Saturday, January 23, 2010

Into the void

In a recent discussion about the shifting focus of my project, Guru asked if I wanted to learn super cool method. I did. It was one of the reasons I chose his lab, and I told him such. His response: "You're too shy about telling me these things." This conversation made me realize that I may not have been very clear about what I'm expecting out of my time at BRI... and clarifying what is expected of me.

Oftentimes grad students and postdocs don't speak up, at least not with advisers. On an earlier post about establishing mentor and mentee expectations, DrDoyenne relayed her husbands feeling that trainees "failed to ask questions about what was expected of them or to speak up when they did not understand something". This is equally applicable to other areas of interaction with our advisers. We have a tendency to hide behind a mountain of excuses, and we lose out.

Widening the gap
Many times, when we fail to speak our mind or ask questions, we widen the communication gap between us and our advisers. So why do we do it? I briefly highlighted some reasons in my earlier response to DrDoyenne, but here are a few (expanded) contributing factors in my mind.

Village idiot/impostor* syndrome
*"Impostor" added in response to an excellent point by PhDamned
When you're starting in a new lab and/or new field, you sometimes feel like the village idiot. You don't know all the techniques, the terminology, the data from years of research that have pushed a project forward, the status quo on lab meeting presentations, typical expectations, and so on. You don't want to ask the obvious questions--whether or not they are, in fact, obvious to everyone. When you're the n00b, you can get away with some things, but you're not really sure where the line is. This is exaggerated when you're a postdoc because you already have the Ph.D., which means you should know some of this stuff; at least this is what you tell yourself. So you sit quietly, trying to understand what's going on, feeling completely lost.

Mule syndrome
Science selects for trainees possessing some sense of independence and persistence. This statement contains more truthiness, if you've decided to follow the tenure track. Independence and persistence are good--in the appropriate context. However, some of us could be described as stubborn as mules, which sometimes keeps us from asking for help when we need it.

High IF
Not impact factor, but intimidation factor. For some, speaking to anyone in a position of authority, is enough to silence them. This is feeling can be intensified by the adviser's standing in the institution/field (big cheese=high IF) or a trainee's perception of the adviser's personality. Regardless of the reason, when we feel intimidated, we tend to avoid interactions, especially if we are bringing in problems instead of solutions. And when we are forced into interactions, we hold back.

Past is present
We are all human, which means we carry our experiences and memories into current and future situations. If we've had difficult interactions with our current adviser or an adviser in the past, then we are hesitant to risk putting ourselves in a similar situation again. We also look to colleagues' interactions with our advisers. We hear "horror" stories from past or current lab members about how critical/apathetic/irrational/(insert your own key word) the PI is in one-on-one interactions with them. We sometimes let these shape our own interactions with our advisers--missing the point that other lab members' interactions and perceptions are colored by their own personality and experiences.

Other planet complex
This is a point we've touched on previously. Sometimes we connect with our advisers. We speak and she/he understands what we're saying and vice-versa. Other times it's almost as though we are on different planets speaking different languages. It's frustrating. We think we know what our advisers want/are asking and respond accordingly, only to realize they want something else entirely--and we can't figure out what that is.

Bridging the chasm
The communication gap between adviser and trainee must be closed if we're to have a productive and long-lasting relationship, something which will impact our careers. How do we do that? That's one I'm still working on, but this is my view so far: Try to figure out the major cause for the gap and adapt. There are some things we cannot change, like our past experiences or our advisers' personalities, but we can change how we react to them. For instance, I have to remind myself that Guru is a very different adviser than Bear, and I need to adjust how I communicate with him. We can also look to colleagues that do seem to communicate effectively and evaluate what they do differently.

In all this, though, we have to keep a clear idea of the purpose for this relationship. This isn't about making your adviser a drinking buddy or establishing a "sunshine and rainbows and lollipops" relationship with him/her. For me, this is about making me a better scientist and future mentor. I will not always like what Guru (or any other adviser) has to say; the critical point is that I appropriately interpret what he's saying and that I find my voice and make sure it's heard.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Choices: Graduate program edition

It's that time of year. The applications are in. Undergraduates (and others) around the country are waiting to hear if they've been accepted or invited for an interview. In less than three months, they will have decided where to spend the next 3 to 7 years. Between now and then, they will be gathering intel--scouring websites, talking with PIs and students, visiting campuses--which will inform their impending decision.

