. We were technically in Howrah, a twin city to Kolkata separated by the Hoogli river. When we visited Victoria Memorial, we were in Kolkata. Whenever we took a bus and crossed Howrah Bridge, we were in Kolkata. When we ate moglai porota at the Shibpur tram depot, we were in Howrah. But in my little mind, technicalities were irrelevant and borders were non-existent. Everything was Kolkata, a nice and big city we visited during vacations or family weddings and met all the long-lost first, second, and third cousins, a place where a lot of people lived in one big house. Specifics did not matter to me back then. Demarcations were but only in the mind.

I have somehow held on to the trait even now. I continue to believe that Harvard University is in Boston although I have been corrected many times that it is in Cambridge. Seattle and the eastside are the same to me, one big place I call Seattle (unless I am in Seattle and have to go to Bellevue or Redmond).

“Where in Seattle do you live?” I have often asked people, only to be corrected and told, “We live in Issaquah/Bellevue/Kirkland/Redmond.” I know the difference, and I always laugh out loud when corrected. Little do they know that sometimes, I even refer to Portland as Seattle, although it is “just” 175 miles away. To me, Seattle means all of these- UW (which is actually in Seattle), my ex-office in Redmond, Inchin’s Bamboo Garden, Mayuri in Bellevue, and the amazing waterfront in Kirkland. Mount Rainier is in Seattle. Olympic National Park is in Seattle. You get the point. It is not that I cannot tell the difference. It is just that when it comes to Kolkata or Seattle, peripheries become all-encompassing and borders become non-existent.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

The gas-pachu experience

The new city brought a new friend in my life, my first, real friend in bone and flesh and not an apparition from the virtual world. I am exhausted after my daily work where I am constantly either writing or talking or doing both. So, I cherish the silence that comes to me outside of work. As much as I enjoyed the silence this new city provided, with no social pressure of congregating during the weekends and making small (or big, or any) talk, my happiness at renewed real human contact knew no bounds.

And then, I got invited for dinner.

Like Anastasia Steele in the terribly written 50-shades-of-whatever, my inner goddess jived in excitement. I asked her if I should bring something too.

"Like what?" she asked.

It was a weekend, and I had made polao and chicken curry for myself. I could share some of that. I think I heard her mumble something incoherent on the phone. Something like, carbohydrate ... umm.. protein.

"Hello?" I asked, unsure.

"So you will bring carbs and proteins? Good. Then I will bring veggies."

Her comment left me a little surprised. Who dehumanizes food this way, reducing it to carbs, proteins and roughage on the same phone conversation where a dinner invitation was being extended? And what was this "I will bring veggies"? The Bengali in me only knows of kosha mangsho, mutton biryani, fish fry, roshogolla and pantua for dinner invitations.

We decided to meet at her place, not too far from mine. Even the prospect of eating roughage for a start did not dampen my excitement, the excitement of the culinary kind I felt every time I received a wedding invitation in Kolkata. It’s been years!

We met. I watched her take out some soup-with-a-funny-name from her Trader Joe's paper bag. There was a yogurt container with sour cream and some chips that looked like wood shavings to go with it. That's all that came out of the bag.

The optimist in me thought that surely, this must be the appetizer bag. A chilled soup with cucumber pieces floating was a rather bone-chilling sight for the unforgiving, wintry December (this happened last December). She heaped a huge tablespoon of cold sour cream as she offered me a bowl, calling it a healthy, summer soup.

"So what is this called again?" I asked.

"Gazpacho soup," she chimed with excitement. I took a spoonful and sampled it, starting to shiver as I did so. It felt like the soup had been sitting in Antarctica for a while.

I was about to take the second spoonful in my mouth when she blurted out another bone-chilling truth with innocence. "You know, I do not enjoy cooking as much as you do. So I cook in bulk and freeze it. This soup that you are having was made in August."

I froze and died a little bit inside. Cryo-preserved soup made in August being thawed and served with love in December? I was not even in this country in August. I was still in Germany, waiting to get a date for my visa interview. Was this soup made on my birthday? My sympathetic nervous system, the part that controls fight-or-flight instincts, had kicked in full on.

There is no way I was going to have this soup. Not that there was anything else to have. What I suspected as the appetizer was her contribution for a non-potluck dinner where she was the host and I had only volunteered to bring in something. What was that name again? I had never heard of it until today. All I could think of was gas and pachu (a term of endearment for the ass, usually in baby language, and by ass, I am not talking of ass-the-animal).

