Plans Are Worthless, But…

I first heard about semester planning when I began my postdoc at the University of the Pacific. I couldn’t even parse the phrase then: one made plans for things that one had some control over, like a vacation, or to a lesser degree, a lesson. A semester was something that happened to you, a force of nature. You might as well try to plan a tornado.

But I kept hearing about these miracle semester plans from the more established faculty, the ones who claimed to leave the office at 5 and not work weekends, who had solid publication records and still looked like they slept on the regular. Meanwhile, every semester of mine followed the same pattern: Start out strong. Work like a maniac for as long as possible until I inevitably fall a bit behind. Then hide from work for a couple of weeks, full of guilt and dread, until I claw myself back out at the end, exhausted. So when the Center for Teaching and Learning announced their next semester planning workshop I thought I’d give it a go. Besides, lunch was provided.

Deceptively simple, courtesy of NCFDD

Deceptively simple steps, courtesy of NCFDD

The process sounded too straightforward: Write down goals for your semester, personal and professional. Write down all the steps needed to achieve those goals. Guess how much time each step would take, and put them on your calendar accordingly. I squinted at these ultra-productive, well-rested faculty members sitting around me singing the praises of this little document, wondering what I was missing. But I worked through the steps, ate my free lunch, and started a new semester.

Example semester goals, courtesy of NCFDD

Sample semester goals, courtesy of NCFDD

I can’t say I achieved all of my goals that first semester, or in any of the subsequent ones to be honest. That third step – time allocation – is a slippery one, and I am still wildly over-confident in my writing efficiency. But I did make some pretty good strides: I was on the market that semester, and I got all my materials together and applications submitted on time (which ultimately scored me my dream job). Research goals were met, though admittedly not the ones that involved actually submitting anything. I started up new projects and got some great results for future papers. And the really incredible thing was that the mid-semester meltdown never came. I was sold.

While I’m sure others have created similar structures elsewhere, the particular semester plan process we used came from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, of which the University of the Pacific is an institutional member. The center has all their materials for planning accessible for nonmembers, including a ninety minute seminar from Kerry Ann Rockquemore to walk you through creating your first plan.

The first part of the seminar describes my life before planning to a T: getting bogged down in what Kerry Ann calls the “day-to-day, low-level misery” of academic life, working all the time on the tasks that have constant built-in accountability (teaching, service) and ignoring the quieter items that are ultimately more crucial to long-term faculty success (hello, folder of half-done manuscripts).

Sample semester plan, courtesy of NCFDD

Sample semester plan, courtesy of NCFDD

The next part articulates the steps of the plan, and gives you time to write your own. She emphasizes including goals for your personal life, and gives you permission to clear your calendar of research obligations when you’ve got a big grading week. Finally, she lists ways to create accountability for yourself and your plan, something I’ll talk about more in a later post.

As I finalize my plan for this semester, I know that my biggest problem is still being realistic about the amount of time it takes me to write. I always think I can knock something out in a week if I set my mind to it. I also know that I have some pretty big goals (which I am not sharing publicly, due to what I think of as the “Facebook Gym Selfie Effect“), some of which might not get met. But my plan breaks these intimidating goals down into bite-sized, ostensibly achievable tasks. I’ve been meltdown-free for three semesters now, and I don’t see that changing. Even if I do get off track for a week or two, planning gives me the structure to regroup and continue instead of just holding on until the semester ends.

There is one big issue for mathematicians and scientists that gets ignored in these types of planning discussions: what if your research plan turns out to be impossible? I can give myself a week to typeset a proof that I already have scrawled in a notebook. But what about when I spot a mistake that kills the whole proof? Or discover that what I hoped to prove that month was just plain false? All of a sudden the paper that I thought would be out by the end of the semester is dead in the water. I can set firm writing goals for expository work or grant applications, but deadlines for pure research still feel utterly arbitrary. But even if that part of the plan turns out to be worthless, I’ve found planning to be essential to my sanity.

Does anyone else make semester plans? Any tips to offer for the newbie? Tried it and decided it was a waste of time? Let me know in the comments.

