Pre-tenure survival: Research diversity

(by proflikesubstance) Jul 10 2014

This is a topic I think I'm going to get some strong counter arguments on, but it's also something that has been essential for my labs ability to navigate tight funding lines. For my own success, one of the best things I did pre-tenure was diversify my research around two central themes. At any given point we've had two to three minimally overlapping projects around each theme. Some have worked out great and some have resulted in only a single publication. But they have all produced something.

More importantly, this strategy has kept up publications in two different scientific fields. Because of that, we've gotten federal and state funding in each of these areas and continue to seek funding for the different projects in each. Diverse topics means diverse research funding sources and programs.

Of course, diverse research topics also means spreading resources thinner, including time and money. It means having to stay on top of more than one body of literature. You'll find that there are certain things that students can't train other students in. It's time consuming and you risk being the jack of all trades and master of none.

But I'm watching the consequence of a single focus play out with a friend of mine right now. He's been successful as a solid contributor to a field that has ballooned recently. But in the last few years there has been a massive $$ dump into the field, with a focus on a few labs. The result is that those labs have more people and more money and churning out papers rapidly. The field has been suddenly and massively tilted. Not only does this have significant consequences for my friend's research program, but his trainees are on the outside looking in as well.

BTW, neuro peeps, how is that whole BRAIN initiative going to distribute funds?

In any case, I'm not suggesting you diversify your research program in case some funding agency drops a lot of money on your direct competition, but there are numerous benefits to keeping a wide base. It made my pre-tenure experience better and more successful.

7 responses so far

Pre-tenure survival: The competition

(by proflikesubstance) Jul 09 2014

The Monkey has a post up about the internal awkwardness of the feelings related to congratulating a peer on their success. The conversation stems from this tweet from Karen James. There was much agreement on the twits that people find it difficult to see others succeed. In particular, this rang true with pre-tenure folks who have milestones they see is career-critical and have watched others make it to these points faster than themselves.

Been there. Done that.

Here's the thing: it never really gets better. I left the following comment on DrugMonkey's post and it is the unfortunate truth.

It doesn't matter how successful you have been or are being, there will always be someone running just a bit faster. And you will always compare yourself to front-runners and forget that people are comparing themselves to you and feeling less successful. It's the nature of the business, it's human nature and even if you're sailing along at a solid clip, it won't get easier. Be happy for them and move on.

Nearly every single position has different constraints and requirements. For the first couple of years I had this job I was constantly looking at one of my foreign collaborators and stressing over the fact that their publication rate was way better than mine. It turns out that this collaborator has zero teaching responsibility and an automatic budget to count on in addition to any grant funds. That is not my situation.

While that's a bit of an extreme example, even colleagues who work in comparable positions as mine have very different responsibilities and commitments. Some are doing better than I am and some are falling a bit behind and I completely expect that there will be peaks and valleys for all of us in the coming years. Nevertheless, one will always focus on the labs setting the pace.

It's okay to be competitive. It's okay to strive to be the leader. But don't define your success that way or you will undoubtedly spend more time chasing windmills than developing your career.

17 responses so far

On navigation and trust on the TT

(by proflikesubstance) Jul 07 2014

Today we're running a guest post from former blogger, Cackle of Rad, as part of the pre-tenure survival carnival. Enjoy!

Gifts from people often come by surprise and in strange packages. These gifts may be as simple as a kind word or as complex as the knowledge that someone is not to be trusted. If you are on the tenure track and lucky, gifts may come from your Dean in the form of unexpected funding--an extra semester for a student, a post-doc, possibly even funding for a conference or meeting that could expand your scientific range and pool of contacts. They may be more insidious--the moment you realize a contact is fishing for information about your lab’s progress on something rather than simple interest in your science. Pay attention to these moments, because they are the sort that help you determine who is on your team versus those that see you as a stumbling block or stepping stone.

There is a lot of noise in the process of sorting out a new lab. Will I be able to attract trainees? Will I develop something novel and interesting? Can I get funded? Why is no one listening to a damn thing I say? How do I fire someone--do I fire people or put up with crappy performance? When do I celebrate the good things?

