Leysia Palen on creating a new research area, the long path to tenure and starting a department


Leysia Palen is Professor and Founding Chair of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has also led the establishment of the Crisis Informatics research area. Leysia shares her career journey in getting to this place, an amazing story of being a first generation PhD, dealing with imposter syndrome, and moving to a new university to support her spouse. It is also a story of focus and perseverance, defining a new research area, being supported by her own soft money, then finally getting a half-time faculty position, while at the same time having a family and growing the internationally recognised Project EPIC. It was only relatively recently that she got tenure and then quickly became a full professor. Leysia also talks the challenges and lessons learnt in setting up and leading a whole new department and what higher education can be in this era.

“I was a trailing spouse…and the closest fit for me was Computer Science…but it wasn't an easy fit. […] It's important that both people [academic couple] be valuable in terms of how other people measure value.” 

“The truth was I still was uncertain if I belonged in the academy. […] I was smarter than I knew and I was more naive than I knew.”

“To do research and to do teaching, you have to just be present all the time. You have to stay with a problem. You have to stay with other people and where they are. And that's a particular kind of energy .”

“It's naive to think science is only about pursuing ideas that just come to one's head. They have to be good ideas, they have to be tractable ideas.”

For a full transcript, click here


02:45 Being a first generation college student, undergrad at UCSD and PhD at Irvine

08:51 Moving to Colorado CS department as a trailing spouse, focusing on keeping the research thread going

11:34 Working in soft money, needing to reduce work to what she could do well while she was having children

15:08 Moving to a half-time tenure track position, trying to deal with not being a close disciplinary fit, moving to formalize research to make a difference

18:23 Setting up a crisis informatics research agenda, and getting it funded

23:16 The challenges doing crisis informatics work and self care

27:07 Eventually getting tenure, the challenges getting there, and juggling family, physical movement, and home/work, getting a full-time position in 2007 but still not tenured, eventually went for associate without tenure, then later with tenure. And then in a short time to full professor.

35:06 Being noticed by the campus for the impact she was having, the multi-disciplinary group, graduating 7 PhD students all women. Setting up a new department of information science. The opportunity to think about the nature of disciplines, what an ischool in 2015 could be like, and re-thinking education.

42:34 Learning to be a leader, no training pathways for leadership or role models for setting up a new department, and defining discipline vs department.

52:21 Final reflections and working with a 50 year view.

56:51 End

Related Links

Department of Information Science - https://www.colorado.edu/cmci/infoscience

Palen & Anderson, 2016, Crisis Informatics – New data for extraordinary times, Science. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6296/224

Ed Hutchins - http://pages.ucsd.edu/~ehutchins/

Aaron Cicourel - https://sociology.ucsd.edu/people/faculty/emeritus/aaron-cicourel.html

Don Norman - https://jnd.org

Amy Voida - https://www.colorado.edu/cmci/people/information-science/amy-voida

Ricarose Roque - https://www.colorado.edu/cmci/people/information-science/ricarose-roque

Brian Keegan - https://www.colorado.edu/cmci/people/information-science/brian-c-keegan

Ben Kraal on moving from academia to industry

Dr Ben Kraal recently started working as a User Experience Consultant, having chosen to leave a contract research (and teaching) position after 9 years in academia for a position in industry. He talks about his early career, doing a PhD and then working for 9 years on time-limited university contracts. He reflects on the challenge of being legible within an academic system when you are not in control of your own research agenda. And he talks about making the decision to leave academia for industry and how he is now able to be more present and engaged at home and he gets to do all the parts of his research job that he loved in his new industry role. I encourage you to also look at Ben's blog post on academic burnout and the Guardian article below that happened to also come out today.

“It’s a job that doesn’t ever stop. That’s ok if you are enjoying it and I think I’d gotten to the point where I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. And my family had long stopped enjoying that fact that I had ever enjoyed it.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

01:20 From degree to industry to a PhD position

05:16 Going back to academia, doing a PhD at Uni of Canberra

09:20 Moving cities to take a post-doc research position

12:46 Working on research projects

15:20 Moving into more teaching work

21:15 Publishing interdisciplinary work, boundary crossing, and using an editor for papers

23:15 Working on soft money, shorter contracts when soft money runs out,

26:30 Being an illegible person in the university system

28:52 Making the move into industry, making the choice to stay in Brisbane

31:08 Talking at a practitioner conference, taking students along, making connections, framing his expertise to be relevant to industry

35:40 Telling the university, he is leaving

36:53 The family’s reaction to his leaving, and getting to the point of not enjoying the work, the increasing pressure of meetings and impact on working at the weekends

39:00 Now much easier being engaged, being present to the family at weekends

40:25 Breaking the news to his students, colleagues, tying up final research work

43:14 What he is enjoying about his new job; doing all his favourite bits from being a researcher; and the long commute

48:15 Not doing email on weekends, “which is fantastic!”, because the firm doesn’t! Not doing email when he gets home; being told he looks so much happier when he comes home

50:50 “The pace is faster than the university but the rhythm is more consistent.” … as an academic having multiple plates in the air, “and if you can keep them in the air someone gives you an extra plate”

53:00 Will probably miss teaching - “Better at being a teaching academic than a paper producing research academic”

54:40 “Because I’m illegible in the university system, I’m actually interesting in the commercial world”; Discussing the way the academic system looks for people going deeper and the challenges of being cross-disciplinary

57:25 About Tom Rodden’s experience not being his experience, as Tom was able to be in charge of his own research and able to tell a coherent story, being legible into the wider system; And Marcus Foth also being able to tell a legible story; and being able to tell his own story in a way that is interesting to industry

65:00 Lucky to have had long term contracts compared to others not employed for more than a year at a time “so the university can keep them in a box”

67:07 End

Related Links

Ben on researching the airport of the future: an interview with Gerry Gaffney:  http://uxpod.com/researching-the-airport-of-the-future-an-interview-with-ben-kraal/

Ben’s blog post “On Academic Burnout”: https://benkraal.com/2016/12/01/on-academic-burnout/

Ben's review of 2016: https://benkraal.com/2017/01/01/2016-year-in-review/

See also a 2 Dec 2016 Guardian article on experiences with casual/short term contracts: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/dec/02/short-term-contracts-university-academia-family?CMP=share_btn_tw 

Symplicit: Customer-Led Innovation Consultancy - where he is now working: http://www.symplicit.com.au

People he mentioned:

Inger Mewburn: https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/mewburn-i

Helen Purchase: http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/computing/staff/helenpurchase/

Vesna Popovic: http://staff.qut.edu.au/staff/popovic/

Previous interviews he mentioned:

Tom Rodden interview: http://www.changingacademiclife.com/blog/2016/11/2/tom-rodden

Marcus Foth interview: http://www.changingacademiclife.com/blog/2016/9/25/marcus-foth