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Talking to the Experts

A panel of experts: Heidi Goodson (grad student, University of Minnesota), Joel Specter (grad student, Northwestern), Joe (grad student, CUNY), me (Postdoc, University of Wisconsin), Tian An Wong (Grad Student at CUNY)

A panel of burgeoning experts, convening on lunch break at Silvermania: Heidi Goodson (grad student, University of Minnesota), Joel Specter (grad student, Northwestern), Joe Gunther (grad student, CUNY), Bobby Grizzard (postdoc, University of Wisconsin), Tian An Wong (grad student at CUNY)

This week begins Fall semester at Villanova, and right now I’m really absorbed in the final/first scramble—pushing to finish a revision that I was sure would be done by the end of May, rewriting my syllabus, planning my first classes, scheduling my office hours, rescheduling my office hours when no students are actually available during my original choices, etc. Not much time for blogging, but luckily I started writing this entry almost two weeks ago, in a different work mode. I was on the way home from a great conference: Silvermania 2015, at Brown University, in honor of Professor Joe Silverman’s 60th birthday. Joe Silverman is probably best known for his elliptic curve books, which are bibles of a sort for a host of number theorists, both because they contain so much invaluable work and because the exposition is clear, lucid, even conversational. But this guy has done so much more—developed a lattice-based cryptosystem (with Jeff Hoffstein and Jill Pipher), helped pioneer arithmetic dynamics, wrote undergraduate textbooks that my students and I both love, and mentored a lot of great mathematicians as postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates. His talks are beautifully clear, smart, and fun. To me and the other early career people here, Joe Silverman is a serious math star (he even has a wikipedia page…). A conference like this one brings together a lot of math stars, which makes it a great opportunity to meet outstanding people in the field.

However, I have to say that conferences are not always easy for me. I never have anything to say during big group dinners, and at times I feel like I’m drowning in things that I should know but don’t and will never have time to learn. It’s way harder to get funding since I got out of grad school, traveling eats up days and days of my life, I rarely get any new research done when I’m traveling, missing classes is very stressful, and teaching is just more fun when I can be there every day, ready to engage with my students. Thinking about these difficulties, I sometimes wonder if I really should keep applying and going to lots of conferences, especially when I am not giving a prepared talk. Especially since I sometimes lose all verbal ability when I try to talk to people whose work I really admire. I think this happens to a lot of people at conferences, even successful established people. But I was just thinking that since these established people are the experts in the field, maybe they know something about talking to the experts. I asked a few well-respected and very kind mathematicans what they had to say to those of us who are early in our careers, both in general and specifically regarding the difficulty of getting out there at conferences.

Michelle Manes, an Associate Professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa and an organizer of the conference, had a lot of great early career advice that I hope will make it into some other blog posts. But talking to her was also interesting because she made me really go beyond thinking about how to talk to people and consider why it’s so important in the first place. She said that the support of people in her research field was incredibly important during her pre-tenure years. If you can work through the intimidation factor of talking to people in your field, your research community can be what gets you through when other parts of your job are rough. ”Going to conferences and connecting with people outside of the department was huge for me,” she said, especially in the stressful lead up to her tenure submission. Especially since Hawaii is somewhat geographically isolated, the people she connected to at conferences were a lifeline for her. Talking with Michelle made me think about not just how to talk to people, but why it’s so important to keep connecting—it can feel weird to put yourself out there, but it’s not about self-promotion or being popular or proving you are smart enough. It’s maybe about breaking down unnecessary walls that can separate you from the very few people in the world who really care about the same thing you do.

