HBHM (4 of 5): Getting pushed

May 27 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

In a lot of ways, this is an extension of yesterday's post, though an important one.

Many of us are self-motivated. This ability to push oneself even in the absence of an immediate boss figure looming is probably a factor in drawing people to academia. "Academic Freedom" (in both its good and bad connotations) is supposed to allow faculty to do their work without people getting in the way. Whether this happens in reality can be debated, but I would argue that most PIs have a day-to-day freedom that many professionals don't. Because of that, the ability to push oneself is important to long-term success.

As the new member of the department I hit the ground running. I was filling the lab with stuff, writing grants training students, etc. I didn't need anyone to tell me that this stuff had to happen, I wanted it done more than anyone else. I worked like hell to get a functioning lab together and had shit up and running in a couple of months. We produced our first bits of data in less than 6 weeks from me opening the door to an empty room. It was good.

I haven't stopped working with that same intensity, but how many times have I looked around at all of the stuff I have to do while holding some form of rejection (grant, paper, request for an autographed picture of Alan Thicke, whathaveyou) and said to myself "Fuck. This."? More than you might think. I am not saying that I'm going to walk away one day and fulfill my life-long desire to become a trapeze artist, only that maintaining a decent level of motivation in the face of consistent rejection is not an easy thing.

But it is critical.

Everyone's experience will differ depending on who is around them, but my experience has been that the people in my department are quick to say "you're doing all the right things. Don't worry, something will come through!", which is nice... Maybe too nice at times. The reality, at least for me, is that I don't want to be too comfortable with how I am doing until I get some money in the door and papers out the door. I'm working on that, but it doesn't hurt to have people around to say "Dude, sack the fuck up. No one cares that Reviewer 3 was an know-nothing blowhard. Fix it, submit again." Just as effective is seeing others going through just as (or more) difficult a time and still getting up every time they are knocked down.

A tolerance for being told "no" is important, but the drive to keep knocking until someone says "yes" is the only way to get things moving. When you are balancing things at home, teaching, travel, trainees, and keeping your research going, it is incredibly easy to say "I'll just submit one proposal this round instead of two." Honestly, most people in my department either would be fine with me doing that or not know or care one way or another, but I know I need to submit the two (or three in the case of this July) and so do the many people I have met through blogging who I never would have met in another way.

Directly or indirectly, the people who I interact with through blogging keep me motivated when I want to let up a bit. This has been really important for me, particularly in the last 6 months and is the second biggest way in which blogging has helped me. Tune in tomorrow for what has, to me at least, been the most surprising and important effect of blogging.

10 responses so far

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    You are hitting a strong stride as you ride towards that final hurdle (tenure). I sincerely hope you make it. I pulled away at the penultimate hurdle (getting that coveted tenure-track position). It is not that I do not enjoy a challenge - I love a challenge, and do not shy away from hard work.For me it was realizing I did not really want the prize - a poorly paid teaching and administrative job that offers freedom to do some research, providing you can find the funding. For the longest time I though I wanted to be a professor, and I am not sure why, behind the need to prove I could make it. Why do you want to be a professor?

  • GMP (GeekMommyProf) says:

    Deep breaths. There will be a lot of rejections, period. But you just need to get one or two grants and you will feel much more perky. Plugging into one of the large multi-PI (30+ PI) grants (DOD and NSF have them, not sure about NIH) is an excellent way to get a bit of breathing room and some funding. Also, do not neglect co-PI grants. It's money and semi-unlimited freedom. Collaborate. I know you need PI-grants; it's good to know that even one prestigious one like CAREER or the DOD young investigator ones (there are 3 or more), DOE has a new one too, is a majorly important bullet on your tenure dossier. I highly recommend going for the early career grants first, as the rate of funding is comparatively higher (applicant pool much smaller). @ Dr. Girlfriend: Why I wanted to be a professor? Cannot stand the idea of having a boss. Am fine with sinking or swimming on my own, just as long as no one is ordering me around. And the ability to do research I want and to see students grow and mature into competent individuals is nothing short of amazing.

