Archive for: March, 2015

Is NSF's postdoc mentoring plan actually doing anything?

Mar 26 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

NSF first introduced the Postdoc Mentoring Plan as a supplementary document a few years ago. At the time everyone was all:


LOOK AT ME TYPING A "PLAN"! YES A PLAN!

There was basically no information on what we should be writing and panels had no idea what they should be expecting. It was basically a free-for-all and plans ranged from "Trust me, I do this" to two pages that made it sound like the postdoc would be working 6 jobs at once. In the years since, things have stabilized and there's numerous examples out there, providing guidance to people putting their plan together.

But has it DONE anything? Are NSF postdocs mentored better today than 5 years ago? How would we even know?

Ok, so I'll go on record that I am totally behind the idea and philosophy behind the postdoc mentoring plan. I get it, and I honestly want to put my postdocs in the best place to succeed with what they want to do as a career (which may not be a TT position). I think it's valuable for PIs to think about the training environment they are providing and what alternatives there are.

Do I think the PDMP achieves those goals? Probably not.

Why? Because I think the people who take it seriously are those who take postdoc training seriously in the first place. I think it's easy to toss words on a page that sound great without ever doing a damn thing about it. Most of all, NSF funding being what it is, it is RARE for a postdoc to be present when they mentoring plan is put together. Nearly every PDMP plan I see is either "postdoc TBD" or "potential postdoc X". Having an in-house postdoc who is funded and will transition to the new grant is just hard to do, given the grant cycle and budget limitations of NSF. All that is to say that most postdocs are likely to never even see the mentoring plan submitted for the grant they are paid by.

And what does it matter anyway? There is no possible way I can imagine that NSF could enforce any of it. Unless a PI puts specific assessment goals (useless if you don't have a PDF in-house already) or commits money to some sort of external training, there's no way for NSF to evaluate whether you are doing anything you said you would. It's entirely on faith that merely making you think about it was enough to affect change.

And finally, how would we even know whether this is effective? There is no way to assess the difference in postdoc mentoring without infinite variables. The PDMP is like an untestable hypothesis and we're being told to go along because it probably does something. Maybe.

Again, in a vacuum I think it's a good idea. But supp docs in these proposals continue to multiple faster than deanlet positions. I recently submitted a proposal that required 4 supp docs, at two pages each. That's another half a proposal, if you're counting at home. And with the new Nagoya Protocol going into effect, you can bet anyone collecting samples outside the US on NSF money is about to have some new paperwork. The supp docs continue to multiply, so I don't think it's a terrible thing to ask whether or not those documents are achieving their goal.

In the case of the PDMP, there's no way to answer that. And so we just write them so we can hold it up and say we did something. And that, my friends, is the definition of make-work paperwork.

7 responses so far

How many grant proposals?

Mar 26 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One thing that is really hard to figure out, especially as a n00b, is how many grant proposals is the "right" amount to be submitting. One has a tendency to ask those slightly more senior and that's when you get an interaction like this:

Here' the thing, junior peeps. You can't just start a lab and fling out grant aps left, right and center. Those first few aps take a very long time to develop. You're first ones on a new topic will probably be crap (at least mine were), and you'll use the feedback to make them competitive.

In my first 4 years I had three different proposals I developed. The first one got the shit kicked out of it for years before it finally got through. I got it funded on the... eighth submission. Yes, I just checked in FastLane. Eight. To say that what was submitted initially was what eventually got funded would be wildly untrue, but the proposal evolved and eventually persistence paid off. Either that or my PO just couldn't take it anymore (a.k.a. the Andy Dufresne approach).


In the mean time, I developed two additional proposals. One miraculously got funded on the second submission (almost yr 4 on the job) in what I think was some form of pity for my FastLane portfolio and my growing sense of panic at dwindling start-up funds. The third one never went anywhere and I eventually tabled it, even though we recently published a lot of the "preliminary data" for that project. I sprinkled a couple of ill-fated proposals to special calls in there as well.

So how many proposals was that? Remember that this was still in the era of two annual calls for DEB and IOS. * indicates years we were awarded.

2008 - 1
2009 - 3
2010 - 4
2011 - 4
2012* - 3 (first year of preproposals)
2013* - 2 (2 more to NIH, 1 to state)
2014 - 7
2015 - 4 so far

So you can see that things took a bit to build and years we landed a grant meant that one proposal got taken off the shelf. In 2010 and 2011, at least one of the January submissions was turned around for the summer deadline (a practice POs will tell you the hated), but you can't do that anymore.

So what's caused the recent uptick? Well, for one our NSF money is starting to run thin. But more than that, I have built up a program that can now take on more offshoots. I am now applying outside the Bio directorate and branching out a bit. Also, the more you get your science out there, the more you get requests for collaborations. Three recent proposals have been the result of colleagues coming to me to help build a stronger proposal. Momentum catches eventually and you find yourself contributing to more projects.

So, my advice to junior people is always the same: Try not to miss a deadline that you can put a well constructed proposal in for. Don't over-reach too early in some blind panic to get more applications out there, shotgun fashion, but be thinking about a couple projects that can go to different panels. Get one solid core proposal and then develop another one or two that can go to other panels. In my case, the "side" project was the first to get funded and it took a huge load off as we kept plugging away at the core work.

But be persistent. You will get punched in the nose a lot, but don't get deflated, listen to the criticism and fix your proposal accordingly. Stay in the game.

7 responses so far

Does anybody want to be president? Anyone?

Mar 02 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

No, I'm not taking on the 2016 election at this stage. Rather, I'm interested in a growing trend I'm seeing across a few scientific societies I work within. I've run the nominations side of a society before and I'm familiar with the process of getting people to agree to put their names on a ballot. Some people are happy to be nominated and others begrudgingly accept, but generally you can get good people on board.

I'm starting to see a change is the nominations process that can only be described as "more desperate'. It used to take asking about twice the number of people you planned to have on the ballot in order to get enough yeses. Recently nomination committees are reaching further and further for ideas. The churn through potential candidates seems to be at an all time high. Why?

People appear to be declining society service for the simple reason that they have devoted their "extra" time to submitting proposals. If you want to nominate someone who is research active, it is damn near impossible to get people to agree to be named. A lot of the names I'm starting to see on ballots are either deanlets who aren't running labs or fresh meat (just post-tenure) who are naive enough to agree (See: Me, last year).

Whereas I am all sorts of in favor of societies getting a broader swath of people involved (All middle-aged white guy ballot? Um, no thanks.) it appears as though a lot of folks are starting to batten down the hatches and avoid service they would have previously said yes too. My poll is wildly anecdotal, so I would be curious whether others are seeing something similar.

Will there be a long-term affect here? I have no idea.

6 responses so far