grouperlab

Get, share, and use information well

Tag: lab meetings

Filling in the Blanks

How can it be that it’s been nearly 18 months since my last blog entry?  Well, I could wax philosophic, and point out that the path to such an outcome is like the path to other, more positive outcomes.  It’s an accumulation of daily habits, and a series of perhaps small, but sometimes very distinct, decisions.  So, a bit of a review of what’s been happening, and what lessons can be drawn from both the period of silence and what has filled that silence.

 

I’m a big fan of waiting for a big, dramatic highlight to emphasize in an announcement.  Back in November, 2014, I was applying for a campus-level directorship position; I was pretty excited about the opportunity, and the ways that I could use my skills to connect research, and STEM engagement, and educational improvements at K-12 and university levels.  I thought I was going to get the position.  I didn’t.  In retrospect, it’s not necessarily that I was a bad candidate for the job, but a bad match for the view (by others) of what the job needed.  This is actually an important distinction, and I am convinced that I had never actually seen the idea of not being selected for a position in that light before.   Well, a few weeks of anticipation were followed by days of anger and frustration, which in turned into a more circumspect view of job searches and candidate interviews no longer just being about showing that someone is “good enough” to be considered.  Imagine that all of the finalists may be “good enough,” in some generic sense, but every complex job is a combination of factors on a very large vector of possible criteria (utility), where different people involved in the selection (stakeholders) have different ideas of the importance (weights) of the criteria, and decide what “best” looks like (stakeholders maximizing their objective function according to their multi-attribute utility weighting).  I was a really good candidate for one version of the job.  I wasn’t the best candidate for another version of the job.  That doesn’t make me a good or bad candidate overall, and certainly not a bad person.  An important lesson to learn, but not one I was ready to write about in Spring 2015.

 

The lab was going through a significant shift in 2014-15, both conceptually and physically.  We spent the first half of calendar 2015 in Wang Hall, learning how to conduct a different type of meeting with a different configuration of students (three new, first year grad students with only four or five continuing students).  We’re back in Grissom Hall as of August 2015, but the only thing about the building that’s stayed the same on the inside is the walls and bricks and windows framing the building’s outer boundary.  And we’ve had to learn an even more interesting set of dynamics: we are now at a point where much of the lab’s activity officially qualifies as a distributed enterprise.  Dissertation-writing students are working in industry, and other doctoral students are doing co-ops, internships, and other work in multiple time zones.  Lab meetings and 1:1 individual interactions are more likely to occur in Google Hangouts than Grissom 335 (my new office) or the GROUPER dedicated lab space (which doesn’t exist).  So, we have had to learn new lessons about information alignment and distributed knowledge sharing.  That’s a topic for another entry, coming soon.

 

Believe it or not, the lesson learned about being a good candidate vs. a matching candidate for the job had to be taught to me again in 2015.  This time, the position was a campus administrative post, and again, I thought I was a very good match for a visionary leadership role in a broadly influential and interdisciplinary approach to the future of the campus.  Great, right?  Except that this objective function was apparently not aligned with the utility vector of critical stakeholders.    This is neither good nor bad, in itself.  (Remember what you just told them, Barrett.)  I do believe that the transition from anger to acknowledgement happened faster this time, and to be honest, it’s a lesson that does need a very strong reinforcement over multiple administrations for me to actually learn the meaning well.

 

Oh, there’s some outcome productivity in terms of field visits, and journal papers, and GROUPER degree completions.  However, I wouldn’t suggest scheduling MS thesis defenses by multiple students on consecutive days.  We succeeded last summer, and now the number of GROUPER MS thesis grads exceeds 30.  But I’m not likely to try that again soon—it’s a lot of reading, and a MS thesis is often as much a test and oral exam for the advisor as for the student.

 

In the end, I’m better off for it, and I think we in the lab have learned a number of very important and valuable lessons.  It can be dangerous if someone gets too much in the habit of doing without considering, or acting without accepting that both “success” and “failure” can be a benefit or blessing.  One of the challenging, and yet extremely beneficial, outcomes is that the two interviews required me to very explicitly consider the question of how to manage the lab, and in essence, examine what was an appropriate “carrying capacity” of GROUPER at this stage of my career.  (I’m probably more active than ever before, with GROUPER work and GROUPERs in 2015 supported by five federal agencies—AHRQ, FAA, NASA, NSF, VA; it’s not yet the “riding into the sunset” that I had previously considered.)  We’ve been practicing skills that I see in increasing frequency in industry, but not as much in academia—how to become easy and fluent with a team operating across geography, knowledge domain, and a variety of external constraints to be focused and robust to a variety of communication channel capabilities.

