Science, Comedy, and Art

“A professional schools herself to stand apart from her performance, even as she gives herself to it heart and soul. The Bhagavad-Gita tells us we have a right only to our labor, not to the fruits of our labor. All the warrior can give is his life; all the athlete can do is leave everything on the field.”

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

This is an excerpt from one of the best books I have read in the past year, since I last posted on this Blog. I have been super busy this past year, intellectually in particular, trying to tease out some of the details of an exciting idea I've been working on, on the connection between sparse signal processing and neural networks. I am so excited that I have such a supportive research group who have been super responsive about this new direction we are taking! This is one of the hardest but most rewarding projects I have undertaken, and it had me toy around with the idea of Scientific inquiry/pursuit as Art, as well as that of Scientists as Warriors, in the sense implied in Steven Pressfield's “The War of Art”. I first heard of Steven's work on Joey Diaz's podcast. I then listened to Steven on Joe Rogan's podcast (I don't want to call it an interview because to me podcasts are way more than that, they provide a forum for longform discussion; more on that in another post). Joey and Joe are both comedians. What does this all have to do with science and doing research? Here's the short version. Read the rest of the post for the long version.

I strongly believe that quality scientific research is a creative/artistic pursuit, the outcomes of which (paper, presentation etc...) are akin to pieces of art. Where do our Ideas come from? I won't try to answer this question here, as this gets into metaphysics (I love Pressfield's take on this in the 3rd chapter of "The War of Art"). Wherever they come from, as scientists, researchers, we are in the business of allowing Ideas to actualize themselves in the physical/material world. In this process, we must face Resistance.

Pressfield wrote “The War of Art” 15+ years ago, with writers as his target audience. I heard about it on a comedy podcast. I am a researcher. I am going to spend the rest of the post expanding on my thoughts on Scientific inquiry as Art.

1. Ideas as the Universe wanting to become actualized

There's a famous story about Michelangello that I will paraphrase here: when asked how we was able to produce such amazing work as his tatue "The David", he replied that David had already been there: all he had to do was remove the excess, i.e. to let David out of the stone.

What if the Universe, however you define it for yourself, were made of Ideas, pure Ideas, whose goal is to become actualized. And, in this goal of actualization, we serve, we are picked as a vehicle. If this were the case, then there is no such thing as a bad Idea. The obsession, the fear, that accompany the process of an Idea becoming actualized are not then a reflection of inadequacies from our part. Rather, they are a reflection of how eagerly an Idea wants to become actualized. The key then, is to learn to have a good relationship with an Idea that has picked one. And I mean this in a real sense. Research, creativity, is difficult. It's difficult to the point that we make ourselves suffer pointlessly (negative self talk) because we want it so bad. How do you develop a healthy relationship with an Idea? The first step is to recognize Resistance when it rears one of its ugly heads.

2. Resistance

In Pressfield's words

“Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It's a repelling force. It's negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”

“The War of Art”

This is an excerpt from one page in “The War of Art”. I cannot fully do it justice. I highly suggest you pick up the book. It's a short read. Briefly, Resistance is all the bullsh#t stories that pop up in your mind that prevent the Idea from becoming actualized. Resistance tells you to postpone doing the work for one more day, Resistance tells you to not send out the paper for fear of the reviewers' comments, or when you do decide to send it out, to send it to an ''inferior'' conference/journal. Resistance tells you that you are not good enough when your paper is rejected. Resistance tells you you are the greatest when your paper is accepted. The Warrior looks at Resistance straight in the eyes and tells it: “I see you, I will not be beat today”. The Warrior respects Resistance and realize it's always there and ready to rear of one its heads. The Warrior never thinks she can cut of all of Resistance's heads.

“The War of Art” has three parts. Pressfield brilliantly ''defines'' Resistance in the first part. In the second part, he talks about how to combat Resistance and that is by “Turning Pro”. A professional shows up, does the work, rain or shine. A professional grinds, does not make excuses. An amateur doesn't show up, always makes excuses, and does not put in the work. Pressfield has a whole other book devoted to this concept of “Turning Pro”. I haven't read it yet. In the last part, which I enjoyed the most, Pressfield gives his own take on ''Where do Ideas come from?''.

What can “Turning Pro” look like in the scientific/academic context?

3. Ways to ''Turn Pro'' as an academic

a. Reading papers

This is a huge one, and a difficult one. I mentioned earlier that this past heard has been intellectually difficult and highly rewarding. I spent 6+ months reading one paper to the point where I understood it in its entirety. My students can attest to this. I still have the original version of the paper that I printed 6+ months ago. It's heavily annotated. It's beat up, wrinkled and has coffee stains on it. These are all of the marks of my battle with Resistance as I tried to understand this paper. The point here is that The Pro must know what other Pros before him have done. She must respect it. For researchers, we have to read papers. My example above is extreme, as I was delving into a new area, the basics of which I was familiar with, but not the details. What this mean is that I had to make a few detours (learn a bit of random matrix theory) along the way. One strategy I use, for papers and projects alike, is to spread them on different temporal scales. On my reading stack are papers that will take me a day to understand, others a week, yet others a month and so on and so forth. This accomplishes two things: first, I am making tangible progress, and second I am pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. This takes a certain amount of honesty with yourself and, if you are a student, your advisor can let you know on what scale a paper falls. In my opinion, it's always better to over estimate how long it's going to take you to read a paper than to under estimate.

b. Writing sh#t down

I cannot overstate how important writing is in research, as early as when you first decide to begin a project. This is something I constantly hammer into my students. Every time I start a new project, the first thing I do is create a git repo for it, with a 'writing' directory and .tex file. The document has a tentative tile for a paper, an abstract, and a potential outline. This is not something I would share with anybody at that point. It's for me. It helps me prime my brain into “Pro” mode. It lets me tell myself that this is not just some bullsh#t project. It's serious, and I mean business. This first draft is constantly updated, the frequency of update depends on how close I am to submission. So, one of the first benefits of writing stuff down, is to prime yourself into “Pro” mode. The second, and perhaps, most important benefit is the following. Earlier, I described how Ideas want to become actualized: writing is how the Ideas begin to take shape/form, and we enter a dialogue with them. I mean this. If you read about the stories of great writers, whose writing takes you on a journey, a common theme that is often pointed out is that, as soon as the story is put on paper, the characters begin to take personalities of their own and to evolve. This process of evolution of the characters is not entirely up to the writer. I will speak here for sciences that involve mathematics: the characters are the mathematical objects of interest (matrices, vectors etc...) and the notation you choose for them. They interact through the equations that describe the phenomenon you are interested in (e.g. liner system with sparse solution). The process of picking the characters, expressing your assumptions explicity through writing, is a powerful tool for teaching oneself and clarifying one's thoughts. You write sh#t down for yourself. Because, until you can do this in a way that is coherent when you read it back to yourself, you do not fully understand the problem you are working on. The equations might change, the characters might evolve, but this will not happen until you put in on paper. In the Introduction the “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (Penguin Classics, Deluxe Edition, the author of the Introduction Jonh Sleeve writes

“The latest scholarly reconstructions of its composition show that the author began writin the novel with one purpose and plot in mind, discarded that plot partway through, set the book aside for years, and at one point threatened to destroy the manuscript. This information is not very reassuring for critics who prefer tidy definitions, for it suggests that not even the author himself was very use of what he was doing--or was attempting to do.”