These questions are all important, but they are the easy ones because they are somewhat straightforward and in general such questions apply to all of us. The more difficult aspect of navigation is sorting the seed from the chaff--those that want to see your research program succeed versus those that don’t care very much versus those that see you as direct competition. Let’s not forget those whose work you influence. This is a murky category--potential collaborator, someone on your heels, someone in direct competition, or someone that helpfully cites your work and expands it in a direction you would not have.

From personal experience I believe that women have a more difficult path to navigate. I won’t belabor the statistics or personal anecdotes, but find it interesting that I have received far more professional support from other women academics compared to men. I have wondered why, but have decided that noodling on the subject is a waste of time. This is time that could be better spent performing analyses, writing up papers, brainstorming my next grant application. And really? Fuck them for adding to that noise.

My very confident and super-awesome post-doc advisor once told me to re-negotiate every personal relationship at least twice a year. For example, Does my association with this person provide me a benefit or a cost--and, do the benefits outweigh the costs? At the time I thought this mental pruning seemed excessive, but now I realize where he was coming from. To this advice I would add: Be confident in yourself. Listen to the voices that provide clarity on navigating your course, treat your friends well, and be kind to people. But don’t blindly trust--and, importantly, recognize gifts when they are handed to you, whether helpful or insightful.

CoR is on twitter (@CackleofRad) or can be reached via email

4 responses so far

Blog carnival: Surviving the pre-tenure years

(by proflikesubstance) Jul 02 2014

There's been some discussion on twitter and by email recently about how to successfully navigate the pre-tenure years as a faculty member. Now that I've had tenure for a full 38 hours, I'm obviously qualified to blather on incessantly about how one clears the bar. However, rather than take my word for it, I thought it would be good to solicit posts from around the web and aggregate them for people to browse, in a similar fashion to Dr. Becca's TT search advice page. In that way it could be a resource for people to check back on as they wind their way through the process.

So, the deal is this: If you have a post up or want to write one about navigating pre-tenure life, link it in the comments section or send me the link directly by July 15. I will post them all with appropriate subheadings and add additional links as they dribble in. Let the posting begin!

18 responses so far

Prolonged illness in the workplace

(by proflikesubstance) Jun 30 2014

There are so many things one has to deal with when running a lab that never even crossed the radar previously. A list would be sufficiently boring as to drive people away in droves, but simply employing people directly brings up hundreds of possibilities. One I've never seen solved all that well is when someone in the lab is unable to work for a prolonged time due to factors outside their control.

It could be anything, really. Sickness, accident, the health of a dependent, etc. In certain cases (e.g. pregnancy) where there is some predictability it is possible to plan and even bring in additional help if necessary. Of course, our parental leave policies in the US are too restrictive for there to be an easy mechanism in place, but I've seen a short-term staff member do a great job of keeping the science rolling.

The tougher situations are the unpredictable ones that lack a clear timeline for return. Do you hire someone or wait it out? How does hiring short-term help affect the status and insurance of the person they are replacing? If recovery time is faster, are you on the hook for two people for the length of the replacement contract? Do you just let a project hang until the person returns? There's no formula and few good options. This is doubly true if there is a substantial union process for hiring and the injured/sick person is a staff member. How do people handle these situations?

Perhaps sometimes science just takes a backseat to the health of those doing it.

17 responses so far

Girls just don't wanna have fun at conferences

(by proflikesubstance) Jun 19 2014

It's conference season and a time when scientists scurry around the globe to talk to other scientists and present what they've been up to. I look forward to having a chance to chat with people face-to-face that I email all the time, or get updates from those I only talked to the previous year. I find that the older I get, the more time I spend discussing science and the less time I spend in the presented talks. These are productive times for me, hashing out ideas and planting seeds of collaboration. I make a concerted effort to spend social time with people in small groups when I have some specific I want to discuss, and larger groups when I want to meet new people and pick their brains a bit.

