No, but . . .

Did my degree get me a job?
No, but it got me noticed.

Did I learn everything needed to do the job in school?
No, but I learned how to learn new things.

Did I know what I would be doing five, ten, fifteen years after graduating?
No, but there were always new problems to solve or a need to simply get stuff done.

Did every new job come with a raise?
No, but each new job allowed me to grow professionally.

Did I do it alone?
No, I had—and still have—support from others every step of the way.

Is the sum of the whole greater than the parts?

Professionals don’t receive letter grades at work (at least, I’ve never received one). During our annual reviews, we might see statements such as “meets expectations,” or “exceeds expectations”—and hopefully not “needs improvement”; however, the summary statement is, or should be, part of a larger dialog on what went well over the past year, what didn’t, and what are the expectations for the next year.

Compare the way we evaluate work performance with education. For employees, we assess performance over a monthly, quarterly and yearly time frame. Students have a fixed time—days or weeks—to master a new set of skills and it is pretty much “all or nothing.” For employees, we have a simple metric, is the work getting done and meeting expectations! For students, homework is assigned, exams are given, and the answers are graded, and at the end of a class, we assume a transfer of knowledge.

At work, we are expected to improve and develop competencies continuously, and while most follow an annual review cycle, the tasks determine the schedule. The team requires a short time frame for some jobs, and others take months; often, the ability of the individual or group drives the plan. “How long is it going to take?” When the answer does not match the need, we look to adjust the scope or budget.

We have a fixed schedule in education. 15 chapters or five novels and reviews or three research papers—in 15 weeks regardless of ability or prior training. For mathematics and the sciences, knowledge is assumed based on the previous courses taken, but what if the student did not obtain competency? Can we expect that a C stands for competent?
 We assume that the sum of knowledge obtained in individual courses is greater than the parts.

As someone who has hired people to do work, the standard resume is limited in what it tells me about what the individual can do. Admittedly, some folks can craft two-pages that make a compelling case to pursue an interview, but we don’t know what someone can do unless we’re fortunate enough to see their work. This need makes hiring within your network compelling—you often have seen the applicants work, or at least have personal connections with those who have. Making the decision is expensive for the employer and fraught with risks—will this person be able to do the work, will they be able to integrate into the team, will they be able to contribute to future projects.

Educators have a responsibility to help students document how their skill sets address these concerns, and it’s not by issuing a diploma and a transcript. We need to help students document the competencies they acquire during the course of their education.

Don’t let my timeline limit your path forward

Applying the mantra of “what can I do now” is an effective way to move forward on long, complex projects that may be stuck or delayed. So, before becoming fixated on the finish, focus on how to keep moving so you can get started.

Following that . . . Academic calendars are not very flexible.
K-12 education has been on a fall/spring schedule for over 100 years and, surprising to me, an agricultural calendar was not the driving factor. (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/debunking-myth-summer-vacation)

For better-or-worse, higher education follows a similar calendar although most public colleges and universities now allow undergraduate students to start a program during fall or spring or summer (i.e., they have rolling enrollment) but this is not the case for most graduate and professional programs where a new cohort is formed each year. If someone wants to start a professional program and they miss the application deadline, they will look at the calendar and think there is nothing they can do until next year—don’t let the institution’s schedule prevent you from moving forward.

In the fall, I get emails asking if it’s too late to enroll—and at this point, it is for our program. However, for those wanting to start a graduate degree or certificate program, and it is past the official application deadline, I’ve recommended that they take the opportunity to identify possible gaps in their education or training that may come up during the application review when they do apply. Admission committee’s look at many factors (GPA, letters of recommendation, statement’s of purpose, etc.); however, most are trying to answer a simple question—will this person be successful in our program. Here a few items I’ve recommended to potential students as they navigated the application process.

Enroll in undergraduate courses (for credit) as a non-matriculated student to address gaps between your undergraduate degree and the graduate program. (A non-matriculated has permission to register but is not formally working toward a degree.) Earning a “B or better” can demonstrate readiness for more advanced work in the field and can effectively offset concerns that admission committees may have if a transcript shows underperformance as an undergraduate. If your undergraduate work was sufficient and you meet the pre-requisites then . . .

Ask for permission to enroll in a graduate course (for credit) as a non-matriculated student. If you are able to take a class associated with the program of study, it may be counted towards the graduate degree. But be warned, Colleges and Universities have strict rules for if this may be done and, if it is allowed, how many credits earned as a non-matriculated student can be applied to the degree or certificate.

My advice is pretty simple, even though you can’t start a program now, you can move forward and what looked like a one-year delay may become less than six months.

