How do you find your passion?

On July 14th I had the opportunity to talk with a group of 300 students in Sacramento State’s Migrant Student Leadership Institute and, at the end of my presentation, a young lady asked a very important question: “how do I find my passion? I like everything I do in school but I would like to have that passion that you talked about so that when things get very difficult I will be able to overcome them and succeed.” I was taken by surprise, for I try to inspire students by talking about my passion and encouraging them to pursue their passion and dreams and have for many years now, but I have never given them an outline or road map of how they can find their passion.

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Math Talk: Preparing Your Conference Presentation

If you are a typical reader of this blog, then you recently wrapped up your finals week and then dutifully made a summer plan. And then came the summer. Your plan may have involved working on a manuscript, preparing for a qualifying exam or a new course coming up in the fall, drafting a grant proposal, learning a new language (human or machine), eating kale in four different forms, and perhaps some fun times under the sun. Some, like me, also made plans to travel to conferences and give talks. Gearing up to get ready for my first conference of the summer, I thought about some of the best and the worst math talks I have witnessed. And I said to myself: “Self, you have surely seen the worst!” But why? Why do so many mathematicians give truly disastrous talks? Maybe we should talk about talks a bit.

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Switch up your research routine!

If you’ve ever worked out, you know that your body can get comfortable doing a particular exercise and then no longer feel challenged. In order for you to continue to transform your physique and train other muscles, you have to change up your workout. The same holds true for your research routine! We can get comfortable going to our office and sitting in front of our computers for eight hours and find that we become less and less productive. Below are five tips that I use when my research routine is in a stuck in rut.

1. Take your research to a coffee shop!
There’s usually free internet and who doesn’t love a cup of coffee to get the mental juices flowing. Just a change of scenery can give you new perspective on your research.

2. Visit your family!
Believe it or not, I’m often more productive when I go visit my family. Since I know I want to spend time with them, I make sure to focus on getting work done so that I can enjoy quality family time. I’ll often go to the local library for a few hours and get much more done than working at my office, and the time spent with family can help put graduate school and professional life in focus.

3. Form a virtual research group!
A friend of mine meets virtually with her research group every Thursday. They live in different locations and have very different research topics, but for the two hours they set aside, they hold each other accountable to focusing only on research productivity. They set aside 10 minutes at the beginning and end to just talk, and the rest of the time is reserved for individual work – a virtual research study session!

4. Step away from the computer!
The computer is full of distractions that are a click away. Even when you plan on reading that electronic journal article, it’s all too easy to click on Facebook and update your status with a photo of what you had for lunch. I often print out a few articles that I want to read and head to a quite place for a few hours. This gives me time to focus and write my own comments in the margins and really digest the material without distractions.

5. Begin with the end in mind!
I remember during my second year of graduate school, I got the TeX template for the Ph.D. dissertation and began to write the background section. Just seeing the dissertation begin to come together (even though much of it got deleted) helped me focus on being productive. When I would meet with my thesis advisor, I’d take her the sections that I had been working on for feedback. Although they would often come back dripping with red ink, I remember her once saying, “Wow, you’re really focused on getting this Ph.D.!” Beginning with the end goal in perspective is a catalyst that can motivate you to succeed.

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Starting and maintaining research collaborations

A successful research career involves a mix of individual and collaborative projects. Areas of mathematics that people used to consider separate are becoming increasingly interconnected and those connections often lead to interesting new approaches to mathematical problems. This is true not only within applied mathematics.  While the connections between different mathematical areas are interesting to develop, they also demand expertise in a larger set of domains, which can be slow or impossible to achieve individually. It is often more efficient to develop collaborations with researchers that have complementary expertise and can contribute to the project through fresh points of view.

In this post I share some thoughts about starting collaborations and developing them in a way that successfully advances mathematics and is of mutual benefit to the collaborators.  This may be directed at junior faculty and postdocs but it is also important for graduate students.

