Archive for: November, 2012

NSF full proposal notifications

Nov 30 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There's a lot of people out there waiting to hear back from their POs about full proposals. Between email, the blog and twitter I have gotten a lot of people asking about notifications. Here's what I know so far:

I have been notified on my DEB proposal that it is in the gray zone of "fundable pending funds". I heard back a couple of weeks ago. This week a colleague of mine got a phone call about her IOS proposal. So... notifications are starting to go out but are very cluster-specific on timing. If you haven't heard back yet it is not time to panic.

Remember also, that the preproposal deadline has been pushed back to around the 20th of January, depending on your program. Be patient, you have a little extra time in January to polish up that already successful preproposal. Above all, don't ping your PO about the decision. It's not like they just haven't gotten around to letting you know, if they could they would have already done so. Be a little more patient and be happy you'll only need to tweak your preproposal if your news is not what you hope.

11 responses so far

Corporate Bio-knowledge FAIL

Nov 29 2012 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

Um, yeah. As much as "amphipod" sounds kinda like "amphibian", they are not actually the same thing. But the people at Amphipod Running Products probably didn't want their logo to look like this:


Pic from here

Although, I gotta say it's a lot more interesting than a frog.

7 responses so far

How many thesis committees is too many?

Nov 29 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Agreeing to be on someone's thesis committee is easy. One day someone drops by your office with either a written or oral summary of the project and an approximate time line. If the work sounds vaguely interesting or you owe the PI for serving on your student's committee you agree and move on. There is an occasional meeting obligation here and there, but overall it's not a big deal. Until the end.

I've actually made a concerted effort to try and space out the potential end dates of the students whose committees I have agreed to, but somehow it always seems that I go through stretches where I will have 2-4 defenses all within a week or two. Obviously, these dates are constrained around the semester deadlines for the grad school, but one person runs a semester or two long, another goes shorter than planned and they all cluster together.

Given that defenses appear to be attracted to small calendar windows like moths to flame, I think I need to rethink the number of committees I agree to. I've honestly lost count of the total I am on, but I believe it is somewhere around 10 (though three defenses in the last two weeks have thinned the herd). So how many is ideal? What is the balance between MS and PhD committees? I can't tell whether I'm over committee committed or just suffering through a concentrated stretch of obligations.

10 responses so far

Thrift Shop

Nov 28 2012 Published by under [Et Al]

This is cracking my shit up this morning. Tis the season.

4 responses so far

Fixing the phone

Nov 27 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Last week I wrote a post about lab peeps arbitrarily changing established protocols based on the pursuit of fixing their current data ailment. Based on the comments and links, this is a common issue across several disciplines.

So how do we fix it? Or at least, put measures in place to limit the potential damage.

I recognized this as an issue early on on in my life of PI, but it took me a while to settle on a system that seems to work well for my lab group. We have two main mechanisms to deal with two different problems.

Problem the first: Protocols. When I was a grad student protocols were handed down through the lab, first in hard copy (shut up) and later as a doc file. The problem, of course, is that the copy you got might be different from the copy Bridgette got, depending on who bequeathed the document unto you. To solve this, my lab uses shared Google docs for our protocols. No one changes the version on the cloud without passing it by me and new people get the unsoiled version from the shared folder. We also use project specific docs to keep track of project specific changes, advances, updates, etc. We don't go so far as doing e-notebooks, but the project docs are important for keeping people working on overlapping projects on the same page.

Problem the second: Shifty code. If you think protocols are an issue, trying having a couple of people with different programming ability adjusting code. I did not anticipate quite the scale of the problem here until we had one major train wreck, then we switched to using bitbucket. Simply put, now anytime a piece of code is changed there is a record of both versions, who made a change and what was changed. For some of our more dynamic pieces of code, the trail can look a little crazy, but it's all there at a glance.

The more people in the lab, the more we have found these changes to be vital. Yes, people have to stay on top of the entries to the Google docs, but the amount of time and money saved is huge. I therefore make it a point of emphasis that lab members stay up to date.

One response so far

Protocol evolution or bad game of telephone

Nov 21 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I am not in the lab everyday. In fact, I am basically never in my own lab with the purpose of doing science. We can argue over whether that is the most effective way for things to get done, but it's the reality of my situation. As a result, I'm not there to see what people are up to all the time.

Once in a while I'll either get methods text for a paper or see something in lab meeting and wonder "why did you do it that way?". Inevitably the following conversation will take place:

Student: "The normal protocol wasn't working so I found a workaround."

Me: "Did you test the effectiveness of your new protocol against other variants of the conditions you changed?"

Student: "No, this worked so I went with it."

Me: "Did you try and figure out what wasn't working for you with the old protocol."