  • Professor in Training says:

    But you just need to get one or two grants and you will feel much more perky. I know that PLS and I have both been busting of our asses to get something, anything, but in this economy this is no easy task. It doesn't matter if it's Big Ass Grant Mechanism or Tiny Little Funding or Young Shiny Star Awards, it's extremely difficult to get anything right now.Motivation is definitely key, though. And Doritos. Lovely, tasty, acrylamide-filled Doritos.

  • GMP (GeekMommyProf) says:

    it's extremely difficult to get anything right now.PiT, I know, trust me. I'm not trying to be patronizing. The funding situation was already going downhill fast when I started tenure track (that was not that long ago). Unfortuantely, you will not get a break because of it when your case goes up for tenure review. I am just trying to tell you how to be practical and increase chances of getting something sooner rather than later: by being one of many co-PIs on Big Ass Grant you can leverage collaborations and the fact that older better connected PI's do have a better chance of getting funding; the same thing with being co-PI on few-collaborator grant. And it is simple math that smaller applicant pool means higher chance of success; I recommend going for young investigator awards because it's money, prestige, PLUS you are not competing against older, better connected guys. That's all. It's advice, take it or leave it.

  • Megan says:

    This is hitting home for me right now, even though I am not a professor. I understand exactly what you're saying and how critical these things are...

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    GMP - I have considered a CAREER award, but it's actually hard to get the projects I have going done for that kind of money. Everything else I am submitting is for funds substantially more than the CAREER cap, and that's over three years, not five. I realize the value of a CAREER award, but I don't know that it would have bang-for-buck value for the amount I would need to rewrite and modify. I know that sounds like a lame excuse, but I'm looking down the barrel of 3 NSF proposals and possibly 2 NIH proposals in the next 6 weeks and I'm traveling for a good part of that. Four of those proposals are collaborative, however. That said, I'll be lucky if I survive what is already on my plate, without adding a major rewrite.

  • Anonymous says:

    Forget the CAREER. It is a crapshoot for very little money compared to even the regular NSF awards. I would put all my efforts on the NIH ones. By the way, are you a co-PI on any of the NIH (if R01s?) Make sure that you are not compromising your Early Stage or New Investigator status for some piddly amount as a co-PI. If you are the sole PI or one of many new PIs, disregard my earlier comment. And finally, have you burnt a few ears off the Program Officers about how seriously ELEVENTY your research is and how it ought to be funded?

  • Zuska says:

    Steve Martin's excellent advice on how to become a millionaire springs to mind here: First - get a million dollars.

  • Dr. Dad, PhD says:

    I finally realize that it's a good thing to be a stubborn (I prefer the term persistent) masochist. I actually like it when I get rejected, because then I can show them just how wrong they are. Two days ago I got the rejection letter from hell from a journal I really wanted to publish in. Not entirely a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but the work represents my first chance at 1st authorship from a 3 yr postdoc. In other words, I should be freaking out.At the urging of my mentor, I wrote a response letter to the editor. I don't expect that my indignation will create a epiphaniptic (let's just pretend that this is a word, OK?) moment were he suddenly slaps his forehead and says "But of course, how could I have been so stupid/ we MUST accept this paper!" But I also didn't expect to become more energized, more focused, and to come up with dramatic improvements to my paper overnight. And yet I did. Throughout my short career I have faced many obstacles, and have even been told that I would never amount to anything worthwhile. These comments do not bother me - they motivate me. I simply add the criticism to the growing chip on my shoulder and move past each obstacle. Persistence will (I hope) provide real rewards in the long run.I have yet to start actually start my own blog, but I can definitely see the value - I received immeasurable gains simply from the act of putting pen to paper for my audience of one (I'm not counting the editor; my letter was really written only for me). I can only imagine what will happen when I start getting more input.

  • prodigal academic says:

    The desire to get plugged into a community of peers is why I started blogging recently myself.As for young PI/Early Investigator rewards--I am not eligible. Most of them are for PIs 5 years or less from their terminal degree, which pretty much rules me out as one who spent 5 years on staff at a National Lab. In their place, I have had success this year as a co-PI to get funds trickling in while I work on getting my own solo proposals funded. I figure every little bit helps, and it has been beneficial to my research to formalize a couple of informal collaborations. Your strategy seems similar to one I am following, so I hope it is a good one!

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