Archive for: November, 2010

Thank yous and 1 day left

Nov 08 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Tomorrow is the final day for the Science Blogger Challenge at Donors Choose and I'm proud to say that the PLS giving page has so far generated $1023 for school children all over the country. I thought I would take the opportunity to post some of the thank you notes from projects you have helped fund. Remember that there is still one day left to finish off the two final projects I added to the page, Project Pre-K Success II and Little Kinder Hands in Need of Math Materials (though 2 more seem to be there as well, but they are good projects too!)

From Ms. W, of Thematic Learning Centers

I have a bunch of eager Kindergarteners who are looking forward to learning about and using the new centers.

The Thematic centers will be very helpful in teaching my students about a broad range of topics, that these children have little or no knowledge about. The centers will provided fun, exciting, and educational experiences for each and everyone of my students. Ultimately these centers will help me prepare all of my Kindergarteners for 1st grade. Once again thank you so very much for you generous donation.

With gratitude,
Ms. W.

From Mrs. M, of Going Green:Hands-On Science In Our Greenhouse

Thank you so much for funding my greenhouse project. All of the students in our elementary school, grades Kindergarten through fifth grade, will now have an opportunity to nurture a plant and chart its growth as they learn by doing. Your generosity is greatly appreciated. I can't wait to see our greenhouse brimming with life and to share pictures and progress reports with you.

We have asked a horticulturist to visit our campus to enrich this experience for our students. You have given us a unique opportunity, and we will make the most of your generosity.

With gratitude,
Mrs. M.

From Mr. B, of Easels, Markers, and Dry Erase Boards for College

I can't fully express my joy, excitement, and thanks for your donation to my project. It is great to see that you share my vision for reaching children. In math it is so vital that students receive individualized help as needed and your donation is going to make that happen more effectively in my classroom.

Your donation, no matter what size, is going to directly impact some of my most needy students. I thank you for helping out my classroom, but more importantly, my students also thank you for giving them more access to opportunities which a great math education will give them.

With gratitude,
Mr. B.

Thank you all for helping these classrooms and giving to these children. One day left!

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Goodbye, Dr. No

Nov 08 2010 Published by under Etc

Acadamnit will be missed.

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TT job ad translation

Nov 05 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Last week Gerty-Z posted about being on a search committee for her department that received around 600 applications. Yes, 600. Why, you might ask?

The large number of applications stems from the fact that I am in a pretty basic dept. that is looking for someone that "does good science". Anyone from a molecular biophysicist to systems biologist to development geneticist to a physiologist could be at home here.

There are a lot of broad departments out there that want people that do good science. Not all of them advertise positions that get this many applications, however. In fact, most places want to avoid this situation at all costs, because it leaves the committee doing a ton of work. The only way to achieve this kind of app count is to make the ad so vague that anyone can apply. But what does this say to your potential applicants?

I brought this up in Odyssey's excellent post about tailoring your application to each department, but I think it bears mentioning reiterating that the hiring process is a two way street. Slapping together a job "Biologist Wanted" job ad says something like this:

What you write - Biologist wanted, any rank. Requirements include doing good science and the potential to collaborate with members of our huge department.

What a candidate reads - Divided department can't or won't decide on a specialty of interest for this position. "Good science" will be arbitrarily defined by a small number of overburdened committee members looking for any excuse to toss your application. We loosely define our needs because we don't care about your time, your letter writer's time (because we probably want LoRs up front) or that of our own administrative staff who have to process all this shit.
p.s. If you don't make the short list don't expect to ever hear from us again.
p.p.s. We also hate the environment because we're printing all these apps out in triplicate for the committee.

If you think I'm wrong, let's check with Gerty-Z to see how much time your application will get:

I've been told not to spend more than 2 min per application.
Yep, you read correctly. In less than 2 minutes one person is going to decide if anyone will ever actually read your application. Those that are not "out" will be assigned to themes and circulated to appropriate faculty to identify the top 10-20%. This is what really terrified me. Some applications may get read here, but I wouldn't count on it. I am told to expect to spend ~10 min per application at this level. In other words, if you make it past triage you have 10 min to convince someone you are the best thing since Howard Hughes.

