Category Archives: transportation

How I Roll

I had the opportunity for my course in Communicating Science to give a five minute speech on my research/study topic.  The format for my speech was based on what I learned last fall when watching an introductory video about the center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stonybrook.  At one point in the video, Alan Alda is emphasizing the importance of making it more personal, and this stuck with me.  If you want to see the before/after speeches from Stonybrook, check out the video below.

So how did I apply these ideas and make my own research more personal?  The draft for the speech that I wrote is below, and it’s pretty close to the speech that I actually gave.  It was a unique experience for me delivering five minutes of material with no props, and I enjoyed the challenge!

~

Good evening, my name is John Sangster.  Whenever I attend a dinner party, or meet other parents on the playground, the conversation naturally winds its way around to the question of what I am studying.  There’s always a pause before I respond, because I know what’s going to happen.  So I steel myself for it, take a deep breath, and say “I’m studying transportation engineering, but basically I’m a traffic engineer.”  The pause that follows this is usually longer than the pause that I took before speaking.  Most of the time I’ll get a placating response like “oh, that’s nice” or “hmm, that must be interesting,” but occasionally will be a bit bolder and they’ll tell me what they’re really feeling.  If you think back to the last time you swore at someone, odds are good that you were in your car at the time.  People have a visceral reaction to traffic, and telling someone that you are pursuing traffic for your career is like telling them you’re studying to be a divorce lawyer; everyone knows it’s necessary, but everyone wishes it wasn’t.  Most often I hear that such and such an intersection doesn’t work well, or that travelling on such and such road hits every red light at a certain time in the morning and someone should really fix it.  Every once in a while I’ll talk with someone really bold who will say “so… can I blame YOU for roundabouts?!?”  This, I think, is the funniest of all the responses I get, because yeah, to some degree, you can blame me for roundabouts.

Now… because I want to teach in the future, I’ve been studying all facets of transportation, focusing most strongly on traffic, a strength of mine from my years as a consulting engineer.  The bread and butter of a consulting traffic engineer is the ever-present big box store.  Every time a development is proposed, the local town or county, whoever’s responsible for maintaining the roads, requires a nice big three-inch thick report called a Traffic Impact Analysis Study.  This report tells how many cars will come to the building and leave from it, where they’re all going, and most importantly, how that traffic will change the travel time on the roads.  The amount of increase in delay determines how much money a developer is forced to pay to help reconstruct roadways or add lanes at traffic signals to make it all work.  The thing is, at $115 an hour it takes an engineer a long time to make a three-inch thick report, and between big box stores, gas stations, donut shops, subdivisions, and doctor’s offices, there’s a lot of reports to be done.  This is the kind of stuff I teach my students about.

For my own research roundabouts are the thing.  Well, not just roundabouts, but all intersections that fall into this broad category called “alternative intersections.”  There’s about a half-dozen of these designs in use in some part of the country, and all of them are a bit screwier than the roundabout.  What they have in common is that they increase the amount of vehicles that can get through going straight, by inconveniencing the minor movements, like side streets and left-turning cars, rerouting them in a way that lets more through cars go.  A huge benefit of these designs is that increase the safety of the intersection by reducing the number of conflicting movements that could cause crashes.  The roundabout’s a lousy example of helping the through movement, but it’s a great example of reducing conflict.  Some of the most dangerous traffic accidents are head-on collisions where you make a left turn without seeing the opposing car coming at you and they smash right into your front, or you go through a green light minding your own business and having a nice day, and then someone runs a red light and slams into the side of you in a t-bone collision.  Roundabouts completely get rid of these kinds of conflicts, leaving only fender-bender types of crashes as cars come together at an angle.  BUT… you say… EVERYONE HATES ROUNDABOUTS.  Unfortunately, I agree with you, everyone does hate roundabouts, and in the places around the country where those other alternative designs have been built, everyone hates those too.  So the focus of my research is to figure out how to explain the benefits of these alternative designs to everyone.  I have to convince people within my own industry, and in the general public.  Because the truth is that these designs are safer, and they do work better.  Thank you.

~

What are your thoughts on the speech?  Does it engage you?  Does it stir up some emotion?  How can I improve it?  Feedback, as always, is appreciated!!

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, communicating science, Grad School, roundabout, transportation, unconventional intersections, virginia tech, web presence

How I Roll

I had the opportunity for my course in Communicating Science to give a five minute speech on my research/study topic.  The format for my speech was based on what I learned last fall when watching an introductory video about the center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stonybrook.  At one point in the video, Alan Alda is emphasizing the importance of making it more personal, and this stuck with me.  If you want to see the before/after speeches from Stonybrook, check out the video below.

So how did I apply these ideas and make my own research more personal?  The draft for the speech that I wrote is below, and it’s pretty close to the speech that I actually gave.  It was a unique experience for me delivering five minutes of material with no props, and I enjoyed the challenge!

~

Good evening, my name is John Sangster.  Whenever I attend a dinner party, or meet other parents on the playground, the conversation naturally winds its way around to the question of what I am studying.  There’s always a pause before I respond, because I know what’s going to happen.  So I steel myself for it, take a deep breath, and say “I’m studying transportation engineering, but basically I’m a traffic engineer.”  The pause that follows this is usually longer than the pause that I took before speaking.  Most of the time I’ll get a placating response like “oh, that’s nice” or “hmm, that must be interesting,” but occasionally will be a bit bolder and they’ll tell me what they’re really feeling.  If you think back to the last time you swore at someone, odds are good that you were in your car at the time.  People have a visceral reaction to traffic, and telling someone that you are pursuing traffic for your career is like telling them you’re studying to be a divorce lawyer; everyone knows it’s necessary, but everyone wishes it wasn’t.  Most often I hear that such and such an intersection doesn’t work well, or that travelling on such and such road hits every red light at a certain time in the morning and someone should really fix it.  Every once in a while I’ll talk with someone really bold who will say “so… can I blame YOU for roundabouts?!?”  This, I think, is the funniest of all the responses I get, because yeah, to some degree, you can blame me for roundabouts.

Now… because I want to teach in the future, I’ve been studying all facets of transportation, focusing most strongly on traffic, a strength of mine from my years as a consulting engineer.  The bread and butter of a consulting traffic engineer is the ever-present big box store.  Every time a development is proposed, the local town or county, whoever’s responsible for maintaining the roads, requires a nice big three-inch thick report called a Traffic Impact Analysis Study.  This report tells how many cars will come to the building and leave from it, where they’re all going, and most importantly, how that traffic will change the travel time on the roads.  The amount of increase in delay determines how much money a developer is forced to pay to help reconstruct roadways or add lanes at traffic signals to make it all work.  The thing is, at $115 an hour it takes an engineer a long time to make a three-inch thick report, and between big box stores, gas stations, donut shops, subdivisions, and doctor’s offices, there’s a lot of reports to be done.  This is the kind of stuff I teach my students about.

