Sunday, May 29, 2011

Graduate Students are Employees

When PLS asked his readers "are graduate students employees?", I was surprised by the range of answers.  What struck me is that for a lot of people, this is an either-or kind of distinction.  It's not!  In the sciences, graduate students are primarily supported by one of two mechanisms---teaching undergraduates, or doing research for which their advisor acquired funding.  The relationship (often a contract) comes with responsibilities and benefit:

Responsibility: use more or less the specified amount of time to, you know, carry out the work.  It's more like a professional position than MacDonald's so you get to choose how some of it is done, but there are either products to be delivered, papers to be written, or science objectives to achieve.  If the work doesn't fit in the specified amount of time, find out how your supervisor would like you to prioritize.  If they won't prioritize you get to do it for them!  If you do a shitty job, they don't have to hire you again.

Benefits: money! health insurance! Pay rent! pay doctor's bills!  Feed your children! Pay the babysitter!  Buy antibiotics when your child gets pneumonia!  These are _awesome_ adult things to do with money! You can't do it without the money!  If the money is a bonus to you, rather than a benefit, congratulations---you must be a trust-fund baby! 

When I say that graduate students are employees, I'm claiming these responsibilities and benefits for the time I commit to my RA/TA.  I feel strongly that this is actually good for science because being an employee, and acting professionally, is a good framework for being productive despite having different goals from your advisor/supervisor.

The funny thing about an RA/TA is that unless you are in that special situation where your research goals match up with your RA, you do have different goals from your advisor/supervisor.  You are still also a student and you have to meet your requirements, get through your candidacy exams, plan and execute your own research (project or dissertation).  While these things benefit your advisor, s/he is probably too busy to worry about them and they will not happen unless you push them.

If you don't develop mechanisms for negotiating the conflicting requirements, everyone looses.  Just look at all the horror stories in blog land.  Some people object to this view because the student benefits in terms of experience, name recognition, and publications.  The fact is that many professional jobs bring you those things and it's unsurprising that an academic RA/TA might.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


I've recently been working with multiple models on different parts of a large data set, described within one BUGS file.  They have to be described in one file because they describe inter-dependent processes, for example growth and survival.  Both are described in BUGS as:

${A[i] \sim \text{dbern}(\ldots + q\times B[i])}$
${B[i] \sim \text{dbern}(\ldots)}$
The interesting part is in the parameter calculation for process B, we accidentally used a parameter I intended to use for process A.  The parameter was already used in process A.  Unlike most coding bugs in BUGS (rather than conceptual errors) this causes no complaints.

In our code this was an especially nasty bug because the shared parameter
is one of a half-dozen which capture how a spline affects A.  I'm certain our results would have been affected, maybe at a later time.  Tracking the bias to the bug (if we even noticed) would have been a nightmare.

The moral is: read your code, carefully.  Even better, beg somebody else read your code (carefully).

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Twist it a little more, Cohen!

Andrew Cohen writes this about John Yoo:
Former government lawyer John Yoo taking credit on behalf of the Bush administration for Sunday's strike against Osama bin Laden is like Edward John Smith, the captain of the Titanic, taking credit for the results of the 1998 Academy Awards.
John Yoo is of course trying to do just that.