Research collaborations are like relationships: they take time and effort to develop and are based on trust and respect. Continue reading

Posted in General, Industrial Mathematics, postdocs, Tenure | 4 Comments

The First Year: Filter The Noise

Throughout my life I’ve always anticipated transitions with apprehension. I distinctly remember entering ninth grade nervous about the social climate, worried about the idea of taking final exams, and scared overall about the academic challenges ahead. These emotions were not unique to this experience. Whether it was starting college, beginning graduate school, or entering my postdoc, I’ve always had a difficult time managing my emotions and esteem when starting new endeavors.

This year I faced yet another transition: beginning my first year as a tenure-track assistant professor. I still remember receiving my job offer and being elated for weeks; I landed my dream job. Then the apprehension of transition came back, and I became overwhelmed. Could I really do this? How would I handle this new situation that everyone reports as a daunting one? As I did in the past, I asked many people I knew who started tenure-track jobs for advice.

As you would expect, the advice is what one typically hears. Expect long hours and late nights. Expect struggles in teaching. You will be overwhelmed. You will be tired. Fear tenure. And that’s okay…… But it’s not. It’s not okay.

Here I was, extremely excited to be entering my dream job after years of working toward it, and I was flooded by overwhelming negative messages about the stresses ahead. Instead of focusing on these, I decided to celebrate. This was the time for me to feel on top of the world. I was in the unique position to start my dream job and begin a lifetime of work that I was intrisincially motivated to do. I wanted my experience to be fueled by excitement, not fear!

So what did I do? I filtered the noise. I focused my energy on advice that was positive, advice that encouraged me. I was fortunate enough to land in a department where the majority of advice from my senior colleagues was just that; and it worked wonders. That tone of advice was instrumental in making my first year of tenure-track a much smoother transition than any other academic one.

Don’t get me wrong, there were certainly challenges along the way, and it was a lot of work, but by filtering the noise I was able to keep my emotions in check the entire year despite what came at me. So if you’re about to start college, gearing up for graduate school, starting a postdoc or any other job, remember to filter the noise and keep it positive!

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Why You Need a Summer Plan

The AMS e-mentoring blog has already celebrated the finals week with Dagan Karp’s tips. If you are an instructor, this will mean that you have a few hours (or days) of intense grading work, and then the semester is over. And what happens after? Are you supposed to simply sit back, relax, and wait around until the fall semester rolls around? Maybe find a comfy seat on a beach somewhere to lounge around, sipping a cool drink? Maybe you will read the best seller that you purchased at the airport bookstore as you were on your way to that beach? Go to bed late and wake up late and just enjoy the summer? Isn’t summer the time to be lazy? Many non-academics think that us university folk simply quit working when the finals are over and it is one long party season till Labor Day.

If you are like all the graduate students, postdocs, or junior and not-so-junior faculty members I know, then this is probably not your summer. Some of you are gearing up to teach summer school. So there are lectures to prepare, textbooks to pick, homework assignments to develop. Some have a series of conferences to go to and several presentations to prepare. MathFest, the joint statistical meetings, and the SIAM annual meeting are always fun to attend, but we all know it takes serious effort to do good presentations. And then there are many other more specialized conferences…

Whatever your other plans are, almost all of you also have grand plans for work this summer. This summer will be when you finish the dissertation. This summer will be when you send in that grant proposal. This summer will be when you wrap up the work on those two papers hanging over your head for the last two semesters. This summer …

I am sure you get the point. The summer is often a dreamland for the graduate students and the junior faculty members who are burnt out from the day-to-day stresses of teaching (and yes, even those of us who love teaching and who admire and respect our students occasionally get exhausted). The summer is the time when she will finally get to focus on her thesis, when he will wrap up his grant proposal, when she will make serious headway on her tenure packet. The summer is going to involve no committee meetings, no department meetings. Unless there is summer school teaching in the picture, there will also be no office hours, no regular class meetings, no students that want extra credit, no midnight emails that require immediate reply or else the sending student will explode. The summer, for most of us academics, is a large chunk of unstructured time when we can focus on our research and make substantial progress toward our goals.