But this year I've been thinking about things a little differently. That's because last year I was at a conference with a couple of good friends who I like to hang out with socially. We had done so that week, but a larger group was gathering and I thought it would be fun to join them. I asked one of my female colleagues if she wanted to come and she declined. Curious whether there was someone going who she didn't like, I asked why she wasn't interested. Her response was honest and something I completely take for granted.

"I'm tired of wondering when the switch will get flipped and I'll go from being 'the colleague with interesting ideas' to 'the potential bed partner'. I'm tired of not being able to unknow things about some of my male colleagues. I'm tired of needing an exit strategy and being worried about missing my window to escape. So I stick with small groups of people I know well and lose out on some opportunities to get to know others. But it's worth it."

Then she told me a few stories. Some were about people I knew through the literature and others were about people I knew personally. Some where shocking. But as we've discussed before, when a victim has nothing to gain by making up these stories there's a damn good chance they aren't.

At a recent conference I kept my eyes out for this in a big way, and it will surprise no woman that as some evenings wore on it wasn't hard to pick out a couple of instances. Some things were overt and some less so, but there sprang an undercurrent that I had not fully appreciated. I have no problem with conference goers finding situations mutual interest, should they be in the personal circumstances to act on them, but that's a small minority of the interactions that occur.

So dudes, pull this apart a little bit. First off, the frequency with which inappropriate advances occur is causing some women to avoid after hours social events. Not only does that have consequences, but that very fact in itself should bother you. Also consider that even consensual sexyfuntimes have very different career implications for men versus women. These communities are small and things get around. Finally, are you going to be That Guy who women are warned against being around alone? Do you want the dumb things you say when you're out late to be the reason a woman leaves the field or is uncomfortable attending social events? Consider that maybe your work colleagues are not the best target audience for your affections.

If nothing else this conference season, just ask yourself what type of culture you are supporting for the women in your field.

118 responses so far

Handling AEs

(by proflikesubstance) Jun 16 2014

In the journals I typically read, there's no real rhyme or reason behind whether or not the handling Associate Editors are identified to readers. Sometimes the information is in the online documentation and not in the print version, but it's usually all or nothing. The journal I am an AE for does not give out this information, but there's only a hand-full of AEs in each subfield.

I'm curious whether people ever pay attention to that information. Do you think it makes AEs more careful about what the approve for print? Are there other ramifications of doing this?

3 responses so far

Here's your trophy for attending kindergarten graduation!

(by proflikesubstance) Jun 06 2014

Last night I had the following conversation:

"Maybe we can take the girls out for dinner after the last day of Kindergarten for the Wee One."

"We'll have to eat early. Graduation is at 5:30."

"Why would we go to graduation? We don't know any of the kids in the oldest grade at the school."

"No, kindergarten graduation is at 5:30 on the last day."

"Kindergarten what?"

"Every grade has a graduation ceremony."


Seriously folks, is there anything more ridiculous than a graduation ceremony for Every. Damn. Grade? What could possibly be the point? Is anyone out there going "Well, Joey was really struggling with shapes this year, but we're so happy he was able to pull it up so he could walk across that stage with the rest of the kindergarten!"

You want to graduate high school? Great! Let's throw a damn party. College? Sure! I might even get you present! But Kindergarten graduation? Second grade? WHY? Isn't that called "cleaning out your locker for the summer? Isn't that all the reward a kid at that age needs?

And it's the culmination of two things here: The constant drum beat of one event or the other that has families stretched in every direction AND the apparent societal need to recognize every minor youth step with a piece of paper, plaque or trophy. My kids are 2 and 6 and already have a collection of awards and trophies the Lebron James would be impressed by.

I am all for raising confident kids. I want nothing more than for my kids to grow up sure of themselves with the feeling they can accomplish anything. But will they be able to separate real accomplishments from just showing up? I don't know, but here's a trophy for reading this far.

9 responses so far

No Cost Extensions and your Current and Pending

(by proflikesubstance) Jun 04 2014

I am in agreement with a post at DrugMonkey's regarding the No Cost Extension on grants. A one year extension to the time allotted to spend the grant money from your original budget is a welcomed window of time to tie things up. The benefits of the added time are obvious, especially with NSF grants that typically run only three years, the fourth year stretches that dollar a bit further. And if you've been smart about how you spent along the way, it all works out fairly well.