For my own research roundabouts are the thing.  Well, not just roundabouts, but all intersections that fall into this broad category called “alternative intersections.”  There’s about a half-dozen of these designs in use in some part of the country, and all of them are a bit screwier than the roundabout.  What they have in common is that they increase the amount of vehicles that can get through going straight, by inconveniencing the minor movements, like side streets and left-turning cars, rerouting them in a way that lets more through cars go.  A huge benefit of these designs is that increase the safety of the intersection by reducing the number of conflicting movements that could cause crashes.  The roundabout’s a lousy example of helping the through movement, but it’s a great example of reducing conflict.  Some of the most dangerous traffic accidents are head-on collisions where you make a left turn without seeing the opposing car coming at you and they smash right into your front, or you go through a green light minding your own business and having a nice day, and then someone runs a red light and slams into the side of you in a t-bone collision.  Roundabouts completely get rid of these kinds of conflicts, leaving only fender-bender types of crashes as cars come together at an angle.  BUT… you say… EVERYONE HATES ROUNDABOUTS.  Unfortunately, I agree with you, everyone does hate roundabouts, and in the places around the country where those other alternative designs have been built, everyone hates those too.  So the focus of my research is to figure out how to explain the benefits of these alternative designs to everyone.  I have to convince people within my own industry, and in the general public.  Because the truth is that these designs are safer, and they do work better.  Thank you.

~

What are your thoughts on the speech?  Does it engage you?  Does it stir up some emotion?  How can I improve it?  Feedback, as always, is appreciated!!

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, communicating science, Grad School, roundabout, transportation, unconventional intersections, virginia tech, web presence

Birth and Rebirth are Positively Correlated

It should not surprise me that birth of my third child has launched me into a deep state of introspection.  Not only does a birth shift the foundation on which your life stands, it leaves you with little time or energy to do anything but reflect.  A newborn’s life stretches out before you as you hold their tiny sleeping form, and as you wonder how their life will be and wish them well it’s only natural to reflect on your own state and think about where you want to be.

When Jonas was born in 2008, it took me two weeks to register for the GRE exam and apply to a distance program to begin earning my MS degree.  When Emily arrived in 2010, I received an email from my advisor-to-be less than an hour after her birth with the funding letter to pursue my MS and Ph.D. full-time.  Less than a week before my son’s birth I came to the final decision that I wish to abandon the theoretical path my thesis research took me on, in order to go back to applied research that builds on my consulting experience.  On the surface this may seem like a small shift in the pattern of life when compared to the actions I took when the other two were born, but I think it may have more significance than it at first appears.

I’ve spent the past two years trying to wrap my head around driver behavior during car-following events.  I’ve been trying to understand how you as a driver react to the vehicle in front of you as their relative speed and relative distance to you changes.  In theory, a better understanding of this behavior can lead to more accurate traffic simulation software algorithms, which can allow researchers and practitioners to better predict how different potential roadway conditions will affect traffic, allowing for cost/benefit analysis before construction begins.  Even models that closely match real-world behaviors may result in simulations that bear no resemblance to actual field conditions, and the calibration of these models can be more of an art-form than a science.  I have been fortunate (or not) to have access to a massive database of information, where lots of data elements (including GSP location, speed, and the radar information) for one hundred vehicles, recorded every 0.1 seconds for an entire year.  The original study sought to gather accident data, and to my knowledge I’m the first to try and pull mobility information from it.  Unfortunately (for me), the reason no-one has applied this data to mobility before now is the incredible amount of processing time and effort in order to translate the data into a usable format for analysis.  Around the four-month mark in working on this full-time, my advisor recommended that the first paper might be on the complications encountered in data reduction.  By the time I finally had a dataset to work with, I was about a month away from the deadline to submit papers to our industry’s big conference.  In that time I read the preliminary papers for the four models I was supposed to be simulating, implemented the four in excel, and wrote two papers, one dealing with getting the data and one dealing with the results I had from the simulation.  In hind sight, I should have spent four months getting the data and three months modeling, instead of six and one.  The result of all this was a rejection letter for each paper.  In the three months between submitting the papers and receiving “review comments,” I performed additional data reduction work instead of trying to build further understanding of the models I was using.  At the time I didn’t even realize that I needed to have a better understanding of the models; as far as I was concerned these were established models that have been used in research regularly, and my contribution had everything to do with the new dataset and nothing to do with the models.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to spend time reading more about them; I was spending every available minute on data reduction trying to make my dataset as significant as possible.  This misunderstanding on my part ended up causing a great deal of extra work for me in the month leading up to my thesis defense, and in the two weeks following it!

Fortunately, I look back at my crazy research year with amusement instead of aggravation, because I did have a paper accepted at the conference, a third paper submittal I did on my own time as a hobby, entirely unrelated to my thesis research.

There is a subcategory of intersection geometries that were called unconventional intersections, and are now being marketed as alternative intersections.  Some of these designs, like the roundabout, have been widely implemented, while others exist only on paper.  In addition to the roundabout, you may have driven through or heard about the Jughandle intersection, the Median U-turn intersection, the Diverging Diamond Interchange (now referred to as the Double Crossover Diamond Interchange), or even the displaced left-turn intersection (previously called the continuous flow intersection).  From an application point of view, these intersections are very difficult for practitioners to model using the basic software applications common to all traffic engineers, and they must instead be modeled using costly and time-intensive simulation software packages generally used either by researchers, or by a specialist in a very large consulting office.  Thus they are often overlooked entirely as options.

In the conceptual planning stage of an intersection or interchange problem, all of the potential alternatives are compared for functionality, often measured in terms of average delay per vehicle in seconds.  Preliminary design is conducted for the best performing designs, including a cost estimate of each alternative.  Examining the level of operations of an alternative along with its respective cost yields a decision on which design to pursue, with final design and construction drawings produced.  Sometimes additional considerations are made, such as the ability to maintain traffic flow during reconstruction for a particular design.  If an alternative intersection design is going to be considered as one of the alternatives for design, it usually takes a direct interest from a client (municipality, local, or state government official) to get it included, in large part because of the difficulty in including it at that conceptual analysis phase.

The Federal Highway Administration is supporting the expansion of alternative intersection designs, and in 2010 published a paperoutlining a simple tool to perform comparative analysis for these intersections based on the critical lane volume (honestly, you don’t need the details on it right now).  Effectively, the tool provides a comparative analysis between lots of alternative intersection designs after about five minutes of work and no processing time.  I’ve been thinking for the last two years that this sounded too good to be true, so my pet project was to put it to the test.  I chose one alternative design, the quadrant roadway design, and compared it against a conventional intersection with a bunch of different volume combinations.  I used the simplified tool, and the base software used by all traffic engineers, and then I also did high-fidelity simulation of the two alternative designs.  I wanted to know if the results (one intersection better than the other) provided by the simplified tool were consistent with the results provided by the other two methodologies; what I found was that they were not.