Now all of the above is true. However somehow when September comes around, many of these dreams are not realized. Many graduate students wonder just what happened to the three long months which were ahead of them in May that somehow evaporated with nothing to show for them. Many junior and not-so-junior faculty members come back to the department common room, complaining about how the papers did not get written, the grants did not get submitted, and the tenure packet still remains on the to-do list. So why does this seem to always happen? And how can we avoid it this summer?

In the last decade, for many times, I have tasted first-hand the end-of-summer blues I described above. I have spent many early spring months dreaming of all that I would be doing when the summer arrives, only to realize that it was already September and I had not much to show for for the months in between. I have also observed many of my peers going through similar things, and I just assumed for years that this was how it had to be. But then some time in the middle of the tenure track, I decided to try approaching my career a bit more systematically, to see if I could improve the way I was doing things. Since then I have read everything under the sun written about time management, productivity, and faculty work, sometimes in place of doing my own work (the literature on these is vast and quite engaging; delving in it is in fact a great way to procrastinate, so I do not recommend it to most people :) I have written before about one of the things I learned from all that I read and all that I have tried. In this post I want to share with you a second tip, that might help you avoid the end-of-summer blues, once and for all.

The reasons why we dream so much about the summer are precisely the reasons why we end up not achieving much during it. The summer is for most of us unstructured time, and it is much easier for unstructured time to slip away from our fingers. We are not explicitly required to do much too specific, and this leads to a lack of focus. We have no specific deadlines, so we end up with one mind-numbingly low-energy day after another. We feel like we should be resting and we feel justified to take it slow every now and then, but then there seems to be no reason to make things go faster. And then we are blindsided once again by September rolling in to announce the new academic year.

So what is the panacea? It is simple really, so simple that once again it will probably require you to take a leap of faith to give it a try. The solution to the problem of having summers get away from you with nothing to show for them is to make a plan. Translate those dreams to concrete plans first. And then you got to stick to it. But that is another story. Let us here focus on the making of the plan.

Say you want to give me the benefit of the doubt and give this summer planning a try. How do you go about doing it? The best way to make a summer plan, in my opinion, is summarized by KerryAnn Rocquemore in her InsidehigherEd article No More Post-Summer Regret. Rocquemore starts her piece with a summary of why the summer presents unique challenges for most of us. And then she jumps right in. In the course of her brief article she tells you about the five steps to making a plan and getting the most out of your summer. I learned from her how to make my summers more productive and perhaps surprisingly even more enjoyable (who would have thunk it? us academics actually enjoy working on our stuff!)

For those who are up for the planning I strongly recommend Rocquemore’s article for guidance. (Keep in mind that you have nothing to lose if you just give it a try.) If you need more convincing though, I can tell you a bit more about my own summers.

During the last years of graduate school I taught summer school for three summers in a row. The teaching somehow expanded to fill all the time I had, and at the end of those summers, not only was I exhausted, but also extremely frustrated, because I had not made any progress on my work. During my two years as a postdoc, I spent one summer simply daydreaming and goofing around; the other summer was mainly dedicated to moving to my tenure track job. On the tenure track, my first two summers were wasted, again. I traveled to conferences, met new people, and started new projects. However nothing really got completed.

Then I started my reading and yes, I am not too embarrassed to admit, my “self-help journey”. I learned then about the importance of SMART goals, about the important-versus-urgent matrix, and many other themes of time management, which are aptly summarized in the eponymous Wikipedia article. But the theory was not sufficient for me. I needed some more guidance on how to actually implement these ideas into my own life. And then I discovered KerryAnn Rocquemore’s entries on InsideHigherEd.

The first summer I used a summer plan, I did not write five articles or get a grant. But I did feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of satisfaction with what I had achieved when September arrived. I have also noticed that in the long run, all the things I have accomplished did add up.