She happened to be quite enjoying the polao and the chicken curry, wiping away tears and her nose in the process. It must have been a tad spicy for the average American taste bud.

"The soup is fantastic," my fight-and-flight inner goddess finally found her voice. "Could I pack it and take it with me to enjoy at home? I'd love to have it with bread tomorrow. You are welcome to keep some of my food for your husband too."

She was thrilled. She even helped me pack the soup, blobs of sour cream and all, profusely thanking me for the food I offered her.

With the dilemma of food behind us now, we started to chat and chatted up for the next few hours. I didn't have any appetite for the rest of the evening though. We spoke of US politics, travel, movies, and a whole lot of nothing. The next day, she told me that the husband loved the polao and the chicken curry. Ever since, we have become good friends. As I get home from work, I see a box or a jar of something at my doorstep once in a while. A jar of turmeric. A set of pyrex bowls. Such random acts of kindness thrill me, to know that someone is thinking of you and offering you something. However, I never had the courage to finish the rest of the "manufactured in August and served with love in December" gas-pachu soup. Forgiving her for that one incident, I forged a new friendship in this new city.


Sunday, October 08, 2017

Being faculty: End of year one

This week, I completed one year of being faculty. Exactly one year ago, I had moved back to the US and landed here. My landlady, whom I had never seen before, had come to pick me up. This time, I celebrated my first anniversary with a goat that lay on my dinner plate as mutton biryani. That is one thing I will never grow tired of eating.

So what does faculty life mean to me after one year? It means no longer being able to play the "I am a new faculty and I don't know what I am doing" card. To say that time flew would be an understatement. Talking of time, I was reading about the research on biological clock that won the Nobel Prize in Medicine this year. Other than conceiving time as what we know, the lifespan clock and the biological clock, I have also come to understand what the pre-tenure clock means. I could fill an entire book with my thoughts and realizations of life as a faculty, perhaps some day post-tenure.

New currency

I have learnt many new things over the past year. Some of them were skills and the others, deep realizations. However, if I had to point to that one thing that has been my most important learning this past year, it is the concept of currency. We are used to thinking of money as currency.  But for the first time, I learnt that time and energy (and not money) are my new currencies. Time is non-renewable and it surely depletes fast. As a student, I spent a lot of time trying to earn some money. Now, I will happily spend money to earn time, which is what all the grant writing and making graduate students do the work is about. It also means learning money management. I protect my research money much more fiercely than my personal money. I am always bargaining and looking for better deals to buy stuff for my research group. I could not even bargain a pair of earrings for ten rupees less.

The power of “No”

I have mastered the habit of saying no. No, I cannot be a part of this committee, it will take away my research time. No, I cannot visit Seattle this month, I have a conference deadline. No, you cannot visit me either, because of the same deadline. No, I cannot attend this potluck or cook for twenty people, and no, I cannot go on a dinner date, no, not even coffee. I use my work as a shield to bail out of a lot of things I do not want to do. If you plot time versus "no", I think I have said no maximum number of times this past year.

Weird moments

Being faculty to me also means sometimes hearing, "How far in your PhD are you?" And I don't think it has anything to do with my youthful looks (or the lack of it, especially given the crop of grey hair I sport now). It comes from something called unconscious bias where women (especially minority women) are usually designated stereotypical roles with less power. Male doctor, female patient. Male professor, female student. Rich guy, poor girl. Older guy, younger girl. Such stereotypes not only penetrate, but also deeply cut through reality to make up fairy tale stories and Harlequin romances.

Being faculty also means getting some very strange emails sometimes. So far, I saw random strangers emailing me their GRE scores and asking what they should study and what university they should apply to. However, I recently got an email from a complete stranger asking to be my friend (with a few smileys following) and wanting to know how to get a faculty position and to also help their spouse figure out how to do their PhD and what prospects await the spouse after their PhD. Complete strangers from completely strange fields asking me strange questions. I was tempted to ask if their children also needed help looking for schools and while doing so, if I could also visit their home to help them fold the laundry.

What else?

It means looking at a potentially interesting guy and thinking, "Hmm... I wonder what his h-index and his citation number is." It means little joys like free textbooks (ask the publisher and they will send you a copy) and free bus rides. It means three months of freedom every year to go and work in any part of the world I want to. It also means "technically" not having to show up at work unless I have a class or meeting. It is an unthinkable idea to many working in other industries. I could show up to work every day at 3 pm and no one would care.