 

More coming soon.  I’m expecting a big announcement in a week or so.  No, really.

 

Communication and Documentation (longer, connection-enhanced version)

Communication and Documentation

 

[I am feeling a bit like Chuck Lorre, the producer for several extremely popular television series, including the The Big Bang Theory (TBBT).  Chuck has “vanity cards” which appear very briefly at the end of each episode of the shows.  These vanity cards express Chuck’s perspectives, insights, and fevered rants on a variety of topics, and basically act like a blog.  Since I record TBBT quite extensively (any similarities I have to Sheldon Cooper will be, and have been, hotly contested), I have gotten good at pausing the recording to read the card.  Every once in a while, the card makes some reference to censoring, but with a website address to indicate where you can read the uncensored version of the card.  When I first created the “Communication and Documentation” entry for the Indiana Space Grant Consortium Director’s Blog / Notes, it was pointed out that it was long and tangential and wouldn’t appeal to some of the readers.  Well, in Chuck Lorre fashion, I edited the blog entry for that audience, but here’s the full version.  Why?  It’s GROUPER—so, it’s because I can.  And those of you in GROUPER will recognize Karim and know why Shannon and Weaver are important.  So there.  –BSC]

 

“Document your code!”

 

This is a lesson I remember from my first computer programming course as a college frosh, now more than 30 years ago.  The language was FORTRAN, and the computer was a PDP 11/44[*] but the lessons were the same.  If you didn’t provide enough comments in your code for the instructor to understand what your logic was intended to accomplish, or what the variables meant, or what that subroutine was for, you got points off.  The essential message was not subtle: no matter how good a job you think you did, you haven’t done the whole job unless you’ve effectively documented it.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve had substantial reminders of the importance of those lessons of communication and documentation.

 

Since the Affiliates’ Meeting in April, the INSGC staff have been trying to upgrade our processes and activities, and bringing onboard a new set of student interns for the summer.  Part of this comes from our Affiliates’ survey of communications with the Central Office.  Although the overall responses were excellent (from the perspective of demonstrating to NASA that we take our performance seriously and assess it regularly), there were some areas of concern (from the perspective of continuous improvement and achieving a model of excellence).   It’s clear that we could use our website to better advantage, and thus that is a priority for us this summer.  Angie has reported a much more timely and useful set of responses to our requests for reporting, due in part to our more clear presentations of what, when, and why we need those reports to meet our NASA grant reporting and documentation obligations.  Wow… we can get that much more just by being more explicit about what we’re looking for, and how we need to use it?

 

Effective communication is a tricky thing.  Some people like their documentation “spiced up” a little bit; others just want the immediate facts, in order, with an agenda of what will be covered and how many minutes are associated to each fact.   I just had two conversations this weekend highlighting these challenges.  On Friday, I had dinner with one of my former students, who recently started a new job at a major hospital as a quality engineering and improvement manager.  He noted that some of the physicians and others at the hospital were frustrated with some of his meetings, because they couldn’t see how, or whether, there was a point to the meeting and what they were supposed to recognize and respond to that point.  (Interesting: that was, almost verbatim, one of the comments from our Affiliates’ survey.)  He said that those people would have found our research lab meetings intolerable, but he then took the feedback as an indication to simply write down what he already had in his head and give it a more formal structure as a meeting agenda.   I have had to learn the same lesson in our INSGC Central meetings and those with Dawn and Angie—it’s the agenda that helps focus time and understanding, and improves advanced preparation.