The obvious next questions to ask are: 1. does the simplified method work for some of the alternative designs, but not the one I checked, and 2. what other simplified methods of comparison might work for these designs?  Here’s the catch – this kind of research could be performed by a capable traffic engineer who had some time on their hands and an inclination to spend it doing research.  The car-following theory research is far more rigorous, with the best work usually being produced by doctorates in mathematics, electronics signal processing, or fluid dynamics.  If I could buckle down, really understand the various models, make new observations about those models based on my unique dataset, and potentially develop my own model, then I might increase my chances of faculty employment four years from now.  I worry that a research record as a revved up consultant may be a disservice to me in pursuing employment.  So here’s where we come full-circle to thinking about life with the perspective of holding a newborn in your arms.

I may not be cut out to do top-notch rigorous research in highly theoretical transportation issues.  More importantly, I don’t enjoy it.  When I first started my research, and when I worked on my hobby paper, I woke up excited to go to work in the morning and see what I could accomplish.  I’m not saying I wasn’t excited to go home at the end of the day, I LOVE spending time with my family, but I’m able to enjoy that time so much more after a productive day.  Working to pull everything together for my thesis this fall was like pulling teeth; I had to force myself to stay on task and I spent more time spinning my wheels / banging my head on my desk than doing anything else.  Why would I spend three more years trying to get this to work out, in order to qualify for jobs where I’d be doing this for the next forty years?!?  I certainly don’t want to return to consulting, where the world revolves around cost-effective ways of doing things and not “right” or “correct” ways of doing things, but I also don’t want to trap myself in a part of the research world that I don’t wish to visit, much less inhabit.

I think I’ve been fighting myself on this for the past 20 years, but what I really want out of life is to teach, to inspire, to foster a collaborative atmosphere, and to mentor.  Before I started my part-time MS program I knew all of the teacher certification programs within an hour’s drive and I’d read extensively on their websites.  My sense of responsibility to my family was always preventing me from taking the pay cut to leave engineering and teach high-school, and I believe rightly so.  My return to graduate school is effectively a nuclear option to merge my desire to maintain a higher salary with my desire to teach.  Some may wonder, why all this machinating about research if you just want to teach?  Transportation engineering is taught within the larger field of Civil Engineering, and in terms of occupation accounts for around 10% of all civil majors.  In order to achieve a tenure track faculty position in transportation engineering, I will need to work in a Civil department that’s large enough to include full-time staff in transportation (instead of adjuncts), which necessitates a larger university, which generally means research intensive.  I don’t want to go the route of an adjunct faculty, because they don’t make enough money, they don’t have a say in how a department operates, and they have minimal mentoring opportunities.  So I keep driving myself in this thought loop that I need rigorous research to obtain a position that meets my needs/wants, but I’m not enjoying what I’m doing and I know I wouldn’t enjoy it ad infinitum.

I am extremely fortunate that my advisor is supportive of my pursing either of the two research topics.  I finally got the nerve up to ask him about switching the week before my son was born, and his advice to me (he’s always very direct) was that it’d be better for me to do a great job on an applied research topic, than a mediocre job on a rigorous research topic.  So with that decided I just need to figure out how I’m going to get ahold of my own classroom instead of just doing guest lectures for the next three years!

In the meantime, I’ll go back to holding my sweet six-pound little boy, and maybe take a nap.

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, family, Grad School, research, roundabout, transportation, unconventional intersections

Birth and Rebirth are Positively Correlated

It should not surprise me that birth of my third child has launched me into a deep state of introspection.  Not only does a birth shift the foundation on which your life stands, it leaves you with little time or energy to do anything but reflect.  A newborn’s life stretches out before you as you hold their tiny sleeping form, and as you wonder how their life will be and wish them well it’s only natural to reflect on your own state and think about where you want to be.

When Jonas was born in 2008, it took me two weeks to register for the GRE exam and apply to a distance program to begin earning my MS degree.  When Emily arrived in 2010, I received an email from my advisor-to-be less than an hour after her birth with the funding letter to pursue my MS and Ph.D. full-time.  Less than a week before my son’s birth I came to the final decision that I wish to abandon the theoretical path my thesis research took me on, in order to go back to applied research that builds on my consulting experience.  On the surface this may seem like a small shift in the pattern of life when compared to the actions I took when the other two were born, but I think it may have more significance than it at first appears.

I’ve spent the past two years trying to wrap my head around driver behavior during car-following events.  I’ve been trying to understand how you as a driver react to the vehicle in front of you as their relative speed and relative distance to you changes.  In theory, a better understanding of this behavior can lead to more accurate traffic simulation software algorithms, which can allow researchers and practitioners to better predict how different potential roadway conditions will affect traffic, allowing for cost/benefit analysis before construction begins.  Even models that closely match real-world behaviors may result in simulations that bear no resemblance to actual field conditions, and the calibration of these models can be more of an art-form than a science.  I have been fortunate (or not) to have access to a massive database of information, where lots of data elements (including GSP location, speed, and the radar information) for one hundred vehicles, recorded every 0.1 seconds for an entire year.  The original study sought to gather accident data, and to my knowledge I’m the first to try and pull mobility information from it.  Unfortunately (for me), the reason no-one has applied this data to mobility before now is the incredible amount of processing time and effort in order to translate the data into a usable format for analysis.  Around the four-month mark in working on this full-time, my advisor recommended that the first paper might be on the complications encountered in data reduction.  By the time I finally had a dataset to work with, I was about a month away from the deadline to submit papers to our industry’s big conference.  In that time I read the preliminary papers for the four models I was supposed to be simulating, implemented the four in excel, and wrote two papers, one dealing with getting the data and one dealing with the results I had from the simulation.  In hind sight, I should have spent four months getting the data and three months modeling, instead of six and one.  The result of all this was a rejection letter for each paper.  In the three months between submitting the papers and receiving “review comments,” I performed additional data reduction work instead of trying to build further understanding of the models I was using.  At the time I didn’t even realize that I needed to have a better understanding of the models; as far as I was concerned these were established models that have been used in research regularly, and my contribution had everything to do with the new dataset and nothing to do with the models.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to spend time reading more about them; I was spending every available minute on data reduction trying to make my dataset as significant as possible.  This misunderstanding on my part ended up causing a great deal of extra work for me in the month leading up to my thesis defense, and in the two weeks following it!

Fortunately, I look back at my crazy research year with amusement instead of aggravation, because I did have a paper accepted at the conference, a third paper submittal I did on my own time as a hobby, entirely unrelated to my thesis research.

There is a subcategory of intersection geometries that were called unconventional intersections, and are now being marketed as alternative intersections.  Some of these designs, like the roundabout, have been widely implemented, while others exist only on paper.  In addition to the roundabout, you may have driven through or heard about the Jughandle intersection, the Median U-turn intersection, the Diverging Diamond Interchange (now referred to as the Double Crossover Diamond Interchange), or even the displaced left-turn intersection (previously called the continuous flow intersection).  From an application point of view, these intersections are very difficult for practitioners to model using the basic software applications common to all traffic engineers, and they must instead be modeled using costly and time-intensive simulation software packages generally used either by researchers, or by a specialist in a very large consulting office.  Thus they are often overlooked entirely as options.