Planning and then sticking to the plan may not be as sexy as “work only when you are inspired and your genius will come through!” But I am inclined to think that there are much fewer geniuses in today’s world of mathematics than we would like to think (and apparently even geniuses work very hard, and quite systematically, to get to the point where they are finally celebrated as geniuses; see for instance Chapter 9: Perspiration and Inspiration of Andrew Robinson’s Genius: A Very Short Introduction). And most of the rest of us benefit immensely from going about our business with a sense of purpose and solid work ethic. Work, at least our kind of work, when done regularly becomes joyful and energizing. A good summer plan can just be the right stepping stone, just what you need, to make this summer be the time when you find your groove.


Gizem Karaali is associate professor of mathematics at Pomona College and a founding editor of the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics. Since May 2013, she is also the associate editor of the Mathematical Intelligencer.

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Learning From and Addressing Negative Comments in Student Teaching Evaluations

Learning From & Addressing Negative Comments in Student Teaching Evaluations

I think it’s safe to say that most math Ph.D.s do some teaching sometime in their lives. Even if one’s career path ends up being non-academic, it’s likely that a job as a teaching assistant happened sometime during grad school. If there was teaching, then there were student teaching evaluations passed out, collected, and eventually reviewed by the professor and his/her department chair. And whether we like it or not, student teaching evaluations are one of the instruments that are used to assess our teaching effectiveness.

Having now been in the classroom for almost 30 years (first T.A. assignment in 1985 and faculty appointment in 1992), I have had my share of bad comments on teaching evaluations and thought it would be a good idea to write about some of the most common student complaints and give some ideas for addressing them. I’ll group these into general themes, and provide solutions that have worked for me throughout the years.

Not providing students timely feedback on their work. e.g., “It took him forever to return our assignments.”
Students don’t like it when it takes us weeks to return their graded assignments. They want/need our timely feedback to be able to improve future assignments, quizzes, exams, etc. My solution here is easy: return graded assignments quickly. For my courses now, if an assignment is turned in on class day n, my goal is to grade it and return it on class day n+1. I don’t always succeed, but having this as a goal keeps me on task when it comes to grading. Also, let’s face it: grading stinks, so the sooner we get it done the sooner it stops looming over us.

Vague assignments or grading standards. e.g., “He never told us what he wanted on the assignments, and no matter what I tried, I kept getting Cs on my assignments.”
This tends to be less of an issue in math classes since our assignments, quizzes, exams, etc. are usually a collection of problems, and it’s clear that what we want are solutions to the problems. But it can be an issue in courses where we assign papers or projects. The solution that I use is to be as specific as possible with the assignment sheet and about the criteria that I use to grade things. If possible, I set up a grading rubric beforehand and share it with students. I also make it a point to not give letter grades to assignments. Instead, I use a point system where different portions of the assignment are given points and then totaled to arrive at a total score for the assignment. As a general rule, I think it’s easier to justify a point total than it is a letter grade, and thus, students will be less likely to complain about a 34/50 than a “C.”

On this same topic, I’ve found that having firm deadlines for assignments is better than not having them. Students really want to know when something is due so that they can get it done by that date (because they too are busy people). They in general don’t like “turn it in when you have it” assignments, because they’ll end up procrastinating.

One more minor thing on grading: I grade with a green pen and not a red pen. I don’t have a study to cite about this, but I think that red is a more “punitive” color on an assignment, quiz, exam, etc. so I think green is “easier on the eyes,” especially if I end up really marking up an assignment.

Not knowing what grade they are getting throughout the term. e.g., “I thought I was getting an A but ended up with a B. If I had known, where I stood, maybe I would have done more …” (This is a type of comment that will come after the course, and not on the student evaluations. In fact, this type of comment may end up going to one’s department chair.)
I think most of us want to know how we’re doing whenever we are being evaluated over a period of time. (Think about wanting to know how faculty in your department view your progress towards tenure.) Most students are very grade conscious (and the very good students tend to be the most grade conscious) so they want to know “where they stand” in the course throughout the term. My solution is to provide periodic grade updates throughout the semester. I keep my grades in an Excel spreadsheet and use the mail merge feature of Microsoft Office to send an individual message to each student in my courses with a grade update after each exam and before the final exam. If you are at a campus that uses an online gradebook, then it’s not enough to tell students at the beginning of the term that they can check their grade anytime, because many won’t do it, and then they’ll say, “How am I supposed to remember what was said the first day of class when the syllabus was discussed.” It’s best to remind/require students at specific times in the term that they should really check their grade.