This. Is. Research.

c. Taking action

Beyond writing, Ideas evolve when we take action. No excuses, no bullsh$t. It's important to take deliberate action, even when we do not feel like it. As a researcher, you are a detective of some sort, except that you do not know, in most cases, if the crime has a solution. That's why, it's important to run experiments through simulation. This is something I've resisted for a while because of my old-school training and ego, i.e. Resistance. Resistance will tell you that if you are smart enough, you should be able to solve it on pen and paper. Run the damn simulation and save yourself weeks or months. I've probably said this before. It's imporant to be deliberate in this process. The quality of your research is in direct proportion with the quality of the questions you ask. Ask good questions. The majority of the time when you run a simulation, there should be a question you are trying to answer. If most of your simulations are exploratory, and you find yourself unable to make sense of the results, you are not asking good questions.

d. Feedback

Going back to comedy for a second, comics will tell you about the importance of frequently getting up and going on stage. This does a few things. First, it helps you to practice new bits you're working on. Second, and most importantly, the feedback you get from the audience allows you to polish the bits. Third, and this is my own opinion, simply listening to yourself say your jokes out loud allows you to give yourself feedback in a way that is not possible through writing alone. What does that look like for us researchers? We can't go and give talks every week. There are at least four ways we can do this. Weekly meetings with your advisor where you actually get on the board, write stuff down, and talk about your ideas. A mistake lots of graduate students make is to go in their advisor's office and expect to be told what do. It's not meant to be a passive process. It's an active process. Group meetings are a place where you can get feedback from your whole research group. I also think it's important to find intellectual allies who you feel comfortable bouncing ideas off of. I am not talking about people who will bullsh#t you and tell you all your ideas are great. They don't even need to say anything. They can just hold the space and allow you to voice your ideas out loud. They are a facilitator of some sort. Last but not least, real-world feedback: send that paper out, present it at a conference! Which leads me to a very fact, common to every comic and academic, myself included: bombing on stage. When comics talk about bombing, my understanding is that they talk about a set in which they weren't connecting with the audience, the jokes weren't working, and they could not get in a flow. A challenging set. That's going to happen. And that's all right. Learn the lessons you can, and chalk the rest to experience. Keep a light and humorous attitude about these things. It is that serious, but at the same time, it's not that serious.

d. Focus on the process, not the outcome

I've written about this before. The “Pro” realizes that she is not the Idea, and the Idea is not her. The “Pro” does not take criticism of acclaim personally. She is focused on the work and on making herself better today than she was yesterday.

4. How is Science different from Art?

The key difference, in my opinion, between Science and Art is in the outcome, and not the process. Everything I've talked about above is in relation to the process. When it comes to the outcome, in Science, if one accepts the postulates of whathever discpline she finds herself in (e.g. Math), there is always an answer, an absolute truth: you are either right or you are wrong, assuming the question you asked is well formulated. I hope you will agree with me that in Art, things are not so clear cut. In my opinion, this makes the scientific pursuit a bit more manageable. Why? An Idea, any good Idea worth pursuing, will take you in directions that will make you grow and stretch intellectually. That's why, being wrong is sometimes better than being right. In a way, that may not be fully apparent in the moment, any outcome prepares you for the next Idea.

Time to Take a NAP (No-Assholes Policy)

“We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”


As academics, we love learning, and pushing the boundaries of what we know, though being at that edge may be uncomfortable at times. For instance, when venturing into a new research direction, or reading a challenging Journal article...I want to talk about one way I think this discomfort shows up at time, and that has bothered myself and some colleagues I've spoken with: how we behave as audience members at academic talks, and by we, I mean students and professors. Invited speaker series and colloquia are a healthy part of an academic commmunity/department. It is one of the ways we infuse new and fresh ideas into the default ones that permeate the culture of a department/community. It is a way, if you will, to perturb the system from its typical equilibrium, and we do this by inviting experts to talk about a particular topic, from which we would love to learn. In most academic talks I have attended, this is where the beautiful image I paint stops and start to go South real quick, in a hurry. I have been to too many talks in which the audience, students and professors alike are borderline hostile towards the speaker. In my opinion, this is an unacceptable behavior that must be addressed, and below I give some insight into the origins of such behavior, and how we may combat it. It's time for us to take a No-Assholes Policy (NAP) at academic talks and presentations.

I am not suggesting that we should not challenge speakers, whether invited ones, our students and colleagues, or that we should not expect to be challenged during talks. I thrive on this kind of challenge: my thinking is “first, I would love to learn different point of views from the audience, and second, I have been thinking about this problem long enough that I trust that I understand in better that 99% of people who are being introduced to it for the first time”. What I am suggesting is that challenge is not synonymous to lack of respect, challenge does not try to undercut the self esteem of the person on the receiving end, challenge is not synonymous to lack of compassion. This is particularly important when the person on the receiving end is a minority (racial, social, gender...). We talk all this game about inclusion, radical inclusion, and yet our actions, particularly at academic presentations does not support this talk. Let me begin by setting up some important contextual information surrounding invitations to talks.

1. Context/invitation

You've invited this person, they've traveled a long way, they are outside of their comfort zone, in some cases they are traveling to intimidating places (we all know of institutions in our field that have this reputation). It is the responsibility of the host institution to provide a safe environment for the speaker, and this includes making sure that they feel safe during their talk and are treated with respect. Why invite this person if you're going to treat them like sh#t?

2. The role of Faculty

As Faculty, I think we are the first ones guilty of treating invitees poorly. Why? Without going into a deep philosophical discussion, I think it all goes back to Ego, and the perception that we need to defend a certain sense of self-importance. I'll come to grad students in a second, but the way this shows up is in the arrogant and unreasonable expectation, that we will understand in 1 hour, a project that somebody has presumably been working on for a number of years. As faculty, we need to lead by example. Like it or not, our grad students in most cases have such a reverence of faculty that one can make a parallel with the relationship between parents/care-givers and children: grad students will mirror faculty behavior, so that what you see is that a nasty professor at a talk is akin to a license for students to let it rip and fly! Let us lead by example.

3. Students

My message to students is to not fall for the Ego trip that is expecting that you will understand every single thing on every single slide in every single presentation given at your department's colloquium series. I used to be that guy, in high school. My report cards always came back with ”Excellent, grades! Needs to learn to control his impulse to have all the answers”. My point is, this behavior is not a sign of maturity. In fact, the mature and respectful thing to do is to flag most questions in one's own notebook as ”need-to-look-into-this”, and when asking a question to be aware of why you are asking the question: are you really looking for a clarification, or are you trying to show off? are you sure the speaker is wrong, or perhaps are you missing something? It takes courage, and maturity, to be able to become of the observer of your own intentions. I am not suggesting you should not ask questions. Be aware of your intentions.

4. The responsibilities of the speaker

The speaker does not get a pass. Respect, compassion etc...go both ways: the same way the audience shouldn't expect to understand the entirety of years worth of work in an hour, I believe it is my responsibility to the audience and a sign of respect for their presence to: a) Prepare my presentation before hand, b) Proofread my presentation, c) Deliver the presentation in a comprehensible manner. This may seem vague, but there are various ways this shows up. For instance, if one's talk is very very technical, starting the presentation with theorems and equations can be quite intimidating to the audience, who may all be at different levels in their learning (faculty, students etc...). Starting with a motivational example instead can be a sign of care. The point is, it is important to know your audience (e.g. by asking your host) and have your audience in mind when putting the talk together/delivering the talk. Again, it's the idea of being the observer of what you are doing and looking at yourself and work from a critical point of view: ”if I were seeing this material for the first time, how would I feel if equations are dumped on me on the first slide?”. This applies especially to teaching, where I thinking showing compassion to students through how material is delivered can help learning tremendously.