 

What level of communication works for you?  A friend of mine commented on my software commenting style over the weekend, because I was the only person they’d known who actually used “emotion” and eloquent language structures in their code [†]comments.  On the one hand, there is a big world of language out there, and it’s nice to be able to use it well and communicate richly.  On the other hand, one doesn’t want to turn into Dennis Miller as the color commentator for Monday Night Football, making snarky or esoteric literary references that even your colleagues don’t understand, when all they wanted to say was that it was good that the guy in the blue uniform tackled that guy in the white uniform.  Do people find your style amusing and intelligent, or obscure and elitist?  This is an important question when you’re trying to do public outreach and engagement for the general population.  There are lots of different audiences (faculty and students who receive awards, administrators who want to know effectiveness of campus cost sharing, people who stop you on the street and ask you questions about airspace utilization), and I want to learn how to connect with them all.

 

Is this where I mention that one of our primary ways of regular communication with our affiliates, partners, and friends is the INSGC Director’s Blog?  I try to put together a new blog entry every month or so, and use it to communicate some of our strategic concerns and general oversight topics.  Great, right?  Except that Dawn told me a few days ago that people don’t look at the blog entries.  (That is the point of website analytics—is anyone actually receiving the message you’re sending?)  Well, if we never updated the blog, that would be the expectation.  Or, if it was assumed that nothing important ever showed up there.  But what if I said that the best way to see what we’re planning for (and why) will show up first, or best, or most explicitly, in that Director’s Blog?  Would that get more visits?  Perhaps, but the goal of the blog is not more visits.  It’s to communicate more effectively with our constituents.

 

According to information theory (as developed by Bell Laboratory researcher Claude Shannon and MIT professor Norbert Weiner), communication includes a sender, a transmission channel, and a receiver.  There have to be several effective elements of good communication:  the sender has to send a message that is meaningful to the receiver; the channel must be able to support that message; there has to be a minimum of noise or signal loss to distort the message; there has to be enough redundancy of the message so that the receiver understands the intent of the message even if some of it gets lost.  (This seems very tangential to the point of anything else relevant for Space Grant Directors.  However, it’s actually part of my research background and training.  For me, the analysis of communication effectiveness is a social and technical engineering problem, and not just a management or persuasion issue.  Remember, the message is based in part on the context of the sender as well as the context of the receiver.  I’m trying to explain more of my context in a more explicit way.  Any resemblance to Dennis Miller’s football color commentary is accidental.)

 

So, what next?  Over the rest of the summer, expect additional upgrades to our communications: not just in the use of the available technologies, but in our strategies, messages, and references.  This is a critical point in Space Grant evolution, and I believe that one of the ways that INSGC will succeed in the future is to be a powerful and effective source of communication and documentation of STEM engagement in the State of Indiana.

 

 


[*] The specifics here are only to suggest that I have been a geek for a very long time.  Some of you may fondly remember coding in FORTRAN, or even what a PDP is.  If you don’t, just think of it as part of that quaint long-ago time when there were pay phones that people used coins to operate when they weren’t at home to access their permanently wired landline phone.

[†] Yes, these are the sorts of friends I spend my time with.  We talk about styles of software comments, and mathematical models of information exchange in company meetings, and the use of multi-dimensional graphs to understand social dynamics.  Don’t judge.  It works for us.

Updating Documentation

Now that there are a few new members of the lab, it’s time to pay attention once more to making explicit some of our expectations and shared experiences.  It’s interesting to watch, and to test, how stories or catch phrases easily become part of a local culture… only to be met by blank stares when a new person experiences it.

“What’s the best dissertation?”  “The one *you* can do in a reasonable amount of time.”

“Is that a title of a song on the album?”

” Delta Pain” (which is a title of a song on the album)

All of these represent elements of tacit knowledge, in that they are shared and understood by people who were in the lab when the event occurred, or maybe in an individual meeting with me, and have learned to experience and internalize the informal lessons of the lab in a particular way.  That’s great for an individual mentoring interaction, but not really good for organizing the productivity of getting a population of students to finish high quality thesis and dissertation documents.  Thus, we have to do some of these things with more explicit intent, and a more focused and determined documentation of elements of the lab’s culture.