And it means sometimes hearing, "Oh, you are at this university? What does your husband do there?" (The assumption being that my fictitious husband is a faculty, not me, I might be a trailing spouse). It also means being asked "What do you teach?" all the time. Not all faculty teach, and not all the time. Teaching is less than 50% of my job. I have only taught one course so far.

But all this aside, one of the best things about being faculty is being able to chat with some very smart people. Only today, I chatted for an hour each with a space researcher who works on galaxies, a cancer researcher, and a NASA scientist.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Thank you for showing up

I rarely eat out these days. I love the discipline cooking at home brings in my life. But once in a while, the craving gets the better of me.

I had been daydreaming about Ethiopian food for a while, and after subduing it for a week, I ended up at the only Ethiopian place I knew in town. I had only been there twice before, with friends, and had loved their lamb preparation. This time, I was on my own.

When I showed up at 5:30 pm, the place was fairly empty barring a few tables that were occupied. Yet, my server looked around uncomfortably, wondering where to seat me. I looked around too, noticing tables for four and two. I asked if I could sit at a particular corner for a table for two. My server hesitated, asking if I could grab one of the tables outside the restaurant. It was a public corridor inside an indoor mall, and a fairly busy one too. I did not want to eat in the middle of a thoroughfare. Hence I politely declined, asking if I could sit inside the restaurant. So she found a corner and asked me if I could sit there. That corner did not have tables and chairs, only stools. One would have to stoop and eat unless one was sitting on the floor (which was not an option they provided). It did not look like a comfortable spot. I asked her what the matter was since so many tables were empty. She said that there was a major concert nearby starting at 7:30 pm and she was expecting a lot of people to show up for dinner before that. She did not want me to hold on to the tables for two and four.

I told her that I was on my own and I was going to eat quickly and leave since I was going back to work. I would not be lingering around. I had even looked up the menu online before I arrived and was ready to order right then. She did not look convinced and reluctantly gave me the spot of my choice before disappearing inside the kitchen.

I had barely settled in my chair for two minutes, placing my heavy backpack by me when the owner showed up. She told me the same thing, only more authoritatively. People would be crowding up for dinner soon, and I should choose that corner they were offering with stools instead of where I was sitting. I did not want to argue, I was hungry and was already beginning to feel humiliated. This place was bang opposite to the direction of my home and I had changed two buses to get there. All I wanted was a quick dinner before moving on with my life. Reluctantly, I dragged myself and my backpack out of our spots and took the seat she gave me. My hunch was right, the stools were uncomfortable, the food table was lower (not higher) than the stool and one needed to bend at a weird angle while eating.

I did finish my meal as quickly as I had promised but lingered for a while to see if the fictitious crowd showed up. However, I already knew the answer to that. Yes, there was some inflow and outflow of people. However, just like when I had entered, most of the tables remained empty. Instinctively, I always knew this is what would happen. When my server came with my bill, I told her the same. She smiled at me sheepishly and disappeared inside the kitchen.

This episode made me reflect on an aspect of human behavior I have seen many times- an attachment to the perceived idea of everyone showing up at the cost of failing to respect those who actually showed up. This is not the first time that I was witnessing it. How many times have we seen the host of a party constantly calling those who haven’t made it rather than spending time with those who actually did? Or someone planning a trip and then constantly sending reminders to those who do not want to join the trip rather than planning with those who said yes? Guess what? Those who did not RSVP or reply to that email or haven’t yet shown up at the party on time are not likely to. Yet, people remain attached to the idea of larger crowds, full attendance, filled up rooms, sold out shows, large numbers as an indication of success. When a meeting where only 10 people showed up is delayed by 5 minutes because the others did not, we actually waste 50 cumulative minutes. It doesn’t matter how many did not show up. The time you waste waiting belongs to those who showed up and not to those who did not.

The moment my server got nervous and told me that the restaurant would soon start to fill up, I instinctively knew that it would not fill up (not that I wanted it that way), not at least until I left. But she was attached to the idea of seeing a full restaurant, rather than taking care of that one person who actually showed up. I have been recently planning a trip and on asking four people, only one of them said yes. So I thanked the other three and started making plans with the one who said yes. Yes, a group of five would have been great. Actually, no. There is no evidence that a group of five would be great. It is my attachment to the idea that a group of five will make a great trip. In this case, only two of us traveling will make a great trip, because both of us are willing and invested in the trip. It does not mean that the five of us will not have an awesome trip in the future. Just not this time.