Problem-solving: step by step

As the resident household chemist, my college-age kids have routinely asked me to check chemistry problems for them—and I’m happy to do so. That said, sometimes I get stuck, and this is not fun for them or me, after all, I am expected to be the domain knowledge expert! Recently, we had a particularly challenging problem come up, and neither of us was able to get the correct answer.

When I was a student (many moons ago), there were answers at the back of the text for the odd exercises. If you were lucky, there was a solutions guide for all the practice problems. With online materials, every answer is available, and many have examples on how to solve the exercises, and for this particular case, when the solution was requested, we were presented with a single equation that incorporated all the information provided in the problem with the unknown variable, x, appearing on both sides of the equation. Below, the equation was the answer.

x = 0.217

?!?!

I looked at the equation and then looked at the answer—repeatedly.

I don’t get frustrated with first-year chemistry too often, but this exercise was presenting a challenge and then to have the solution be nothing more than a single equation with no explanation left me exasperated.

Ten-steps later!

I have no idea why the publisher didn’t include a real solution, after all, it’s not like they need to conserve trees, but summarizing a complex problem to a single equation without additional context was less than helpful. For my eventual solution, each step documented the progression from what was known, to the unknown, and when completed, we understood the scope of the problem and how this problem fit into the section.

Sometimes, all we need is the answer—0.217. Sometimes, we need more—or we need to provide more. Were all ten steps required for this problem? Maybe not as some steps may have been self-evident, but for complex issues, I would prefer to receive too much information as opposed to too little.

Do we need physical textbooks?

After an 18-year hiatus from teaching, I had the chance to teach an applied statistical techniques course this past spring. Feedback from the students was mostly positive, and the negative comments were expressed as constructive criticisms which I found insightful and actionable. For myself, the overall experience was positive, and I’m looking forward to building on the work and teaching the class again next year.

Along the way, I’ve also been tackling some data analysis problems using R, and a common theme has become apparent between teaching the class and my work—textbooks are obsolete.

For the course, only online materials from two sites were used as “required” readings, and except for the one weekend when the host website for one of the online books went down, there were no issues. (This did cause some stress, and fortunately, the site had provided all the material for download; however, the possible need to distribute this material made me temporarily question my selection of using only online materials.)

The other primary reading for the course is using a relatively new format called Bookdown. If the platform sustains support from the developers, this may revolutionize the way technical books—especially textbooks—are published.

When looking for a “book” on forecasting, I was pleasantly surprised to find a resource that had both a physical copy (available on Amazon, of course) and an online version. And while the theme for this new book was distinct, at the bottom of the page, there was an acknowledgment “Published . . . with bookdown,” which was the same method as the book above.

In addition to online books, online videos (mostly hosted on YouTube)  are providing content on implementation. Need an example of how to implement that function call in R? Someone has probably recorded a demo on that very topic. In teaching the class, I felt less like the disseminator of information and more like the curator—presenting content in an organized manner that allowed the students to gain new knowledge and skills.

I still buy books and having an option to buy a physical copy is definitely a plus, but it’s quickly moving away from being a requirement. It has never been easier to learn something new.

On being a professional problem solver

I spent one morning on a recent weekend with my oldest daughter at the Tracy Aviary here in Salt Lake City. I never considered myself a “bird” person; however, my daughter’s academic interest in animal behavior has sparked a before unregistered curiosity. Recently, a new space for Kea’s was opened giving the birds a large area and visitors a much better chance to observe their behavior. Kea’s are an olive-green parrot from New Zealand; I had read they were good problem solvers, but I had underestimated what this meant.

During our recent visit, the staff assembled close to a dozen puzzles built using everyday household items–PVC pipe, plastic containers, balls, etc.—each one designed to be solved with the reward being treats falling out when successfully disassembled. As the staff member worked, the Kea would immediately take to solving the puzzle. But here is the strange part—the Kea didn’t eat the treats. He went quickly to the next puzzle. The reward wasn’t the treat, but releasing of the items from captivity.

The reward was solving the problem.

When asked to describe “what I do,” I used to respond that I was a “professional problem solver.” Although my academic background is chemistry, it’s been quite a while since I worked in the field.

As a professional problem solver, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of tackling the most current—often urgent—problem. Behaving just like the Kea.

It’s taken time, but I no longer jump into problem-solving mode at the drop of a hat; I have found looking for meaningful impact to be a more meaningful reward. I wish I had learned this early in my career.

While solving an isolated, single problem has immediate rewards, working on a problem that has impact takes time and requires multiple steps and is part of a comprehensive strategy (i.e., the solution is part of a BIGGER problem). After all, the first part of any good strategy is diagnosing the problem—we don’t design strategy around non-problems.