Since the beginning of the Spring 2013 semester, we’ve been working on this in the creation and updating of four distinct documents:  A Master’s Thesis outline; a Dissertation prelim outline (oh, even that’s tacit, or at least implicit: the proposal document written in order to describe one’s dissertation so that one can be advanced to candidacy); a Doctoral Dissertation outline… and most recently, a semester-by-semester timeline for progress towards degree completion.  These seem to be very helpful for students, and help to summarize and integrate and transmit my experience in a fairly efficient way.  And why not?  I’ve supervised over 30 MS theses and 12 PhD dissertations, and sat on committees for another 25 or more graduate documents.  Most students, on the other hand, only do this once.  (I did have one of my students complete a second MS with me after finishing a first one elsewhere; no GROUPERs have ever tried to do multiple PhD dissertations.)  Rather than make everything trial and error, or suggest that there is no pattern that leads to increased probability of success, some people (among those are many engineers) would like to have a sense of the path, the rule, the “game plan” of how this graduate experience is supposed to play out.

Does this mean that there is a fixed and rigid procedure that everyone must follow?  Of course not, for several reasons.  One is that GROUPERs are different people, with different skills.  They don’t want to work in the same stream, or using the same data collection or analysis tools, or ask the same sorts of questions.  Fortunately, I’ve worked in a bunch of areas, so my tolerance for procedure variability is fairly high–I can advise a variety of dissertations, because I have done a variety of projects in different areas and methodologies.  (Some people may think of this concept as akin to Ashby’s discussion of “Requisite Variety”; no strict quantification here is implied.)  So, the level of consistency is not at the detailed level of “you must design a three-level, two-dimensional Analysis of Variance studying the influence of…” Everyone is expected to be able to answer, “Why would anyone want to read this thesis / dissertation?”  or “Why do we care about the question, or the work you did to answer it?”

It may also be relevant that one of the recent dissertations now making its way to conclusion is specifically addressing the question of procedure reliability and complexity.  A very often-repeated task, with few new or challenging elements, can have a standard procedure that is rarely, if ever, inappropriate for completing the task as designed.  If you’re developing a brand new task that has never been tried before, it’s highly unlikely that you can write a perfect procedure on exactly how to do it.  Most procedures are somewhere in between, even if we assume the procedure is always right.  At what level should we expect a new procedure to capture all of the experience that we gain in the development of a new system?

As time goes on, all of these documents will need to be updated–not necessarily because we were wrong, but because our knowledge evolves.  (OK, I was explicitly wrong on this item. I forgot to include a version of the well-known advice: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Then tell them.  Then tell them what you told them.”  In other words, the last section of the introduction chapter should include an outline of the organization of the remainder of the thesis / dissertation.)  Even the working of the updating process is a helpful way of sharing the experiences and telling the stories of the lab.  And when we’re done, current and future generations of GROUPERs can know that I won’t get upset if they haven’t taken 15 credits or completed their plan of study or research proposal by the end of their first semester in the program.  Really.

 

I know, you’re wanting the links to these documents.  They’re still under construction.  Check back when they’re done and posted.

Inputs and Outputs

It’s not a great time to be a student–end of semester exams, project papers, and completing all of that work that seemed infinitely manageable back in October.  It’s not a great time to be a faculty member–thesis drafts to read, letters of recommendation and proofreading students’ research statements fall on top of grant proposal deadlines and all that grading.  So, it seems reasonable to be both a bit gentle, and a tad more explicit in clarifying the difference between “nice to have” and “required”.  Some extra data, or a couple more days to work on that draft of the term paper is nice to have.  What’s a challenge at the end of November is recognizing what is required, and how to get to all that is necessary in the too-little time available.

 

Most academics want to get grants to do their research.  That’s not an easy process, and the competition grows in complexity and sources of frustration.  Whether it be a development contract from a company, or a research grant from a governmental funding agency, the folks reading the proposal want to know “Who Cares” and “Why Should I Spend the Time to Read This?”  They don’t know about what you meant to say, and they probably aren’t in your field.  It’s your responsibility to communicate what’s so cool and new and shiny to you, to other people who may not even care until you show them why it’s valuable and critical and efficient to help them in what they do every day.  A challenge at the best of times; a burden worthy of Atlas if you’re trying to write five proposals in two weeks to different types of organizations.  Faculty usually talk about funding as an input measure (“Congratulations! You got the grant!  Now what are you going to publish, which students will graduate, and what new things will come out of that lab that other people also want to use?”) .  It’s also an output measure, of course: “I wrote nine proposals, and two of them got funded!  I’m a star!”  (Actually, that is kind of true.  Funding rates for proposals from the most competitive agencies are often described as being in the 6-12% range.  Hitting on 22% of your proposals would be good.  Like Ted Williams in baseball, hitting on 40% of your tries would make you a Hall-of-Famer.)  Either way, there is a big lag between the pain of creation and the success of the award.  (Maybe just long enough to forget how much it hurts.)