Glad you are putting all that time into crafting that application yet?

Yes, people will apply, especially now. But if I applied for that position and got an interview, I'm still polishin' up my eff you shoes for that trip. I'm going there looking extra hard for signs of a dysfunctional department. I'm assuming that there is a culture of hoop jumping for everything, especially if (as Gerty-Z mentioned) there are few junior faculty in the department. I am much more likely to have my guard up the whole time and be more mentally critical of perceived departmental short-comings. Why? Because this department either didn't think it was worth their time to decide the field of research they wanted to add for the next 30 years or was too caustically divided to come to a conclusion and shirked the responsibility.

Maybe applicants right now are just happy to get any interview because the job numbers are so low. But chances are, if you rose to the top of a 600 applicant pile, you are likely to have competing offers. Maybe with departments who care more about the time and effort of 600 people.

5 responses so far

What your NSF grant ranking really means

We're coming up on the time when people are going to start to hear from the NSF POs about whether or not their proposals got funded. With that in mind, I thought it might be a good time to talk about how proposals are ranked and what it means.

When I get a rejection back, and I have a good amount of practice here, I tend to start with the rating and panel summary and then dive into the reviews. I've talked about why a panel summary may or may not be a good summary of the discussion, but when you get a good one there is a tremendous amount of information in there. Sometimes you have to read between the lines a bit, but it is more important than I once thought to address the issues that arise in the panel summary because those are specifically discussed in the subsequent panel.

One other important thing to take note of is the context statement. Unlike NIH, there is no numerical rating of the proposals and corresponding cut-off value. Instead, there are four categories: high, medium and low priority, and not competitive. The context statement will tell you how many proposals came into that program and what percentage got ranked in each category. This tells you a lot about both the panel and your competition. In looking back through my previous declines, those numbers vary widely and my proposals have been in programs where 5% of proposals were rated as not competitive (VERY unusual) and 55% were in that same category. Based on my experience, the latter is far more normal.

"Not competitive" is roughly equivalent to being triaged at NIH. Although every proposal is discussed at the panel, if you fall into that category the panel is telling you that you have a proposal flaw big enough that, even if there were infinite resources available, they would not trust your proposal to produce results worthy of the financial support. Yes, that sucks, but the reasons your proposal falls into that category should be clearly spelled out in the panel summary, but read it carefully, because many summaries are not as blunt as they should be.

If you managed to steer your proposal into one of the other three categories, congratulations, the panel that you had good ideas that would result in interesting data and publications. But here's where it gets a little tricky. Obviously, the proposals in the high priority category have a better chance of being funded than those in the low, but there are several factors that keep the POs from just funding the top rated proposals. Once the panel has done its job, the POs get down to brass tacks. They have a portfolio to fill and simply funding all of the panel's favorite proposals may not tick all of the boxes the PO needs to check.

Part of NSF's mandate is to do things like making sure that PUIs get a share of the pot. Proposals from EPSCoR states are another consideration. Career stage is important as well, not just for beginning investigators, but mid and late-stage PIs are considered as well (e.g. projects like OPUS proposals). It's not just about how your proposal was ranked, but about making all the pieces fit together.

For this reason, anything in the top three categories is technically fundable, making the differences between the top three categories less important than making it into those top three in the first place. Obviously, preference is going to be given to the higher rated proposals, but the POs have a lot of leeway here when it comes to who gets the money. Particularly because there is no ranking within each category, proposals in the medium priority have a decent shot at getting picked up if there is money to do so. The flip side of that, of course, is that proposals in the high priority category may also go unfunded.

This is what can make NSF so maddening or forgiving, depending on where your proposal falls. Watching a proposal that was previously ranked in the high priority category fall to a lower one was tough on the panel I went to, because I know that as a proposal writer I would be screaming my ass off when I got that summary back. OTOH, as someone on a panel A) we can only judge each proposal in the context of what else is on the table, and B) having a proposal just tossed back into the next round without addressing the previous concerns just because it was ranked highly in the last round is not a great way to make an impression. It is a delicate balance of changing just enough to improve the proposal without opening up new issues, but that is true for any proposal that gets out of the pit of "not competitive".

