Archive for: November, 2013

Collapsing at the finish?

Nov 26 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Tenure. It's the goal we're shooting for, right? The five(ish) year race to show you can make a go of things on your own and produce some money for the university that floated you that small business loan* in the first place. Really, it's the final true make-or-break point for this profession, after which you are afforded some job security now that you have fought through probably close to two decades without that commodity.

I recently got my departmental letter in support of my tenure case that will soon be sent to the Dean and fed further up the food chain. It was good. Unanimous support, solid excerpts from external letters, praise for my work in all three phases of the tenure pie. Whereas I won't get any official word on tenure until late in the spring, so far all the proper hoops have been jumped. I'm happy.

But I'm also exhausted.

I don't know whether having tenure, assuming it is bestowed, is going to change my outlook. Will I let some things slide? Will I take on more in service of the department? Will I say no more? I can't see that far ahead. What I do know is that I'll need to find some time to back away a little bit. Maybe I can now, not sure, but I fully understand why a sabbatical** is usually a feature that follows tenure. At this point I would settle for one deadline-free month to read and think.

It's almost cliché for people to tell you that getting tenure is like a marathon, but there's a reason that you can google "marathon finish collapse" and be treated to hundreds of videos of people stumbling across (or not quite) the finish line. The will power to push through the end doesn't extend indefinitely.

And I didn't the finish line fatigue coming.

I've always been one to avoid focusing in tenure as an end point, but rather something that will happen if I do my job well. That seems to have worked out, but the idea of a pat on the back while being handed another committee responsibility*** isn't exactly the post tenure outlook I was picturing. But so it goes.

At least I can stop wearing pants to the office.

*Sure, they call it start-up, but same-same.
**Unfortunately, mine will be more than a year away.
***Or maybe it's a test to see if I will use the tenure power, vested in me, to say no.

16 responses so far

Book Review: Morgan Giddings' "4 Steps to Funding"

Nov 25 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One the advice of a knowledgeable senior scientist I recently bought the book 4 Steps to Funding, by Morgan Giddings. It's a quick read, as I was able to finish the entire book on a not-so-long flight, but it crystallizes a few important concepts. The author describes her early career grant writing as producing haphazard success, due in large part because she was not systematic with her approach to grant structure. Her experience certainly struck a tone with me. Whereas we have had some recent success, the road to this point is littered with rejected proposals.

As I read through the book my main reaction was "I'm kinda doing that, but not with purpose", which is basically how Giddings retrospectively sees her early attempts at funding. Thus, the suggestions and scheme in the book are something I will strive to use in my next funding efforts.

Some important take-aways:

- The project summary (NSF) or specific aims (NIH) page should be hammered out and honed before starting the rest of the proposal. Not after, not during, make it first.

- If you don't have a really good "WHY" to your proposal, you need to rethink your project. What does that mean? If you can't describe in detail why your reviewers need to see the results you plan to obtain, you are wasting your time. The rest of the proposal is just words on a page if you are unconvincing in this first step.

- A grant proposal has many similarities with a marketing pitch and ignoring an enormous amount of literature on how marketing works is counter-productive.

- Reviewers need to be led along a very specific path Why? --> Who? --> What? --> How? in order to capture their attention and get a positive reaction. Varying the order of those steps will result in a less favorable response.

The book goes into great detail in support of the points above and I found it to be a very interesting and useful read. If you are applying for grant funding of any kind*, I think you will get a lot out of this book for a very small investment on money and time.

*Unless you are applying to the same panels and study sections that are reviewing my proposals. In that case, this book is a total waste of your time.

No responses yet

An early Thanksgiving

Nov 15 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

I think readers and bloggers get a relatively skewed perspective on each other, on occasion. I say this because I get emails from people suggesting that I have been very helpful in their career development. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled that people have found the information here useful. I also understand that perspective, having gained substantially from the writing of others. But there at least appears to be an under-appreciation of what we gain on this side of the keyboard from these interactions.

It's no exaggeration that a combination of readers and other bloggers have significantly shaped my outlook on this job, and science more generally. I have an enormously greater appreciation for not only my own field, but for the variety of jobs out there that all fall under the umbrella of academic PI. But most of all, blogging has made this job fun at times when fun was hard to come by. Would I have survived year three on the job without this outlet and an unruly mob to tell me to buck the fuck up? Not sure. I've blocked a lot of that year out.