5. Learning from Tech: towards a code of conduct?

Today, most conferences (academic or non-academic) have a code of conduct. Having attended both tech and academic conferences, I have felt the audience at the former to be more respectful of speakers on average. Perhaps there is an opportunity here to learn from the tech community and to come up with a code of conduct for academic talks? Without fail, a every tech conference I have been to, the organizers have at multiple points pointed the participants to their code of conduct.

I won't be offended if you take a nap (siesta) at my talk. Just do it in the back. I urge us, as a community, to take NAP!

Two-year Anniversary: On Minding the Gap

Student: "Master, what signal? where is the signal? There is no signal.
Master: "The signal is the noise. The noise is the signal."


What will I learn?
What can I learn?
What have I learnt?



I haven't kept my promise to self to be more diligent about posting on this blog. The Life of a 2nd year Assistant Prof. happened, again! I have just celebrated 2 years on the job. I just finished writing two papers with my grad student, a visiting student and a few collaborators. I have been reading a couple of great books in parallel: "Man's search for meaning" by Viktor Frankel, and "Braiding sweet grass" by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I just finished writing a big grant. All of these things have got me thinking about something I have meant to write about for a long time. The things we do, the goals we set for ourselves, they have to mean something more than whatever outcome, whatever crispy carrot lies at the end and that we may or not be able to bite into; the paper/grant rejection, the lukewarm course reviews; the paper/grant acceptance, the great course reviews. The fullfilment we obtain from our craft, particularly in competitive fields such as academics, those fullfilments must be derived from the process of carrying out our craft, rather than on outcomes that, more oftent than not, have little to do with objective evaluations. As one of my colleagues put it, "I don't look for the signal in the rejections, because there often is no signal". This may sound like a cynical view, and I don't mean to imply that peer-review is not useful: I am grateful for feedback on a few of my papers that I think made them tremendously better. What he meant is that, often, you can't do anything about a reviewer who woke up on the wrong foot and decided to trash your grant or paper. That's why, I never submit the first review I write. But I digress.

About writing the two journal papers: seeing how engaged and enthusiastic my students were, seeing them struggle with organizing a paper and compassionately coaching them through the process, guiding them through a git-based reproducibility workflow for automatically generating professional-looking figures, teaching them to scrutinize their own work and execrice healthly skepticism, these things are the Win, irrespective of whether the papers are accepted or not, because these are things that no one can take a way from them (learning) and from me (giving).

About the grant: ogranizing my ideas in a coherent and logical fashion, under space constraints, putting together a budget, integrating various collaborators into my ideas, putting together an awesome education plan. These are things no one can take away from me, whether my proposal is accepted, or nah. Let's make one thing clear: there will still be some discomfort at the potential for rejections/failure, and some excitement at the possibility of a successful outcome. The rejections/failures will cease, however, to be interpreted or seen as an attack on one's worthiness. Also, one will be less tempted to look at success as a validation of one's worthiness. The very act of going through the process, the vulnerability required demonstrates one's worthiness. I encourage you to read the following post by G. T. Marx on academic success and failure. It has inspired me, along with some of my recent reading, to write this post.

Reflections on academic success and failure.


I want to spend the rest of this post talking about the Art of being comfortable with discomfort, and ways in which I trick my brain into learning to become comfortable with discomfort and into focusing on process, whenever it starts to want to make movies about potential outcomes. Make no mistake, it is an Art that even the greats (whoever they are in your mind) struggle with in silence. Where does the discomfort come from? The gap between where you are going (the goal: paper, grant, mastering a new topic) and your current state (writing the paper, grant, learning the new topic et...). Ira Glass (This American Life podcast) has a great video about this for people in the Arts (no pun intended), but I think this applies to any creative field.


Let's start with a few observations about the nature/the essence of the discomfort, the nature of The Gap.

1. It's natural: the gap is the default mode

Even the greats struggle with this (Michael Jordan, Lebron James before and after winning NBA) titles. Our culture has turned this feeling of discomfort, The Gap, into something most of us perceive as a handicap. Rather than seeing it as a handicap, the analogy I like is to interpret the discomfort engendered by The Gap as the equivalent of the sonar in bats: it is a tool to orient ourself and to help us become better versions of ourselves, however you interpret that in a given context.

2. It doesn't go away

If The Gap is a tool to orient ourself, then without it, we would become lost! In fact, I've found that the lack of a slight amount of discomfort in my creative endeavors is a sign that I am not pushing myself enough out of my comfort zone.

What do you do about it? This is where choice comes in. While the discomfort is natural and always there, we can choose how we react to it and practice ways to embrace it and lean into it. There is no better way to summarize this than this quote from Viktor Frankl's "Man search for meaning"

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.


Here are a few suggestions as to develop a good relationship with the discomfort engendered by The Gap.

1. Adopt a growth mindset

Carol Dweck at Stanford is a pioneer in the psychology of how we learn. Loosely, people can be divided between those that have a fixed mindset to learning and those that have a growth mindset. Do you believe you are either good at something or not? that whatever skill you are trying to acquire is innate? If so, then you may have a fixed mindset. A person with a growth mindset believes that, while they may not be good at the skill right now, they can, through pratice and perseverance, become better. I encourage you to check out some of Carol's books and her Ted talk. At the risk of sounding woo woo, let's be clear: adopting a growth mindset doesn't mean that anybody can become LeBron James, or Einstein. It means that there is a level of expertise, beyond one's current level, that can be reached. That will depend on the individual, field etc...

2. Formulate a plan (with a time line)

Sit down with yourself, figure out where YOU are now (avoid comparisons), what your level is, and develop a plan of action. This is very important. You must be taking consitent action, however small, towards your goal. The point of the plan is not to have it be rigid: it will change. The plan will help to keep the discomfort at bay. Having a plan helps you to contextualize the discomfort and to truly use it as a compass: coupled with the plan, the discomfort becomes a sign that you are hitting the edge of YOUR current sate, and that there is an opportunity for a breakthrough, a leap in udnerstanding.

3. Trust the process, not the outcome

The outcome is capricious, you cannot predict how it is going to act. The process, i.e. your plan, your mindset, are things you have a far better chance of influencing. I always ask myself these questions before, during and after I embark on a project/experience

What will I learn? What will I teach/give?
What am I learning? What am I teaching/giving?
What have I learned? What have I taught/giving?

These things have to do with service, to yourself, and to others. Things that cannot be taken away no matter the outcome.

4. Find a supportive group of people

It's very important to have people around you that will support you unconditionally and that will help to keep you accountable. These people will provide a tremendous amount of moral support. Very important are the people that will provide technical support, people you can bounce ideas off of, and that can help you course correct and keep the discomfort in check.

I have basically described part of my philosophy on what it means to be a great coach to yourself, to be your own champion. In the academic context, you can think of the above as what I think it means to earn a Ph.D.. As a novcie (e.g. beginning grad student), your mentor (advisor) will coach you through this process. As you progress, a great mentor will help you to develop this mindset for yourself. You become proficient at your craft, in my opinion, when you are able to not only coach yourself in this manner, but others as well. That's what it means to earn a Ph.D. It's not having the answers to all of the questions ready at hand, it's formulating a plan for finding answers, holding yourself accountable, and being able to sit with discomfort of not knowing, and trusting your process.


