How do you structure a job talk?

(by proflikesubstance) Oct 28 2014

Many people applying for academic jobs this season are well into the process. Interviews are happening across the country and more are on the way. If you're putting together a talk for an on campus interview, you'll want to make sure you're communicating to your audience the information they'll need to make a decision. Obviously, it's not all going to come down to your talk, but many faculty will only see you during this time.

The most critical piece, IMO, is figuring out whether you need to include a full Future Directions section in your feature talk. I've seen it done several ways, but what you present on the work you plan to do at the hiring institution is obviously the key. In my current job, the future directions was a separate talk. I still gave a 5 minute compressed version for those who wouldn't see the second talk, but it was just a teaser.

If you're asked to put everything in one talk, I would roughly break it down like:

30 min of highlighting what you have done

20 min of talking about what you will do

10 min for questions

People often say that their completed work is either too much or too diverse to cover in 30 or 40 or 50 minutes. This is good and probably why you are being interviewed. However, it is up to YOU to create a narrative about who you are and what you bring to the table. What led you from one training environment to another*? What is the flow to your science and what you have accomplished? What are you going to take from that and apply to your new awesome lab?

Your audience should come away with a feel for the flow and trajectory of your career. That is your take home for them. You want them to think "Wow, she did all that and is ready to really take off on an original path!"

Look at the structure of your talk and make sure that is front and foremost.

 

 

 

* Or, what is the best possible spin you can apply post hoc?

13 responses so far

Can one grant even get its own science done?

(by proflikesubstance) Oct 24 2014

The current issues with federal science funding are well documented. Anyone familiar with the science blogging world or running their own lab will be way too familiar with the downturn in support for science in the US. But even before the overall funding decline, there's been a stagnation that is really catching up with us.

Drugmonkey has talked about the static modular budget at NIH. Briefly, the budget for your average NIH R01 hasn't changed in years, whereas all the costs have increased. Consumables, salary, tuition, travel, services... they are all more expensive than the were 10 years ago. Substantially.

NSF is similarly impacted. A big difference here is that indirect rates are calculated into the overall NSF proposal budget. Guess what else has risen 10% since I started my position? So, we have costs of everything climbing and a static budget. The reality is that we can't afford the same work we could 5 and 10 years ago. Period.

When writing a proposal there's pressure to keep the budget down. As such, we whittle away (often negotiating for crumbs with collaborators on the proposal). Once funded, the budget is almost certainly cut by some amount, further reducing the buying power. NIH grants can even be cut substantially during the funded period!

But, in the increasingly competitive environment, does anybody dial the science in their proposals back? Hell. No. The demand is higher than ever.

So here is the reality of running a lab right now: You need multiple sources of funding that can offset one another. I am watching people taking the one grant-at-a-time approach and falling short in big ways. Without substantial resources from somewhere that allow you to add personnel or leverage grant funds, completing the work as written gets harder by the day.

Think broadly, my friends. Collaborate. Leverage funds against departmental, college or university resources. Apply for local money that will allow you to offload a salary for a bit. Be on the lookout for these additional pots of money, because a single grant can easily collapse under its own weight these days.

6 responses so far

What do you want to know about writing a preproposal?

(by proflikesubstance) Oct 22 2014

I've been tasked by my Research Office to give a presentation on writing NSF preproposals. This is a topic I've written about before, but I am curious what types of questions are out there. If you were attending such a presentation, what information would you hope to hear about?

6 responses so far

Despite the name, Teaching Assistantships support the research mission

(by proflikesubstance) Oct 08 2014

For a typical Biology Department, TAs are a critical resource. Teaching Assistants run most of the labs in the department, and in some cases run recitations or help grade exams in large classes. In most places I have been the TAs are limited in the number of hours they can work in a given week, usually in the range of 20h/wk. TA support comes with pay that covers the stipend, and importantly, the tuition and fringe of the student for the semesters they are teaching. In that sense, their major professor does not need to support them off grants while they TA, but their research time is limited by the contact hours, lab prep and grading.

Since many biology departments are largely geared towards NSF funding, TA support allows for more students to be involved in a project than can be supported directly from a single grant. In my college, for instance, the Dean's office will match a semester of TA support for every semester or RA support a PI has on a grant. This allow us to be a little flexible in our budgeting, since the actually dollar amount of federal grants has not climbed appreciably in quite some time, whereas inflation and institutional overhead rates (which IS counted into the budget of an NSF grant) have increased, unabated.

