Archive for the '[Education&Careers]' category


Apr 23 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Tis that time of year.... Both the IOS and DEB directorates of NSF are poised to notify people about their preproposals. If you get a denial letter, you're SOL until next January (unless you can submit a CAREER) and if you get invited to write a full proposal you best get started. Most of the notifications are going out this week or next, so many of my readers and their colleagues are going to be on edge for the next couple of days.

But, a word of caution: Don't jump the gun and conclude your fate too quickly. It's a process and not everything happens at once. There's going to be a roll out of notifications and just because your colleague heard it doesn't mean your proposal in in a crumpled heap on the floor at NSF.

Breathe. Let it play out.

2 responses so far

Risk Management and betting on oneself

Apr 21 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One of the aspects of this job that I find the most stressful is budgeting. I have discussed why budget issues are not very straight-forward in a lab with multiple support streams and projecting years ahead is tied up into that vortex. The current funding climate only exacerbates the issue because of the volatility of funding and the fact that most budgets get cut from the start.

This leaves many PIs asking a simple question for a complex situation: When do I bet on myself?

Fact: Most grant budgets (at least IME for NSF) provide less money than the total cost of the project. A lab can make up the difference in a variety of ways, some of which include finding supplemental streams of cash (e.g. grad fellowships) and others amount to borrowing from Peter to pay Pauline.

In the latter situation, one finds oneself over-spending now to take advantage of opportunities, with the hope that there will be money down the road to make up for the shortfall being created. It's a significant risk with real consequences if there's no reinforcements coming. At the same time, it is exceptionally difficult to make the types of jumps one's research program needs to make in order to stay at the front edge, while playing it safe with the budget. There's new technology, new techniques, new findings, all of which lead you to explore your system in ways you could never have budgeted in when submitting the proposal.

With funding rates in the single digits, the decisions that involve a significant outlay of money for a potentially important piece of the research puzzle are the one that keep PIs up at night. So far, my lab has managed to not have any spectacular failings on big investments and has been able to find those financial safety nets when they were needed. But it doesn't make me feel any better about it when faced with a new costly opportunity. It's a delicate balance with a significant risk of getting burned.

4 responses so far

Officially official (sort of)

Apr 17 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

From Farley Katz, of the New Yorker.

After a lengthy wait I've finally been informed that my university is recommending me for tenure, which will take effect in a couple of months. I've gotten positive feedback throughout the process, but it was good to finally get the word. Amazing to think that I've been blogging almost this whole time. Thank you to all those, both commenters and other bloggers, who helped get me through the rougher times.

32 responses so far

Fulfill my dream. Make me society secretary.

Apr 15 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I've been asked to run for the position of Society Secretary by a society that I have been involved with for a number of years. As part of the ballot process, they distribute a 1 page bio of those running that includes research area, recent pubs, service, etc. But, the one piece I haven't been able to get my head around is the Personal Statement. I have examples from others running for President or VP, where one might be expected to have some sort of vision. But Secretary? Exactly what might one put in a personal statement to run for the position of taking meeting minutes? Because my brain is in Satire Mode 90% of the time, this is what I would like to send:

Many years ago I was asked to take minutes in my departmental faculty meeting. It was new to me and I did my best. I spent a week crafting the prose and at the following meeting, colleagues reviewed my minutes as "decent" and "could've used a spell check". Buoyed by their unbridled enthusiasm I immediately enrolled in secretarial training. I toiled away as an assistant professor by day so that I could pursue my calling by night. I began taking on more and more service at all university levels, insisting on taking the meeting minutes to hone my craft. Being offered the chance to apply my skills at the society level would be another landmark life event. I have trained for this for years and now you hold the ability to grant my dream. Vote for me. Vote for passion!"

14 responses so far

The cool professor

Apr 14 2014 Published by under LifeTrajectories, [Education&Careers]

When I started my lab I had a very distinct idea of the type of PI I wanted to be. I had experienced some different styles and observed many others. I knew what my needs were as a graduate student and a postdoc and recognized gaps in what my mentors had provided for me. Above all I thought I could navigate that line between friend and boss where all my trainees would both respect me and want to hang out with me.

Oh, and I wanted to ride a unicorn to work every day.