Rob Benedetto, a Professor at Amherst College, was one of the invited speakers and gave a great talk on good reduction of rational maps. His advice was to ask questions. Of course that makes sense—you don’t know what’s going on, you can always ask. But you go to a conference and there are your personal celebrity mathematicians, so the fear of asking a simple or obvious question can make it hard to speak up. However, though the majority of the audience might not realize it, most of the questions that people ask in and after talks are quite simple, Rob says. Therefore your simple question is not embarrassing. And if you can’t quite ask during the talk or in the question period, he said, do it after. “If there’s something you didn’t get, just go up afterward and ask about it. You could probably look it up on math overflow, but something like that is a great way to connect in person.” He says that if a mathematical star is just too intimidating to you, start by asking questions to someone you know a little bit. They might not know the answer, but they may introduce you to someone who does, and it may end up being one of your personal heroes.

Joe Silverman at Silvermania.  Photoy Michelle Manes.

Joe Silverman at Silvermania. Photo courtesy Michelle Manes.

In the spirit of adventure, my next ask was Joe Silverman himself. First of all, he was very gracious and scoffed at the idea that he was math famous. He could relate to being impressed and intimidated by the stars early in his career, but he doesn’t see himself as a celebrity–John Milnor, he says, is a real star. John Milnor won the Fields medal and the Abel prize–I agree, pretty impressive! Or John Tate, Silverman’s own advisor and another Abel prize winner. But you can and should talk to these people anyway, Joe says. “Don’t be afraid to say hello to John Tate, who just walked into the room,” he said, and I turned to see that indeed, there was John Tate talking to Bjorn Poonen. I asked Joe what he had to say about the early career dilemma of expecting yourself to be a real professional since you graduated, but dealing with the fact that no gift of sudden deep insight that came with the diploma. “The truth is you are a professional at that point,” Joe said. “You know as much as anyone else, because nobody really knows that much anyway.”

“Easy for him to say! Joe Silverman does know as much as anybody,” added Bobby Grizzard, a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin Madison, after Joe walked away. He totally said that in an admiring way, but it’s true that while you can know that all the famous math people are also constantly confronted by problems that they can’t solve, the gut-level conviction is hard to come by. I have to admit that despite Joe’s direct advice, I didn’t have the immediate courage to walk up to John Tate. By the time I’d decided to say hello he’d left the room. But though it might not work as instant courage, I do find it bracing to think that what any mathematician knows is incredibly dwarfed by what no one knows, and on this geologic-time-like scale we’re all basically in the same place. So thanks for the kind advice, Joe, and for having a great 60th birthday party.  And of course for all that stuff about elliptic curves.

Quite a party!


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Hello, Part II

Hello and welcome from the other half of this new phase of PhD + Epsilon. I’m Sara Malec, beginning my first semester as an assistant professor at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland.

Like Beth, I would first like to thank Adriana for sharing her wisdom with the community and building this column that we’re both so excited to inherit. As she enters the next stage of her career, I look forward to following her new posts and seeing what’s in store for me (fingers crossed) on the other side of tenure.

My path to academia was somewhat indirect. I started life as a physicist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, but gradually shifted to mathematics. After graduation, I joined Teach for America and taught 8th grade math in Atlanta Public Schools. I learned a lot over those next two years, but the most important lessons were 1) I enjoyed teaching, but K-12 education in at-risk schools was not a sustainable career for me, and 2) I desperately missed learning new mathematics.

So I enrolled in a couple of post-baccalaureate classes at Georgia State University to try grad school on for size. It turned out to be a great fit, and I continued at GSU, studying commutative algebra under the direction of Florian Enescu. Following graduation, I was accepted as the teaching postdoc at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. I had a wonderful two years there learning the nuts and bolts of life at a teaching-focused liberal arts college, and now I’m excited to build on that at experience here at Hood.

This column will certainly evolve over the years, but I plan to write a lot about the many juggling acts inherent in the job: dividing energy amongst teaching, research, and service, and this “work-life balance” thing I’ve heard so much about. Other topics of interest to me are: inquiry-, project-, and group-based learning, guiding undergraduate research, cultivating mathematical interest and success in students from underprivileged groups, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and using technology for teaching and organization.

I invite you to help shape this column too, since I hope this will grow to be much more than simply my online diary. Please comment with a hello, a suggestion for a topic of interest to you, or a few words about what you wish you’d known when you first got started. You can also find me on Twitter at @saramalec.

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