In the conceptual planning stage of an intersection or interchange problem, all of the potential alternatives are compared for functionality, often measured in terms of average delay per vehicle in seconds.  Preliminary design is conducted for the best performing designs, including a cost estimate of each alternative.  Examining the level of operations of an alternative along with its respective cost yields a decision on which design to pursue, with final design and construction drawings produced.  Sometimes additional considerations are made, such as the ability to maintain traffic flow during reconstruction for a particular design.  If an alternative intersection design is going to be considered as one of the alternatives for design, it usually takes a direct interest from a client (municipality, local, or state government official) to get it included, in large part because of the difficulty in including it at that conceptual analysis phase.

The Federal Highway Administration is supporting the expansion of alternative intersection designs, and in 2010 published a paperoutlining a simple tool to perform comparative analysis for these intersections based on the critical lane volume (honestly, you don’t need the details on it right now).  Effectively, the tool provides a comparative analysis between lots of alternative intersection designs after about five minutes of work and no processing time.  I’ve been thinking for the last two years that this sounded too good to be true, so my pet project was to put it to the test.  I chose one alternative design, the quadrant roadway design, and compared it against a conventional intersection with a bunch of different volume combinations.  I used the simplified tool, and the base software used by all traffic engineers, and then I also did high-fidelity simulation of the two alternative designs.  I wanted to know if the results (one intersection better than the other) provided by the simplified tool were consistent with the results provided by the other two methodologies; what I found was that they were not.

The obvious next questions to ask are: 1. does the simplified method work for some of the alternative designs, but not the one I checked, and 2. what other simplified methods of comparison might work for these designs?  Here’s the catch – this kind of research could be performed by a capable traffic engineer who had some time on their hands and an inclination to spend it doing research.  The car-following theory research is far more rigorous, with the best work usually being produced by doctorates in mathematics, electronics signal processing, or fluid dynamics.  If I could buckle down, really understand the various models, make new observations about those models based on my unique dataset, and potentially develop my own model, then I might increase my chances of faculty employment four years from now.  I worry that a research record as a revved up consultant may be a disservice to me in pursuing employment.  So here’s where we come full-circle to thinking about life with the perspective of holding a newborn in your arms.

I may not be cut out to do top-notch rigorous research in highly theoretical transportation issues.  More importantly, I don’t enjoy it.  When I first started my research, and when I worked on my hobby paper, I woke up excited to go to work in the morning and see what I could accomplish.  I’m not saying I wasn’t excited to go home at the end of the day, I LOVE spending time with my family, but I’m able to enjoy that time so much more after a productive day.  Working to pull everything together for my thesis this fall was like pulling teeth; I had to force myself to stay on task and I spent more time spinning my wheels / banging my head on my desk than doing anything else.  Why would I spend three more years trying to get this to work out, in order to qualify for jobs where I’d be doing this for the next forty years?!?  I certainly don’t want to return to consulting, where the world revolves around cost-effective ways of doing things and not “right” or “correct” ways of doing things, but I also don’t want to trap myself in a part of the research world that I don’t wish to visit, much less inhabit.

I think I’ve been fighting myself on this for the past 20 years, but what I really want out of life is to teach, to inspire, to foster a collaborative atmosphere, and to mentor.  Before I started my part-time MS program I knew all of the teacher certification programs within an hour’s drive and I’d read extensively on their websites.  My sense of responsibility to my family was always preventing me from taking the pay cut to leave engineering and teach high-school, and I believe rightly so.  My return to graduate school is effectively a nuclear option to merge my desire to maintain a higher salary with my desire to teach.  Some may wonder, why all this machinating about research if you just want to teach?  Transportation engineering is taught within the larger field of Civil Engineering, and in terms of occupation accounts for around 10% of all civil majors.  In order to achieve a tenure track faculty position in transportation engineering, I will need to work in a Civil department that’s large enough to include full-time staff in transportation (instead of adjuncts), which necessitates a larger university, which generally means research intensive.  I don’t want to go the route of an adjunct faculty, because they don’t make enough money, they don’t have a say in how a department operates, and they have minimal mentoring opportunities.  So I keep driving myself in this thought loop that I need rigorous research to obtain a position that meets my needs/wants, but I’m not enjoying what I’m doing and I know I wouldn’t enjoy it ad infinitum.

I am extremely fortunate that my advisor is supportive of my pursing either of the two research topics.  I finally got the nerve up to ask him about switching the week before my son was born, and his advice to me (he’s always very direct) was that it’d be better for me to do a great job on an applied research topic, than a mediocre job on a rigorous research topic.  So with that decided I just need to figure out how I’m going to get ahold of my own classroom instead of just doing guest lectures for the next three years!

In the meantime, I’ll go back to holding my sweet six-pound little boy, and maybe take a nap.

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, alternative intersections, family, Grad School, research, roundabout, transportation, unconventional intersections

The TRB Annual Meeting for Young Attendees, in a (large) Nutshell

This blog post is intended to summarize my observations from my second foray at the TRB annual meeting (#TRBAM).  This post will circulate after the fanfare of the 2012 AM is over, but it will hopefully be timely for those decompressing after the meeting.  To frame my discussion, I’ll inform the audience that I’m a 31-year-old doctoral student with seven years of industry experience who returned to grad school seeking refuge from the consulting world.  There are a couple of different demographics I expect may read this, so I’ll address them directly.

The 21-27 demographic is made up of students and young professionals, many of whom are attending TRB for the first time, and many of whom will not attend TRB again once they finish their stint in grad school.  Very few of these people will be reading this post, as they would have to go looking for it before next year’s TRB, and the initiative involved in reading other people’s opinions on the event is not a quality that runs strong in this group.  While there are exceptions to every rule, this demographic represents the people coming down to breakfast in their pajamas at 9:00, who then wander aimlessly around the conference from 10:00 until 3:00 with their faces bunched in consternation while they attempt to translate the program into information they can understand.  If you are in this demographic by age, but I have described behavior which you feel is insulting toward you, then by all means please consider yourself as an honorary member of the 28-35 group.

The 28-35 demographic is made up of young professionals and students who have invested some time in the industry and have a better understanding of the value of time spent at a conference like this.  They are the target demographic of the events planned for young professionals by the TAC.  Some of these people are coming to TRB for the first time, after arriving at a job position involving research, while many others have attended regularly as they’ve tracked their own careers through TRB.  Some of these people will continue to attend, will seek out committees and committee membership, and will someday enter leadership positions at TRB.

The over-35 demographic who are taking the time to read this post fall into a category that I’ll define as social-media anthropologists/sociologists, which is another way of saying curious onlookers.  This demographic has many years of experience with TRB, and may be taking an interest in encouraging participation from a younger demographic.

First Timers / 21-27 Demographic

Since I’ve either already lost the 21-27 crowd, or I am about to lose them, I’ll give them my short list of things to do for their first TRB.  By far the most important advice I have to give is to generate a schedule for yourself BEFORE you arrive at TRB.  Use the interactive online annual meeting schedule.  Don’t waste your time trying to enter in key-words that match your interest area, just break it down by day and sort by time, then scroll through and make a list.  The only thing you can accomplish by not having a plan in advance is to fit in with the stereotype of your demographic and wander aimlessly.  As a secondary recommendation for the schedule, don’t upload it to your digital calendar on your smart phone, make it hard-copy, and make it a single page that you can fold up and keep in your pocket.  See exhibit A.