A mistake I made through my graduate studies, a mistake young people in all of their energy make, was thinking that I could go a full steam for years, without giving myself time to recharge. A lot of things in life are cyclic: tides, the earth's rotation around itself, around the sun. Similarly, the primeness of our brains to absorb new information or create is goes through cycles. The best analogy I can find for this is that of fallow periods in farming. There are times when the land is primed to replenish itself and times when it is primed to produce and be sowed. Similarly, there are times when our brains are primed to learn new things that can be used when it is primied to create. A perfect recipe to accentuate the discomfort is to try and create during a phase in which your brain is primed for learning, and vice versa. It's easier, in my opinion, to learn during the creation phase than to create when you are learning. This is where knowing yourself and avoiding comparisons becomes so important. My cycles are different from yours. Things become uncomfortable when we try to mix and mash the learning and creation phases: it's uncomfortable because we are addicted to creating. That's why we do what we do. The key is to learn to surrender and sit through the discomfort of not being able to create during a learning phase (when you fight water currents, you run the risk of drowning!), and trust the process, the cycles.

Last but not least, remember to play and be playful! In Viktor Frankl's account of his time in Nazi concentration camps, he mentions that one of the salient features of detainees who were able to make it through the experience is the ability they had to remain playful during the difficult process. It was, for most of us, an unimaginably tough experience. Still, some people still made jokes and laughed at themselves. This is huge, and has also been reported by veterans of WWI and WWII, as one reason they were able to make it through their experience. Playing is something we do naturally as kids, but somewhere along the line, due to society and conditioning, we lose it. Don't take it too seriously. Play!

"A Position at the University"

"A Position at the University", by Lydia Davis

I think I know what sort of person I am. But then I think, But this stranger will imagine me quite otherwise when he or she hears this or that to my credit, for instance that I have a position at the university: the fact that I have a position at the university will appear to mean that I must be the sort of person who has a position at the university. But then I have to admit, with surprise, that, after all, it is true that I have a position at the university. And if it is true, then perhaps I really am the sort of person you imagine when you hear that a person has a position at the university. But, on the other hand, I know I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at the university. Then I see what the problem is: when others describe me this way, they appear to describe me completely, whereas in fact they do not describe me completely, and a complete description of me would include truths that seem quite incompatible with the fact that I have a position at the university.

Lydia Davis from Almost No Memory

This is a beautiful short text that I found taped to the door of one of my colleagues at Harvard. Reading it reminded me of the importance of developing a grounded identity, a sense of self, that come from within and are not tied to an idea of oneself based on whatever denomination one carries at a given time. This can come from developing interests, activities that are not tied to your bread and butter, so called work-life balance, something I wish I had engaged a great deal more in grad school and that I am actively putting an effort to engage in now. When you others put you in a box, or you put yourself in a box, you begin to see the rejections (e.g. paper, grants...), the failures (bombing a talk/presentation, doing poorly in an exam etc...) as attacks on your sense of self. The truth is, you are not the rejections, the perceived failures. The process, the journey, that led you there-to the outcome, whatever it might be-are far more important and tell much more about you (I will write a separate post about process vs outcome and having a growth rather than fixed mindset).

Let us take a quick evolutionary detour into the allure of putting people and ourselves into boxes.

As a species, we are very good at building abstractions: knowledge and discovery stem from our ability to distill complicated phenomena into basic, simple, governing laws. The examples abound: Newton's laws, Maxwell equations (their simplifications into the circuit abstraction when one makes certain assumptions regarding wavelength), the discovery of the DNA and of the mechanisms of cell division etc...At the base of this obsession with abstractions is our (evolutionary?) need for being in control of the outside world, of our circumstances. For our ancestors, abstractions meant survival. Imagine if Wildebeests existed a few tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, and one of our hypothetical super-smart ancestors had figured out the mating patterns and migratory behaviors of one of this particular source of food. All right, so now this super smart ancestor has figured out a way to guarantee a predictable source of food, and now you must figure out as a group how you are going to hunt. This is where the need for rigid denominations may have come from. If you picture a small tribe of hominoid, by rigid denomination I mean precise roles for every member of the tribe (who does what? in a hunting situation, in a situation when we are attacked, etc...). As an aside, I do not think this is a far fetched idea since, as early as a few hundred years ago, cultures around the world were organized around the principle that specific groups within a community had specific responsibilities. Just look at last names such as 'Blacksmith', 'Taylor' etc...I could give examples of African cultures where this is true, including my own, but this wouldn't mean much to most.

The denominations in and of themselves are not the problem, in my opinion. What would become of an army without ranks and denominations? The real world today is not as unforgiving as it was to our ancestors. However, because, our biology has grown to interpret the denominations as more rigid than they actually are, more rigid than is necessary in our time. I find that it takes a conscious effort to not fall prey to this natural instinct of ours.

Something funny and interesting has happened over the past few millennia: the rate of growth of innovation, of technology (through abstractions) has skyrocketed, giving us the ability for better (than our ancestors) automatic control of nature, thus reducing the usefulness of rigid denominations. In modern society, your being a blacksmith by trade is not tied to our survival as a species, or being a tailor by trade. Our biology, however, still thinks we're stuck in the past and has not realized that we've been moving on. It still thinks we're in 10000 BC. When it meets you, my biological self makes assumptions based on your title, assumptions that it thinks will make it feel safer. So we go around, putting others and ourselves in boxes, boxes in which we struggle to fit in.

And there in lies the danger for those of us in creative pursuits. When you are creating, you spend most of your time in what seem like dark alleys. If your are tied to an image of yourself, a denomination you must live up to, the hard times, the discomfort, become unbearable. They become a trial on who you are. And they should not. We can avoid this, and enjoy the process of creating by developing a sense of self that lives outside our accomplishments, outside others' idea of who we are.

Am I surprised that people are surprised when they hear I've got a position at the University? I used to be. I am not anymore.

The Academic Job Search, The Story of You

“You think it’s easy being the boss?”

Tony Soprano

I set up this blog with the intent of periodically writing my thoughts on a variety of topics. I haven't been able to write as much as I would have liked. Junior faculty like happened. Quoting the arguably-great, arguably deranged Tony Soprano, “You think it’s easy being the boss?”. To me, one of the hardest, yet most profound, things I have learnt about being a junior faculty has been to embrace the messiness and joy of uploading one's ideas to someone's brain and downloading the ideas from their brain. I haven't written about this previously. I have reached the point where I have put together an awesome team of students and researchers who I have an easy and enjoyable working relationship with. And now I can make more time to write about things such I am about to write about: the faculty job search!

Disclaimer: This is going to be long. I don't want the length of it to cause an "oh sh*t, this is hard" reaction. The truth is though, it is hard, but I do believe it is totally doable; many have done it and many more will. What you will find are details of how I approached the academic job search, things I learned along the way and that I hope can help others out there. What I tell people is that I learnt so much about myself during this time. My first advice is don't listen to (all of) my advice. Your field, circumstances and personality most likely are very different from mine. I do believe, however, that there are certain dimensions of the academic search process that tend to be the same irrespective of your field; they're just the nature of the beast. Now, how you (should) react to the different scenarios does depend on your field/personality. This is not a guide about the mechanics of putting together an application package. It's about all the little things, that together become big, which impact the faculty job search and that no one had told me about! It's also about a perspective that I believe can make the experience a valuable one, no matter the outcome.