Not responding to students in a timely fashion. e.g., “He never responded to my emails” or “It took him forever to reply to my emails.”
We live in the age of instant communication (email, text, Twitter, etc.). The expectation when we send a message that requires a response using these types of communication is that that response will come in a timely fashion. If that doesn’t happen, then it can be viewed (because it perhaps is) as unprofessional. My solution is to make my students’ emails the priority of my inbox. Most of the time, emails from students require a single sentence response (e.g., “my hint is that you…” or “like the assignment says, it’s due Tuesday…” or “OK, you can have a 1-day extension…” etc.) so it’s easy to respond and get that message out of my inbox. Often times, if I am at my computer and see a message from a student that requires a one-sentence response, I’ll stop what I’m doing and reply right away. It impresses them that a faculty member would respond to them in less than 60 seconds! If it’s a message that requires a longer response for which I will need more time, I try to send them a “let me get back to you” message; that way they know that I am not ignoring them.

The priority during office hours is to work with students. e.g., “He would talk on the phone and not pay attention to me during office hours.”
It is unprofessional (perhaps even rude) to ignore students in the office because we are occupied with other tasks. My solution is that during office hours, I drop everything that I am doing when a student steps into my office. In general, I won’t even answer the phone if I have a student in the office. If I notice (via caller I.D.) that it’s a call that I really should take, I will excuse myself saying something like, “I am sorry, but I really need to take this call. It should only be a couple of minutes.”

On the office hour topic, something that students very much appreciate is extra office hours before exams. So if possible, I hold a couple of extra office hours before exams. Sometimes, none of my students show up for them, but I know that they appreciate me making the extra effort for them.

Well, these are a few of the issues that have come up in my teaching evaluations throughout the years. I just realized that really none of them are “in the classroom” matters. Maybe those issues (and there are plenty of those that also have come up) should be the topic of a future BLOG…

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Finals Season: The Art of Exam Crushing

It’s season of finals! (I’m talking mathematics examinations, not these or these finals :-) Here are five quick tips for crushing exams.

  1. (Night B4)^2. Unfortunately, many exams require lots of memorization. The universe sucks in this respect, but it’s true nonetheless. So if you have serious exam cramming to do, remember to do it the night before the night before. Your brain needs more than a single night to absorb. Two days before your exam, do all your big memorization. The actual night before is better spent otherwise.
  2. Cartoons. After doing all of your cramming and crunching the night before the night before your exam, you have time to chill. And you have to force yourself to chill. The night before your exam, you should watch cartoons. Relax. Have a beer if that’s your routine (moderation!). Laugh. Have fun. Try to keep your mind off your exam. And most importantly, get lots of sleep the night before!
  3. Flash Cards. Don’t be ashamed. They may seem nerdy. They may remind you of elementary school. They are analog. Whatevs, flash cards are a bomb study tool. They’re not only good for cramming definitions. They can be useful to remember or to organize your thoughts. Get your exam homies together, and write every theorem, corollary and lemma for a given course on flashcards. Then, spread the cards out on your floor in a way that reflects which results are closer to each other. That’s an awesome way to construct a visual representation of course content. There’s a million ways to use flash cards. Get creative. There’s no shame in doing so.
  4. Old Exams. Just like Dr. W. told us in her post about quals, it’s a great idea to ask faculty or the department administrator for copies of old final exams. If they don’t have any, you’re no worse off. If they do have exams, they usually add great insight into the level of difficulty, emphasis and format of your exam. Solving problems on old exams is a great way to study.
  5. Study Buddies/Exam Homies. Perhaps most importantly, don’t go it alone! Discussing mathematics is crucial. Don’t only study alone. Even if, here at the end of the semester, you have no friends in your class, it’s still cool. Just ask some folks to form a study group. Set up some firm meeting times. The union of your knowledge will be more than any individual, so everyone benefits. And your exam homies can explain material to you in a way that’s different from your instructor or TA’s. Make it a team effort: you and your homies against the exam, instead of a competition between students.