Exhibit A: Preliminary Schedule
This brings me to the question on everyone’s mind their first time at TRB, ‘What the heck should I be going to see?!?”  The general categories of events at TRB are exhibits, posters, sessions (most descriptive title yet), workshops, committee meetings, subcommittee meetings, and receptions.  Your goals (by the way, you should be entering TRB with one or more goals in mind) will determine which types of activities you should attend.  Sample goals include increasing general knowledge, seeking a new dissertation topic, networking with a short-term aim of getting a job, networking with long-term career goals, and some other goals I wouldn’t recommend, like seeking out free food and alcohol.

Exhibits are a great place to go if you’re hungry, if you want trinkets, if you want someone to talk to, and if you want to try and get your resume into someone’s hands.  The exhibit hall seems to be a better fit for the older professionals who actively work with vendors to touch base in person once a year and catch up with the latest advances with a given product.  As with many places at TRB, the main feature of the exhibit hall appears to be older members running into each other and catching up on who they’re now working for and how they might collaborate in the future.  Along this line of thought, if you do happen to be in the market for a job, ask one of your mentors attending the annual meeting to tour the exhibit hall with you.

Posters are a great opportunity to talk one-on-one with researchers about their papers.  This isn’t such a great venue for wandering aimlessly, because information overload will quickly drive you from the room.  Stop by the posters if there’s a particular professor you’re interested in working with for your doctorate and want to meet them in person, or if you’re in a job hunt and there’s a company presenting that you’re specifically interested in.  There are some very good projects you can learn about if you walk around, but for the most part you’ll have to search through the paper database later for your research anyway.  If you’re presenting at one of these and find yourself confused at the lack of interest from passers-by, you should remember that poster sessions are treated by senior members as another chance to socialize and catch up with old friends, and they might still read your paper at a later date for their research.

The session format is a good outlet for the 21-27 year-old who may be interested in learning more about a topic, but who isn’t already heavily involved in the area.  The session format provides a hand-full of presentations by subject-area experts on a given topic, followed by a question and answer period at the end of the event.  There aren’t many networking opportunities at sessions, unless you happen to need to talk to one of the speakers, and you manage to catch them before/after the event.

The workshop format is generally set up as a long (often full day) session on Sunday or Thursday.  If there’s a specific topic that you’re very focused on with an applicable workshop then you should attend it, but otherwise you may want to devote your time elsewhere.  Some workshops involve small-group discussion and problem-solving, but the majority seem to be run as extended sessions with presentations and brief periods of question/answer.

Committee meetings are hit and miss for new attendees, and I should warn you that as often as not you’ll be the only young member in the room, unless there are some students tagging along with their adviser.  I highly recommend you attend at least the first hour of any committee meeting associated with your research field, because it’s important to understand the atmosphere at different committees.  Some committees are happy to have visitors and try to include them, while others are disenchanted with young member participation (or committee friends in general) and won’t be happy to see you return.  Committee meetings are the place where the business of TRB happens, and committees will be largely focused on how the workshops and sessions they’re supporting are going in the current year, and on what workshops and sessions they should provide for the following year.  Many committee meetings will also include a couple of brief presentations by members of the committee on related material, but for the most part these are planning meetings.  At many committees, there is no potential for interaction with the audience, and members are on task to get through a busy agenda within the four hours of the meeting.  There may be some opportunities for volunteering and getting involved, but these would have to happen at the end by listening to the needs of the committee and cornering the appropriate member after the meeting.  DO NOT expect to attend a meeting for the first time and get an invitation to join them as a young member – instead expect that your first time no-one will acknowledge your presence.  This isn’t a rule, just an observation of the majority case.  The statistics are that around 1/3 of every attendee is a first-time person at a given annual meeting, so these committees have gotten used to seeing people once and never seeing them again, and it’s not a reflection on you personally.  If you’re serious about joining a committee I’d recommend the following timeline: attend your first meeting with them, after which you should express your interest in volunteering; follow up with them by email once a month until they respond; find out when their midyear meeting is and make sure you call in to be present, if not participate; attend the committee at the following year’s annual meeting and THEN ask them about membership, if they haven’t already brought it up with you.

I’ve been trying to avoid references to “more prominent people” a.k.a. “egos that barely fit into a room together” in describing the difference between emotionally closed committees and those that are open to involvement from others, but now I’ve gone and said it and failed in my attempt.  If you happen to find a committee whose work interests you and they’re receptive to involvement from the younger crowd, JUMP ON IT.  These are the people who can be mentors to you both as you get to know TRB, and as you grow in your career.  Committee membership as a young member serves to separate you from your colleagues; the ones you see wandering aimlessly around the conference with their faces buried in the program.  There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make TRB run, and there are good opportunities to get involved.  If you have a lot of time on your hands your committee will be happy to use it, but if you’re in grad school (and have a family like me) there are still plenty of activities you can participate in that are helpful without draining your precious time.

In my limited experience, smaller committees who do not have formal subcommittee meetings are far more open to participation from younger members, but those large committees who treat membership as an elite qualification will have plenty of subcommittee meetings, many of which will include opportunities for open discussion that you can get involved with.  If you wish to get involved in a committee that’s not as open to participation as you’d like, show up to their subcommittee meetings, and behave professionally while showing interest.  It won’t take long before someone asks you to volunteer for something, which is your best option for gaining entry to the group.  If you’re in a career path involving research, I highly recommend attending any “research subcommittee” meetings in your field of interest, as this provides incredible insight into the current leading edge of research, the next thing coming, and the difficulties in getting projects funded.  Starting with my very first trip to TRB, I’ve been included in discussion on the prioritization of research topics, and I’ve been genuinely appreciated for my contributions to the discussion.

Receptions have something for everyone in the 21-27 demographic.  If you’re spending your day wandering aimlessly, make sure you inquire with anyone you happen to accidently run into about their organization’s evening reception space, and by the end of each day you’ll have discovered both free food and free alcohol.  On a more serious note, these informal environments are good places to talk up potential employers if you’re in the market for a job, or simply expand your network of contacts.

I haven’t given you anything broken down into 140 character bytes of information, but hopefully I’ve provided you with some nuggets of helpful information buried in the prose.  There’s no “right” way to do TRB, because everyone has different goals for their week.  Repeating my previous advice, develop your own plan before you arrive at the conference, and spend your time and energy onsite learning everything you can about your area of interest, about how TRB operates, and about how you can get involved.  Once you’ve done that, then you’re effectively part of the 28-35 demographic, and you can read on.

Repeat Attendees / 28-35 Demographic

Going on the assumption that you’ve encountered the kinds of situations I’ve described in the previous section, whether you agree with my assessment or not, this demographic needs advice on how to get MORE involved with TRB.  To this end, the TAC has created the Young Members Council which I’ll get around to in a couple of paragraphs.