1. Deciding to apply: know thou circumstances, act accordingly

One should have an honest objective conversation with oneself to gage one's level of preparedness. The keywords here are "honest", "objective". I am not speaking here of the internal conversations that are so common among academics where we compare ourselves to others. Those are neither honest, nor objective. I am speaking here about the kind of internal dialogue where, having decided that one wants to become a faculty, one proceeds to figure out concrete steps that would give one the best chance of success in the future. How do you figure this out? Everyone's process is different. Here's how I did it: I got on the market 3 years after obtaining my PhD, and yes, it was a conscious decision. When I obtained my PhD in 2011, I was very confident about my technical knowledge and my ability to take a well-formulated research problem, deconstruct and/or figure out the steps (topics to learn) that would ultimately allow me to solve the problem. The skill that I proceeded to hone over the next 3 years, and that I was just beginning to learn, is the ability to formulate my own ideas. I did a 3 year postdoc to do just that, and published a body of work based on ideas I formulated myself. To me (and that may be different for others), a well-prepared junior faculty is one able to not only generate interesting, unique ideas, but also to guide a team to execute those. I was not fully prepared at the end of my PhD to do the latter. I sat down with myself and decided to take a few years to become prepared. I was willing to walk away from academics at the end of those 3 years if I did not believe I had become prepared at the end of them. It is important, once you begin the process, to talk to a trusted friend/partner/mentor, who can help you be as objective and encouraging as possible. One benefit of having this convo with yourself is that it lays the ground work for preparing your application package!

2. Preparing the package/getting letters

The first important part of the process is putting together your application package, which typically consists of a CV, research/teaching statements, recommendation letters and sample publications. This is a very important step, for two reasons, one of which is obvious, the other less so. The 1st obvious reason is that this is your opportunity to present yourself to a search committee in such a way that you are one of 5 people to stand out in a group of 300 applications. The 2nd, less obvious reason, is because the process of putting together the application will (should) help you sift through the nebulousness of your interests: what do I want to work on for the next 5 to 7 years? are these topics that are genuinely find interesting? or are these topics that someone else (e.g. thesis advisor) finds interesting and that I have just been going along with? will I be able to raise money working on the problems I am interested in? The most succinct way in which I can summarize the process of putting together your application package is that one ought to think of it as telling a story: you are telling the story of what you've done, what you'd like to do, how you will do it? Faculty on search committees will read your application. They may not be well acquainted with the technical details of your research. Still, when the package is put together well, said faculty should get an obvious sense of the relevance and logic of the story told by the applicant. There are two other storytellers in your application package: your letter writers and your publications. You should choose your letter writers wisely and help them to tell your story. You can do this by sharing your application package with them and by having a conversation with them about your plans. I did not find out about what I am about to write until after application season: do not be shy to ask potential letter writers if they are willing to write you a stellar recommendation letter. Given the odds involved, it can be very hard to bounce back from a lukewarm recommendation letter. You should choose your publications in such a way that they complement the story you want to come across in your application package. This idea of storytelling and the academic job search can be tremendously helpful when putting together your job talk!

3. The job talk

Putting the talk together

I think of the job talk as your application package, the story of you (minus the recommendation letters) put into the form of a presentation. One thing I learnt very early on, through observations of other people's job talk, is that a successful job talk looks nothing like what most of us purists think of when we think about a successful technical/talk. You must develop the ability to communicate complicated ideas to an audience with a similar breadth in background as the members of the search committee. Unless you are one of the stars in the market on a given year, a talk that, given in your departmental seminar, will be lauded for its technical depth, can paint you as an applicant with a very narrow focus that has a poor communication style. Believe it or not, the interview process can be very taxing to the search committee. I'd like to believe that search committees spend a great deal of time and involvement to decide who they invite. Following this logic, the candidates invited will almost always be stellar technically. You then need that je-ne-sais-quoi to separate between amazing applications. That's why, a lot of qualities, absent in most technical talks (given to an audience of experts), are being judged: your overall vision (the story), your teaching style, your communication style, your level of collegiality, your enthusiasm.

Here is how I put together my own job talk. I took me a few weeks to converge to this style and a few more weeks to put the actual talk together. I believe the outline is not very field specific, though it is more geared towards an engineering/scientific audience rather than one in the humanities. The outline follows the chronological order of my talk.

  1. The Vision, imagined: The 2nd or 3rd slide of my talk was titled "The Vision". In it, there was picture of a ven diagram whose intersection summarized my interests and vision. On top of the ven diagram, was the most wordy sentence of all of my talk, which read the vision I had for my research. This was the most important slide of my talk. In one slide I told the committee that this is my story and this is what I plan to do. The rest of the talk is to support this vision.

  2. The Vision, I've done it before: Examples from my PhD and post-PhD work that demonstrates support this vision. I told the story two projects from my post-doctoral work (ideas that I belived where 100% my ideas) that I was super excited about.

  3. The Vision, spreading it: I gave examples of three exciting projects that I wanted to work on over the next few 5 years and the venues, the community, where the work would be published.

  4. The Vision, funding it: I talked about the funding agencies that would be excited about my work and how I would fund my research over the next 5 years.

  5. The Vision, how it fits in your institution: I talked about how someone with my background can fit in, in terms of research collaboration, in the institution I was applying to/interviewing in.

If you are paying close attention, the outline of my talk was centered around the vision and the story of my research. I highly recommend that you attend job talks at your institution and see different styles. I noticed there was a non-trivial correlation between job talks I enjoyed and people that ended up getting hired at different institutions where I have been. One common feature of the job talks I've enjoyed is that, whether I bought it or not, whether you agreed or not, an outside observer did not have to dig deep to answer the question: what is his/her vision? One thing that I did not understand until later is this: when you get the job, no one is going to hold you accountable for what you said you'd do in your job talk. So, what's the point? The mere fact that you were able to organize a job talk into a convincing and compelling form, about one particular research topic/direction, means that you have the intelligence and skills to do it for an entirely different research direction.

Practicing the job talk

It is importance to practice your job talk, both in front of a general group and in front of selective audiences. This is advice, based on my personal preferences, that you should feel free to throw away, but let me try to explain the logic. Practicing one's talk in front of a general group (the research group you are part of, your department's seminar series etc...). Why practice your talk in front of selective audiences? One advantage of thinking of the application, the job talk, as telling a story is that it helps you to delineate your ideas from those of others. That's why I think it's important to practice your talk in front of people whose opinion you respect. I do not mean to pick people who will only agree with you, but to practice the talk in intimate settings that will make it easier for you to receive and incorporate constructive feedback.

4. Getting invited!

This is the moment you wait for: when the phone starts to ring and the email notifications start to buzz with news that you have been invited for an on-site interview. It's a big deal, you should be excited! This is advice how I made the best of out of the opportunities to interview on-site. It will be in the form of a bulletpoint list. This advice can be summarized in one sentence

"If they invite you, they want you: focus on the process, not outcome, be selfish".

