Archive for: March, 2012

In writing, your audience matters

Mar 30 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Most of us are often asked to write a wide range of documents meant for consumption by very different people. Internal documents, manuscripts for society-level journals or those for "broader" journals, grant proposals, commentaries, evaluations, even blog posts. Each one is designed to reach a certain target audience. But does your writing style change to fit?

When I was a graduate student, my writing skills could best be summarized as "adequate". Yeah, I could write, but I was a buck knife when I need to be a swiss army knife. My mindset was that writing was meant for using the fewest words to convey the message in its most direct form. Great for writing abstracts, but not the most malleable tool.

As a postdoc I learned an enormous amount about writing, thanks to a supervisor who was relentless with red ink and an accomplished writer. I learned a lot about how to tailor my writing to the venue, even down to sentence length.

The concept of considering your audience always comes up most obviously for me when reviewing grants because it is common to read a few in a row that know what they are doing and then plow headlong into the mired thicket of a n00b proposal and wonder wtf just happened. And trust me, I've written those proposals.

The first few grant proposals I wrote as a n00b PI were The Best at the time. I got some feedback from senior colleagues and they all kind of danced around the thing I couldn't see: I wasn't writing to who I thought I was. I never put that together, realizing there was something the feedback was implying, but unable to grasp it. Looking back it's pretty obvious that I wrote the proposals like I was writing a paper for a small journal.

This is a topic that comes up all the time among the grant-advice blogs, but it can't really be emphasized enough: grant reviewers may not have any background in your sub-field. When I get grants to review I am often reading stuff about animals, which I think are the most boring group of organisms out there. A lot of people seem to study them, though, so I get to read about them. OTOH, since I don't work on animals, I often get to read proposals on Everything Else because my non-animal focus apparently gives me the ability to understand the other 99% of life forms. Far more often than not, there are major elements of a proposal I am largely unfamiliar with. This is not uncommon. At all.

This matters because if you write your proposal for someone in your field, you are making the life of most reviewers more difficult. Making life difficult for reviewers is going to come back to you in reviews that are less glowing about your work than you would like. My early proposals were not written for the audience that was going to read them and they got trounced, often for what seemed like obscure reasons that had nothing to do with the AWESOME SCIENCE! But I made the science more challenging for the tired panelist wading through a stack of proposals and that was that.

In an era where only a few proposals make the jump from the pile to the cash, writing for your audience is more critical than ever.

5 responses so far

Is there room in a review for grantsmithing feedback?

Mar 29 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I'm knee deep is preproposals right now. A bunch of them. They are funny documents and if anything is becoming apparent by reading many side by side, it's that those who can write concisely and get right to the point are doing themselves a service. While this is often true in a grant proposal, it is magnified when you are selling your project in 4 pages.

I am in the middle of a proposal now that was written by an early career PI. I think the science is decent, but the message is getting slowly strangled by convoluted sentences that average one parenthetical statement each. It is not an easy read. In fact, I would bet that this proposal will score lower than it would if it were just written for the proper audience - a group of scientist outside the field, judging on a tight timeline.

So, blogpeeps, is the grant review a "proper" place for critiquing the writing of the proposal? Having written, read and received >100 grant reviews for my own writing and that of many others (as a panelist, one can see all other reviews) I have never seen this done. Maybe it is laziness, maybe reviewers can't be bothered to wipe n00b ass or perhaps it is just Not The Way It Is Done.

What say thee?

11 responses so far

March RBOC

Mar 28 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

- I keep seeing people talking on their cell phones, but instead of being a normal human, they have them on speaker and 4 inches from their heads. Why are people doing this? It's not enough to piss off the person you are talking with by having them on speaker, you have to piss off anyone within ear-shot with your overshare conversation?

- Really appreciating the douchecannoe self-identification that comes with Santorum bumper stickers and lawn placards. Thanks for letting us know you are a crazy bigot!

- It appears I am being nominated for a pre-tenure service award, which I can only assume comes with a note suggesting I not pursue tenure here, if won.

- If everything worked in averages it would help me. I have one collaborator saving my ass on a project and another trying to kill me on a different project. On average, everything is great.

- Writing a manuscript is like watching basketball - the final 5% takes about as long as the first 50%

- The safest time to cross campus is during rain because no one is staring at their phones.

- If writing "Your comma use is giving me whiplash" on a student assignment is wrong, I don't wanna be right.