I feel like the elephant in the room for this demographic is the issue of funding repeat trips to the conference.  Budgets in all sectors of our industry have been contracting, and support for conference attendance seems high on the list for the cutting block.  My personal situation as a doctoral student is that my attendance fees are reimbursed only if I’m presenting in a poster or a session, and my hotel accommodation is reimbursed up to a maximum of around $150 for the week.  Being involved as a young member means that I pay for my own affiliate member registration with TRB, and my desire to attend Sunday workshops and subcommittee meetings means that my transportation and accommodation bills quickly climb above the allotted amount, no matter how many people I share a room with.  One possible boon to attract more involvement from the young attendees is to remove the registration cost for those classified as a young member of a committee.  This financial benefit would drive more young people to committee meetings without a major financial burden to TRB.

Okay, so you’ve attended TRB a number of times, you’ve presented some posters, and you’re starting to settle in and get involved.  What should you do next?  You tell me; because that’s exactly the position I’m in.

I break down the young attendees at TRB into two categories, graduate students, and young professionals.  I think it seems to most committees, and to some degree I agree with them, that the graduate students in attendance are here to present their current poster, find some free food, and enjoy being in DC.  This group as a whole is a bad source for committee involvement.  Young professionals by contrast have the opposite problem, with little reason and even less funding to attend the annual meeting.  Even if they’re involved in research, there will always be a more senior member on staff to attend in their stead, and involving this population would mean finding a way to get them here.  On the fringes of these groups are the graduate students who have spent time in “the real world” and have returned to academia, and the young professionals who by luck or by design are in a position which allows them to attend regularly.  Both the returning students group and the young professionals (in attendance) group make excellent additions to committees, because they recognize the potential benefits of volunteering at this point in their careers, and they’re driven to maximize any opportunities they can get.  Once we’re brought into the mix as volunteers, we start to form professional friendships within our committees, and then we’re hooked for life.

I’ve joined a committee as an official young member because it’s a topic of great interest to me, because this committee is very friendly and welcoming to visitors, and most importantly because they appreciate volunteers for their work.  The committee is not tied to my area of research, but is instead focused on service to the rest of TRB, in this case covering the Conduct of Research (ABG10).  Ideally in the future I’ll become involved with a subject area committee as well, but this seems like a difficult proposition given my existing commitments.  It’s counterproductive to network and volunteer if you spread yourself so thin that you’re not producing good work for the groups you’re supporting, so I’m sticking with one for now.

The Young Members Council (YMC) created by TAC in the last year seems like a good idea, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired.  Each group area held the responsibility for appointing two of their young members to the council, and at this time the only way to gain membership is by appointment.  In the future, I’d appreciate some sort of formal announcement/application process within the groups to choose the members of the council.  The council has created subcommittees by subject area, but some of these have not begun to meet in any capacity, and others have been having closed-door meetings.  The group has a website, which they’re now pushing out to the public as of this annual meeting.

I was very pleased when attending the meeting of the YMC as a friend of the committee to see the level of enthusiasm within the group to move forward.  A number of good ideas were proffered for increasing activity of young members, but I did raise the issue of targeting the 21-27 year olds compared to the 28-35 year olds.  The group was receptive to the concern, and we’ll see what comes out of it.  Beginning a mentorship “buddy” type program and endeavoring to assist young member placement efforts on TRB research panels are both good ideas, but I feel that it would help the kind of TRB participants who are already attending the YMC meeting, without providing benefit to the throngs of grad students wandering aimlessly.  Having the group is a good first step, but I couldn’t shake the feeling when sitting in the room that I was participating in a mock government; try imagining the last serious committee meeting you attended at the annual meeting, and then imagine what it would have looked like if every person in the room was 30 years old.

The Voice of Experience / 35+ Demographic

Be honest, did you read everything before this, or just scroll down to your section?  The fact that you’re interested in the opinions of the young attendees earns you a hand of applause, but I’m curious to know what your motives are.  Are you trying to get more involvement in committees by young attendees, are you trying to get more involvement from the large crowd of aimless graduate students, or are you trying to change the one-time grad student participants into repeat offenders?

So much of the activity at the conference seems to be centered on older professionals reconnecting with their circle of committee and research area colleagues/friends.  The discussion that takes place before and after meetings includes pockets of friends chatting, with a number of solitary people trying not to look uncomfortable with the fact that they don’t know anyone to talk with.  A good example of this problem would be a committee meeting I attended where they lamented that none of their four young member positions had been filled; meanwhile not a single person introduced themselves to me before, during, or after the meeting.  I recognize that the majority of graduate students are here and gone in a flash, but there’s not much risk to a committee in approaching a young person and inviting them to participate, and some of us are quite excellent!  Perhaps it would help generate involvement from young members if the YMC worked with their respective groups to identify candidate committee tasks which would be appropriate for young member volunteers to participate in?  I’ll grant that a young member who expresses an interest in the group shouldn’t be placed in charge of developing a list of workshops for the following year, but perhaps they could serve as a secondary secretary for the committee, or help to organize and manage the paper review process in the fall.  If committees knew of specific tasks to pass off to young members, they might see more benefit from engaging them and the relationship could grow to a more complete union.  Once a young member is proven to be reliable, they’ll be a valued member of the team.

And with that I think I’ve said enough on the subject, at least for now.

By all means please feel free to comment on this post.  I love a great discussion, and while I’d like to avoid a flame war, a heated discussion would just tell me that I’d struck a nerve and we should explore it further.  Tell me which of my assumptions you feel are wrong, and about the things that I entirely missed discussing that are actually essential components of the puzzle.  Also tell me if I’ve made observations that are on the mark, and I’ll see what I can do about spreading the word to a wider audience.  Lastly, please let me know if you actually read all of this and if it was useful; working in a vacuum means there’s less distraction, but it also means there’s no air to breathe.

Continue reading

Posted in conference, Grad School, transportation, Transportation Research Board

The TRB Annual Meeting for Young Attendees, in a (large) Nutshell

This blog post is intended to summarize my observations from my second foray at the TRB annual meeting (#TRBAM).  This post will circulate after the fanfare of the 2012 AM is over, but it will hopefully be timely for those decompressing after the meeting.  To frame my discussion, I’ll inform the audience that I’m a 31-year-old doctoral student with seven years of industry experience who returned to grad school seeking refuge from the consulting world.  There are a couple of different demographics I expect may read this, so I’ll address them directly.

The 21-27 demographic is made up of students and young professionals, many of whom are attending TRB for the first time, and many of whom will not attend TRB again once they finish their stint in grad school.  Very few of these people will be reading this post, as they would have to go looking for it before next year’s TRB, and the initiative involved in reading other people’s opinions on the event is not a quality that runs strong in this group.  While there are exceptions to every rule, this demographic represents the people coming down to breakfast in their pajamas at 9:00, who then wander aimlessly around the conference from 10:00 until 3:00 with their faces bunched in consternation while they attempt to translate the program into information they can understand.  If you are in this demographic by age, but I have described behavior which you feel is insulting toward you, then by all means please consider yourself as an honorary member of the 28-35 group.