This is your time to shine, like a CP3 tripple double, or a Messi corner. Go forth and crush your exams!

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Just say “No”

Ha! I can’t believe I’m writing about this, but I think it’s important for those who are beginning a new chapter in their professional journey: a first tenure-track job, a new post-doc, a first/second year grad student. Learning to say “No” is a difficult lesson to learn, in part because we think it conveys too much finality about your involvement, and also because really, some of those opportunities sound very interesting. Unfortunately, oftentimes we are at the cusp of receiving some very bad news when we’ve realized we said “Yes” one too many times.

When I joined our faculty, the provost and president welcomed us with a free breakfast and a serious message: we value the teacher-scholar model at this institution. Research and teaching get priority here. Message received. However, it was 7 a.m. So, within one year of joining the faculty in my department, I had committed myself to two departmental committees, one university committee, two independent study courses, and advising one masters student. Yes. Yes. Ridiculous. I know. But I didn’t realize that as I was saying “Yes” to all these things, I was also saying “No” to other more important things. In that first year, I was also teaching three new-for-me courses with nearly 200 students in total, each semester. In that first year, I was also a mom for the very first time in a new marriage in a new town of a new state. I know. I had you at “two departmental committees” — this was way too much for any one person to handle, but did I change in year two? You betcha I didn’t. I added a two hour commute and took on advising undergraduate students…

As you can imagine, my first and second year reviews from the chair and tenured faculty were horrendous, but it fell on deaf ears. Afterall, I was doing so much for the department and the university — doesn’t that count for something? The answer: Not so much. At the start of my third year, my chair sat me down and we had The Talk. I needed to focus on research. My teaching could use some improving. Research and teaching should be my priority and nothing more. I realized then what I should have known all along: I said “Yes” to low-priorities when I should have been saying “No.” After The Talk and a box of chocolates to calm my nerves, I cleared my calendar and started all over again. After months of saying “No” and focusing on the high-priorities, my back-burner research projects turned into articles, the thesis projects of my masters students helped keep my research program alive while I worked fastidiously on an award for an undergradaute research program targeting Pacific Islanders. Whatever time I had left, I spent in crafting my lectures. Every so often, I felt left out of the activities I used to do, but I told myself that later I’ll have time to do them. I learned to say “No” in a most respectful way and since then, I have learned to be more discerning about the commitments I make.

If your chair, advisor, mentor, colleague, fellow student or friend requests your participation in something apart from what is highly valued in that particular chapter of your professional life, you should *take a moment* before you respond. Give yourself enough time to weigh the benefits and effects on your priorities before you commit that precious amount of time. Learn to say, “That sounds very interesting — can I get back to you in a couple of days?” This move not only gives you a chance to analyze the situation, but it also shows that you are thoughtful about the things you do. Remind yourself, when you’re feeling like you are letting go of an opportunity, that it is okay to *wait until you can confidently say that you are contributing successfully to what is highly valued.* There will always be plenty of “other things” to do and you will have plenty of opportunities to say “Yes,” but only if you learn in the beginning to focus on the things that matter most and just say “No, not right now” to all the rest.

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The Fundamental Principle of Productivity: What they DON’T teach you in graduate school

A long time ago … I was an enthusiastic graduate student in mathematics. I had finally figured out that mathematics was what I would be doing with myself. I would continue to learn more mathematics and I would finally be doing mathematics without any other distractions (or so I thought …) And the best part was that eventually, I figured, I’d be getting paid doing this thing that I enjoyed so much.

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