Student: "Um, not really..."

Me: "Are you the only one using the changed protocol?"

Student: "No, I gave it to Undergrad X and Y."

I don't mind people trying to improve protocols in a systematic way, nor do I discourage people from troubleshooting lab issues. However, changing established protocols in a haphazard way and propagating those changes to others is the stuff that drives PIs crazy. Not only is it bad science, but there is enormous potential for unanticipated downstream issues. If you alter the concentration of reagent A in Part 1 of a protocol and it effects downstream process 4, it is entirely possible that a lot of time will be spent troubleshooting process 4 before the change to reagent A is mentioned and the link is made.

Even minor "tweaks" to a protocol have a way of propagating until one day the PI goes to read the methods for Standard Procedure One and it turns out that the game of lab telephone has turned it into Stendard Progressional Ounce.

Lab protocols can be changed, but systematically, and with everyone in the loop so that people are aware of the changes and all working from the same playbook.

15 responses so far

1 in 3

Nov 19 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Not to beat a dead horse, but I thought I would just take a post to point out the results of Friday's poll. For those of you scoring at home, with well over 150 responses it appears as though roughly 1 in 3 people have taken some sort of prescription drug to function at a competitive level in academia. So for those of you who are questioning whether you may have an issue with anxiety or depression, you are not the only ones. Chances are that someone in your lab and many in your department are facing the same issues. Maybe the opportunity to talk with a therapist would go a long way in helping you out. Maybe your best results will come from your doctor. I have no idea, but if you're questioning it there is no harm in talking to someone. You're not weak and you're not improperly dedicated. You are just a person, like 1 in 3 others on this path.

2 responses so far

Reader Poll: Perscription drugs in the workplace

Nov 16 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This question stems from a conversation I was part of recently, that got me curious about how many people in the academic ranks have sought out or been encouraged to use prescription drugs for work-related anxiety/depression/burn out/etc. Are the numbers on par with population level numbers? Are they similar to percentages found in other high-stress professions? I'm sure there are studies out there, but let's see what the poll says.

There's a stigma around prescription medications that often makes people hide their use. This may be even stronger in academia, where the glee with which some people label others as those who "can't hack it" or "aren't serious enough" is sometimes frightening. This has the effect of causing those who should seek help (particularly junior people) to either not do so or feel the need to do so secretly. I'm guessing this poll will make clear that it's pretty common and worth looking into if it has the potential to improve your quality of life.

18 responses so far

Repost: Are spousal hires a tool for faculty retention?

Nov 14 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

First posted a couple of years ago, it's that time of year again!

The subject of spousal hires is always a contentious issue. There are those who rankle at the thought (unfounded assumption in many cases) that an individual might get a coveted tt position simply because their spouse was desirable for an advertised position. IME, the spouse is often as or more qualified for a faculty position, but the sheer ratio of available positions to qualified people out there has meant either that their spouse found a job first or that their spouse landed an offer in a more desirable location. There are, of course, a hundred permutations of how this can work, but my point is that I have rarely seen an instance where the "trailing spouse" is inept or lacks the experience to get hired, but is anyway*.

Like it or not, the nature and rarity of tt jobs means that spousal hires are going to be an issue and there are numerous blogosphere electrons dedicated to the discussion of whether spousal hires are "fair". I am less interested in that question** and more interested in whether, from a university standpoint, spousal hires can and should be used to increase faculty retention?

I think this is particularly plausible for mid-tier universities, and here's why. Given the choice between two offers, a single position at a top-tier university and a position for both spouses at a mid-tier university with some potential, I would guess that a decent number of couples would chose the latter. From the university's perspective, they're getting at least one and possibly two highly competitive faculty members who are going to increase the university research profile. After a while, this is going to pay dividends.

Let's face it, long distance relationships or long commutes for one or both partners sucks. You're never going to get the most out of a faculty member if their home life is being made more difficult because their spouse is either un- or under-employed, or works in a distant place. By refusing a spousal hire, a university is basically getting less than full effort from someone they just hired AND upping the potential of that person leaving for a better situation that includes their spouse. I am not advocating for departments having spousal hires foisted upon them for the sake of the university***, but if done correctly and as a concerted effort, it might be a very effective strategy.

*I'm sure some readers will weigh in with anecdotes refuting this.
** For the record, my opinion is that barring a beach of ethical practices, candidates don't get to decide what is "fair" in the hiring process.
*** The university would obviously have to be willing to commit resources to this strategy and the ever-present issue of "space" would not be an easy one to solve. But for the creative administration, perhaps this could work.

28 responses so far

Thesis readin' music

Nov 13 2012 Published by under [Et Al]

4 responses so far

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