When someone in your department is referred to as "politically savvy" what does that mean to you?
Archive for the '[Education&Careers]' category
I find I can have wild swings in the number of undegraduate emails I receive from one semester to the next. Often the vast majority that clamor into my inbox are from a fairly restricted pool of students in my class and the difference between two Emailers and six is pronounced. There is almost always at least one student who will email whenever they happen to have a question and as someone who likes to keep the reigns on their unread messages, my temptation is to just fire back a quick response. However, that can lead students to the false impression that I am available to them at all times and I have had a few (not many) complain that they didn't hear back from me as fast as they expected. Increasingly I find myself moving to a only-during-typical-working-hours approach. I'm curious if that is typical or not.
So last night's #pubscience discussion was focused on decisions about undergraduate education. Specifically, how our panelists saw the pros and cons of undergraduate education at different types of universities and colleges. These are questions I face regularly at University open houses and in one-on-one conversations with families considering sending their child to the place of my employment.
"What can you offer that comparable universities can't?", "What will my student's job prospects be when they graduate?", "What types of student support are there here?"
Parents and students, alike, are trying to measure their chances of success at a particular place, and importantly, the value of an education there. Price point is increasingly becoming one of the most important criteria when students are selecting a school, IME.
Okay, but what does that mean for me as a professor? Whereas I don't teach as much as some of my colleagues at other institutions (and I teach more than others), I see my share of undergraduate faces every year. As a pretenure prof, balancing the amount of effort I put into teaching is important.
Why? Because teaching won't get you tenure. At least not here. I'm not saying that's right or just or The Way It Should Be, only that it is reality. Without significant* research output, the odds of one passing into the ranks of the tenured are dramatically lessened. This leads us to the great pretenure balancing act - do the best job at teaching that you can without taking too much away from your research effort.
As a specific example, let's take labs. I teach a class that has a lab. The class meets twice a week (1.25hrs ea) and the lab meets twice a week (3hrs ea), but the class is split so that each student only goes to one lab per week. Therefore, I have to prepare roughly 2.5 hrs of material for class per week and 3 hrs for lab. I teach all the class periods unless I am traveling or there is a daycare crisis, but I have a graduate student TA to teach the lab. We meet weekly and I have designed the labs to fit the class, but I am not there to teach the material and go over concepts.
From an undergraduate perspective, this is probably less than ideal. Unless the TA is excellent it would probably be better to have the person who designed the lab exercise and who is teaching the classroom portion to be instructing the lab as well. There's more opportunities to reiterate concepts from class and chances to push students on the core concepts when you have a single person handling all aspects of the course. I know I benefited from this as an undergraduate and I'm sure the students in my class would too.
There's only so many hours in a day and I have been asked to focus more on other parts of my job than on teaching the lab portions of classes. Reinforcing this is the fact the my college pays a graduate student to alleviate me from those duties. I know it would be a better educational experience if I was in the course lab, but my interests and motivation are elsewhere. And so we knowingly sacrifice on the quality of undergraduate education in the name of research and graduate student training (teaching experience).
It's a trade off, and like any compromise, no one is 100% happy with it. But it's the reality of a university that holds it's professors to a research-centric advancement metric.
But before you think I'm leaving you on an anti-bigU down note, one of the most critical points of last night's discussion was that every one of the panelists who went on to careers in science did so because they got into a lab and did actual science. It wasn't their classes that inspired them to head to grad school, it was getting their hands dirty in a research lab. So, while the majority of my students would be better off if I were in the course lab, the 5-7 undergraduates who work in my research lab per year have been afforded an opportunity they would not get if research wasn't thriving here. For those students who end up in science careers, their time in the lab was like a deciding factor.
*"Significant" is purposefully vague to allow for waffle room. Not Waffle House. Mmmm, train wreck omelet....
It's been a while since I dragged this 2009 post out of the archive in 2010, but it fits with an interesting conversation that has cropped up at Scicurious' blog. In her post, Sci claims that she should have been kicked out of grad school earlier because she never had good ideas. My issue with her assessment is that she seems to assume that people either have good ideas or they don't. I don't know how other people do things, but for me, it's not a issue of having great ideas but a question of identifying tractable ways to attack a question that you want to answer. In most cases, these efforts DON'T ACTUALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION, but make headway in this pursuit.
IME, this is where junior people (myself included) get stumped. They see a question but no way to answer it and become frustrated or think they aren't smart enough to figure it out. What needs to be learned is how to find work arounds to have short and long term goals that set you on the path of answering a question. Once you have building blocks you might be able to make the jump, but it can't happen without a decent foundation. My lab is STILL in the early stages of chipping away at our central question. But we're making progress and finding some really cool stuff along the way.