But the idea of an active project has different consequences and connotations at NSF than NIH. Whereas NIH does not limit the number of awards a PI can have at one time, that's a little more of a touchy subject at NSF. I've heard from multiple POs that there's a blurred line around the two core grant line where the funding of a third becomes questionable. Obviously there are a variety of factors to weigh here and one's status on the grant and time remaining are certainly big.

So where does the NCE fit in? Say one is early into one grant and has a second about to go into an NCE. Is that extra year considered a "current" grant, potentially excluding the PI from additional funding, or does it not matter because NSF has already spent all the money they are going to on that grant? Have people found that having NSF grants in NCE has hurt their chances with funding recently, or is the bar so high this hasn't been much of an issue?

6 responses so far

The ever changing dynamics of biodiversity

(by proflikesubstance) May 29 2014

Biodiversity is a hot topic these days. By any measure (species counts, genetic diversity, etc.) we appear to be losing it at rates that are uncharacteristic for our current climatic conditions. That is to say, there have been other major extinction events in Earth's history, but our current predicament is not the result of asteroid impact, and ice age or massive volcanic eruptions. Rather, evolution has produced an animal capable of exploiting planetary resources on an unprecedented scale.

But I'm not interested in getting into a climate change discussion today. I don't suffer the deniers of anthropogenic change on a global scale. What I would like to address stems from a conversation this morning that has long been an issue for me. It started simply:

I remarked that lion fish are hardly unusual for classic invasive species that enters a new ecosystem and takes off as food items are plentiful and parasites and predators are not. There's hundreds of examples of this exact pattern playing out, even if most people will only be familiar with ones involving larger animals. But the discussion got a bit more complex and it is here that I have been thinking a lot recently:

Our planet is a complex and very dynamic place. It's a question of scale and most people focus on a scale that they can relate to. When we talk about the disappearance of species, 99% of time we're talking about things that were present within our lifetimes and are either highly restricted in their distribution now, or gone. It's a time frame we can wrap our heads around.

But the planet is more dynamic than that and sea level change, land mass movement and global temperature have fluctuated dramatically over time. We are so hyper-focused on preserving the current status quo or re-establishing the very recent past that it is easy to ignore the fact that biological invasions are the norm at a geological scale, not the exception. I'm not advocating for ignoring human-induced biologic invasions or the short-term havoc they cause on an ecosystem but it's important to keep them in context. We've made the situation worse, but "invasives" are not new. Not even close.

As an example that concerns me, we are rapidly approaching a time when there will be unobstructed ocean flow through the Arctic for much or all of the year. The lack of ice cover for longer periods significantly alters what can live in Arctic waters and current patterns are likely to move Pacific species east*. This is not a situation where we have a single species showing up and bullying a naive ecosystem, but the collision of two ecosystems that have been physically separated for a long time. It'll be the rough equivalent of submerging the isthmus of Panama (no, not the panama canal, which flows through fresh water).

Again, both of these dramatic events have happened before over geologic time. But in stark contrast to worrying about the fate of a single species or the preservation of a particular forest or reef, which is where much of our current conservation effort is focused, we will stand witness to forces far more dramatic. Unlike the lion fish eradication effort in the topical Atlantic, there will be no hope to put this genie back in the bottle**. But as noted here, we still think of conservation as stopping the changing of the tide:

Now I realize this is a fairly rambly post written in multiple interrupted sittings, so I want to make clear I'm not against studying invasive species or using invasions as a model for projecting ecological impacts and niche shuffling. But I do think we need to view species mobility and biodiversity as a dynamic processes, albeit one that is being driven mightily both directly and indirectly by human activities. In fact, I think such research is going to be key to figure out how we mitigate some of the damage. But what we view as an "ideal state" for biodiversity may not be the stable state for the environment in the future, no matter how much we try and force it to be.

*Anecdotally, there are already some disturbing reports here.

**Okay, there's no hope to eradicate the lion fish from the Caribbean either, but this is a different level of crushed hope.

7 responses so far

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