Businesses suffer. Relationships suffer. Families suffer. All because of the single-minded attachment to a larger crowd showing up (indicating greater perceived success) than being thankful to those who actually showed up. The inability to let go of what has slipped from the hand than holding on to what is still in hand. Think about how happy a customer I’d be had they let me sit properly to enjoy my meal, the one meal I was eating outside after months. Yet we continue to pine for those who did not show up rather than honor those who actually did.

When I paid for my meal before walking out of a still empty restaurant, this is what I wrote on the merchant’s copy of the receipt- “I wish you’d let me sit more comfortably and enjoy my meal.”


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Building your processor while in graduate school

I spent a lot of time during my PhD resisting whatever my adviser would say. He had a clear plan for me to graduate on time, but I was the one who did not believe that I could meet my graduation deadline. As a result, we argued a lot.

Once we were arguing about my scintillating academic life (or the lack of it) and how much coursework would be enough to make me a desirable PhD candidate when I start job hunting. We started our conversation about job hunting pretty early, at around 6 months into my PhD, when my peers were still comfortably settling in. “I never want you to feel comfortable or settled in. That way, you will never graduate,” he said bluntly.

We were arguing because my adviser wanted me to take as many methods/statistics courses as I can. Being able to analyze and make sense of large-scale data is vital in my field. I think I eventually took 5 levels of statistics courses and 3 levels of qualitative methodology courses alone other than the core courses and a mixed-methods class. I made a face and told him that I do not want to drown in methods courses, that I would learn on my own or take online classes later. To that, he gave me a great analogy that I will paraphrase because I found some wisdom in what he said.

This is what he said. In graduate school, we are like a computer processor in the making. With new courses, we get to learn new skills and thereby build our processors. Our configuration is constantly improving. We get to take classes, write exams, get feedback (from the instructors) and interact with peers that are great ways to learn new skills. By the time we are out of graduate school, the features in our processor are set. It is not malleable anymore. Sure, we can go for an external upgrade, adding a feature every now and then by auditing a class or attending a conference. But these are external features. The core has already been built by then.

Graduate school learning builds the core, the inherent qualities of a researcher. Therefore it is important to take every remotely relevant methodological course, write exams (and not just audit courses), and learn every new skill we hesitate to learn (because we are too afraid to fail) fooling ourselves into believing that we will learn them once we get a job. Graduate training is the only chance to build the processor from the scratch. The rest gets added along the way. One can afford to skip a "Writing literature review" class because that is a skill one can pick along the way. However, one cannot afford to skip a class on methodology. So go take that class because it is already paid for, and because once you graduate, you will never get to take a class again, not this way.

I don’t understand much of computers or technology (other than what I need for work), but I loved his analogy. Years after finishing graduate school, I see the value in what he said. No more arguments after that, I buried myself building my processor, and I have not regretted it. Although I do not apply the methodological know-how in everyday work life, I know enough about it to be able to navigate my way around. For example, I do not dabble with differential item functioning or item response theory every day. However, when I read a paper that did those, I do not have the “deer in the headlights” look. I exactly know what they are talking about. 

Listen to your adviser (not blindly though). For they may be as clueless about your future as you are, but given their vast experience, chances are less that they will give bad advice. 


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Initial impressions of Mexico City

[Written last Christmas; I am reminded of Mexico City today after the earthquakes]

I think latitude determines cultural similarities more than longitude. Mexico City reminds me of a combination of Kolkata and Mumbai (and of India in general) in so many ways. There is a distinct smell of the city, a wintry smell of sunshine and fog and a little bit of smoke. I get the same smell every time I visit Kolkata. Although cities in the US are much colder, the interiors are warm. Here, it is just like the winters of Kolkata. You will be freezing inside the house but outside, the sunshine would be comforting. There are hundreds of cops, but no one pays heed to them. People jaywalk all the time. This is what gives me hope. There is something dysfunctional about a sanitized culture where there is no chaos, where people do not cross the streets on a red light or follow the rule book all the time. I have been told that I will need to bargain even at the currency exchange shops. Armed with my limited Spanish vocabulary spanning maybe 30-40 words, I am all set to explore this city. Although my German vocabulary is only marginally better, I never felt at ease culturally. But this seems like a place where I could use my skills from India. 