Ideas are not a bolt of lightening or something solved in sudden insight at 3:00am. The wear more like a river through rock and occasionally there's an advance that allows you to burst another dam.
With Halloween this weekend, I thought I would post about something that recently scared the crap out of me: Coming up with my own Big Idea.
As a grad student and postdoc, it's essential that you are always coming up with your own ideas, but you have the net of working in a lab with an established theme and having lots of people around working on related things to bounce ideas off of. Then you start applying for jobs and have face the fact that you need to sell yourself on your own ideas. Some people might be able to leave their postdoc labs with projects of their own design are will continue working along those lines. That's great if you can pull it off and it will sure make your life easier. Of course, I didn't do that.
I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way to take advantage of my fairly diverse training in order to come up with a novel research program to pursue, but coming up with an independent and exciting research direction is a daunting task. I had lots of ideas, but either they borrowed heavily from what I was doing at the time (and I didn't want to compete with my PDF advisor in my early career) or I wasn't excited by them. This went on for a couple of weeks. Reading. Thinking. Repeat. It sucked, because I couldn't shake the feeling that I was going to end up either doing research that only slightly excited me and 6 other people in the world, or not doing research at all because no one wants to hire someone with boring ideas.
So, I took a different approach. I started thinking of it like a layered database, where the top layers were huge questions that could not be directly tackled and each successive layer below became more and more tractable from a research standpoint. You can't write a grant proposal saying you want to cure cancer, but you can say that you will use XX cell line to understand YY process with the ultimate goal of making headway towards treatments for a certain type of cancer. My problem was that I was looking at the top and bottom layer and couldn't connect them until I used this approach to think about it.
I started with a broadly-observed phenomenon that I was very familiar with from the work I was doing as a PDF and tried to figure out ways to explain how things transition between the normal and altered state. In order to do that, I decided to look outside the systems that people had used to make the observations and identify a system where the actual transition was ongoing. The search for the right system led me back to my PhD training, where I was introduced to a truly unique system that hadn't been worked on in years. With my question and system in hand, all I needed was methodology to make the observations I needed and do the experiments to test the system, much of which I had learned as a PDF.
In retrospect, it all makes sense but I can't tell you how many hours I spent trying to see how I could carve out my own scientific niche. And hell, I haven't gotten anyone to pay me to pursue these ideas yet, so they might still all be crap. But I do know for a fact that my questions and the unique system I am using to go after them had enough of a "wow factor" to make a big difference during interviews for a job.
That's just my experience, but I doubt I am alone in facing the daunting task of making a research program one's own. It's unbelievably scary to feel like you can't come up with the one original question that you will need to make your mark, but having a broad knowledge base and getting into some of the older literature is what allowed me to piece things together. It's an exciting time when you;re finally on to something that you can turn into a unique research program.
There's been a lot of discussion in the last few months about the number of PhDs we produce. You may recall JHU trying to get out in front of the issue, but it's still a hot button topic:
i am saying it is the responsibility of faculty associated with PHD 'training' to stop engaging in this exploitation racket @HopeJahren
— Drug Monkey (@drugmonkeyblog) January 2, 2014
The question of reducing the number of PhDs produced is a complex one and there's simply no chance that the overall numbers will be reduced evenly across the board. It seems inevitable that certain fields are going to dry up and blow away and I think this has direct bearing on how we consider training students.
In my own lab we do several things that can more or less be divided into two camps, one of which is more "classical" and the other more cutting edge. Importantly, I have NSF funding for both, so each can be considered a viable enterprise from a funding perspective. However, there is a wild skew in the job prospects for students with training in one vs. the other.
This leads to a significant dilemma. Obviously I feel that both types of work are important and both contribute significantly, but there are just no jobs to do the classical work. And I don't just mean no academic jobs. I mean that training in this particular field leaves you few options outside of an academic job, of which there are none. There is funding out there for this type of work, but it is not accessible if one can not find a faculty job to exploit it.
We've been trending this way for more than a decade. I see it from the labs I know training people in this field. I see it in our regional conference that is bimodally skewed to the old and the students. I see it in the job ads that circulate. Unless you have other significant skills or are willing to leave the counrty, it is excrutiatingly difficult get a job (academic or otherwise) utilizing a PhD in this classical field.
In stark contrast, everyone who spent most of their time in the other side of my lab has left and found desirable (to them) employment. They have skills that are more broadly transferable and that a wider range of potential employers are interested in. Therefore, I am left to wonder whether it is even ethical for me to accept PhD students into my lab to work on the classical stuff, or is it simple labor exploitation. Ironically, I get more applicants interested in this than the cutting edge stuff we do.