- I have stop putting my playlist on Random All when driving. Hearing Elmo screech into a song right after listening to Against Me nearly made me drive off the road.

- This song has been in my head. Why does a banjo-driven riff lodge itself in my brain?

4 responses so far

Sound familiar?

Mar 28 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Cath, over at VWXYNot, has a post up describing the changes being proposed by CIHR (the Canadian NIH) to revamp the review process there and alter their funding structure. These changes are being fueled by some of the same pressures that influenced NSF Bio to undergo recent changes.

As I commented on the post, I’m sure this will play out like all of these transitions do – initial screaming by the constituency, followed by screams returning to baseline levels in a year or two. The issue is that funding agencies have to do something to solve some major problems. They are not always going to get it right, but they have the money, so they make the rules. We can complain (and probably will), but it is what it is. Adapt or fall behind.

One response so far

Financial sharing

Mar 26 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Grant finances can be complicated. If your institution is anything like mine, even the mildly complicated initial budget gets a bump of ridiculousness when it hits the university coding system. Suddenly some categories are lumped together while others are split, with no apparent rhyme or reason to which is which. It's taken me long enough to figure out the intricacies of budgeting NSF proposals, but spending the money is an adventure in itself. Luckily we have very competent finance people to marry the proposal budget to the uni system and make the money flow.

But the mechanics of spending off a grant are hardly the only complicated factor. Another issue is how lines between projects blur when it comes to the flow of money. I know granting agencies want you to dedicate every penny from a grant to only that project, but I also think they recognize that science doesn't work in a linear fashion. Many projects have overlapping aspects and we are always trying to do more than what we wrote about two or three years ago as technology changes and new things become possible.

Put simply, grant budgets are flexible guidelines.

Given this, I am curious how forthcoming most PIs are with providing budgets to their trainees. Personally, I have never had a problem giving anyone working in my lab the full proposal for anything we are working on. My reasoning for this is two-fold: First, I think it useful for those hoping to make a career of this to get a feel for how grant budgets work. Where does the money go? How much do things really cost? Second, I think it is helpful for people in the lab to see the personnel costs. It's easy to see a big number on a funded proposal and think they lab is rich, but dig deeper and once you take out the university's cut, people are what drives the budget. This is generally under appreciated.

One of the drawbacks of doing this, however, is that people tend to view a grant budget in a vacuum. When you are thinking about a single project and have the budget in front of you, it is easy to forget that the budget is just one piece of the lab puzzle. There are many other factors and it is not as simple as it appears in the budget justification.

As an example, my university does not cover summer stipends for graduate students, leaving this up to the PIs. I don't believe it not paying my people over the summer (yes, some people think it is fine to pay only the academic year) so I have to make sure I can cover everyone in the summer. We also have a unionized grad student body, and the union sets academic year pay scales, but only has limits for the summer. Oddly, however, there is Summer Pay and then an allowance of "extra" summer pay in the union contract.

When I wrote up my budget for our grant, I maxed out the summer pay category, including the full summer pay and the "extra" pay money. Looking at the project in a vacuum, one might assume that I intend to pay the student on the project very well (by grad student standards) over the summer. But in reality I intended all along to have the "extra" pay be available to cover the partial summer stipend of another grad student, whose project isn't federally funded. Summer stipends can be tough to cover, but here is a mechanism to ensure more students are paid.

Based on this and other shell games that sometimes have to be played with grant finances, I'm not surprised when I hear about PIs keeping their people in the dark when it comes to lab budgets. I would be curious whether anyone has seen any bad consequences to being open about finances.

8 responses so far

Friday Poll: How much thesis do you read?

Mar 23 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Unfortunately, this is going to be a question mostly directed at the PIs in the readership, but I think it will be of interest to the grad students. The end of the semester and academic year is rapidly approaching (not fast enough, however, IMO) and with it comes a storm of thesis defenses. All of those innocent requests to be a committee member ("you won't be a core member, so you won't have that much to do, I promise!") are coming home to roost and I am staring at three thick envelops on my desk, with more arriving.

So my question today is how much of the thesis do committee members read?

Some qualifiers:

It is common to have published work included in the thesis, so commenting on those chapters is fairly useless. They do, however, provide context for others.

The presentation time for defenses here is short, only 30 min.

If a "non-core" committee member is getting the thesis, it has already been approved by the advisor and two other PIs closely related to the work.

