Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Singing the Post Doc Blues

Today I rode my bike again. You will think that I actually ride my bike often, if I keep this up!

But, I can't, since tomorrow I am off to somewhere in Colorado for a 5 hour meeting. Then back for the weekend, then off to Colorado again for 5 days, then back for the weekend, then off to New Mexico for 4 days. Ahhh, travel - how I have missed you in the last 3 weeks!

Yesterday I had an interesting day re my Post Doc. A couple of months ago, we decided on a project for him, which was basically to take someone else's model results as the lower boundary of our code. We started by downloading a very large data file and extracting what we needed from it (I wrote a bunch of code to extract some of the data, then he finished it off by extracting all of the data). He then modified the code to read in the data files that we created and use them for a bottom BC.

Now, take this next part with a grain of salt, since he has never used the model, and I wrote the model from scratch.

He came to me stating that he had finished it, and wanted to do some runs to show how the result changed and do some physics. I wanted to see results right away. He said I should wait, since he had a bunch of runs to do and wanted to look at the results. I agreed. Well, it turns out that all of the results were bad. I am not blaming him at all, since we all make mistakes. You just have to recognize the possibility of mistakes and show your work to someone who has actually used the model...

So, yesterday, while he search for the bug, I took his code and rewrote it from scratch (using his as a guideline for what to do). It took me about 2 hours to code it and test it, verifying that it worked perfectly. It took him over a month to do this.

Once again, I wrote the damn code, and I used his code as a template. But over a month versus two hours. This frustrates me a little bit. It would be great if he could have done it a little faster, since this was his only project during the time and we have a pretty hard deadline (presenting model results on Thursday...)

BUT - we got it done. The model now has a more dynamic lower boundary. We can probably publish at least three papers showing simple results from this, which is just fantastic.

Interestingly, he is going back to Europe for a conference, where he will present this research also. Then he is off to go back to his school, visit his family, and do other things. So, I won't actually see him for the next 4-5 weeks. Well, we had discussed that he HAD to finish this before he left. And he has. With some help. And just in the nick of time.

My second Post Doc arrives in July. Man, this year is going to be fun!


DrL said...

Great Coding Skills you have!

But were you already able to code so easily (and fast) when you were in your first year of your Post Doc?..

What are your expectations of your postdoc there and have you expressed them, or do you assume that every Post Doc should read the mind of their supervisor pretty much ok?

Please forgive me my sarcasm, as I look at this situation from the other side.

madscientist said...

I fully agree with you comments.

Being a boss is a learning experience, just like being a student and a Post Doc is a learning experience. They don't teach you how to be a boss anywhere, so you have to learn it as you go.

I have definite issues when it comes to being a boss - one of the biggest is that I give people the benefit of doubt on everything until I get so exasperated that I explode in frustration. The poor person doesn't realize I was frustrated at all. So, communication is a clear issue. I don't want to be the "bad guy", so I don't make my expectations very clear. This ends up being a disaster.

One of the big differences between a student and a Post Doc, is that a student is eased into the relationship - expectations start out very low, and then grow as time goes on. With a Post Doc, expectations start out quite high, since they are not taking classes and such.

I am trying to find the balance line between:

1. Working as equals
2. Working as mentor / advisor
3. Not being a micromanager

I guess I will put the question back to you - where should expectations be for a newly hired Post Doc? High, middle or low? How should those expectations be communicated? Do you think that I should have daily meetings with people? Weekly? How much is too much or too little? I am definitely not being snide here either - I would love your opinion.

For the specific questions, I fully admit that as a new Post Doc working with a new code, I wouldn't be able to implement new stuff in hours or days. I expected that it would take him a long time. I wasn't really angry about that at all. I was more angry with his insistence that everything was just fine with the code and running run after run with bad results, wasting a few precious days.

Thanks for the comment!

DrL said...

I have been thinking about this post in the shower so I came back.

My first reflection there was that you are at least lucky that you do not have to deal with a depressed Post Doc (as I think that I am currently one, hence my sarcasm).

My second reflection was about fishing. You know, the famous fishing allegory. You gave your Post Doc time to build the finish rod and then after one month you came back to inspect the fish he caught. It was no good. So you took a look at his fishing rod, it was primitively built and not able to catch the big fish you were hoping to catch.

So you locked yourself in your room for 2h and built a great finish rod with the skills that you have developed over the years, your Post Doc went finishing with it and caught some great fish.

Now he is going to present the great fish at the competition, it will also bear your name, so you are proud of this result.

But presumably Post Doc already knew how to fish when he (she?) started in your lab, what he was trying to develop were skills how to build the rod. He hoped to learn this from a great expert, from you.

I hope that next time (when he comes back refreshed after holidays) you spend two days and explain him what you did and how you did it. I hope that you sit down with him and show him how you deconstructed his code, how you have used his structure and rebuilt it. And teach him the great tricks you know that he is hoping to learn. So that next time he needs to build a new fishing rod he will be able to do it better, and will not be afraid to be humiliated to show it to you that you will throw it all away (because you have shown him that some of the things he had achieved at his first attempt were actually pretty good, although not amazing).

He will have trust in you when building the next new fishing rod. He will want to show it to you for improvements, because he will know that this way he will learn from your great repertoire of fishing-rod-building skills and that you are patient and willing to teach him.

DrL said...

"They don't teach you how to be a boss anywhere"

There are books and online material. HHMI course on Lab Management (Making the Right Moves). Have you read this?

You could try to read some things about mentoring. And even short business articles about management. I get those short but interesting newsletters from MindTools.com, for example today about engaging dis-engaged team members. I wish my boss read this too!

"I don't want to be the "bad guy", so I don't make my expectations very clear. This ends up being a disaster."

Hope you only need to learn this lesson once?

I guess I will put the question back to you - where should expectations be for a newly hired Post Doc? High, middle or low?

High. And let them know your expectations are high. It is a good motivation for a Post Doc to see that their advisor believes in them.

How should those expectations be communicated?


Make sure that you get them to explain what they think you expect of them. If they misunderstood you correct them gently.

I was more angry with his insistence that everything was just fine with the code and running run after run with bad results, wasting a few precious days.

He is trying to look competent. Do not take it away from him, even if you know that he is not yet. Let him keep the face. And tutor him to be better! Good luck with being a great advisor! :-)

madscientist said...

Thanks for the advise. I will take it.

Space Prof said...

Crab Man,

Do you realize that Post Doc might be reading this, and know who you are and that you are talking about him?

But you have tenure, so you can say whatever the he&* you want!

madscientist said...

Space Prof - Are you my Post Doc? Crap!

You are correct, anyone could stumble across this blog and figure out who I am and who I am writing about.

If he does read this, I hope he comments and contributes to the conversation! He could do this anonymously - "Hey Crabby, you are a real a** hole!"

I think that we as human need to vent. This is where I vent (plus a number of other places too - I have a lot of steam...) He could have a blog in which he calls me a total wind bag and blow hard and whatever. I don't mind. It is what we need to do.

Anonymous said...

At any rate, I liked some of the vadlo scientist cartoons!