Therefore, we have graduate students performing an important role in the teaching mission of a department as a way to directly supplement the research mission of the department.

And this is where it can get tricky, folks. Because not every class runs the same way and not every professor understands the big picture. If you think of TAs as graduate students who are teaching to supplement their research time, you will have very different expectations than if you see a TA as a junior teacher there to relieve teaching burden from the professor. There will be different task and time expectations and the inequity of these across the curriculum can be significant. As graduate students, it's important to know what the expectations are when you agree to take on a new class.

But more importantly, departments need to ensure that there are cultural norms for these expectations. Is it expected that TAs should work their full time allotment every week? If not, what is a reasonable load? After all, the grad students are there to get their degree, not bear the burden of your teaching load.

EDIT: I forgot an important point that I was reminded of on Twitter: TA's are paid for at the university level by overhead dollars. Thus they are paid for by research to support the research mission.

13 responses so far

Institutional pride

(by proflikesubstance) Sep 30 2014

Last night I asked a question on twitter about whether PIs felt some specific allegiance to their institution and I got some interesting responses. My thought was simply that many of us may feel ties to our department or even one's specific college, but I was trying to get at what it takes to extend that feeling to the institution as a whole?

Does it matter if you're at a university, national lab, medical center, museum or other?

Does it have to do with whether you did your undergraduate or grad degree there?

Do those working at elite universities take more pride in their affiliation, and thus feel an allegiance to their place of employment?

In my particular case, I see the university as the overall body that allows me to do what I like to do, but I don't feel any particular need to fly it's colors or celebrate the institution. I like our geographic area. I DO have strong feelings about my department, our majors and faculty. I do feel a strong tie to our college administration, who have been exceptionally supportive. As a result I do the general PR stuff that we are asked to do for student recruitment, etc. Outside of that?

But I certainly see examples out there of faculty who embrace the university in a broader way, such as @LSU_FISH. So I'm curious in what circumstances do people buy into the institution, as an entity?

29 responses so far

Stolen Dance

(by proflikesubstance) Aug 29 2014

2 responses so far

The hardest part of a professor's job

(by proflikesubstance) Aug 27 2014

Professor. It's a term used to cover a wide swath of job in the US, from people who strictly teach undergraduates to soft money researchers. The spectrum of people, jobs, situations and career options makes the title a grab-bag of many things. At each end of the spectrum you have jobs that are nearly, if not entirely, non-overlapping in their responsibilities and requirements.

Some professors find teaching to be the hardest part of their job. Others are mired in administrative bullshit or frustrated by the constant need to hump the leg of one's particular funding agency. But there's one stress aspect all of these jobs share:

Work / life balance.

It doesn't matter if you're single or married with 12 kids, I don't know a single professor under 50 who doesn't routinely struggle with meeting the demands of their work while maintaining some semblance of normal (whatever that is) at home. I've posted before about the fallacy of balance (spoiler: balance means doing at least one thing poorly all the time, just don't make it the same thing all the time) and it doesn't really exist. But there's lots of jobs that require a lot of hours, right? Yes, but one of the major benefits of academia is also what makes balancing it so tricky - there's no boss.

Some jobs have hourly work week expectations of their more junior people that are either institutional or explicit. Some jobs require a certain amount of travel. As a professor, you make all your own choices on how to spend your time. As such, I almost always hear people comparing notes about how each other spends their time.

"How much do you travel?"

"How many hours a week do you spend in your office?"

"How much do you work at home?"

"How many hours of sleep do you get?"

These are all questions I've asked or been asked in the last few months. Everyone is trying to figure out what the "right" balance is when the reality is that it is completely amoeboid. No two people's situations are the same, nor is any one person's situation the same from one month to the next. Workload, health, kids, parents, phase of the moon, mood of your administration, how needy your cat is, your town's climate, etc., etc., etc., all play in to what you can give and to whom.

And it's up to you to gauge how to spend your time, sometimes months in advance. The challenges of these decisions are really the one stressor that unites all academics, across the board.

14 responses so far

Repost: Don't waste at least 270 people's time

(by proflikesubstance) Aug 25 2014

We're coming up on another job season and, like always, I'm seeing tons of jobs requesting Letters of reference up front. This is stupid and wastes a huge number of people's time. It really needs to stop. I posted this last year, but my views haven't changed.

Once again my department is putting together a job ad. There's been much discussion over the wording of the ad and exactly how we want to phrase every last detail. Frankly, the minutia of picking one word over another because of subtle differences in implication is rather pointless in today's job market. People aren't worried about the exact phrasing including or excluding them because it doesn't.