So, do people read these things cover to cover? Rely on the presentation? Or something in between?

28 responses so far

Unwittingly playing The Game

Mar 21 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I've never been one to play at politics in the work arena, but often here stories of its existence. It is hardly uncommon to hear conversations about a colleague getting some favor or equipment from higher ups because they knew how to play The Game. I often knowingly nod my head when told of these incidents without having any sweet clue what transpired. But everyone knows The Game, right?

Perhaps my obliviousness to these maneuvers has, however, led me into the position of being right in the middle of such circumstances. I recently remarked to a Person With Power that we could really use This Thing and they agreed that it would be useful to many and should be acquired. "Cool." I thought, "This might happen."

And something odd did happen. Person With Power told me they were going to put out an RFP for people to request Things. PWP then indicated that the proposals would be open for anyone to view and comment on to provide feedback. At the time I presumed that whichever Thing got the most positive response would be the Thing that was acquired. Seemed fair, I can hardly claim to want This Thing for reasons that would be broadly appreciated.

The RFP went out and many people spent time writing up proposals for Their Things. Meetings were had, discussions were had, opinions were supplied. There was no vote or formal measure of opinion, but feedback was requested and provided.

I recently had a meeting with PWP, who told me that they planned to buy This Thing and that I should get a write up together. It became apparent that PWP had every intention to buy This Thing from the start of the process, but wanted others to feel their Things had been considered prior to buying This Thing.

So simply by having my priorities aligned with PWP's and suggesting the right Thing, it looks like we will soon be acquiring This Thing. Bully for me. However, it leaves me uneasy that it comes at the expense of many people's time spent chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. While today I am the beneficiary, this is the kind of stuff that makes people jaded and I have certainly been burned before.

I wonder whether others will think I know how to play The Game.

13 responses so far

NSF preproposal update

For those of you NSFers out there, I thought I would give you an update on what I know so far about the preproposal process:

- A while back I mentioned that I expected roughly 3X the normal load of proposals, based on the number of names on the Conflict of Interest document. Surprisingly, I'm seeing MORE co-PI proposals than before, suggesting that the limit of two proposals for every PI/co-PI is not much of a factor. More people seem to be spreading their effort around, resulting in several proposals in my batch with >4 co-PIs.

- As for straight numbers, I am reviewing a little less than 2X the number of preproposals than regular proposals I received last time. Given that they are significantly shorter I am spending less time reading but we still have to write a review for each one.

- The review at this stage is similar, but we are being asked to triage 80% of the preproposals. POs want 15% in the "high priority invite" category and 5% in the "low priority invite" category when all is said and done. Therefore, we are being instructed to be more aggressive in our reviews, to whittle down the numbers that will eventually be discussed. In the past, every proposal has at least been discussed at panel. Those days appear to be over and triaged proposals will not be getting detailed panel summaries back.

- In practical terms, preproposals getting ratings of Good, Very Good and Excellent have a shot at being discussed. Anything that gets a Fair or Poor hits the round file.

That's what I know so far, more to come.

7 responses so far

Graphic Fridays: A summary of #dinnerdare at the Spandrel Shop

Mar 16 2012 Published by under [Et Al]

4 responses so far

Stuffed pork loin and green beans #dinnerdare

Mar 14 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I'll be honest, when I started this earlier, I had plans to grill it with yams and make a kick ass salad. Then life happened and it was in the oven with boiled green beans and Spanish rice from a box. But it was still delicious and I got to package up my daughter's portion for her breakfast tomorrow after she wouldn't try it in 20 minutes. Good times.

In any case, you'll need the following:

1 pork loin
4 oz of Gorgonzola cheese
1/4 cp chopped sun dried tomato
1/2 cp arugula
2 large garlic cloves (Odyssey was right, it needed more garlic)


Using a sharp knife "unroll" the pork loin so that it is about 1/4 inch thick.


Chop the sun dried tomatoes, crumble the cheese and mince the garlic. Add pepper to taste.


Mix and spread over the open pork loin.


Add a layer of arugula over top.


Roll the pork loin back up and place on a broiler pan. Baste with a 1:1 mixture of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then sprinkle with dried basil.


Bake at 350F until the center is ~160F (roughly 45 min, depending on size). Remove from oven and rest 5 min. Slice in 1 inch thick slices and serve with whatever else you managed to throw together while the kids freaked out.


13 responses so far

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