The 28-35 demographic is made up of young professionals and students who have invested some time in the industry and have a better understanding of the value of time spent at a conference like this.  They are the target demographic of the events planned for young professionals by the TAC.  Some of these people are coming to TRB for the first time, after arriving at a job position involving research, while many others have attended regularly as they’ve tracked their own careers through TRB.  Some of these people will continue to attend, will seek out committees and committee membership, and will someday enter leadership positions at TRB.

The over-35 demographic who are taking the time to read this post fall into a category that I’ll define as social-media anthropologists/sociologists, which is another way of saying curious onlookers.  This demographic has many years of experience with TRB, and may be taking an interest in encouraging participation from a younger demographic.

First Timers / 21-27 Demographic

Since I’ve either already lost the 21-27 crowd, or I am about to lose them, I’ll give them my short list of things to do for their first TRB.  By far the most important advice I have to give is to generate a schedule for yourself BEFORE you arrive at TRB.  Use the interactive online annual meeting schedule.  Don’t waste your time trying to enter in key-words that match your interest area, just break it down by day and sort by time, then scroll through and make a list.  The only thing you can accomplish by not having a plan in advance is to fit in with the stereotype of your demographic and wander aimlessly.  As a secondary recommendation for the schedule, don’t upload it to your digital calendar on your smart phone, make it hard-copy, and make it a single page that you can fold up and keep in your pocket.  See exhibit A.

Exhibit A: Preliminary Schedule
This brings me to the question on everyone’s mind their first time at TRB, ‘What the heck should I be going to see?!?”  The general categories of events at TRB are exhibits, posters, sessions (most descriptive title yet), workshops, committee meetings, subcommittee meetings, and receptions.  Your goals (by the way, you should be entering TRB with one or more goals in mind) will determine which types of activities you should attend.  Sample goals include increasing general knowledge, seeking a new dissertation topic, networking with a short-term aim of getting a job, networking with long-term career goals, and some other goals I wouldn’t recommend, like seeking out free food and alcohol.

Exhibits are a great place to go if you’re hungry, if you want trinkets, if you want someone to talk to, and if you want to try and get your resume into someone’s hands.  The exhibit hall seems to be a better fit for the older professionals who actively work with vendors to touch base in person once a year and catch up with the latest advances with a given product.  As with many places at TRB, the main feature of the exhibit hall appears to be older members running into each other and catching up on who they’re now working for and how they might collaborate in the future.  Along this line of thought, if you do happen to be in the market for a job, ask one of your mentors attending the annual meeting to tour the exhibit hall with you.

Posters are a great opportunity to talk one-on-one with researchers about their papers.  This isn’t such a great venue for wandering aimlessly, because information overload will quickly drive you from the room.  Stop by the posters if there’s a particular professor you’re interested in working with for your doctorate and want to meet them in person, or if you’re in a job hunt and there’s a company presenting that you’re specifically interested in.  There are some very good projects you can learn about if you walk around, but for the most part you’ll have to search through the paper database later for your research anyway.  If you’re presenting at one of these and find yourself confused at the lack of interest from passers-by, you should remember that poster sessions are treated by senior members as another chance to socialize and catch up with old friends, and they might still read your paper at a later date for their research.

The session format is a good outlet for the 21-27 year-old who may be interested in learning more about a topic, but who isn’t already heavily involved in the area.  The session format provides a hand-full of presentations by subject-area experts on a given topic, followed by a question and answer period at the end of the event.  There aren’t many networking opportunities at sessions, unless you happen to need to talk to one of the speakers, and you manage to catch them before/after the event.

The workshop format is generally set up as a long (often full day) session on Sunday or Thursday.  If there’s a specific topic that you’re very focused on with an applicable workshop then you should attend it, but otherwise you may want to devote your time elsewhere.  Some workshops involve small-group discussion and problem-solving, but the majority seem to be run as extended sessions with presentations and brief periods of question/answer.

Committee meetings are hit and miss for new attendees, and I should warn you that as often as not you’ll be the only young member in the room, unless there are some students tagging along with their adviser.  I highly recommend you attend at least the first hour of any committee meeting associated with your research field, because it’s important to understand the atmosphere at different committees.  Some committees are happy to have visitors and try to include them, while others are disenchanted with young member participation (or committee friends in general) and won’t be happy to see you return.  Committee meetings are the place where the business of TRB happens, and committees will be largely focused on how the workshops and sessions they’re supporting are going in the current year, and on what workshops and sessions they should provide for the following year.  Many committee meetings will also include a couple of brief presentations by members of the committee on related material, but for the most part these are planning meetings.  At many committees, there is no potential for interaction with the audience, and members are on task to get through a busy agenda within the four hours of the meeting.  There may be some opportunities for volunteering and getting involved, but these would have to happen at the end by listening to the needs of the committee and cornering the appropriate member after the meeting.  DO NOT expect to attend a meeting for the first time and get an invitation to join them as a young member – instead expect that your first time no-one will acknowledge your presence.  This isn’t a rule, just an observation of the majority case.  The statistics are that around 1/3 of every attendee is a first-time person at a given annual meeting, so these committees have gotten used to seeing people once and never seeing them again, and it’s not a reflection on you personally.  If you’re serious about joining a committee I’d recommend the following timeline: attend your first meeting with them, after which you should express your interest in volunteering; follow up with them by email once a month until they respond; find out when their midyear meeting is and make sure you call in to be present, if not participate; attend the committee at the following year’s annual meeting and THEN ask them about membership, if they haven’t already brought it up with you.

I’ve been trying to avoid references to “more prominent people” a.k.a. “egos that barely fit into a room together” in describing the difference between emotionally closed committees and those that are open to involvement from others, but now I’ve gone and said it and failed in my attempt.  If you happen to find a committee whose work interests you and they’re receptive to involvement from the younger crowd, JUMP ON IT.  These are the people who can be mentors to you both as you get to know TRB, and as you grow in your career.  Committee membership as a young member serves to separate you from your colleagues; the ones you see wandering aimlessly around the conference with their faces buried in the program.  There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make TRB run, and there are good opportunities to get involved.  If you have a lot of time on your hands your committee will be happy to use it, but if you’re in grad school (and have a family like me) there are still plenty of activities you can participate in that are helpful without draining your precious time.

In my limited experience, smaller committees who do not have formal subcommittee meetings are far more open to participation from younger members, but those large committees who treat membership as an elite qualification will have plenty of subcommittee meetings, many of which will include opportunities for open discussion that you can get involved with.  If you wish to get involved in a committee that’s not as open to participation as you’d like, show up to their subcommittee meetings, and behave professionally while showing interest.  It won’t take long before someone asks you to volunteer for something, which is your best option for gaining entry to the group.  If you’re in a career path involving research, I highly recommend attending any “research subcommittee” meetings in your field of interest, as this provides incredible insight into the current leading edge of research, the next thing coming, and the difficulties in getting projects funded.  Starting with my very first trip to TRB, I’ve been included in discussion on the prioritization of research topics, and I’ve been genuinely appreciated for my contributions to the discussion.