I landed at 7 am and by 10 am, I was already accosted by a guy barely out of college who speaks no English (I can only suspect that he wanted to sleep with me because when his insistence did not work and I feigned ignorance about both Spanish and English, he folded his hands gesturing me to sleep) and mistaken as a hooker by a cop whom I tried asking about money (currency exchange store) in English. None of them harmful encounters of course. But the most cruel thing happened to me when they chucked my goat biryani in the airport's trash can. I mean, I must have been out of my mind, trying to sneak in a goat inside Mexico. A lot of the dinner last night had gone uneaten, and I wanted to devour the goat from Seattle in Mexico City. They took out that box and another box of five besan laddoos and eyed both suspiciously while I kept praying that if they have to throw one of them, let them throw the sweet. But after gathering interesting biryani eating experiences from all over the world, this one was a failure. I felt that sharp stab of pain in my chest as I parted with my biryani. And since it is Sunday as well as Christmas, all currency exchange stores are closed, leaving me with no money and hence no food except those five besan laddoos. One of the ATMs asked a flat fee of $31.82 for using my credit card. I have a feeling that things will work out and I will not have to go hungry in this city. I later realized that it was a double-dollar sign, referring to 31.82 Mexican dollars.

Things got interesting last night when I was waiting for the flight at a California airport and they made all announcements in Spanish (we were still on the US soil) when I had to go ask them to kindly repeat things in English. It brought back many a memories from the German chapter. When asked to make a line to board the flight, the line looked exactly like it would do in India- a scatter plot. In between, an old man even winked at me and let me cut through the line. I already love this place.

Nothing perhaps stings more than being pesoless and then your goat biryani being thrown away. Merry Christmas, everyone.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Initial impressions of Bangkok

1. Visa: If you do not do your visa from India, it could be a very time-consuming process in Thailand. The same visa is valid for 30 days in India but 15 days in Thailand. Always carry passport-size photos to avoid the hassle of getting new pictures. You have to show 10,000 Baht/person or 20,000 Baht/family to get a visa. That is a ripoff if you are staying only for a few days, because you may not end up using all of it by the time you leave. I took a chance and converted only half that amount. No one even checked it. They only ask you to convert a certain amount of money, but may not even care to see if you followed instruction.

2. The city: Bangkok is very clean, organized, crowded, and not as polluted. Public restrooms are very clean. With wide, multi-lane roads, Bangkok looks like a cleaner and more developed version of southern Kolkata. The river provides an important means of transportation for both tourists as well as daily commuters. I did not see a single beggar or homeless person.

3. At 500 Baht/person, the Grand Palace is a ripoff (given that other attractions are between 50-100 Baht).

4. Bangkok is a food lover's paradise. Street food is out of the world. And Thai food in Thailand is so much better than Thai food in the US.

5. People speak minimal English. Thailand was never invaded by the Europeans, and you can see it. Everything is written in Thai, with occasional translations in English. It makes you realize that one does not need to rely on English to be self-reliant or attract tourists. Far from being a challenge, it was very refreshing to be somewhere where people are unapologetic about not knowing English. When spoken English did not work, I mostly used sign language. Our host wrote down the addresses of major attractions (as well as our home address) on a piece of paper in Thai. We met many cab drivers who could not even read or interpret addresses written in English. That was another interesting experience. We navigated solely based on the squiggles written on a piece of paper that we did not understand.

6. Every third shop is a massage shop. The one before that is a shop selling food.

7. The world in this part of the world does not revolve around Trump, Ivanka, Melania's heels and wardrobe, and US politics. Living outside this toxic circle of US politics for a change was very calming. I did not follow news for a while, and the world was still fine and running by the time I came back.

8. You get to a point where you are tired of seeing Buddha statues. Standing Buddha. Sitting Buddha. Reclining Buddha. Laughing Buddha. Serious Buddha. Solid gold Buddha. Youngish Buddha. Oldish Buddha. Jumping Buddha. Swimming Buddha.

9. Things around are written mostly in Thai (including advertisements). Road signs are written both in Thai and English. Thai first. English below, and in a smaller font. I developed immense respect for this country. Not because I hate English (I don't hate anything except half-cooked or poached eggs). It is truly a mark of a country that has a strong sense of identity, not swayed by foreign identities. I don't think I have seen another country where English is in a smaller font in road signs. If you have seen one, I'd love to hear from you.