The whole process can be overwhelming. I was pretty clueless going in. I knew I wanted to pursue biological chemistry research. I had found professors whose research I was interested in. Beyond that, I didn't know what to expect or what I was looking for in a graduate program.

My undergraduate training was at a mid-sized state school in a small department, which encompassed chemistry and biochemistry. My experience and interactions there certainly influenced my views of what I wanted. I gravitated toward programs that had a similar atmosphere. This meant programs that were highly collaborative and multi-disciplinary in practice. I was weary of departments and labs in which PIs talked about collaborations with people across the country or half way around the world, but never mentioned working with colleagues in the department. I recently described my philosophy regarding divisions between disciplines and subfields of chemistry and biology, a philosophy I held even as a prospective Ph.D. student. I felt then (and still do) that it is difficult to integrate and advance related disciplines if a department imposes rigid barriers between them. I realized later that the rigid structure often went along with a seeming lack of collaboration within the department. I also stayed away from programs in which there seemed to be a great deal of tension between students and their PIs. This was largely rooted in a lack of self-confidence. I could not envision myself going head-to-head with an adviser on a regular basis, nor could I imagine being silent or deferential during repetitive conflicts, especially those unrelated to research. I also could not see myself doing well in a cutthroat department.

I heeded the advice of my undergrad professors. Dr. D told me to find the student who had been in the program the longest, who would have the most experience with the program, the most reason to be bitter, and usually the most honest responses. If you talk to that person and he or she doesn't regret joining the program, then that's a good sign. I did just this on my visit to PSU. Someone else suggested asking basically everyone I met about the typical length of a Ph.D. in their program and how long they had been there. In chemistry, an average beyond five years was viewed as problematic. An issue that revealed itself was that many programs stop providing funding to students after six years; in some of the same programs, it was not unusual to take that long or longer to complete a Ph.D.

Dr. K, another undergrad instructor, counseled me to not pick a program if there were not at least two advisers that I could see myself working for. Although Bear was my first choice for mentor, I saw the wisdom of this advice play out in my program. There are several reasons you might (have to) pass on your first choice PI. You might realize that you'd rather be mauled by hyenas than work for your "dream" adviser once you do a rotation in his/her lab. A PI's funding situation may not allow him/her to take a new student the year you arrive; hopefully this is something you would know before choosing a program, but there is no guarantee. If the PI has a tenure review and doesn't get it, he/she may choose to go somewhere else. Or there may be a high level of interest in a given subfield the year you join. Among my first year colleagues, there were 8 people vying for 6 spots in three labs. Needless to say, two didn't get into the labs they wanted. One of them found a suitable alternative; the other postponed joining a lab for almost another year. The point is things happen, so it's good to have more than one option.

Looking back, perhaps one of the most important things about the application process was figuring out what I really wanted. The questions I asked myself were just as important as the ones I asked others. What was most important to me: sexy science or sanity? What was I willing to compromise on? Was an ultra-competitive or a collaborative environment right for me? I spent time thinking about my experience and my level of comfort and confidence. As a prospective grad student, I didn't have much of any of those. I chose the program where I could see myself succeeding at research that excited, where I would learn from my instructors, my adviser, and other labs. It was a good program--a great one in my book, actually--but not the "best" of my choices (at least according to the U.S. News and World Report). But in hindsight, it was the best program from me. I went in as a timid undergrad but left as a confident scientist. And that's what it should really be about.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The future of the Scientiae carnival

Scientiae is facing a crisis--where does it go from here.

If you're new to the blogosphere (and maybe even if you're not), Scientiae is a monthly carnival built around stories of and from women in STEM. It's been going for three years now, but of late, contributions have been dropping off. So what is to become of Scientiae? skookumchick writes:
So the question arises: is there still value to having Scientiae? Or should we shut it down as a great community-building tool whose time has come to be let go?
Several bloggers, including myself, would like to see it continue. Among the commenters, there are enough volunteers for hosting to cover almost the entire year. But jokerine comments:
The trouble is, just wanting to read it isn't enough. I want to read it too, but I hardly contribute anymore and I was a horrible host. Hosting isn't any fun if there are no submissions.
Carnivals die without contributions. In response, I have pledged to contribute to the carnival at least seven times in the next year, should it continue. I chose this number because of my blogging frequency and my interest in previous carnival topics. I also want to point out that, even though the focus of the carnival is women in STEM, anyone is invited to contribute. Learn more about the carnival, then voice, er type, your opinion about the fate of Scientiae. Personally I hope we can keep this community carnival going :)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Put on your game face

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, most new grad students have a fairly altruistic view of science, even if they hold a more cynical view of the world at large. When you are just starting down that path toward a career in science, you often think only one thing should matter: the science. You are convinced that this is what you'll spend the vast majority of your time doing; that science will be the sole focus of you, your peers, your superiors, your collaborators; that as you advance in your career, you will be evaluated on the quality of that science.

