Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tenure? Check. But, at what cost?

Well, it has been a very long time since I’ve added a new post to this blog. Simply put, I’ve been very busy. Going through tenure is a grueling process. As time went on, it only became more difficult, rather than easier. Perhaps it was just the stress of wondering whether my efforts would pay off? However, the bigger issue was the struggle of finding the balance between my career and my personal life. As the career continued to take more time, miscellaneous, unimportant tasks such as blogging had to go! Anyway, I now feel that it is time to start this up again. I’ll try to start making occasional updates here and there.

I’ve had an awful lot going on in my life. One of the motivating factors behind writing this blog was to perhaps help others who are going through similar situations, such as pursuing tenure in higher-ed. I can’t imagine my experiences are unique in any way. I’ll try to summarize a few very important experiences I’ve gone through, particularly over the past year. Some of it has been wonderful. For example, last year, in early 2016, I found out that I got tenure! I was promoted from Assistant to Associate Professor, a typical promotion when one gets tenure.

While that news was wonderful, I often wonder about the cost must one pay to obtain tenure. Life is short. And, if you have children, you have far more important pulls on your attention than tenure. They grow quickly, I know this all too well. Children are out of the house before you know it, whether you are ready or not. 

So, I'm feeling a bit nostalgic, a bit reflective, and honestly a bit down. And quite often, when I'm dealing with emotions, I write to help myself understand what is going on. So, let's reflect back a bit to understand why one might choose a similar path in higher ed. 

I intentionally chose a liberal arts undergraduate institution for my career. I wanted a place where I would not be suffering through writing countless grants and suffering through persistent rejection and having no life. I wanted to be able to spend time with my son and family.  It was tough though. This was not initially my first choice. I was just starting on a trajectory of doing some very cool research that could have had a substantial impact in my field. In 2008, while I was finishing the final touches of my PhD, I was interviewing at several universities for postdoc and tenure-track positions. I had several offers, especially from postdoctoral research positions in bioinformatics. I had some decent research credentials and really want to keep building that up. I ultimately accepted a position at NIH as a postdoctoral research scientist in a bioinformatics lab. 

A few months before I was to start the position, I lived through some critical, life-changing events with my wife. Without going into detail, let’s just say that these events changed my focus from living a research-driven life of grant-writing, knowledge dissemination, and regular rejection from the grant review process, to realizing I needed to consider what is best for those beyond myself, most notably, my family.

The other aspect of the research-focused career that I find to be difficult is the regular self-promotion one must throughout the process. Some people seem to be great at self-promotion, and frankly, that is something that just rubs me the wrong way. I believe that if you are a scholar producing quality work, that the work will speak for itself. Naive, I know.

So, together with my wife, we went down a path of embracing a career that emphasized high impact teaching along with scholarship.  My first job was in 2008, and frankly, I didn’t always do the best job finding the correct balance between all of the pulls as a new tenure track professor, especially in the beginning of my career. I had a very difficult time going from pursuing a PhD, where you can’t possibly do anything but focus on yourself and your research 24/7, to suddenly becoming a dad and starting a new family! That was hard. Becoming a parent changes everything. People tell you that all of the time when you are expecting a child. But, you just have no idea about the magnitude of change you are about to endure until you hold your child for the first time after being born. And, I experienced this change at the very start of my very first tenure track position (a prior position before arriving at Bucknell.) In fact, I missed my very first week of classes as a new tenure track faculty member because my son was born during that week! There were so many things going on, much of which is not public knowledge, but know that it is not the way you want to start a new position!  My life was in just complete chaos for the first year of my tenure track position. 

I am still not sure if I can remember much of that first year. Yet, somehow, I managed to receive a couple of teaching awards. I did quite well, and I owe it to the students in my first tenure track position. They taught me more about teaching than I did them. It was an amazing experience, but I knew I was missing research. For a wide range of reasons (some of which were rumors of the college potentially closing numerous doors and retrenching faculty), I did an extensive search and identified those colleges that had open positions that seemed to embrace a "teacher-scholar" model. 