  1. One the best, most profound, pieces of advice I received on the interview trail was from a faculty on a search committee who told me [do not be afraid to be] "be selfish". The context for this comment was a discussion where he asked me what I would need/require in a start up package. I asked what they were willing to offer. His point was that, as much as they were interviewing, that I should also have been interviewing them. This led to a profound shift in my thinking about the academic interview process. Why? This was my on-site visit, and the one I thought went the best. I didn't get an offer in the end. And I did not feel bad about it. Now, before traveling for the interview, I had made all these assumptions, not grounded on reality, about the institution and city I was going to visit. The said institution is a great institution, with great faculty and arguably a great quality of life. In fact, a friend of mine is a professor and collaborator there. It just wasn't for me. But I only found later after changing my perspective. Some of you may be thinking that, I am only saying these things in hindsight, because in the end I got an offer and ended up becoming a faculty. I do not think this is fair though. Of course, I would have been disappointed not getting any offers, but I do believe that I still would have learnt a great deal about myself.

  2. One advantage of switching your perspective to "interviewing as much as being interviewed" is that it will enrich your interactions with the faculty you meet at the institutions where you are invited. At best, these faculty will become colleagues, at worst, they will become collaborators and letter writers. Some of the people I have met on the interview trail have become close academic mentors. Your one-on-one meetings are of multiple types: search committee members, potential collaborators, misc. faculty members. It's important to identify who is who and tailor the pitch accordingly. You can do this by closely studying your interview schedule and learning about the faculty on it. Group 1 (search committee members): know what you plan to do over the next 5 years, prepare an elevator pitch summary of your research plan and story, Group 2 (potential collaborators/faculty in your area): know your sh*t in and out, be ready to go on the board and be technical, show that you know the field. Group 3: Prepare an elevator pitch/high level summary of your work for a person in your `major' that does not work in your specific area of research.

  3. Beware of the quantization/analog-to-digital-conversion effect: Search committees consider 100s of applications and have to go through a process of selective reduction of the qualified applicant pool, culminating in those that will be invited for interviews. If you were invited, most likely you have a champion at the university inviting you. This person, whether or not they know the details of your work, must be able to summarize it to the faculty at large and be able to make a strong case that you will be an invaluable addition to the department. In the process, they must put you through what I call the quantization/analog-to-digital conversion effect: they must take you, a researcher with multi-faceted contributions that lie on a continuum and boil you down to your mere essentials. Think about what goes on when you compress or zip files/images or documents. Perhaps my research/accomplishments were too close to my heart, but I found myself pushing back when well-meaning, well-intentioned champions of me `summarized' me. It's not personal, and it does not define you, but that's what they must do. This is not uncommon in academia. I hear that tenure cases are often decided by the ability to say, in one sentence "Demba Ba is guy who did [fill-in-the-blanks]". And the blanks should be easy to fill.

  4. Think about answering (the plan is to give the sense you've seriously thought about these questions)

    • 5 year research plan
    • How will you raise money?
    • What do you plan to teach?
    • What's your advising style?
    • Where are you going to publish?
  5. Lunch, dinner, and being social: Make no mistake, you have to be on 100% of the time. You are being sized up (not in paranoid/ovearbearing way) all, the, time. Think about it, it's not just about the technical work, they'd like to know what type of a colleague you will be. Be yourself. In almost all of my trips, breakfast was a one-on-affair, lunch a large group and dinner a smaller group. I had a decent breakfast, kept lunch very light, and dinner more substantial.

  6. Stick to your guns, but stay professional in the face of adversity: here's a real scenario to make this concrete: one professor kept 'harassing' me about a detail of my approach, picture a lengthy question that disrupts the flow of your talk, then when you try to answer the question, the person keeps talking over you. It is important to keep your cool in these scenarios as this sends a signal to other faculty as to how you handle your self in tough situations and how professionally you can deal with tough situations. What I did was to listen to the man, without going into a shouting match. I knew the answer I initially gave to the question was right on but this faculty kept pushing the issue, at which point it was clear to other audience members that this person was being unreasonable. That is the point at which I told the faculty that I would be happy to discuss this further offline in the interest of keeping up with time and the rest of my talk. This is a perfect example, by the way, of someone (this faculty) not giving me the benefit of the doubt in that I had thought about these questions in and out for much longer than he had. It will happen. Handle it like the professional that you are.

  7. Miscellaneous

    • The interview: you can find a ton of advice online regarding how to dress. I wore a suit the day of my job talk and wore a business casual attire for dinner or days when I did not have to give a talk. It's important to be comfortable in your attire and yet professional.
    • Be enthusiastic and excited: your body language will show, show up as someone who is excited and enthusiastic about your work and ideas.
    • I got sick of my job talk: after my first interview, I was already sick of my job talk, because I had put so much time preparing and it and did not have enough distance before getting on the trail. I did not expect that this would happen. What did I do? I used the feedback I got after every visit and used it to refine my talk. I took the great questions, suggestions and advice that were in line with my story and incorporated them into the talk. The stuff I did not think was fair or in line with my story, I discarded. It made giving the same talk all over again much more fun and exciting.
    • The visit(s) can take an emotional/physical toll: the traveling, the long trips, etc..., you will get sick. It's important to take care of yourself in the process and to build a support network.
    • Keep an open mind: places you expected a lot of might disappoint you, places you discounted might surprise you.
    • Have lots of fun!
    • Follow up, follow up, genuinely, after you come back from the interview, whether you end up getting an offer or not.

5. Not getting offers

I want to start with, let's face it, what is the most likely outcome: not getting any offers. This being the most likely outcome, is why I believe that it is much more productive from a personal growth perspective to focus of the process of applying for faculty jobs, rather than the outcome. The only piece of insight I have here is that there is a lot of luck and randomness involved in getting a faculty job. I do not mean that it is not a fair process. What I mean is that a lot of stars have to align to get the best chances, the majority of which are not under your control: the area in which a given department is hiring, areas that are hot at the moment (any body working on deep learning or compressive sensing a few years ago must be smiling, does that mean you should bend yourself into the deep learning pretzel? I don't think so), your field, who is on the search committee. It doesn't make the lack of offers any less easier to get over, but I do believe it helps to put things into an objective perspective.

6. Getting offers!

You put in the hard work, you've learnt about yourself and the directions that really interest you, you told a compelling story that helped you to get an offer. What now?

  1. Arguably one of the hardest and stressful things I have had to do is to negotiate start-up packages. You will do this at most a handful of times during your life, while on the other hand admins at institutions have done this with 100s of people. The knowledge gap in this game is so one-sided that it makes in intimidating from the perspective of you, trying to negotiate that start up package.

  2. You can ask for anything, just make sure you can justify it: I am paraphrasing what I was told by an administrator. There is ton of information online about how to negotiate a start up package. The one I remember the most is that you only do this once, so you should make sure you do it right. You will need money for grad students, postdocs, traveling, equipment, you will need space. These are just examples of some of the things that comprise a start-up package. The tricky thing is how do you figure out how much of each you need, and how do you translate that into an amount? This is where you have to do your homework: talk to faculty friends about how they negotiated their own packages, find out about the costs of grad students/postdocs at the institution of interest (yes, it's ok to ask them to put you in touch with the people that have this information in the institution), finding about the cost of traveling to the conferences in your community, how many times a year will you be travelling? how many grad students will you need and for how many years until you can sustain them with grants? Again, this is a process of figuring yourself out. Your start up package is about asking for the money that will maximize your chances of success, while being reasonable and within the limits of the institution you are interested in. Do not sabotage yourself by asking for too little. Preserve your credibility by justifying any amount your ask for in terms of your vision and in a manner that shows you've done your homework.