Here's the thing about science: It's done by humans, which means human nature enters into the equation. There are two dicta of human interactions, which complicate things:
  • Where two or more people are gathered together, there also shall be disagreement.
  • Where four or more people are gathered together, there also shall be factions.
There may be exceptions (but I'm doubtful). In my experience though, anytime you get a group of people together, even if working for a common purpose, politics enter the picture--even in science. chall's post on work politics she's dealing with really got me to thinking about this. The politics don't stop at the lab; they extend into departments, institutes, entire fields of science. How we engage, how we react can impact our careers. It sometimes comes down to how we play the game.

Navigating politics can be a challenge. If you're new to a lab, the dividing line is not always clear, as chall points out. Honestly, this may not be a bad thing; it's easier to stay out of the politics in this situation. Being a veteran in a lab is not always beneficial because the politics can bog you down. They can sap a lot of energy and focus out of you that would be best spent on other things. Trust me. I went there in Bear's lab; it was exhausting and infuriating. There reached a point when things in my life outside of the lab were taking so much energy that I couldn't afford to put any more into frustrated factions. I was far more focused when that happened.

This does not mean we can completely ignore the politics of science and units therein, but we do have to learn the rules of the game and how to choose our battles. Here are a few things I've interpreted from experience and observation during my relatively short time in science (in no particular order):
  • If you're at an early career stage, tread carefully, but...
  • Occasionally you have to show someone that you will not be his/her doormat.
  • You can get by with a lot until you piss off one of these people: the lab manager, the lab admin, or the PI.
  • Try not to burn bridges. Any given field of science is a small world after all. You never know when you might be working with/near/for someone you thought you'd never see again.
  • You have to be seen. In a meeting with grad students following a seminar at PSU, Ben Cravatt shared one lesson he wished he had learned before starting his independent career. He commented that he thought working hard and doing great science would be enough to get the high profile publications and funding. He realized shortly thereafter that he had to be seen; he needed to go to meetings and present his work, so that he could connect with the people that would be reviewing his manuscripts and grants and begin to establish name recognition. In short, build a network.
To an extent, grad students and postdocs are insulated from the politics of their institutes and fields, which places a definite limitation on the list I provide here. Add to this, that every department and field has its own culture and political climate. The rules of play vary widely, but in academia, those who have successful independent careers learned to navigate the political landscape without falling off a cliff. We have to do good science, but we also have to learn to play the game.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Question for readers

Anyone have a recommendation for a decent mouse anatomy reference? If so, leave a comment please! I would prefer an eBook but, if you're aware of a good print reference, I'll take that too.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Now, for something completely different...

It's been a while since I really talked about my life and research without whining. At the end of 2009, I was in a bit of a slump. Paramed and I were both stressed. My stress was due to lack of research progress, his due to work insanity and finals. And then there were the holidays. We were stressed out, eating junk food, not exercising, and otherwise behaving like slobs.

We've been trying to change our habits this month. We're getting up earlier. We're eating healthier foods. We've worked out every day. These things along have improved our moods and energy level. Paramed has started working in a biochem lab where he is working on his B.S. in biochem (yes, I'm a terrible influence :P), where he's been doing protein purification this week (prior to the start of classes). He seems to be enjoying it.