I'm soon to finish up my sixth year as a PI and have mentored two cohorts of students at this stage. I'm hardly a grizzled vet of the mentoring game, but I've had enough experience to change my views on my role. There's been a discussion on twitter recently about whether someone is a Mentor or a Boss. It's a false dichotomy. An effective mentor is both. Sometimes you can spend your time leading your people in the general vicinity of water and sometimes you have to hand them a cup and tell them to drink.

When I say that I often hear people tell me "Well, my advisor was totally hands off and it helped us be independent and successful!" Whereas I won't dispute that many people can do well in that environment, it's often convenient to leave out the long list of those who flounder in those conditions and spent years of their life without advancing their career goals.

There are times when certain things need to get done for the lab and trainee alike, and there are times when the fostering of independence yields tremendous results. To pretend that a PI never has to act like "a boss" to make sure the bills get paid and the science gets done is a ridiculous view of how a lab functions. If a student comes in with all their own funding, then they can be free from the lab's reporting, publishing and proposal writing needs. Otherwise, as the lab goes, so does one's opportunities.

I still care that I have a good relationship with my people. I still hope that they like me and that we can sit down over a beer and enjoy the time spent together. But I'm far less concerned about blurring the line between the personal and professional relationships. I want to put them in the position to succeed at doing whatever it is they want to do, while advancing the lab's overall agenda. If that sometimes means pushing people to get certain things done, so be it.

8 responses so far

Dear Scientist, can you help me with a project?

Apr 01 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The above tweet brought up something I have been seeing a lot of recently as well. At some point during the semester I will usually receive a good number of requests to answer questions as a . Sometimes it'll be two or three and other years I'll get up to ten such requests in a concentrated burst. Some are short "feeler" emails looking to get a response and others include the whole question package.

I hit delete.

I get the idea. And I get that some people might be inclined to help out. We all make choices about our time and I made a choice to spend my outreach time on coordinated projects that are backed by resources and people engaged in reaching a wide audience. I made this choice because I am regularly inundated with minor outreach requests. I could probably spend 40hrs a week, or close, on those efforts if I accepted everything and endeavored to do them well.

Obviously, that make no sense, so I prioritize. First and foremost are the Broader Impacts goals of my NSF grants. After that I sometimes take on opportunities that might lead to even better Broader Impacts projects. Once I've taken care of that, I'm pretty much tapped out. Responding to some form letter that a high school student is spamming me with ranks really damn low on the totem pole.

However, the discussion following that tweet did bring up one solution that might be food for thought: there's an opportunity here to engage the teachers who are giving this class assignment. Whereas I'm not responding to your spam, I am MUCh more likely to visit a classroom and engage the WHOLE class in an activity. Counter-intuitively, I would spend more time on something that students might actually enjoy than the 10 minutes it would take me to answer their cookie-cutter questions so they can say they did the assignment. Maybe that starts a collaboration with the teacher that continues on? Maybe that encourages a good student to apply to my university?

If you want my feedback and answers, let's make it worth both our time.

5 responses so far

Repost: The crazy nastyass grad student

Mar 18 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Because I'm inhabiting The Grant Cave and because this video makes me smile, I give you this from three years ago.

All this talk of honey badgers this week got me thinking, which is always dangerous. With this as my input... sleep deprived brain has made way too many honey badger / grad student comments over the past few days. My new narration works out something like this:

This is the grad student. Watch it pipette in slow motion. It's pretty badass.

Look. It runs all over the place. "Whoa, watch out." says that undergrad.

Ew, it's got some cells, oh, it's running a pulse chase experiment. Oh my gosh, the grad students are just crazy.

The grad student has been referred to in the Guinness Book of World Records as the lowest rung on the academic totem poll, but it really doesn't give a shit. If it's hungry, it's hungry... ew what's that in its mouth? Bagels from last week's journal club? Pizza that's been on the counter for three days?

Look at this, there's a college function in the building with free food. The grad student just goes in there and takes what it wants. It doesn't care that the Dean and her assistant are staring at it, it just takes it. OMG those are mayonnaise packets. Grad student doesn't give a shit, it's tearing those mayonnaise packets open with its fucking TEETH. Isn't that disgusting? Mayonnaise packets!

Look at this, it's typing.

The grad student is really pretty bad ass. They have no regard nutrition.

It's eating Ramen. Isn't that gross, Ramen. Grad student doesn't give a shit. It's increasing it's blood pressure by like 10 points, but it doesn't give a shit. Nothing can stop the grad student when it's hungry. Nasty.