  3. Negotiating your salary: talk to faculty friends, find out how much new professors in your field make, and about the cost of living in the city you would be moving to. No amount is unreasonable as long as you can logically justify it. Just remember that your starting salary will determine your future earnings. Do not sabotage yourself by asking for too little or for too much. I personally believe that you should negotiate your salary, whether you are successful in securing the figure you ask for, because it sends the message that you've actively thought about the issue. In other words, do not accept the first figure you are quoted. I know colleagues who disagree. You should use your own intuition here.

Disclaimer: This is not professional advice of any form. This perspective is based on my own experience, reading I've done while I was on the academic job market

Two Months In

"It's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you, without a strong rhyme to step to."

Eric B. and Rakim.

It has been two months and some changes since I begun my faculty appointment. It has also been two months and some change since I have posted anything :/. It's a coincidence, of course. And I am sure you will understand. I have two words to describe the experiences thus far: intense and exciting! The train has left the station, and there ain't no stopping it.

Right out of the door, I began writing a huge grant with a colleague at Boston's Children Hospital, as well as two smaller grants. These were the first major grant writing effort I have been involved in. It was a highly pleasant experience overall. Like with anything you do for the first time, there is bound to be a certain amount of doubt/discomfort: the trick is to push through despite the discomfort. If you are currently a postdoc, what they tell you (and I think this is great advice), is that you should get some experience writing grant, so that you can hit the ground running. I consciously decided to focus on more research during my postdoc, as I was aiming to get stuff out that I thought would make me more marketable. I think both approaches have some merit, you should make sure you discuss this with your mentor and consciously pick one. We wrote the grant fully in Tex, and used git for version control. It was a great and seamless process to update files and compile the final document which, whether it gets funded or not, I am extremely proud of. Now, for the intense part. The novelty of it all is what I struggled with the most: here I am, having just started my job, and having to figure out how to put a budget together (WTF is fringe? direct/indirect costs? modular budget?!!), a bio sketch (nerds, we're not too good at speaking highly of ourselfves), figuring out my needs for the grant (students, postdocs, equipment etc...), while trying to maintain 100% focus on writing the science. I'm sure that sentence was exhausting to read. It was exhausting to write. I am very lucky that there is staff in place to help with the details of formatting and budget etc...I was equally lucky that my colleague at BCH and I share the sentiment that it is important to start writing early! This might have been my first grant, but I am convinced that the only way I'll be able to do it again is by giving myself plenty of time between start and submission - it's just how my mind operates. This deserves a separate post: I really think of writing science/a paper/a grant as storytelling. You are telling the story of your work/idea/result. And this takes time. Because the story starts one way, and morphs into ways you may not have expected. But if you're like me, the early days of the process are painful because you're mostly starting at a blank page on a screen!

It's been really exciting because now I am running my own show. With the excitement though, comes a certain amount of fear. It's like an oh-sh+t-the-training-wheels-are-off moment. I have been very fortunate that my thesis and postdoc advisor gave me lots of freedom and space to explore my own ideas. That has equipped me with lots of confidence with my ability to generate and write about ideas that are worth writing about. It's one thing to have your own ideas, though, and execute them yourself. It's another animal altogether to guide someone else to execute your vision. It's the part of the job that is requiring the most shift in mental attitude, and I love it. It's a great opportunity to grow as a leader. I do not think a lot of people appreciate how challenging it is to have conceived/solved in your mind the path of an idea from beginning to end (publication), only to realize that to convey the route to someone else is much much more difficult. I am much more appreciative of how patient my mentors/collaborators must have been with me. But I am loving every moment of it, because equally eye opening and exilarating have been moments when, while discussing a research idea, my mind felt like a train, my thoughts passengers on this train, and to see that some people just have the ability to hop on this train and get it! That's what collaborative research should feel like.

I promised you a few posts on the academic job search. Tis the season, and I already have outlines for these posts. I shall start posting them soon. In the mean time, if you know students interesting in a PhD and would want to join the train of my ideas, holla! And stay tuned for posts about some of the exciting research we've been working on with my group!

The Role of the Past in our Question for Social Change

The past few years have been an extremely confusing and uncomfortable time for me, as a black man in America, more specifically as an African immigrant. It all started with Trayvon, Michael Brown, then Eric Garner, then Sandy and then and then.... The list goes on. I do not want to discuss the facts behind these events and whether or not justice has been served. I am neither qualified nor well-versed enough to go into a deep, detailed, discussion. Still, there is something about writing, even when what one is writing about are half-baked ideas, be they mathematical, philosophical or fictional, that helps/forces one to organize their thoughts and gain insight. That is one of the reasons I write, and this is something I expect of my students and postdocs: write it down, share an ipython notebook, not just for me, but also for yourself. Now that we're past this digression, what I would like to discuss is how I experienced the events of the past few years, and the shift in thinking that these events have engendered in me. The gist is the following:

There is a large part of the physical, psychological, experience of being a minority (a woman, African American, Hispanic, Asian, homosexual, transgender etc...) that cannot be disentangled from the history of a country. The trouble with history is that, revisiting it, can be uncomfortable ask Ben Affleck. I am an applied mathematician, so the Mathematician in me is inclined to abstracting things away. I believe the statement above is true about the minority experience across time and space. What changes across time are the politics and the economics, and across space the who is/are the minority group(s) at the forefront of discussions/current events. Why did I start thinking about this? Well, first, I work in which that is largely male dominated and where there are very few minorities. The events of the past few years woke up feelings that I think had been brewing for a while. There is something about the feeling of being 'the only one'/'one of a few of your kind' that gets amplified when, on the one hand, events mirror the reality of how you are perceived and on the other hand, you do not hear this reality discussed in your day to day (where you work etc...). A recent chronicle of higher ed article was written on this topic. Check it out, it's a great read. Second, I am African, I am black and, whether I like it or not, I have been reaping the benefits of the struggle and victories won by African Americans over the centuries, since reconstruction, the civil rights movement etc. There was this sense of guilt brewing inside of me from not understanding the African American experience well enough, while benefiting from it and, at the same time, carrying the baggage of what it means to be black in America. I would go as far as to say that, if you are an immigrant in this country, you are in some form or another benefiting from the centuries of wealth accumulated on the backs of African Americans. That's why, I think it is crucial for one to educate oneself on the African American/Minority experience wherever one finds oneself. At the time when I started thinking about these ideas, I did not have the language to express them. So I borrowed this language from history and from the writings of American authors (of various geneders/races).

I read. I read, I read, and I read. I have not read as much in my whole life as I have read over the past 3 to 4 years since I obtained my PhD. I read authors such as Isabel Wilkerson, Maya Angelou, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglas, Mark Twain, John Williams, Michelle Alexander. I also read pieces in political magazines on the topic. I closely followed the writings of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Arthur Chu, Jelani Cobb, Tane-hisi Coates, Brittney Cooper and others. Comedy, it turns out, has also been an invaluable source. This reading allowed me to form the beginnings of an image for how the past has come to shape the African American/black experience in America as we see it on TV, as I experience it. I think that, part of living in a diverse society full of compassion is to understand how history has determined any form of privilege one is enjoying. I enjoy a huge privilege by virtue of being a male. I realize this. The ways in which I could contribute to discussions about gender inequality is by (a) being cognizant of this privilege, (b) learning about its origins through history and (c) listening. So much of the anymosity, the defensiveness around issues of race/gender has to do with the lack of (c). The path forward will be hard if we are unable to look at others and see a reflection of ourselves, and look in the mirror and see a reflection of our flaws. This requires a certain amount of vulnerability. It's uncomfortable, it's messy. It's growing pains. But it is possible, perhaps necessary.