 

But faculty have another set of inputs and outputs: their students.   There was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the evolution from being your professor’s advisee to being his or her peer.  I was able to send this to the current GROUPERs, and even to my five most recent PhDs.   I’ve even gotten a reply already–the start of a thread.  This helps me feel good about the students as outputs–but I can still gloss over the importance of inputs.  Not just the students as inputs (you need good material), but what we can do to get the student where they want to go.

 

Unfortunately, Natalie is leaving us in a few weeks: she’s graduating with her BS.  Although an undergrad, she’s been one of the more experienced members of the lab for the past two years, helping to keep us aligned and sequenced (she’s been the project management software goddess).  Student as input, student as person needing inputs, student as providing inputs… (that’s also modeling project we’re working on as well, within the SMELT stream).  The greatest reward though, was the news we’ve gotten over the past week or so.  At the HFES Annual Meeting back in October, I met a researcher from an organization doing research on human factors in healthcare.  Have I got a student for you, I said.  She’s already developed her own research study.  She is fantastic as part of my lab.  She wants to work in this area.  And now, Natalie gets to announce that she got a job!  And then she said that being part of GROUPER was a large part of how that happened… as well as my work that went into it.

GROUPER is an input into the students’ lives and professional evolution?  What I’m doing is a transformation that gives someone a better outcome, a stronger trajectory, a more favorable future?  OK, maybe that is worth it, and a great reward that turns into inputs for the next cycle.  That, and a few extra hours’ sleep.  And maybe some visits by the proposal writing muse.

 

Summer Drives

Welcome back.

I don’t know if I have gotten used to it yet, even as I begin my 12th year on the Purdue campus.  Tomorrow is August 31, and we’re now finishing our second week of classes.  (My daughter, who is at the University of Wisconsin (where I was faculty before here), starts a week from today.  Just that difference in mentality regarding when the “Fall” semester starts seems to have a significant effect on cognitive, emotional, and social patterns of awareness and activity.  (In fact, this idea was one of the contributing elements at the foundation of our research on information alignment and information clutch factors affecting task coordination in organizations.)  The ramp up of demand may or may not match your increase in readiness for that demand, and if you’re not careful, that could cause falling into a task deficit “hole” that is extremely hard to climb out of later in the busy semester.  (Ah, yes, that would be my undergraduate controls course, talking about feedback systems and response dynamics to input functions.)

Every once in a while, my mind takes one of these enjoyable side trips, and it can lead to interesting research insights.  Members of the lab sometimes go along with me on these trips, which often involve discussions of mathematical definitions and relationships, as well as empirical or analytical planning and research designs.  For instance… let’s talk about what dispersion means, and how it applies to production systems.  Hey, does digital signal processing help us manipulate the timing and synchronization of entire files, rather than simple waveforms?  Can we link student advising questions to convolution functions that describe knowledge transfer?

A real advantage of the beginning of this academic year is that most of GROUPER is back intact.  Almost everyone was gone at some point: Natalie was in Germany (at Alcoa); Omar was in Egypt (finishing a Master’s at Alexandria and getting married); Jeremi was in Washington (at NSF); Kelly was in Cincinnati (at P&G) Jake was in San Diego (at SPAWAR); Liang even got to return to Xi’an China to see her family.  We’ve graduated two students since the Spring Equinox. Jeff Onken defended his dissertation (although he was already working at Northrup Grumman) and completed a final presentation to his committee.  Melvis Chafac completed her Hong Kong-based Master’s research writeups, and was off to MIT a few weeks ago after campus and conference presentations.   Now, we’re back in lab meetings, telling stories and sharing / renewing the culture of the lab.  (“Good idea / Bad idea” seems to be the best description of these culture shaping stories.)  Even though there’s no one new, the reasons for the stories still exist.