And I am having a blast in the lab these days. After we returned from holiday travels, I started learning all sorts of new things. The focus of my project has shifted from an in vitro model, which we have not successfully validated, to an in vivo model. The in vivo model has been characterized and is used by some collaborators in a very different context. There are many questions remaining that are of great interest to Guru and me. I've never done in vivo studies, but this was a major thing that I wanted to learn in my postdoc. Now I'm doing it. Even better, we can use intravital microscopy in this model, which (1) has not been used in this model, (2) has the potential to unmask kinetics of events, (3) is just plain sexy, and (4) gives me the chance to work with a colleague that I get on with really well. After basically an aggregate week of training with said colleague, I'm flying solo. Keep in mind this is all new to me, so I can't believe that I'm doing small animal surgery and imaging. We started running preliminary experiments this week. There are still a lot of data and samples to process, but things are looking promising. And Guru is quite excited about developing the model for intravital microscopy. So things are good, despite working late and spending most of my time this week alone in a cold, dark, windowless room and not having much time to eat lunch... or in this case tonight, dinner*. I'm actually enjoying it! I'm excited about my research!! A great way to start a new year. Hopefully this will set the tone for the months to come.

*If I fail to make sense here, I blame the sensory deprivation, lack of food, or lack of human contact... or some combination of the three :)

Gold Standard Records

Starting on a new project always brings a certain level of excitement. Often what is a "new" project for a trainee is actually a continuation or a spin-off of a predecessor's work. If you're lucky, the predecessor is still around to give you all the highlights, provide protocols, show you the results and where to find the reagents, etc. If you're not so lucky, then your excitement can soon turn to frustration as you wade through stacks of notebooks and data files, trying to figure out what exactly your predecessor did and where s/he stored key reagents. Sometimes you learn that the "representative" results presented to the PI were actually the best results, a handful out of a virtual mountain of data.

This is just one situation that illustrates the importance of fastidious data management in research laboratories, an issue that might be one of the biggest weaknesses of academic research labs.

Back to basics
Let's start with the lab book. This is where most of us (and I include myself here) need to go back to the first day of gen chem. Anything that goes into the book should be legible and coherent. And we should be writing down everything--well, at least everything pertinent to the experiment (your successors don't really need to know what you had for breakfast or how hungover you are). This includes:
  • why you're doing the experiment (a.k.a. the objective)
  • the experimental setup and procedure including pesky things like recording concentrations of reagents, volumes for injections, the solvent or buffer used for dilutions, instrument and settings used... You catch my drift.
  • raw data (or reference to its location)
  • locations of data files, including physical location, directory, folder, file names
  • how data was processed
  • final results (i.e. the pretty graph or table)
  • conclusions and/or notes for future experiments
Writing all this can become extraordinarily tedious, especially when we're doing similar experiments on a weekly or even daily basis. In some cases, it is sufficient to reference a page in the lab book where the protocol was first described, making note of alterations. Alternatively write up the standard protocol in a word processing document, make appropriate changes for a given experiment, and print and paste it into the lab book. If something changes during the course of an experiments, make a note of it. It doesn't really matter what approach we use, so long as we are being thorough. There should be sufficient detail for someone to repeat the experiment without ever talking to us.

We should also be writing in the book as we work, whenever possible. Too often, we place faith in our memory or our complex system of notes on post-its, paper towels, and gloves. We become slack in maintaining our books, updating them every few days, or maybe even once a week... or less. Then as we're updating our books, we realize we're a little fuzzy on the details... or that we mistakenly tossed that glove in the trash because we thought it was rubbish... so we end up guessing or trying to back-calculate how much of X we added. Not good.

Finally, don't forget to index it! Those wonderfully detailed, coherent notes won't do anyone much good if they can't find it. Chances are, you don't need me to tell you how much of a PITA it is to dig through years of data and notebooks with no idea where you should be looking.

Data in the digital age
The thing about gen chem, at least when I took it, it was beautifully simplistic. I think there was maybe one lab in the entire year that used a probe connected to a computer. The same goes for every chemistry and most biology lab courses that I took as an undergrad. It was simple enough to put everything in a notebook then. As we advance to higher level research, though, the game changes. There's proteomics, FACS, real-time intravital imaging, and a myriad of other techniques that generate massive amounts of data. While working on this post, I was collecting about 5 GB of data... for a one replicate in one group of one experiment. Raw data from such experiments do not lend themselves to hard copy production. They only exist in the digital world. So we must be as fastidious in organizing and maintaining digital records as we are in maintaining our lab books.

Backup plan
I think we have lived in the digital age long enough to realize that sometimes computers die, and despite IT's best efforts, cannot be resuscitated. This is why we should be backing up all of our data files on a regular basis. Both Bear's and Guru's labs keep external hard drives around for this purpose. Some labs may have access to network storage through their institutes. Generally space is fairly limited, but this is fine, if you're not generating gigabytes of data on a daily basis.