I mentioned earlier than one thing that changes across time, when it comes to dealing with these issues, are the politics. The politics have a huge role to play, especially in the age of Obama. There has been an immense polarization in how Obama has handled the race issue, and questions of police brutality. One school of thought says, don't talk about race, change policy etc. The other, is embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement, which says we must tackle it head on and be unapologetic about demanding change. My opinion on the matter is not fully formed. But the following quote from an article by Brandon M. Terry is the closest that comes to explaining my current thinking

"Ordinary politics treats these deadly encounters between citizens and police as causal inevitabilities—high crime begets intensive policing, which brings unfortunate tragedies. But why stop there? What we need is an extraordinary politics informed by ordinary lives, one capable of provoking, and responsibly guiding, a process of civic reflection in a moment of moral crisis."

Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful: "extraordinary politics informed by ordinary lives".

How can "ordinary lives" guide the politics? One way is through the context provided by history and the lived experiences of people. The context of history is necessary to move forward. Case in point, you have probably heard of the BLM activists who crashed the Bernie Sanders event in Seattle. That was not cool. But, you have to go past the act and think about the why of the act? I think it's the frustration among black people, activists, that even well-meaning liberals are only compassionate with their struggle in theory and words. And this, I think, might be because, of the lack of context regarding black history and the struggle of black America. How can the politics/economics change anything, unless they are informed by the context of ordinary lives?

I may be wrong. And an old argument, definitely held by conservatives, and by a segment of black politics, talks about African American responsibility, the degradation of the African American family, and how African Americans must pull themselves from bootstraps. Even Bill Cosby of all people talks about this. But if you read Isabel Wilkerson, if you read some of Coates' writing, and the historical references in both, you cannot help but question this view. To me, the argument about moral reform is weak because it is devoid of historical context. This would be the same thing as saying something which I think is absurd "well, women have been granted equality decades ago, why can't they pull themselves by the bootstraps and make as much money as we men do?", "why can't they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get their voices heard?" These are absurd statements.

History informs the structural and systemic forces that have led us here. The role of "extraordinary politics" is to user "ordinary lives" as the basis for policies that will dismantle these. We might need to wait for Kanye's 2020 presidential bid to see such "extraordinary politics".

Rethinking the Interviewing Process

This is a prelude to a series of posts I plan to write on the academic job search and things I learnt during the process, about looking for a(n) (academic) job, about myself and about Interviewing in general. I was on the academic job market in Spring 2014. I am grateful to have landed a position, after which I decided to defer by a year to wrap up some of my post-doc work and to work on my own company with a colleague and my thesis advisor.

As I am on the eve of officially starting my position, I have been thinking a lot about why I picked Harvard SEAS, and what I was able to accomplish this past year. This post is going to focus on one seldomly-discussed aspect of the interviewing process, that I believe was tremendously helpful to me. I'll write later about some of the really cool things I did during the year before starting the position. A little bit of background is in order. At the time of applying, I had been a post-doc for 3 years, and a well-seasoned veteran of the industry job search. I had applied and interviewed for everything from positions in finance, on Wall Street (all my friends were doing in it, I was weak and followed, forgive me), to positions in Software Engineering and Data Science. My batting average, I am afraid, was 2/30: I had applied to 30 positions roughly, was flown out to 4 or 5, and got 2 offers. A few things to note. First, 2/30 can seem depressing (and it was), especially from an over-achiever such as myself. Second, the number 2/30 does not reflect the sequence in which those 2 wins came.

The 2 wins came after I had an epiphany about the 'Interviewing Process', one that had taken me a long time to figure out, because my immigrant, slightly-entitled, stuck-on-a-visa-for-the-past-10-years-despite-my-MIT-credentials self, was projecting the type of body language that, during an interview, screams: this dude is pretty much begging for a job, he does not seem to know what he wants, why would we hire him? What I realized after a string of disappointing, stay-in-your-room-and-brood losses (first-world problems), was that, you are interviewing them too, Demba, as much as they are interviewing you. Before I dig deeper, let me just say that I realize that one may think that there is a certain amount of privilege in this statement. So, let me check my academic privilege. Yes, I have a PhD from MIT. No, by you are interviewing them too, Demba, as much as they are interviewing you I do not mean that I am entitled to any job simply because of my credentials. That would be absurd. You see, the credentials, and most of my grad school friends I have spoken about this with agree, will get your resume somewhere near the top of the pile, but you better make sure you show up damn well-prepared if you wanna take that job, homie. Also, as I said above, I had been on a visa for a while at the time. The thing with being on a visa is that it limits your options and literally robs you of your creative impulses. I am convinced 90% that the I-am-begging-you-for-a-job state of mind that I had started the string of interviews came from this. The feeling of being trapped, of not having any options (I'll touch on this in another post, but immigration reform is important I think, to empower a generation of entrepreneurs who we otherwise rob of their potential). So, no, you are interviewing them too, Demba, as much as they are interviewing you does not come from a place of privilege. What I realized is that, as soon as I adopted this mode of thinking, my body language changed dramatically and, as someone who has been an interviewer, I know very well that body language, demeanor, is something that is easy to pick on. The lack of healthy body language (I am not talking about nervousness) can be a read light to any employer that has invited you to interview (and is therefore considering you as a serious contender for a position). I was still nervous all right, I still felt that my options were limited, but this change in perspective had a number of cognitive effects that went a long way. I started thinking of the interviews as having fun, and actually started having fun during them. I was more inquisitive about places where I interviewed, and started thinking not only about the job, but about how my aspirations/ambitions fit within the culture of the company where I interviewed. And this showed. I started getting the wins. Rejections, after I changed my take on interviewing, did not sting as much as before. I ended up turning down an education start-up that I was very excited about (joining a start-up is way too risky when you are on a visa), and a major Software Engineering company who wanted to turn me into a coder and who I tried to convince to get me a position that involved a research aspect but refused. Their loss.

Which brings me to the academic job search and my experience. By this time, despite having been been battered by the industry job search, I had a healthy sense of what I was looking for in a position, and had the body language that went with it. I was looking for something researchy, an interdisciplinary environment that could keep me interested and on my toes, a not-too-small and not-too-big place with dynamic colleagues. A start-up environment wrapped in velvet academic cloth: Harvard SEAS! I am sure SEAS is much more! But this is the best image I can come up with after a long and exciting first day of orientation! I don't think I could/would have appreciated SEAS as much had it not been for my giving industry ago and the string of what looked like failures but were actually near wins and ended up preparing me for this big win. Sarah Lewis has very nice book titled The Rise. The book is loosely about how, at times, we perceive the culmination of our efforts that do not lead to the outcome we desire as failures, but that these are actually near-wins (the sprinter who gets Sliver rather than Gold) that force us to surpass ourselves the next time in ways we might not otherwise if it were it not for the 'near' in 'near-win'. P.S.: She is a Harvard alum. It's a good read. I found it terse at times. It is full of references to works of literature I have not read and that the author uses to hammer in some points (and to facts I should have known: what was Samuel Morse's occupation prior to his inventing the telegraph?). You should check out her Ted Talk!

This concept of near-win is of utmost importance in academia where we encounter failure (near-wins) more often than not, and must figure out how to pick up our selves and march on. I plan to write a post about failure in the near future, as well as a few posts about my experience interviewing for academic positions!