But, a strange thing happened as I kept writing things down and casting it into the void of the internet - People kept writing back. There were people with shared experiences and those who had questions about what lies ahead for them. Some agreed and others didn't, but even some of the trolls have come around at times to offer something useful. Importantly, these interactions have allowed me to forge some significant friendships with people from a range of scientific fields I am rarely exposed to IRL*. That's been wildly illuminating and something I depend on often to navigate the murky waters.

So without getting too navel gazing**, thanks for sharing a few minutes of your day with me. I hope it's been helpful for you. I know it's probably kept me out of the police report.

*And seriously, there are way more neuroscientists out there than I ever would have predicted. They are everywhere. I think there's one hiding behind my chair right now.

**Alright, we're probably past that point.

6 responses so far

Want to know more about zombie ants? Help fund some research!

Parasites are ubiquitous among eukaryotes, with some estimates suggesting that for every animal species there are at least 100 parasites and that parasites outnumber free-living species 4 to 1. For a variety of reasons, getting true estimates of parasite numbers is virtually impossible, but there is no doubt that they play a major ecological and evolutionary role. With all this competition among parasites for suitable hosts, it should not be surprising that some have gotten particularly creative in finding ways to disperse.


Image source

If you haven't heard of the fungal parasite that takes over the brains of insects, it's an amazing story. It's an amazing system that David Hughes has been working on at Penn State since staring his position there in 2011. There's certainly been no shortage of interest in the system, but the lab is looking to transition from understanding the ecology of this relationship to examining the cellular scale.

That's where postdoc Charissa de Bekker, comes in. Charissa is in the process of understanding what's going on in the heads of those ants. Literally. Using the recently published genome of the caterpillar Ophiocordyceps parasite and draft genomes of the parasite species in the ants as a backdrop, she will use the expressed genes (transcriptome) and metabolites of the parasite during infection to reveal the mechanisms for ant mind control.

Charrisa has launched a crowdfunding campaign to get this work rolling and produce the preliminary data needed to write a fundable proposal. As of now, the project has 18 days remaining and is only just over 20% of it's goal of $5,306. Beyond the fact that this is a very cool project that will produce some enticing data, you will be supporting the work of a new lab getting established in a growing field. Plus, the more we know about zombies the better prepared we will be for the Zombie Apocalypse*.

So head on over an donate to this project.

*This research is a better use of your money than stock piling food and ammo.

No responses yet

Why are we surprised when people leave the ivory tower?

Nov 07 2013 Published by under [Et Al]

I'm using the royal We here, but it's an honest question. Blog posts announcing one's decision to quit are apparently shocking to some people, but for the life of me I don't understand why. When lawyers quit does everyone stand staring, mouths agape? What about when doctors chose to do something that isn't clinical?

A PhD is a highly variably degree that trains you for a lot of things. One of those things is a job in an academic setting, but there are others. This post isn't about job shortages or "alt careers" (which is a misnomer in itself), but a PhD is more flexible than it is often cast.

Being a PI is a hard job with it's pluses and minuses, just like any other competitive career with a lot of training. There are pressures and stress and constant rejection. At times things get overwhelming and you're pulled in far too many directions. For every person who appears to lead a charmed life, there are ten more who spend 40% of their time battling bureaucratic red tape. So why is it shocking when people find another opportunity that they want to explore?

8 responses so far

Soooo, how's all this government chaos working out for NSF?

Nov 04 2013 Published by under [Et Al]

In terms of worst possible timing for a government shutdown, October would be a pretty high pick for NSF's Bio directorate. October/November is pretty much panel season for IOS and DEB, and POs and panelists had the pleasure of sitting on their hands, not knowing whether they were even going to be able to meet. Once the shutdown ended everyone furiously starting getting ready for the panels that had not been interrupted by the shutdown.

...and then they were all canceled, across the board.

Any panels that met had to get special permission from the director. What that meant was that there was huge variation with how reviews were handled from one panel to the next. Some still met, others met virtually, some found an afternoon for a virtual ranking of proposals and a few never got together at all, leaving the POs to rank.

It is not totally clear what effect this will have, if any at all. You'll remember that we have data suggesting that the fine scale machinations of panel review are not particularly predictive. Whereas I have certainly seen a proposal forcefully argued up or down a category by a particularly opinionated panelist, there is generally agreement on the broad ranking of most proposals.

But all of this may be moot since these short term Continuing Resolutions force POs to short their budgets year after year. No matter what the science funding target of this administration is, the CRs lead to slow bleed out. What happens when you can only budget for 90% of last year's budget when that was only 90% of the year before?

It's getting tighter and tighter out there and there's not much light at the end of the tunnel.

3 responses so far