Things get much busier after this week.  I’ve taken on new responsibilities, both on campus and in the larger community.  (Yes, we’ll tell you; however, I’d like to wait for the official updates.)  I think I won’t be going much of anywhere this weekend—football season starts, but we’re also awaiting the arrival of a guest named Isaac.  Not great weather for a drive… unless of course you’re talking about a series of running plays from the Purdue offense.

Expert Blind Spot, Distributed Expertise, and Knowledge Sharing

Oftentimes the term “expert blind spot” is used to describe instances in which an expert’s understanding of a content area overshadows their knowledge of how to teach it. This isn’t exactly how it is being used in this context, but its usage is not much of a stretch here. Jeremi asked Dr. Caldwell, “How do you advise such a dynamic lab of students who all have varied interests and are at different stages in their programs? How do you do it?” Although a few ideas were faintly mentioned, what became apparent was that Dr. Caldwell was unaware of elements of his style that made him an expert-advisor. Jeremi didn’t stop at that answer; she probed other GROUPERs and found that the expertise on his advising style was distributed among his advisees. Now that we have begun to characterize it, we thought we would do some knowledge sharing. Our hope is that this information is not only beneficial to Dr. Caldwell, but also to others interested in advising (or mentoring, in general), and to those wondering what it’s like to have Dr. Caldwell as an advisor.

 

 

Kelly:

As an undergraduate coming into a graduate’s domain, the GROUPER lab, I felt very intimidated and insecure. Would I meet their expectations? Would they tell me I was the worst undergrad on the planet? All these worries and more swarmed my head, but that’s where Dr. Caldwell calmed my nerves. He assured me that I would fit right in and they wouldn’t expect me to perform at a graduate level. I could move at a pace that I wanted and was not going to be pressured to meet this deadline or that. That is what I love about being an undergrad advised by Dr. Caldwell: he is realistic about my abilities. Other advisers could have looked at me my first week being in the lab and said “You have to write this paper by this date and you better know how to write a fantastic research paper”. But, Dr. Caldwell had realistic expectations and in our 1-on-1 meetings, he has always been concerned about me, rather than a paper deadline. He has let me know that I am not required to find a topic right away, and he knows that I am busy with my coursework. He has guided me to finding a topic and was genuinely interested in what I wanted to get out of this experience and what I was going to enjoy writing about. There shouldn’t be pressure being an undergrad in a graduate lab, and Dr. Caldwell has definitely kept it that way. In the group setting, being in this research lab is my first group experience of the sort. I had been on teams before for projects, but this is by far the most positive one. Although we do get off task sometimes, the lab is very goal-oriented, and when we do get off task, it usually has a life lesson or reason attached to it. Everyone in the lab looks out for one another; there is no competition for papers, topics, or Dr. Caldwell’s attention. He treats everyone with the same level of respect and attentiveness and has never made the lab feel competitive in any nature. It is a very supportive environment and Dr. Caldwell, inside and outside the lab, is an extremely supportive adviser, especially to undergraduates.

 

 

MAV:

As explained in previous GROUPER blog entries and from browsing the GROUPER website, there are many ways in which Dr. Caldwell distinguishes the GROUPER lab from others. These include lab meetings that are filled with humor and light-hearted sarcasm and outside activities such as the G4s. Although Dr. Caldwell does a great job of advising his lab a whole, he does a superb job of advising his students as individuals. Let’s look at an example: me. Entering into a doctoral program, I knew that I had a specific style of advising that would work for me; any deviation from this style would be disastrous. Dr. Caldwell always e-mails me in a timely manner, follows through on tasks, allows for task-oriented discussions (as I do better with a list of tasks and deadlines instead of being let loose in the “forest”), and meets with me regularly. However, even though I believed that there were a certain set of standards I needed for myself, Dr. Caldwell added another guideline I wasn’t aware I needed in order to be a successful student: it’s ok for me to take a break, to step away from research, especially when I’m causing myself to become overly-stressed (and usually it’s for no apparent reason other than just me being a perfectionist). It almost seems to be counter-intuitive: why would my advisor ever want me to stop working on my research, even for a day, let alone several days? Causing me to spiral downwards on my research (again, for no good reason) would not do me any good and, thus, cause me to become less productive and maybe even have a grudge against my research. Ultimately, Dr. Caldwell wants all of his students to be successful (hence, the large list of GROUPER alumni). Dr. Caldwell has been advising students for years and he probably knows what’s best for me, even if I don’t know it myself. Having Dr. Caldwell as an advisor lets me know that both my research interests and personal sanity are being monitored for their well-being.