10. If you are hopping multiple countries, I would highly recommend you buy your tickets on the same PNR. If possible, but your tickets directly from the airline instead of some travel website. It might seem more expensive, but it actually saves you a lot of money and hassles. We were in Thailand, and then Cambodia. While coming back from Cambodia, we had a six hour layover in Bangkok. We thought that we would wait at the airport. What I did not see is that our tickets had different PNRs. Long story short, they do not let you wait at the airport for that long without a tourist visa (even if you are not planning to step out of the airport). They will not check your bags all the way to Kolkata (in our case). So we had to step out, spend money and get a visa although we only had a few hours and were not planning to step out of the airport. The visa from the previous trip the week before was valid for 15 days, but was single entry only. The system is built so that there are traps where vulnerable tourists can be easily tricked into spending money unnecessarily. I guess that is also how they generate some of their revenue. Long story short, if hopping multiple countries, buy your tickets directly from the airline, and make sure that every leg of the trip is on the same PNR.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Working for myself

One year ago, I started working as a tenure-track faculty at a research university. After the first day at work, Ma asked me, "So what work did they give you today?" Soon after, a few friends who are not acquainted with academia asked me the same question. These friends from the tech industry may know about coding and fixing bugs, but looks like they are not quite acquainted with how academia works.

The funny thing is as an academic, these questions, or the way non-academics see academia never dawn on you. This is a job where no one gives me work. I create my own work. Yeah. Take a few minutes to digest that idea. 

I don't have to show up to office every day, or at a specific time. I could be Facebooking, chatting, or chasing Pokemons all day. No one is going to come at the end of the day asking me how productive I have been. Unless I am teaching a class or have a meeting with other colleagues, I do not have to be at a particular place at a certain time every day. I could be anywhere.

Work-wise, no one tells me what to do. To give a simplistic analogy, getting this job is like getting a car with some limited gas/petrol (startup funding). Where I go with my car and how much gas/petrol I spend is my business. I could take it to Glacier National Park. Or I could drive to New York City. Or I can keep my car in the garage and never use it. Unless I do something drastic like harass a student or smuggle and store drugs in the department, no one can fire me during my 6-year pre-tenure period.

However, I have to meet high expectations by the time I go up for tenure review at the end of my fifth year. This includes consistent performance in terms of getting money through grant funding (getting my own gas/petrol to be able to continue driving my car), publishing my work (showing others how well my car drives) multiple times in peer-reviewed journals, meeting high standards of teaching and mentoring students (training novice drivers to drive), collaborating (carpooling), and doing service such as serving on committees and editorial boards (helping fellow drivers service their cars or helping them when their car breaks down or inspiring others to become drivers or ensuring I do not kill anyone while driving). I am putting this very simply with a car/driving analogy, the process is more complicated and labor-intensive than it sounds.

I have the freedom to do any kind of research that aligns with the department's interests. I can collaborate with anyone in the department, in the country, and in the world. There are three broad expectations (research, teaching/mentoring, and service) that I need to fulfill well in order to be able to get tenure. And these are not something that can be achieved overnight, in a month or even a year. I have been preparing to meet these expectations even before my particular position was advertised. 

So to answer Ma's question, they did not give me any work on day one, and never will. I work for myself now and have to give myself work, if that makes sense.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

What the readers are saying

If you notice, there is a green link called “ShortSurvey” on the right hand side of this page. Sometime back, I had requested regular readers to take this survey so that I can get an idea of who they are. Blogging can often get isolating in this age of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram where it is very easy to have a real-time, two-way, instant conversation. However, I am old-school, am neither on Twitter nor Instagram, do not restrict my thoughts to a certain number of characters, and still find that blogging is the best way to express my thoughts. I do agree that interaction becomes delayed and one-sided, and I am not really the best at replying to comments. But about sixty of you filled out the survey, and your responses were enlightening. I promised not to identify people or publish personal comments, so I’d rather post some generic findings. I am all about the stories that data tell, so thank you to those who took the time to respond to the survey. You can still do it.

Sixty percent of those who filled the survey are women.

Sixty-three percent of those who filled the survey live in India. Twenty-eight percent live in North America, and the rest in Europe.

Seventy-eight percent who filled the survey are in the age range of 30-40 years. Eighteen percent are younger (20-30 years) and a very tiny sliver of those who sent me their responses are in the range of 40-50 years.