There it is, pipetting in slow motion again.

Now, what's interesting is that other academics, like this PI here, just wait for the grad student to make some data and swoop in to cherry pick the findings. "You do all the work for us grad student and we'll just publish what you find. How's that? What do you say, stupid? Thanks for the data, stupid."

"Hey, I want authorship" says the grad student, but PIs don't care. And look, the postdocs do it too. They're like "Thanks stupid. Thanks for running my samples, see ya later."

The grad student does all the work while these other academics just cherry pick the findings.

At night time the grad student is sitting in the lab, because it needs data. Look! Here comes a fierce battle between a grad student and procrastination. I wonder what will happen. There's the grad student, just surfing the web, and then look a new blog post is up. "You shouldn't read me, you have work to do or sleep to get" says the blog, but grad student doesn't care. Grad student reads the shit out of it.

Little does the grad student know, there are comments! There's like 60 comments on the thread and while the grad student is reading the post and eating slightly moldy bread, ew, that's disgusting, there's all these comments to read.

Now the grad student is gonna zone out for a minute, just zone right out. Then it's gonna get right back up and polish off those Doritos someone left in the office. Like nothing happened. How disgusting.

And of course, what does the grad student have for lunch for the next two weeks?


The grad student.

The author would like to thank Dr. Becca for helpful feedback and for contributing text on mayonnaise

2 responses so far

Just a reminder, there are more eukaryotes than just metazoans

Mar 17 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I've made this point numerous times before, but it bears repeating: Eukaryotic diversity is NOT just the living things you see around you. Yes, everyone likes cute fuzzy animals and will acknowledge that plants and fungi are tasty and probably important, but that's about where people stop. Part of this is because of our tendency to stick with what we can observe and part is because it gets reinforced all the damn time! Even in places that should know better.

I bring this up again this morning because I happened to catch last night's episode of Cosmos, which was centered on evolution. I'm not a Cosmos fanboi and only new it was on because half my twitter feed was drooling in anticipation, but overall I enjoyed it. Sure, there were some odd things about the presentation of some facts, but they got way more right than wrong. As I said at the time, I thought the episode was infinitely more effective the Bill Nye's circus creationist debate. I loved the contrast between natural selection and artificial, and the deconstruction of the Too Complex argument. They unquestionably targeted fav hobby horses of the creationist movement and broke them down, one after the other.

BUT. That freakin' "Tree of Life" (which was conveniently pictured on a real tree, as if the metaphor needed to be sold any harder). As Dr. Tyson's voice over discussed all the diversity of life and complex forms, we were treated to one animal after another popping out of each branch. At the end they added one plant and one mushroom, just to cover the bases.

This isn't a new problem, not at all. In fact, 96% of described species are animals, land plants or fungi. However, if you look at the DNA present in all sorts of different environmental samples, those lineages only account for about 24% of the actual eukaryotic organisms present. While we really like to describe new species of beetles and butterflies, we're often ignoring the majority of what is out there and usually of the more critical players of an ecosystem.

So the next time someone says they looked at something "in a huge variety of eukaryotes, from mice to YEAST!" ask them when they plan to look at the remaining 90% of eukaryotic diversity.

11 responses so far

Graphic Fridays: Caption contest

Mar 14 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The new NSF Grant Proposal Guide (GPG) came out a few weeks ago, and the front cover is just dying for a caption. I already made a few cracks on twitter, but I know my readers can get creative on a Friday.

Cover Image: NSF rolls out new proposal review criteria. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Your turn.

8 responses so far

NSF tidbits that interest me

Mar 13 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This has come up before, but I heard it again in conversation with a PO this week: The average length of an NSF award is going up.

The NSF core programs have always had the ability to award anything from 1-5 years in duration. For whatever reason, PIs have settled on 3 years as the "normal" time for an NSF award. I don't know the history here, I just know that when I first started applying everyone told me not to do anything (on the non-scientific side) that would stand out to reviewers. This is not unlike NIH n00bs being told to stay with the modular budget.

Three years wasn't so bad when funding rates were higher, but these days it means that you really can't take a break on submitting if you want to keep the lab continuously funded. Yeah, you can use no-cost extensions to effectively make a grant last 4 years, but it seems that people are just starting to ask for 4.

File that away for all of you who are waiting to hear back on preproposals.

3 responses so far

Older posts »