When it comes to backups, though, one thing we don't think about so much is our physical lab books and data. However, there is the possibility of fire or flood in the lab destroying our research records. Or they might just sort of wander off. I have yet to see a lab that uses duplicator notebooks or that photocopies or scans notebook pages, but it's probably not a bad idea. Lab books, after all, are the primary record of everything that's been done in the lab.

A peculiarity of data management is that many PIs don't talk about it. In my graduate and postdoc labs, on my first day, someone showed me where the new notebooks were kept. That was it. When I left my graduate lab, I just told the lab manager where my lab books were stored. It seems PIs assume that scientists--whether students or postdocs or research associates--know how to fill out a lab book and keep data organized. Perhaps PIs anticipate that the lab manager or other colleagues will provide direction as necessary. Of course, because this is a day-to-day task, it is not feasible or reasonable for a PI to constantly check lab books. And some people won't make long-term change without constant reminders.

So what's a PI to do? How is s/he to monitory and maintain the integrity of data and records without randomly inspecting lab books? Does anyone actually do the "understood and witnessed by" thing outside of industry?

Guru is a fan of seeing all data--the good, the bad, the ugly, the inconclusive... He periodically meets with individuals to discuss projects and experiments. As a trainee, it's a necessity to bring your notebook to these meetings because Guru might ask you about results from days, weeks, or months ago. In so doing, Guru sees our notebooks. This could offer a solution. Yet I have encountered some of the same problems locating information from previous trainees.

Some might argue (rightfully) that PIs have better things to do and shouldn't bother. Trivial as it is, proper data management is a crux for an efficient and productive laboratory. Researchers must be vigilant in keeping good records, but PIs should ensure that records are clear and consistent.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Socializing scientists

I recently attended a roundtable discussion that was supposedly aimed at telling faculty and postdocs how to use social media to develop networks for collaboration and career development. The concept is a great (although in this case, the execution fell short). Although I blog anonymously, I find a surprising sense of community here, and I am intrigued about how scientists are using social media to connect and collaborate.

There has been explosion of networking tools over the past few years. If you are reading this blog, chances are you have a good idea of what these tools are. So first, a poll:

One point that emerged in the roundtable discussion was that each media outlet serves its own unique purpose. You choose the ones that suit your style, your personality, and the amount of time and effort you want to commit. Facebook has been a way for me to keep tabs on family and friends that I rarely see, but given its casual nature, has never moved beyond that. Twitter and blogging have become my primary connections to the online science community. Twitter is stream of almost constant chatter. It has become a place to exchange snippets from everyday life or share links to interesting articles or blog posts--the sort of things that might be of interest to other people but not needing a full blog post. Blogging allows me to share my views and experiences or to solicit opinions on a given topic. Thus far it has largely been an outlet for discussing the culture and politics of being an early career scientist. It also provides a place for me to develop ideas about mentoring and research issues and philosophies. Plus blogging gives me a chance to write with no limitations, which is necessary to developing writing skills (I might take up some research blogging to hone my science writing skills, as well). I'm very interested in hearing ways others are using social media.

The reason blogging and Twitter have worked so well is that there is a sense of community. We talk about science, but we also throw in personal tidbits along the way. Even if I don't know your real names or where in the world you are, I do feel like I'm talking with "real" people. There is a refreshing level of honesty and personality. And this is where professional social networking sites have thus far failed, in my opinion. I have an account with one or two of these science networking sites. I can't even remember my logins for them. One I would look at maybe every one to six months. Although professional networks will always be different from more casual ones, such as Twitter, Facebook, etc., they suffer from a lack of engagement. (As an aside, the people involved in setting up the NIH-funded $12 million network for scientists would do well to take note of what has and hasn't worked for both professional and open social networks.)

This is where we run into a major issue with convincing other scientists to get into social media. With open networks, anything goes. With restricted networks, nothing is going on. What to do? How do you get skeptics involved? Marketing people and techies are not going to convince scientists and physicians that they should be tweeting or Facebooking or blogging. There are many scientists who are doing great things with social media. These are the people who should be in the room telling other scientists of the utility of these networks.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Why I love blogging

The comments on this post (and others) are a perfect example of why blogging rocks. Some might view blogging as an egotistical thing, and perhaps to an extent, it is. Some might even view my opinions as ungrateful bitchfests. But spouting off into a vacuum wouldn't provide the many perspectives that blogging does. Giving you the benefit of the doubt that you are who you say you are (and given the 'insider' knowledge you express, I think that's fair), I would say argue that I could never, in a face-to-face conversation, discuss the topics and get honest commentary from the range of people and positions represented here. We may not see eye-to-eye all, or even most, of the time, but frankly I'd be disappointed if we did.