Is it time for me to back-burner the classical stuff? Do I need to begin to rethink all of these projects to bring in new techniques that might alleviate this issue (some are emerging, but they are not yet ready for prime time)? Should I be the one deciding or should the student applicant pool decide?
On of the favorite hobby horses of Drugmonkey's is the Too Many Mouths at The Trough hypothesis. The tl/dr version goes something like this: Federal science budgets are flat-lined or dropping. The effect of this budget regression is compounded by the fact that a somewhat recent Time of Plenty injected a LOT of PhD scientists in the research track. Combined, the reality is that funding lines are in the single digits and are unlikely to recover any time soon. What's the solution? Reduce the number of PhDs entering the system.
NIH is unwilling to make changes to training mechanisms and seems rather unwilling to even acknowledge there is a problem at all. Okay, then how do we reduce the number of PhDs granted? It'll have to come from the institutions, right? It would appear that Johns Hopkins is starting the ball rolling to do just that.
The new strategic plan recently announced publicly aims to reduce PhD admissions by 25%, pay existing and incoming graduate students better, focus on hiring younger faculty, increasing faculty teaching and hire additional per course people.
Now, I can see the objection to the increase in adjuncts/per course personnel. Most universities poorly compensate these people and provide them no job stability at all*. However, the rest of the plan** seems pretty reasonable if you are facing the realities of running a college dependent on federal funding of research.
If anyone should see this as a good thing, it would probably be grad students. Better pay and the potential of better prospects after graduation. If you read the article linked above, however, you'll note that they are the ones that appear most outraged. In fact, it was pretty interesting to interact with a few on twitter. While there seems to be some recognition that overall PhD numbers should decline, there are issues with the plan at JHU:
— D. Russler-Germain (@dgermain21) December 11, 2013
— D. Russler-Germain (@dgermain21) December 11, 2013
And, of course, the faculty are pissed too:
— Andrew O. Brandel (@AOBrandel) December 11, 2013
I mean, dude, that's a LOT of free labor that is not going to be there in a few years. Indeed, I'm sure faculty see this as a raw deal. PhD programs should be cutting back at other schools!
— Andrew O. Brandel (@AOBrandel) December 11, 2013
And here's the rub: Who is everyone? Who's interest need to be taken into account here? In the short term I get the objection by the faculty. I don't really get the grad student objection, but imma gonna chalk that up to echo chamber and lack of realistic long-view. Maybe someone can clue me in as to how this is a problem for the grad students. But the real kicker is that the crux of this strategy is in the propagation. Will other schools follow the lead? If the answer is yes, then this is the first domino to fall in making science funding sustainable in this country. If the answer is no, then we have a real Tragedy of the Commons here.
Any way it plays out, I think it's going to be fascinating theater that may well have massive effects on science funding for the next generation.
*The Affordable Care Act is, however, mandating health insurance for per course instructors, so it'll be interesting to see what that does to hiring strategies. It may actually start to become more cost effective for university to hire full time lecturers, thus changing the landscape.
**As reported, I have no special knowledge of the machinations here.
I posted this back in 2011, but it seems apt right now. A lot of people are hearing back about their proposals and I'm already hearing "Those stupid reviewers!" echoing down the halls. Always remember that the onus is on YOU to make sure your proposal is crystal clear.
NSF BIO panels are meeting right now, or have met in the last couple of weeks, depending on your panel of choice. That means funding decisions are working their way through the system and notifications will be forthcoming in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, ~90% of are going to be disappointed in the results. Also unfortunately, I have a LOT of experience being in that 90%.
While I have no problem providing advice for proposal writers based on my experience from both being on an NSF panel and through making (and theoretically, learning from) many mistakes along my path of grant writing, one of the biggest things I have learned is how to deal with proposal reviews for an unsuccessful proposal.
The first thing I do with my reviews is print them out and read them over fully. I've talked before about the NSF rankings and what they mean. I get the whole "these reviewers don't know their ass from their elbow" thing out of my system and put the reviews away for a couple of days. Then I'll go back to them and read them again, while making a list of things I need to address and things I got right. What did the panel focus on? What were common flaws perceived by more than one reviewers? How can I fix those? Will it require data or a change in the focus of the question being asked? What proposal flaws did they not come out and say, but are between the lines? What are the strengths to build on? What did reviewers not understand?