The infamous "teacher-scholar model." I must be honest, I'm not even sure I knew what a "teacher-scholar" was, but it seemed to echo the mixture I was looking for. Did a college exist that embraced and supported their faculty as they pursued excellence in teaching and also in research? One that was supportive of the pursuit of excellence in undergraduate education, and equally valued great teaching outcomes just as much as a faculty getting a publication out with a student? One that actually supported their faculty doing research with undergraduate students, but also understood that this meant that you are not going to get the same quality research completed as if I was at an R-1 university with a lab, with doctorate students to work with? 

Without divulging unnecessary details, I identified two positions, and ultimately applied to both of them that year. I was offered a position at one of them -- Bucknell University, a small, liberal arts undergraduate college with an engineering college, and a college that seemed to embrace the teacher-scholar model. I accepted. 

So, Bucknell. As I said, I made it through tenure, and I mostly want to reflect on that process, briefly. Bucknell is a pretty damned good place. Great, energetic students. And, for the most part, they do seem to value both the teaching and the research. I love teaching. I still do. I’m in my 7th year at Bucknell, and still find teaching very rewarding. But, I miss high quality, intense research. I miss the opportunities to do some deep-diving into the latest mass-scale biological sequence analysis methods. I’ve branched into many analytic methods that focus on pattern discovery and predictive models on sequential data. This is still where my heart is, and I’m longing to get back into this work. But, how? How do I keep teaching at the level I do, increase my service commitments, and somehow find time to get research done? I’m realistic — it’s not going to happen unless something else decreases. And, my work can’t just happen during the summer. I must be invested in some amount of research every week, so that I can maximize my efforts during breaks and summer. But, how? I have no idea. I do not see my service obligations decreasing. I believe that we will continue teaching a 5 course load per year, which is just too heavy to conduct quality research during the semester. I'll try to reflect on this balance some other time. It's something that is dear to me, and to everyone on my campus. But I have opinions.

So, am I satisfied with my career? That is a very complex question. This past year, since getting tenure, I’ve been sucked into far more service activities than I’ve ever had to endure. Ever. It has consumed a lot of my free time. I rarely feel like I have free time to pursue any research interests during the semester anymore (not that I had that much time before. Now, it’s just worse.) Additionally, I’ve been trying to get involved in any opportunity I can that gives our students interdisciplinary experiences. I am a firm believer that our college should be moving fervently toward providing open, collaborative, integrative, interdisciplinary experiences for every student. Our college is a rich environment to provide such experiences, and yet we don’t. I’m not in the majority on the urgency of this, unfortunately. But, since I’ve been here, I think we are making some great strides.

What about family? The work / life balance? First and foremost, my son has been the most wonderful gift to me. Being a parent has been the most amazing experience in my entire life, and one I am still in the beginning stages of. (He’s currently 8 yrs old as I write this. Such a fun age!!!) In some ways, being a parent is far easier than the pursuit of a research-focused career. In other ways, however, it is surely more difficult.  (For instance, I can just put my laptop down when I’m frustrated with R and data cleaning, poor performing models, etc. and just walk away. I can’t do that with my son!) Being a parent, simply put, is amazing. It is the most wonderful, rewarding experience I’ve ever lived through. (I have yet to encounter the teenage years… I might change my mind then.)

Now, I am about to embark on my first year-long sabbatical for 2017-2018 as a tenured faculty member. I have numerous projects I want to pursue. Thanks to some wonderful colleagues at the Geisinger Autism and Developmental Medicine Institute, some great projects are in store which should yield some positive outcomes. I’m looking forward to it.

I write the above forcing myself to try and be positive. Yet, this has been incredibly hard this past year. I had more substantial life-changing experiences this past year that has caused a real sense of urgency to rise up within my soul to just get back to pure biological sequence analysis related to cancer and disease. Let me explain...

