Archive for: August, 2014
Professor. It's a term used to cover a wide swath of job in the US, from people who strictly teach undergraduates to soft money researchers. The spectrum of people, jobs, situations and career options makes the title a grab-bag of many things. At each end of the spectrum you have jobs that are nearly, if not entirely, non-overlapping in their responsibilities and requirements.
Some professors find teaching to be the hardest part of their job. Others are mired in administrative bullshit or frustrated by the constant need to hump the leg of one's particular funding agency. But there's one stress aspect all of these jobs share:
Work / life balance.
It doesn't matter if you're single or married with 12 kids, I don't know a single professor under 50 who doesn't routinely struggle with meeting the demands of their work while maintaining some semblance of normal (whatever that is) at home. I've posted before about the fallacy of balance (spoiler: balance means doing at least one thing poorly all the time, just don't make it the same thing all the time) and it doesn't really exist. But there's lots of jobs that require a lot of hours, right? Yes, but one of the major benefits of academia is also what makes balancing it so tricky - there's no boss.
Some jobs have hourly work week expectations of their more junior people that are either institutional or explicit. Some jobs require a certain amount of travel. As a professor, you make all your own choices on how to spend your time. As such, I almost always hear people comparing notes about how each other spends their time.
"How much do you travel?"
"How many hours a week do you spend in your office?"
"How much do you work at home?"
"How many hours of sleep do you get?"
These are all questions I've asked or been asked in the last few months. Everyone is trying to figure out what the "right" balance is when the reality is that it is completely amoeboid. No two people's situations are the same, nor is any one person's situation the same from one month to the next. Workload, health, kids, parents, phase of the moon, mood of your administration, how needy your cat is, your town's climate, etc., etc., etc., all play in to what you can give and to whom.
And it's up to you to gauge how to spend your time, sometimes months in advance. The challenges of these decisions are really the one stressor that unites all academics, across the board.
We're coming up on another job season and, like always, I'm seeing tons of jobs requesting Letters of reference up front. This is stupid and wastes a huge number of people's time. It really needs to stop. I posted this last year, but my views haven't changed.
Once again my department is putting together a job ad. There's been much discussion over the wording of the ad and exactly how we want to phrase every last detail. Frankly, the minutia of picking one word over another because of subtle differences in implication is rather pointless in today's job market. People aren't worried about the exact phrasing including or excluding them because it doesn't.
One thing I always fight hard for, however, is that we not ask for letters of reference, up front. Why? I mean, maybe an LoR is so good it puts someone on the shortish list! But do the math. Let's say you are advertising a specialized position and you get 100 applications. Three LoRs per application gives you 300 LoRs. If you plan to phone interview 10, there's a really good chance there's nearly 270 LoRs that will never or barely be read.
It does not take much time to send off an LoR, this I know. But it's one more deadline for busy people. In fact, unless the job candidate is a special snowflake, there's a pretty good chance that it's 30-40 more deadlines for busy people. And for what? So the committee can maybe argue a little longer over numbers 10 and 11 on the list? Please.
If you are involved in a job search, do your community a favor. Don't ask for LoRs until the shortish list. Those 30 people will actually feel like they are helping the candidate rather than mailing out fliers for a job-a-thon.
Long time readers may be aware that I've dabbled in the NIH game a bit in my wayward youth. In this effort I've had mixed success - one proposal landing 1%ile out of funding and two triaged. My last round of NIH reviews was particularly blunt in slapping me with some language to the effect of "You should learn to write for NIH before you resubmit", so I have concentrated on diversifying my NSF portfolio since last slinking away to lick my wounds.
In October I'm planning on submitting an R21 to support an off-shoot of a core project. I'm taking it in an unusual direction for me that aligns better with NIH and the R21 mechanism is, on paper just right for the proposal. That is because the R21 mechanism is geared towards limited support ($275k direct) for a short (2 year) and "risky" project. This mechanism was NIH's response to criticism that it only funds safe and proven projects that result in incremental science.
The idea, of course, is to get into the NIH system and generate data that would lead to an R01 proposal in a couple of years. I'm sure this is the intention of most people opting for an R21.
The numbers that Datahound churned up are a bit sobering with regard to future NIH success for R21 award winners. Although he's quick to point out the small sample size, it's very interesting that 72% of those with only R21 support in 2009 had no NIH money in 2013. Out of those who still had NIH money, 10% only had another R21. This suggests that the transition from R21 to R01 support is not all that common.
Why is that? There's several possible reasons. Certainly the smaller nature and shorter application (6 pages) of the R21 may be more attractive to PIs are smaller institutions. Perhaps the focus on the R21 takes away from landing the R01, stunting the progress of some labs. Maybe most R21 holders have no intention of taking the next step, but simply subsidize other funding with the R21. I don't know the answer and it would be damn near impossible to sort through all those (and other) options.
I'm sure the truth lays somewhere in between them all.
For those of you who have applied for an R21, why did you apply for that mechanism? Did/do you intend to shoot for an R01? If not, why not?
Ecologists will be very familiar with the idea of r Vs. K selection, coined by MacArthur and Wilson in the 1970's to describe reproductive strategies. In a nutshell, r selection is the production of many offspring without investing a huge amount in any one. K selection, on the other hand, is a heavy investment of resources in relatively few offspring.
A K selection strategy is one that is optimal in a predictable and stable environment, where offspring will be given a leg up by a heavy investment in, say, egg yolk or lengthy parental care. An unpredictable environment selects for an r strategy, where many offspring will perish, but the few that land in the right environment will have the opportunity to thrive.
Obviously these are two ends of a spectrum with a lot of gray in between, but the point I'm trying to illustrate is the strategic decisions junior PIs have to make to achieve some level of survival in the grant game. Whereas it does no good to spam agencies with poorly thought out proposals, I would also argue that repeatedly banging one's head against the walls of NSF or NIH with a single proposal or idea is just as flawed. Both may result in funding (with the latter probably more likely), but both could just as easily result in nothing.
My advice to junior people is to get more than one idea in the system. Yes, you'll have you favorite proposal, but you need to be floating more than that at all times. Two is better. Three is even better. You will get the best value if they can go to different directorates/panels/ICs/agencies. Diversify your portfolio so you are not completely dependent on one source of funding now, and for your career. Being too far on the K selection side of the slider leaves you incredibly vulnerable to changes in your particular corner and just the general stochasticity that comes with single digit funding rates. There have been times when a K strategy was viable and you will still hear that advice from some senior people, but that time is not now, nor will it be for some time.