Once I have a good list, I use that instead of the reviews as a guide. For one, it separates any emotional reaction to the reviews from the revision process, but it also gives me a handy check list and reminder of what I need to address and clarify. After that, I'll set up a phone appointment with the PO. This is critical for getting a better feel for how the panel conversation went and why certain points became focal issues. It is also essential for advocating for the changes you plan to make and getting a read on whether the PO thinks those will adequately deal with the concerns. Take notes.
I can't stress enough how important it is to bounce ideas off the PO. More than once I thought I had a new strategy figured out only to have the PO say "but that's not going to address XXX". Whereas I was initially frustrated by some discussions I had with POs because it felt very one-sided, I was ignoring the subtly of the language they have to use. Talk about your revision ideas but even though you'll be doing most of the talking, you have to listen carefully to the reaction. Remember that they know exactly what people did and did not like about your proposal and that information may not appear in your panel summary, depending on how it was written.
Funding rates are not good right now, so it's important to make every application count. Remember that if there were parts of your proposal that the reviewers didn't "get" then you need to clarify the language there and make sure it is obvious what you want the reviewers to take away. It is YOUR JOB to make sure even the most distracted reviewer walks away from your proposal convinced it can work, because you have everything to lose if they don't. Your PO can help you figure out the direction to take your research questions, but you need to package it up all purty like.
Tenure. It's the goal we're shooting for, right? The five(ish) year race to show you can make a go of things on your own and produce some money for the university that floated you that small business loan* in the first place. Really, it's the final true make-or-break point for this profession, after which you are afforded some job security now that you have fought through probably close to two decades without that commodity.
I recently got my departmental letter in support of my tenure case that will soon be sent to the Dean and fed further up the food chain. It was good. Unanimous support, solid excerpts from external letters, praise for my work in all three phases of the tenure pie. Whereas I won't get any official word on tenure until late in the spring, so far all the proper hoops have been jumped. I'm happy.
But I'm also exhausted.
I don't know whether having tenure, assuming it is bestowed, is going to change my outlook. Will I let some things slide? Will I take on more in service of the department? Will I say no more? I can't see that far ahead. What I do know is that I'll need to find some time to back away a little bit. Maybe I can now, not sure, but I fully understand why a sabbatical** is usually a feature that follows tenure. At this point I would settle for one deadline-free month to read and think.
It's almost cliché for people to tell you that getting tenure is like a marathon, but there's a reason that you can google "marathon finish collapse" and be treated to hundreds of videos of people stumbling across (or not quite) the finish line. The will power to push through the end doesn't extend indefinitely.
And I didn't the finish line fatigue coming.
I've always been one to avoid focusing in tenure as an end point, but rather something that will happen if I do my job well. That seems to have worked out, but the idea of a pat on the back while being handed another committee responsibility*** isn't exactly the post tenure outlook I was picturing. But so it goes.
At least I can stop wearing pants to the office.
*Sure, they call it start-up, but same-same.
**Unfortunately, mine will be more than a year away.
***Or maybe it's a test to see if I will use the tenure power, vested in me, to say no.
One the advice of a knowledgeable senior scientist I recently bought the book 4 Steps to Funding, by Morgan Giddings. It's a quick read, as I was able to finish the entire book on a not-so-long flight, but it crystallizes a few important concepts. The author describes her early career grant writing as producing haphazard success, due in large part because she was not systematic with her approach to grant structure. Her experience certainly struck a tone with me. Whereas we have had some recent success, the road to this point is littered with rejected proposals.
As I read through the book my main reaction was "I'm kinda doing that, but not with purpose", which is basically how Giddings retrospectively sees her early attempts at funding. Thus, the suggestions and scheme in the book are something I will strive to use in my next funding efforts.
Some important take-aways:
- The project summary (NSF) or specific aims (NIH) page should be hammered out and honed before starting the rest of the proposal. Not after, not during, make it first.
- If you don't have a really good "WHY" to your proposal, you need to rethink your project. What does that mean? If you can't describe in detail why your reviewers need to see the results you plan to obtain, you are wasting your time. The rest of the proposal is just words on a page if you are unconvincing in this first step.
- A grant proposal has many similarities with a marketing pitch and ignoring an enormous amount of literature on how marketing works is counter-productive.
- Reviewers need to be led along a very specific path Why? --> Who? --> What? --> How? in order to capture their attention and get a positive reaction. Varying the order of those steps will result in a less favorable response.
The book goes into great detail in support of the points above and I found it to be a very interesting and useful read. If you are applying for grant funding of any kind*, I think you will get a lot out of this book for a very small investment on money and time.
*Unless you are applying to the same panels and study sections that are reviewing my proposals. In that case, this book is a total waste of your time.