The writer's shuffle

Apr 24 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There's only so many words one can write in a day. Maybe that's part of the reason my blog posts are normally just a few paragraphs, but many of my writing hours in the last few years have been burned up on grant proposals. There's always another opportunity or pot of money that looks accessible to try for so that you can keep the lab wheels turning. Crap funding rates drive more proposals and so the cycle marches forth.

The cost of the proposal churn is our publication rate*. I'm not happy with it. The blame for the glacial pace falls squarely on my desk, too. I am the limiting reagent. We have some manuscripts moving through the system right now and a few more working their way there. But damn.

The more people I talk to in my cohort who are facing a tenure decision soon, the more I see a dichotomy of time spent. Most people either lament their publication or funding record as they reach this stage. We've made our choices on how time was spent and I have no idea if one is better than another. Sometimes you choose a strategy and sometimes you have less control over how that ball bounces.

Ironically, I know for certain that I've been invited for collaborations, conference and seminar talks based on what we've had in review. At one point I was asked to come give a talk on a topic we had zero publications on, but two proposals in review about. I guess that speaks to the level of preliminary data required these days, but also to the possibility that proposal review in a bit on an "online early" for ideas. Yet another reason to get involved in the review process.

*Yes, I realize this was specifically cited as a reason for NSF cutting back the proposal writing and reviewing load on the community. It's a benefit of the new system, even if I wish we didn't have to go to 1 cycle a year.

14 responses so far

  • Mike says:

    This dichotomy can be a dichotomy between the PI's priorities (the PI viewed as synonymous with "the lab") and the current trainees' priorities. It may be best for the lab to ensure funding while putting off publication, but if the postdoc spends three years in the lab doing the work for a high-profile paper and then waits for three years until it's published, it might be literally too late for it to do her any good.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Then the postdocs should be writing their damn papers, eh Mike?

  • namnezia says:

    I agree with DM, trainees should be writing the first drafts at minimum of papers, and should be pushing the process along if the PI is slow. Who spends 3 years waiting for a high-profile paper to be written anyway?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Of course "should be" doesn't mean they are Namnezia and Mike is right that the PI interests do not always follow the same timeline as the trainees. It is an issue. In my hands it is just another factor that goes into the balancing act.

    The big item that Prof-like misses here is the grant submission deadline. That tends to ....organize... my writing behavior.

    I also organize my writing priorities around a rather diffuse, but nevertheless real, understanding of what the publication expectations are for me from various perspectives (career reviewers local and outside, grant reviewers, search committees, etc). Not that I meet the expectations. Just that the nagging voice grows louder and louder as my current performance vis a vis manuscripts falls farther from the expected value. Eventually this out-shouts the howling hurricane of the grant demands.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Just that the nagging voice grows louder and louder as my current performance vis a vis manuscripts falls farther from the expected value.

    As tenure time dawns, that's a pretty loud scream.

  • Terry says:

    The manuscript! Unless I'm about to go broke, that is. Which is too often.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Unless I'm about to go broke, that is. Which is too often.

    My point exactly.

  • phagenista says:

    Anyone know of TT people at R1 schools going up for tenure with lots of papers and limited to no external funding? It can't be rare in this climate.

    There is a tenured person (about 5 years ago) in a related department to me at my R1 who ended up tenured with no funding, and she would advocate strongly that showing you can do great science (with students) on a shoestring is itself a tenurable skill. Her advice is papers first.

    But I know from 3rd year reviews that those of us with money got much rosier reviews than those resting on their funding laurels.

  • LD says:

    When I was about to leave my postdoc to take my TT position, an older faculty member stopped me in the hallway and said "The job of an assistant professor is to write papers. Don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise." It worked for me.

  • Mac says:

    I am trying to remind myself daily of what LD says - I think it's true - but grant deadlines are DEADLINES. To have any shot at that money which is important for my career and my trainees (keeping them paid and with materials to do research is not cheap) I have to make those deadlines. Manuscripts rarely have the same kind of drop-dead timing and this adds to the difficulties of balancing these two types of writing. Maybe after the next round of apps I can take a grant writing break and dig into the ms stack but I keep thinking that without it happening.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    LD- yeah true...but in many fields the writing requires some cash grant money. Balance, my friends, balance.

  • Heavy says:

    I'm stuck on the grant application side of things. Trying to find that balance but it can be hard sometimes.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Finding some sort of balance is critical to nearly every aspect of the job and the scales move from day to day.

  • Geologist says:

    Pre-tenure I focused primarily on getting those papers published and establishing a reputation for myself. Of course, depending on your science, you may or may not be able to do that without some level of money. I found funding wherever I could - including of all things, donations from wealthy individuals! After tenure I then focused more on getting grants. I was successful, I think largely because I had established myself pretty well through my previous publications. Now, post-full professor I am cranking out manuscripts and bringing in large piles of money. I don't expect the latter to last with the sequester, and the former will then taper off too as I run out of money - but we'll see!! It is definitely a balance, and pre-tenure you need to find out what is expected - in my case, papers were more important than money, although both were scrutinized.

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