12 responses so far

Year 3 licks goat scroti

Nov 04 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], LifeTrajectories

PiT's post from yesterday sounded all too familiar and I don't think that is a coincidence. Despite pretty massive differences in just about everything you can compare, we are on very similar career trajectories. We've both just finished two years on the job and I think one thing is clear: Year three sucks.

In year one, you are the new person. Everyone likes a new person. People are excited to get to know you and no one wants to be a jerk to the shiny new faculty member. They expect you to look lost. They expect to protect you from certain responsibilities as you feel your way around the new surroundings and fill your lab. Other than trying to get all the equipment purchased, it is a Care Bear tea party.

Year two rolls around as the lab is starting to come together and it is time to ease into some teaching and maybe a bit of service. No one expects you to be good at either one and if you are it is a bonus. Any research progress is applauded like new parents praise a child's first scribble that looks remotely recognizable. "Our new faculty member is sooooo smart and soooo far ahead of that dude they hired in the math department!" Folks in your field finally figure out you've moved and begin to track you down for things. As a new faculty member, you are ready for the challenge!

Then there's year three.

I don't know when it happened, but things changed this year. We have had some good success as a lab, but for every one thing that seems to go right, there are five things that are a problem. It seems like everyone wants a piece of me so often that I have nothing left for myself, and I have said "no" to plenty of things. Everything is done with good intention ("Oh, this will help you get X, Y or Z and that is important"), but the cumulative is just too much. Teaching, service, advising... it all gets ramped up and sits on top of everything you had precariously balanced before. Shit starts slipping through the cracks and you can no longer claim to still be learning.

Certainly my funding situation (or lack thereof) is adding to the feeling of not living up to the myriad of expectations. I think we're in a position now to be very competitive funding and I've been killing myself to do all the right things to close the gap between where we are now and getting a proposal funded. I believe it will happen in the next 6ish months, but I have to. No one else has to trust that feeling, however, because why would they? Without question this is a critical year for my lab and I don't want to know what happens if we can't secure something by summer. I know it can't be good.

But more than anything this year, at some point this job became work. I got into this career despite the long training period, low pay, long hours, years of instability and not being able to pick the geography of my "permanent" job because I could not see myself enjoying something else in the same way. Now I wonder where that went. I'm not saying I don't enjoy the work on good days, but it is work now. Maybe this is temporary, I don't know, but I look at the people ahead of me whom I would consider successful and they look just as strung out as I feel. Not the inspiring image I was hoping for.

I'll keep churning out the proposals and get the papers out from our work so far, but I can't help feeling a little shitty about how things have changed. Rather than getting excited about something working in lab, I'm just relieved that we've moved incrementally forward rather than epically backwards. With so much of my time is spread among so many different constituencies I'm struggling to do the very thing I was brought here to do.

40 responses so far

The final countdown...

Nov 02 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One week remains in the Donors Choose campaign. That's all. A week to help kids throughout the country get involved in science. This is the week to get involved if you have been putting it off. The final push.

So far, dear readers, you have done very well. We've had 12 donors give a total of $864, which has been enough to reach 753 students. That's a lot of kids that would not otherwise be experiencing science education with the new tools provided by you and Donors Choose. That's impressive.

But here is my goal for the final week. I have reduced the number of projects on my donation page to 4 and I want to see all of them funded.

Project Pre-K Success II needs only $151 to bring supplies for early math education to special ed Pre-K students.

Going Green:Hands-On Science In Our Greenhouse needs $112 to introduce elementary students to plant biology via growing seeds.

Little Kinder Hands in Need of Math Materials is $314 away from bringing supplies for math education into an early elementary school curriculum.

Inquiry-Based Field Biology: A Biological Survey Experience is looking for $408 to get equipment to take high school students into the field for hands-on learning.

Every one of these projects will help schools in high poverty areas and all but the final project will affect very young students, who are vitally important to improving interest in math and science.

One week left. Do your thing, even if you only have $5 to give.

2 responses so far

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