In short, you guys rock. Keep on bringing it!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

How much am I worth?

Professor in Training recently initiated a discussion about the realities of the tenure track. One of the subplots of the discussion regarded paying postdocs "what they're worth". PhysioProf suggests that the NIH/NRSA payscale is a reasonable approximation of what a postdoc is worth. PiT asks, "What is a postdoc really 'worth'? Is $40K/yr sufficient renumeration for someone who has >10 years of college education behind them?"

As of 2009, the NIH set the pre-tax salary of a first year postdoc at $37,368. The pay level increases with each year of completed experience; the increase, which averages out to approximately $2,000 per year, ranges from about $1,600 to $2,800 (evidently the NIH feels that postdocs gain the most worth during their second year). The NIH periodically re-evaluate and increase paylines for "cost of living", usually on the order of $500/yr.

Many institutions use the NIH payscale to set their own postdoc salaries. (At some point, I was under the impression that any institute receiving NIH funds was more or less required to pay the NIH/NRSA salary as a minimum, but I may be wrong; feel free to enlighten me in the comments.) This provides some advantage to postdocs by setting a minimum expectation. Some institutes, however, take the NIH payline as absolute truth and do not consider for cost-of-living or taxation rates (my own institute falls into this category). Many of the prestigious universities and medical schools in the U.S. are located in cities with much higher than average cost-of-living. Cost-of-living in my current city is about 30% higher than the national average (and my previous city), and the state income tax rate jumped substantially upon my move to BRI. By the time I pay out taxes and benefits, my net income is only marginally higher than a grad student at PSU. Some postdocs end up having to take out loans or use credit cards to supplement their living expenses because of the mismatch between salary and cost-of-living. Of course, when a PI is applying for a grant, s/he can only request up to the NIH/NRSA payline to cover a postdoc's salary. Anything over that payline must come (I assume) from discretionary funds that then, of course, cannot be used for other costs like supplies or travel.

I really don't know what, if any, solution there is. But in wage debates, sometimes we neglect to mention or lose sight of the fact that $40k in one state is not the same in another. This was a consideration that influenced my choice of graduate schools. It is also going to play a big role in our next move. I can't help but wonder if some institutions are missing out on some talented postdocs and grad students for this reason.


I am back from my unintended blog vacation. I thought I would have more time to blog while I was traveling to and staying in my hometown. No such luck.

Paramed and I have been far away from hometown for nearly 7 years now. Somehow, though, holiday visits just seem to get stranger every year. This year time spent with my dad was unusually quiet, strained, and awkward. Time spent with Paramed's family--which is usually full of drama--was surprisingly calm; everyone was on their best behavior for some reason. One night we went to a couple of clubs with Paramed's older cousins--Paramed and I never go to clubs. Most of the week felt too much like wandering around in some parallel reality. I tried to figure the cause(s) for these peculiarities this year. I have a few hypotheses, but honestly, after a few days, I have found myself not particularly caring why things were so different because it really has no impact on me and what I'm doing in the next six months.

Not everything was different. We still got to contend with Paramed's mother putting in requests for a grandchild. It doesn't seem to really matter that, even if we did have a kid at this point, she wouldn't be seeing it often, given the distance between here and there. Or maybe she thinks that we'd move closer if we had kids. Or that I would stop working. Or she would move in with us. I don't know. We also got to deal with the continuous commentary from some of our family about how we needed to finish up and move closer home. At least this commentary has become less guilt-ridden in the past few years. While in grad school, there was usually inclusion of statements about the poor health of family members and that they might not be here next year... I have since grown quite apathetic toward such statements.

This is part of the life of the vagrant academic. "Going home" isn't really going home at all. Paramed and I take our vacation days and money to have a few days of awkward visitation with family a couple of times a year. Maybe one of these decades, we will get to take a real vacation--you know, where you don't know anyone and you're just fine with that, where you spend a week (or more) doing things that make you happy. It's a nice dream anyway.