In December 2016, I found out that my mother had ovarian cancer. It was devastating to me. It still is. I spent all of the time that I could afford learning everything I could about ovarian cancer so I could have educated conversations with my mom’s oncology team. I wanted to help her and my dad make the best decisions for her possible recovery. Without going into details, unfortunately, it was not long before I realized that her symptoms were clearly showing that she was in advanced stages, most likely Stage IV. This is not uncommon with ovarian cancer, because most women don’t have symptoms until it’s too late. The doctor tried to convince us that it was Stage IIIC, but in my heart, I just knew it could not be. And unfortunately, they could not operate to remove the ovary and surrounding tumors because she had blood clots that prevented any possible surgery. On top of that, she was experiencing ascites - a condition where fluid rapidly accumulates in the abdominal cavity. There are many causes of ascites, but when the diagnosis is ovarian cancer, the literature suggests a matter of months before death. 

My mom passed away in early February, 2017, only 2 months from the diagnosis.

This loss happened so fast. As I write this, I still tear up. I struggle every day to understand what it was that I lost, and how to keep my spirits up and move forward. Thankfully, my son has been a wonderful motivation for me to keep positive, remain hopeful, and smile. I know it is what my mom would have wanted. She would not want me to wallow in misery, but for me to keep smiling, keep loving my son, my family, and keep doing what I love to do. So, I do my best to try and remain positive. It is not easy to do yet. This is all still fresh.

As if that wasn’t enough, my last living grandparent, my mom’s mom, passed away just a few weeks go, in April 2017. Yeah, it has not been a good year.

After my mom passed, I missed a couple of weeks of classes to be home with my dad. After a week of helping my dad prepare the funeral, write a eulogy for my mom, go through the burial, etc., I pretty much had to go right back to work. I have not had any real time to grieve. I’m so thankful for my colleagues who helped cover my classes while I was dealing with my mom’s situation and loss (Thank you Abby and Chris!!!! I owe you both so much. You have no idea.)

The first week back, I pretty much just stared into space a lot. I would lose my focus in class while talking. Students would talk to me, but I honestly just had a hard time caring about anything. I was hurting inside, but knew I had to keep motivated and just do what I could to get through. I have times when I am in my office, and I think about how nice it was to have my regular phone calls back home just to touch base with her. I think about how fun it was to have my son call her up to tell her the latest corny jokes! So many things I took for granted at the time. Now, I just occasionally shed tears.
I don’t care to talk with anyone about it. It is what it is. This is life. I understand that. It’s a big loss for me. I’m grieving, but I will make it through this. We all do.

I get angry sometimes. I do. We were robbed of an amazing, wonderful, compassionate woman. She was too young, dying at a mere 68 yrs old. That is young, considering that life expectancy for women in the states is about 81 now.

When I found out that I received tenure, I remember so clearly calling my mom last year. I called her within minutes of receiving my letter! She was so, so happy and proud! I remember her asking me so many questions about what that meant so she could tell her friends about her son. She has been my #1 support system all my entire life. She was my biggest cheerleader through everything I wanted to pursue. I lost my strongest source of support I’ve had since a child. I can't express the emptiness and loss I feel. If you lost a parent who you were close to, then you understand fully of the pain that I'm talking about.

I remember when I went to graduate school, my parents looked at me and said, “Wow, we’re so impressed with what you are doing. And, we have no idea where you get your intelligence, or your drive! In fact, we can’t understand much of anything you are doing now! But we are so proud of you, and we know you will keep moving ahead to achieve great things.” I was so humbled when they were talking to me like that. It was a moment when I realized what it meant to be a first-generation college student. They truly did not understand any aspect of what I was doing, and I’m not just talking about my research, but about college and graduate school in general. They only knew that it was good for me to go to college after high school. After that, they figured I’d get a job and have a family. 

I pursued a path that really didn’t make a lot of sense to them. My parents never went to college. They got married at 18 yrs old, and lived a very basic, very simple life. (To put this in perspective, they live in the same town they were both born in up in upstate NY.) Yet, they supported me regardless of their own lack of understanding of my passion for learning, and ultimately for research. I truly was blessed to have them as parents. 

Fortunately, my dad is doing well. He is healthy and recovering from the loss. It will take all of us time.