Receptions have something for everyone in the 21-27 demographic.  If you’re spending your day wandering aimlessly, make sure you inquire with anyone you happen to accidently run into about their organization’s evening reception space, and by the end of each day you’ll have discovered both free food and free alcohol.  On a more serious note, these informal environments are good places to talk up potential employers if you’re in the market for a job, or simply expand your network of contacts.

I haven’t given you anything broken down into 140 character bytes of information, but hopefully I’ve provided you with some nuggets of helpful information buried in the prose.  There’s no “right” way to do TRB, because everyone has different goals for their week.  Repeating my previous advice, develop your own plan before you arrive at the conference, and spend your time and energy onsite learning everything you can about your area of interest, about how TRB operates, and about how you can get involved.  Once you’ve done that, then you’re effectively part of the 28-35 demographic, and you can read on.

Repeat Attendees / 28-35 Demographic

Going on the assumption that you’ve encountered the kinds of situations I’ve described in the previous section, whether you agree with my assessment or not, this demographic needs advice on how to get MORE involved with TRB.  To this end, the TAC has created the Young Members Council which I’ll get around to in a couple of paragraphs.

I feel like the elephant in the room for this demographic is the issue of funding repeat trips to the conference.  Budgets in all sectors of our industry have been contracting, and support for conference attendance seems high on the list for the cutting block.  My personal situation as a doctoral student is that my attendance fees are reimbursed only if I’m presenting in a poster or a session, and my hotel accommodation is reimbursed up to a maximum of around $150 for the week.  Being involved as a young member means that I pay for my own affiliate member registration with TRB, and my desire to attend Sunday workshops and subcommittee meetings means that my transportation and accommodation bills quickly climb above the allotted amount, no matter how many people I share a room with.  One possible boon to attract more involvement from the young attendees is to remove the registration cost for those classified as a young member of a committee.  This financial benefit would drive more young people to committee meetings without a major financial burden to TRB.

Okay, so you’ve attended TRB a number of times, you’ve presented some posters, and you’re starting to settle in and get involved.  What should you do next?  You tell me; because that’s exactly the position I’m in.

I break down the young attendees at TRB into two categories, graduate students, and young professionals.  I think it seems to most committees, and to some degree I agree with them, that the graduate students in attendance are here to present their current poster, find some free food, and enjoy being in DC.  This group as a whole is a bad source for committee involvement.  Young professionals by contrast have the opposite problem, with little reason and even less funding to attend the annual meeting.  Even if they’re involved in research, there will always be a more senior member on staff to attend in their stead, and involving this population would mean finding a way to get them here.  On the fringes of these groups are the graduate students who have spent time in “the real world” and have returned to academia, and the young professionals who by luck or by design are in a position which allows them to attend regularly.  Both the returning students group and the young professionals (in attendance) group make excellent additions to committees, because they recognize the potential benefits of volunteering at this point in their careers, and they’re driven to maximize any opportunities they can get.  Once we’re brought into the mix as volunteers, we start to form professional friendships within our committees, and then we’re hooked for life.

I’ve joined a committee as an official young member because it’s a topic of great interest to me, because this committee is very friendly and welcoming to visitors, and most importantly because they appreciate volunteers for their work.  The committee is not tied to my area of research, but is instead focused on service to the rest of TRB, in this case covering the Conduct of Research (ABG10).  Ideally in the future I’ll become involved with a subject area committee as well, but this seems like a difficult proposition given my existing commitments.  It’s counterproductive to network and volunteer if you spread yourself so thin that you’re not producing good work for the groups you’re supporting, so I’m sticking with one for now.

The Young Members Council (YMC) created by TAC in the last year seems like a good idea, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired.  Each group area held the responsibility for appointing two of their young members to the council, and at this time the only way to gain membership is by appointment.  In the future, I’d appreciate some sort of formal announcement/application process within the groups to choose the members of the council.  The council has created subcommittees by subject area, but some of these have not begun to meet in any capacity, and others have been having closed-door meetings.  The group has a website, which they’re now pushing out to the public as of this annual meeting.

I was very pleased when attending the meeting of the YMC as a friend of the committee to see the level of enthusiasm within the group to move forward.  A number of good ideas were proffered for increasing activity of young members, but I did raise the issue of targeting the 21-27 year olds compared to the 28-35 year olds.  The group was receptive to the concern, and we’ll see what comes out of it.  Beginning a mentorship “buddy” type program and endeavoring to assist young member placement efforts on TRB research panels are both good ideas, but I feel that it would help the kind of TRB participants who are already attending the YMC meeting, without providing benefit to the throngs of grad students wandering aimlessly.  Having the group is a good first step, but I couldn’t shake the feeling when sitting in the room that I was participating in a mock government; try imagining the last serious committee meeting you attended at the annual meeting, and then imagine what it would have looked like if every person in the room was 30 years old.

The Voice of Experience / 35+ Demographic

Be honest, did you read everything before this, or just scroll down to your section?  The fact that you’re interested in the opinions of the young attendees earns you a hand of applause, but I’m curious to know what your motives are.  Are you trying to get more involvement in committees by young attendees, are you trying to get more involvement from the large crowd of aimless graduate students, or are you trying to change the one-time grad student participants into repeat offenders?

So much of the activity at the conference seems to be centered on older professionals reconnecting with their circle of committee and research area colleagues/friends.  The discussion that takes place before and after meetings includes pockets of friends chatting, with a number of solitary people trying not to look uncomfortable with the fact that they don’t know anyone to talk with.  A good example of this problem would be a committee meeting I attended where they lamented that none of their four young member positions had been filled; meanwhile not a single person introduced themselves to me before, during, or after the meeting.  I recognize that the majority of graduate students are here and gone in a flash, but there’s not much risk to a committee in approaching a young person and inviting them to participate, and some of us are quite excellent!  Perhaps it would help generate involvement from young members if the YMC worked with their respective groups to identify candidate committee tasks which would be appropriate for young member volunteers to participate in?  I’ll grant that a young member who expresses an interest in the group shouldn’t be placed in charge of developing a list of workshops for the following year, but perhaps they could serve as a secondary secretary for the committee, or help to organize and manage the paper review process in the fall.  If committees knew of specific tasks to pass off to young members, they might see more benefit from engaging them and the relationship could grow to a more complete union.  Once a young member is proven to be reliable, they’ll be a valued member of the team.

And with that I think I’ve said enough on the subject, at least for now.

By all means please feel free to comment on this post.  I love a great discussion, and while I’d like to avoid a flame war, a heated discussion would just tell me that I’d struck a nerve and we should explore it further.  Tell me which of my assumptions you feel are wrong, and about the things that I entirely missed discussing that are actually essential components of the puzzle.  Also tell me if I’ve made observations that are on the mark, and I’ll see what I can do about spreading the word to a wider audience.  Lastly, please let me know if you actually read all of this and if it was useful; working in a vacuum means there’s less distraction, but it also means there’s no air to breathe.

Continue reading

Posted in conference, Grad School, transportation, Transportation Research Board