While we can be amazed at the problem-solving skills of the Kea, make a point not follow his example. We don’t want to be trapped solving problems for rewards that we don’t need—rewards that don’t have an impact.

We don’t want to get caught up in the high-tech version of busy-work.

My current professional role is much easier to define; however, I still consider myself a professional problem solver—a professional problem solver who seeks problems that when solved will have a meaningful impact on either my organization or the individuals I get to work with.

Volunteering your time

As professionals, time is a valuable commodity.
I don’t particularly like that statement as the word “commodity” implies abundance; however, we do trade commodities for money, and in the case of time, most of us trade our time for a salary.

Memory chips are a commodity. Apples are a commodity.
We treat time as a commodity, but it should be a treated as a resource.

Resources are limited. Copper and gold in the ground are resources. Clean water is a resource. While oil is treated as a commodity due to its historical abundance, at some point, it will be priced based on scarcity or the increased difficulty in extraction.

Time? Perhaps it depends on your point of view. As an employer, time is a commodity—I can purchase time at a market rate from any number of providers. As an employee, time is a valuable resource that is limited and always decreasing.

Taking time to volunteer means donating your most valuable resource to an organization that, hopefully, doesn’t treat it like a commodity.

I now work on both sides of this equation—I ask people to volunteer their time, and I donate my time to other groups. As someone who now asks folks for their time, I have become more aware of the value of my time. I don’t want it wasted. I want it to help the organization and its mission.

If you are a volunteer, I encourage you to consider taking a leadership role in an organization you support. Most likely, you’ll be asked to ask of others. I’m confident it will put a new perspective on how you view (and value) your time.

Story Time

A collection of facts is not a story. If you have the chance to give a presentation, why would you talk about only facts? What is the story?

As scientists, we like to focus on facts—facts are safe, they aren’t up for debate. Facts (i.e., data) are what we agree to before we start the discussion; the discussion that follows can focus on the interpretation of the data, but the facts—the data—is not up for debate. (At least by the time you get to the point where you are giving a presentation.)

When we think of a story, we probably assume three acts: a beginning, a middle, and the end. But framing a presentation in this framework can cause worry to a business audience. It’s often helpful in this setting to provide the bottom-line-up-font (BLUF). Yes, it gives away the ending, but this technique creates a useful top-down narrative that anyone with too many meetings on their calendar will appreciate.

If you want to engage the audience—whether one, five, twenty or a hundred—tell us the story behind the data. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out tale, but it needs to be enough to provide context and justify the time commitment you are asking us to give.

Building New Skills

There is no better gig than getting paid to learn.

In August of last year, I decided to take on the challenge of teaching an applied statistical techniques course—one small problem—I’m not a statistician. Like most scientist and engineers, I’ve used (and abused) statistics all my entire career, so I do have experience with the concepts. Also, my math skills are not too shabby as I have incorporated calculus, differential equations, and other advanced topics into my work over the years. (Yes, some people do use algebra.) The good news? I had about four months before the first day of class and enough control over my schedule where I could commit 10+ hours per week to develop the course content. The real challenge was to create the course using R, a language, and environment for statistical computing and graphics. Being open about my own abilities, I was not proficient with this language.

With this in mind, I set out to create the course—with emphasis on the “applied” and “techniques.” Starting in the fall, I developed a module that students would work through each week. I estimated my 10–12 hours of work each week would translate into the three hours of material for each class and this worked out surprisingly well.

The course is coming to an end this week, and the best part of the experience was how much I learned (or maybe relearned). But most surprising, it was how much I learned the SECOND time I worked through the materials during the weeks I taught the course.

I classify skill sets at three levels:

  • novice: apply basic principles to solve structured problems,
  • hack: gather external resources to solve moderately complex problems,
  • expert: apply advanced principles to solve complex problems with the minimal use of external resources.

I still consider myself a hack when it comes to performing statistical analysis using R, but having the opportunity to expand my own skill set and providing a framework for others to learn something new—that was a great gig.

Kindness

It is an unfortunate truth that as you get older, you start paying more attention to the obituaries than when you were young.

I recently read about the death of a someone I have fond memories. I hadn’t seen this person in probably 25 or 30 years, but as a young man, they had a significant impact on how I should view the world—to be kind.

Every once in a while we need to be reminded of the events and people who shaped our lives for the better. An obituary is a final remembrance. As I was recently reminded, obituaries are about life. In this case a reminder to embody the kindness that was shown to me as a young man and how it was shown to others.