So, enough of that. What is the cost of getting tenure? I can’t really tell you right now. Right now, I feel like it cost me a lot. I lost a lot, and those things I lost have nothing to do with tenure. All I can tell you is this: I strongly, strongly recommend that you find an appropriate balance between your career pursuit, your family, and your own sanity. Keep in regular contact with those you love. Take the time out regularly to call your parents, siblings, family, friends you trust, hug your spouse, love your children, grab a drink with friends, and be social. Have a hobby or two, and stick to it. And for God's sake, exercise regularly! Stand up regularly and walk away from your desk and your computer every hour. And parenting? Make that a top priority at all costs. Remember that the papers, the grading, the new assignment you need to create… they can all wait an hour or two so you can be the best at being a parent when you get home from work. Be a kid and play some games, go and play outside, read your child’s favorite book to him/her, and do whatever you can to help them smile. Your family is far, far more important than trying to be the best tenure case your department has ever had. 

One last word for those on the tenure track. I strongly advise you to carefully read your tenure documents from your department and make sure that you have a clear understanding of what you need to achieve to get through tenure. Meet with your dean and regularly discuss your portfolio with them.  Have good short term and long term plan. Stick to your plans, with balance. Balance — that is how you minimize the cost, and you need to figure out how much you can afford to lose, because you never know when those people in your life who you love and hold dear to you, may be gone… and in some cases, forever.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

New Technique Identifies Novel Class of Cancer's Drivers

New Technique Identifies Novel Class of Cancer's Drivers

It was only a matter of time that modern DNA sequencing methods would be able to uncover some "use" of the enormous amount of non-coding DNA in our genome. We still have so much to learn! But, this is a great step.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

How people learn - The Week

I'm posting this article for my own reminder about the importance of teaching in a way that maximizes student learning.

I've made a remarkable number of changes over the past year with my teaching tools and techniques. Yet, I still find myself occasionally drifting back to old habits -- giving a standard, boring lecture where I expect my students to sit there, pay attention and take notes for 52 minutes of class. Fortunately, this is certainly becoming the exception and not the norm.

Regardless, research is continuing to emerge about how ineffective this traditional approach is on the majority of students. However, I don't believe it is ineffective for everyone. After all, the vast majority of my undergraduate years were all completed by taking courses where I had to sit through lectures where the professor delivered the material for the entire class with talking and an overhead as their primary tools. I did it. It worked for me, yet I can't help but wonder how much more enjoyable some of my undergraduate years would have been if I had some active learning....

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Big data, big jobs?

See the article Big data, big jobs? in a recent issue of ComputerWorld.

I teach an undergraduate course in data mining. It is definitely one of my favorite courses to teach.  I've been telling students over the past couple of years that this area is a huge opportunity in the job market, and will continue to blossom for years to come.

Yet, even as this article suggests, data mining is not for everyone.

Here are my observations: Unfortunately, I am not seeing enough students ready or willing to dive into some of the statistical math required to really understand how to get the most interesting information out of the data.  Being a good programmer is not enough for getting into data mining. Knowing a good programming language that is popular for data mining tasks (such as R) will be better.  However, knowing how to analyze, visualize, and extract relevant information from large data sets is important. To do this, you need to know what models to apply when, and why, and what to expect out of them.  You need to know how to evaluate model performance, and select appropriate parameters to improve it.  You need to understand causes of poor performance (e.g. noisy data, lack of preprocessing, etc.) I see too many students blindly meandering around the data mining landscape with programs such as SAS, SPSS, or even Weka, not really understanding why a particular model is behaving the way it is. (BTW, Weka is an absolutely wonderful piece of software for exploring data mining!)

The best foundation you can give yourself for a career in data mining is to give yourself a solid foundation in statistics and probability. Then, take a course in data mining! I find that failure to fully embrace these important topics makes it difficult for a student to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the wide range of statistical models and algorithms for inference and induction in data mining tasks. More importantly -- you will likely miss many hidden gems buried in the data, and this is what your potential employer is after.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

How Software Updates Are Destroying the Stock Market - Businessweek

This is a sobering reminder of how far we have yet to go in this modern era of software development of engineering. We continue to strive to release some great development tools, and yet it is practically impossible to set up tests to capture every possible event that might raise exceptions....