 

 

Omar:

As a new student, I was not sure on what topic to start working on for my doctoral thesis.  This was making me so nervous, especially since every time I pick a topic, I have a tendency to keep changing my mind.  I am amazed at how Dr Caldwell reacts to my changes.  A typical adviser would not like his student to discuss with him a certain idea over and over then simply drop it for another idea that looks more appealing to the student.  However, my professor always stresses how important it is to pick a topic that fits my interests and what I want to do in the future.  He discusses with me my future plans to be able to help decide what to do with my Ph.D. studies. 

The way he reacted to my hesitation over the 1st few months relieved all pressure that I might have had.  It added a lot to my self confidence and kept me focused to do more reading and exploring more ideas in order to be able to pick the research that suits me the best.  It is great if a student knows exactly what he wants to work on from day one.  But, trying to quickly settle is not the right thing to do. And that’s what I appreciate about my experience with Dr Caldwell on how he managed to help through the journey of picking the best fit for me.

Another very successful approach Dr Caldwell sticks to, that in my opinion helps all students in the lab, is weekly lab meeting.  In that meeting, I get a chance as well as my lab mates, to talk about my ideas whether I am still in beginning, middle or finalizing the research.  Feedback from academic students of the same interest with presence of a leading faculty member in the domain is found to be very helpful. 

 

 

Jeremi:

Mentoring and success drive Dr. Caldwell’s advising style. Dr. Caldwell places a very high premium on mentoring: he gives his time to meet with us individually and collectively on a weekly basis (with the exception of when he’s traveling, of course). Any outsider peeking into his life as a professor would say that hosting one-on-one meetings with five (or more) students every week –in addition to holding office hours for your class– is pretty remarkable! It is through our 1-1 meetings that it becomes apparent how deeply interested Dr. Caldwell is in exploring our ideas and discovering what topics interest us. In fact, he is beyond interested: he gets excited about exploring new ideas with us! Unbeknownst to us, somehow in the midst what seems like a pure exploration of ideas, he gathers information about what we are passionate about and our career goals. With these two pieces of information, he helps us settle on topics with which we will be satisfied. With this approach, his students excel. As we succeed, he succeeds.

His conception of mentoring extends to peer mentoring. Weekly lab meetings are designed in a way that we share updates on our respective projects; and through this exchange, we learn from one another about the milestones ahead. At times, Dr. Caldwell asks probing questions (that he already knows the answer to) such that others may benefit. Additionally, this informal exchange inevitably facilitates the development of our “elevator pitch” such that when we are away from the lab, we can respond succinctly and intelligently to questions people ask about what research we are working on. This is a specific example of how he transforms, what seems like, casual interactions into teachable moments.

I will quickly add a few others things that characterize his style. One, he is extremely well-read and as a result, is able to make fascinating connections because ideas that may seem unrelated on the surface. In Dr. C’s words, he’s able to “scan and connect.” Continuing with this idea, he also does what we call “management by wandering” which means emailing articles he comes across that may be interesting or relevant for us. Secondly, in meetings that involve committee members, he plays an interesting role, balancing between being coach and gatekeeper (through the milestone). At times, he uses an adaptation of the Socratic approach to get the student to share information/ explanations that he thinks would be helpful for the rest of the committee or to re-phrase committee members’ questions in a way that clarifies the question other members are asking. Third, he includes us in the strategic elements of his research enterprise. For example, our input is solicited when brainstorming ideas about the immediate goals and long-term visions for GROUPER, as well as some of the characteristics prospective GROUPERs should posses. Lastly, he’s real! He has a family, a home he invites us to once per semester, enjoys playing video games from time to time, thinks about next steps in his career… you know… facets of life that make people “real”- Dr. Caldwell has them. And this is not to say that other advisors don’t, but he’s personable enough to share elements of personality with us. As a student aspiring to make my mark on the world someday, I sometimes wonder about the possibility of work consuming life. It’s nice to see a model that demonstrates that you can have life outside of work, and those two ideas do not have to be in opposition to one another. Of course, Dr. Caldwell’s model is not perfect, but at least it shows that it is possible.