One thing I always fight hard for, however, is that we not ask for letters of reference, up front. Why? I mean, maybe an LoR is so good it puts someone on the shortish list! But do the math. Let's say you are advertising a specialized position and you get 100 applications. Three LoRs per application gives you 300 LoRs. If you plan to phone interview 10, there's a really good chance there's nearly 270 LoRs that will never or barely be read.

It does not take much time to send off an LoR, this I know. But it's one more deadline for busy people. In fact, unless the job candidate is a special snowflake, there's a pretty good chance that it's 30-40 more deadlines for busy people. And for what? So the committee can maybe argue a little longer over numbers 10 and 11 on the list? Please.

If you are involved in a job search, do your community a favor. Don't ask for LoRs until the shortish list. Those 30 people will actually feel like they are helping the candidate rather than mailing out fliers for a job-a-thon.

8 responses so far

Is the R21 a dead end?

(by proflikesubstance) Aug 12 2014

Long time readers may be aware that I've dabbled in the NIH game a bit in my wayward youth. In this effort I've had mixed success - one proposal landing 1%ile out of funding and two triaged. My last round of NIH reviews was particularly blunt in slapping me with some language to the effect of "You should learn to write for NIH before you resubmit", so I have concentrated on diversifying my NSF portfolio since last slinking away to lick my wounds.

In October I'm planning on submitting an R21 to support an off-shoot of a core project. I'm taking it in an unusual direction for me that aligns better with NIH and the R21 mechanism is, on paper just right for the proposal. That is because the R21 mechanism is geared towards limited support ($275k direct) for a short (2 year) and "risky" project. This mechanism was NIH's response to criticism that it only funds safe and proven projects that result in incremental science.

The idea, of course, is to get into the NIH system and generate data that would lead to an R01 proposal in a couple of years. I'm sure this is the intention of most people opting for an R21.

But.

The numbers that Datahound churned up are a bit sobering with regard to future NIH success for R21 award winners. Although he's quick to point out the small sample size, it's very interesting that 72% of those with only R21 support in 2009 had no NIH money in 2013. Out of those who still had NIH money, 10% only had another R21. This suggests that the transition from R21 to R01 support is not all that common.

Why is that? There's several possible reasons. Certainly the smaller nature and shorter application (6 pages) of the R21 may be more attractive to PIs are smaller institutions. Perhaps the focus on the R21 takes away from landing the R01, stunting the progress of some labs. Maybe most R21 holders have no intention of taking the next step, but simply subsidize other funding with the R21. I don't know the answer and it would be damn near impossible to sort through all those (and other) options.

I'm sure the truth lays somewhere in between them all.

For those of you who have applied for an R21, why did you apply for that mechanism? Did/do you intend to shoot for an R01? If not, why not?

24 responses so far

Grant writing: r selection or K selection?

(by proflikesubstance) Aug 01 2014

Ecologists will be very familiar with the idea of r Vs. K selection, coined by MacArthur and Wilson in the 1970's to describe reproductive strategies. In a nutshell, r selection is the production of many offspring without investing a huge amount in any one. K selection, on the other hand, is a heavy investment of resources in relatively few offspring.

A K selection strategy is one that is optimal in a predictable and stable environment, where offspring will be given a leg up by a heavy investment in, say, egg yolk or lengthy parental care. An unpredictable environment selects for an r strategy, where many offspring will perish, but the few that land in the right environment will have the opportunity to thrive.

Obviously these are two ends of a spectrum with a lot of gray in between, but the point I'm trying to illustrate is the strategic decisions junior PIs have to make to achieve some level of survival in the grant game. Whereas it does no good to spam agencies with poorly thought out proposals, I would also argue that repeatedly banging one's head against the walls of NSF or NIH with a single proposal or idea is just as flawed. Both may result in funding (with the latter probably more likely), but both could just as easily result in nothing.

My advice to junior people is to get more than one idea in the system. Yes, you'll have you favorite proposal, but you need to be floating more than that at all times. Two is better. Three is even better. You will get the best value if they can go to different directorates/panels/ICs/agencies. Diversify your portfolio so you are not completely dependent on one source of funding now, and for your career. Being too far on the K selection side of the slider leaves you incredibly vulnerable to changes in your particular corner and just the general stochasticity that comes with single digit funding rates. There have been times when a K strategy was viable and you will still hear that advice from some senior people, but that time is not now, nor will it be for some time.

7 responses so far

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