A good number of those who filled out the survey live in Bangalore.

I do get some of this information about geographical locations from the trackers on my blog. I know that till date, the US, India and Russia are where I get most of the traffic from, closely followed by Germany, UK and Ukraine. I do not know anyone from Russia, UK or Ukraine, and would love to know who they are and how they got here. For example, are they Indians living in other countries, or are they Russians and Ukrainians?

I know that I get a lot of traffic from Sayesha’s and Ovshake’s blog. Thank you!

I also know that a lot of you end up here while looking for “green veins in legs”

Now some more interesting findings. A whooping sixty-four percent of those who filled the survey said that they have never shared any post of mine with the others. Only 8.6% said that they have shared, and the rest responded “Sometimes.” I wonder, why?

Some more interesting findings. Forty-eight percent of those who said that they share said that they do so by email. In this day of quick information sharing using Facebook and Twitter, I had not expected emails to be the prime mode of sharing.

Now onto some interesting comments. There is a question where I ask you if you have any questions or comments for me. There was a time when I had a fancy pair of red shoes as my header. Those are my favorite shoes and I still wear them. Someone commented that it looked like wearing shoes inside a temple. It was hilarious. However, I thought more about it, it did seem like wearing shoes inside a temple. After much deliberation, I removed them and made my blog shoe-free.

Someone said that they don’t like that I have self-esteem and that I have become more stubborn over the years. I don’t know how true that is, but coming from people who mostly know a slice of my life though my own writings, I was definitely amused. What is wrong in having self-esteem?

It was also interesting that most of you said that you started reading me 10-12 years ago. There were very few of you who were recent readers. It does say a lot about the loyalty of readers. Thank you for that as well.

Some of you wanted to know my name, where I live and where I work. I have nothing against these questions, but over all these years, I have tried to maintain anonymity as much as I can. I never share my own posts. I know that people connect more to writers when they have seen their picture or know their name. However, I have shied away from revealing personal information to complete strangers. This was a deliberate decision after a string of harassment and internet bullying episodes I experienced long back. The internet can empower a lot of people with both good and bad intentions. One of you asked for a picture and I did share a picture, only to receive a hilarious response. The person said that they were expecting a much older blogger but I look much younger than what they thought.

One of you asked me a very interesting question. “In a world without work visas, what would you do?” I absolutely loved that question. If I haven’t already, I plan to blog about it sometime. If I have already done so, please remind me. With the amount of writing I do, my memory fails me at times.

One of you also asked if I have ever made friends through my blog and if I have met them. Plenty. Definitely has to be more than fifteen. Okay, maybe that is not a lot, but given the level of anonymity I maintain on my blog, I would think meeting fifteen people over the past twelve years is a lot.

A lot of you mentioned finding my blog through Munnu’s blog. He is one friend I am glad I met during my initial days of blogging. We used to be close friends, although I have no idea what he is up to these days.

For reasons not clear to me, I saw that my blog readership started declining sharply since May of this year. I do not know why it happened, and the numbers keep falling. That has made me wonder how worthy it is to put my time and energy into blogging. Reflecting about it has also made me realize that at the end of the day, I am writing for myself. I am aware that I do not do it that often, and if I could, I would write a little snippet at the end of every day before going to bed. However, no matter how infrequently I write and no matter how much readership decreases, this blog is my own personal nook that I enjoy hanging out at. Sometimes I read old posts, as old as a decade ago and fondly remember those times of my life. My family does not know about my blog, but maybe I could write it in my will so that they can read it if I pass before they do.

All that aside, thank you for reading the blog over the years and also to those who filled out the survey. I have recently added a few more features on the right so that it is easier to contact me and leave a feedback or comment for me one-on-one. So don’t hesitate to reach out in whatever way, by writing to me, commenting, sharing, and helping me keep my blog up and running. You could also tell me anything you would like me to write about, and if I feel enthused enough, I will do it. Some of you did not like a recent template I was using and I changed it after I realized that I do not like it as well. So yes, I do take comments and good feedback seriously. I have toyed with the idea of writing more about academia from a faculty’s point of view, since I am one now. But I also wonder how interesting that would be for readers not in academia. I am a compulsive story teller and I itch to tell stories about my life, things that I see and things that I find interesting. This blog is the longest commitment and longest long-term relationship I have had with anyone or anything.