Archive for: July, 2015

Your online advice is rubbish if I can't read your CV!!!

Jul 29 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

As we have covered before (Here and Here) there are many reasons why people blog under a name that can't be directly tied to their professional life. You can check the links if you want my extended thoughts on that and links to posts elsewhere that are more eloquent, but it's why the following exchange bothers me:

Academia is a very hierarchical enterprise. Trainees slot in at different, defined, levels. PIs have defined structure to advancement. There's university rankings, journal rankings, h-index, and on and on. We really love to define people by a variety of metrics and context.

All of these pieces of information provide a matrix where we, consciously or unconsciously, can form an opinion on the authority or each individual. As reviewers of proposals and manuscripts and as humans interacting with, and through, the literature or at meetings - whether you are "known" caries significant weight.

And that's where social media goes and screws it all up.

Giving people the option to post comments and interact without those all important identifiers takes the context that many academics rely on IRL, away. And that has opened the door to provide a voice to those who might not be heard 10 or 20 years ago. Ironically, this gets to the point:

Though this was said tongue-in-cheek, the reality is that what is a social norm for some is another's shut door. Having people entrenched in the upper tier culture view voices they can't place in their social context as not worthy of attention only re-enforces the echo chamber and excludes the same people who have been excluded for decades. I'm not here to chastise anyone, but I think it's important that we recognize that this is exactly the attitude that has gotten us to the point of being a largely white and male dominated profession. In the vast majority of cases, good science flows more from having the opportunity ($$$) to do science, rather than the individual brilliance of those doing it. Recognition and opportunity are inextricably tied together, and systematic exclusion (conscious or unconscious) has consequences.

But advice abounds everywhere, good bad and otherwise. To pretend like there is a universal correlation between the source and the value of the advice is ridiculous. I have gotten both good and bad advice from people I respect. Same goes for those whom I would not normally seek out. If you want examples of well-established PIs doling out terrible advice, just pick up Science Careers at some point and flip through. Or maybe you have a senior colleague in your department who got a job out of grad school 30 years ago and has renewed the same R01 for all that time. I'm sure he's got valuable advice for the grant scene these days.

We all get loads of advice throughout our careers, and whether the source is someone you know or someone writing under a pseud online, you need to evaluate it and decide whether it works for you. No one is out there faking their status to try and feed out bad advice, but your situation might not suit what they have to sell. We do this all the time IRL, so making the arbitrary distinction online is something that is curious, at best.

29 responses so far

My love/hate relationship with NSF preproposals

Jul 22 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I have no idea how many posts I've dedicated to NSF BIO's preproposals and I'm too lazy to check, TBH. However, they have significant impact on my community and many of the scientists I know and work with. They are the Gate Keepers to getting a shot at that golden ring. Successfully navigating this stage of the process is critical to having the chance to even apply for money.

As a reviewer I generally like preproposals. I feel like I can get a decent sense of what the PI(s) are trying to get at and I can decide whether I believe they can make it happen, for the most part. I like reviewing the compact format - I often find I am interrupted too much when reviewing full proposals if I don't retreat to solitude. I can get through preproposals in between obligations. However, you fill in a lot of gaps as a reviewer in the preproposal format. It's also a different type of writing with a different target audience and I think it lends itself a bit more to over-promising with the intention of generating that last bit of data before you really have to prove it in the full proposal. The fact that the membership on the pre- vs full panel does not completely overlap has always left me uncomfortable for exactly this reason.

As an applicant to NSF BIO I'm concerned that preproposals have significantly increased the number of applications both DEB and IOS, mostly from new applicants. There's two ways to look at this: 1) By lowering the activation energy, NSF is now able to capture a broader diversity of science that was not previously being proposed. 2) Alternatively, there's more noise in the system as people throw applications in so that they can report them in their annual review. Unfortunately, this is A Thing in some places and there are universities that even pay PIs per submitted application. Reality is likely somewhere in between, but the competition at the preproposal stage is fierce and not getting better.

As a preproposal writer, the format creates problems. Foremost, the limit of 2 proposals per division means that I often have to choose between a promising collaboration and a core project my lab is invested in. Considering the short turn around of NSF grants, it seems like I've always got a renewal and a new core project going in. One strategy is to, say, re-pitch a DEB proposal for IOS, but that never works out as well as it seems it might. Whereas the short format makes it easy to propose new ideas, the limits on numbers kills a lot of potential collaborations. Obviously there has to be some way to control the number of applications that are now easier to package up and send off, but damn, I wish I could fit in some of these cool side projects with collaborators.

Unfortunately, none of this is getting better without more money in the system. However, I would honestly prefer a compromise where we funded shorter proposals (say, 8 pages), did away with preproposals and limited people to 3 total aps during a year with 2 cycles. I fully recognize that this solution works best in my world, whereas someone at a PUI might think this is a terrible change. I don't know, but I can't help but think there's a better solution that splits the difference between the old and new system. And yes, I realize I just recently wrote about the futility of making tweaks to the proposal system.

5 responses so far