Archive for the '[Education&Careers]' category

A formula for making a terrible argument

Feb 12 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Last night I was browsing twitter and saw something that popped up in my timeline a few times. I won't link to the exact tweet because I've seen virtually the same on from a dozen different people, but the formula will be very recognizable:

(My experience is THIS)+(Other people say THAT, which =/= my experience) = THAT doesn't happen.

It's a common argument writ large (hell, I'm sure I've done it too), but it's transparently dumb. You're saying your anecdata is all that matters and others are clearly wrong based on your experience and possibly that of your echo chamber colleagues.

In this particular case the topic was open access science and getting scooped. There is enormous variance among fields in how data are treated, the level of backstabbing that is common and what is at stake. It is entirely possible that your corner of science is all about sharing and love and drum circles. In that case, I'm willing to bet your opinions are shared by others in your group and a common topic of conversation at meetings, etc., is "If everyone just did what we do everything would be better!"

Maybe you're right. It's possible being able to see everyone's data and draft manuscripts would be the best thing that ever happened in science. Or maybe it wouldn't. Maybe in you field it's hard to actually scoop someone. Maybe it's not crowded enough for people to be able to without standing out. But are you confident that's the case across science?

As I wrote last night, I think all True Believers, regardless of their cause, should be taken with a massive grain of salt. More often than not, anyone who "knows what's best for everyone else" has not stood on the best side of history. Personally, I think the fear of being scooped is disproportionate to the risk, and I act accordingly. I've heard some fantastically contrived stories from colleagues who believed they were intentionally scooped, however, I've also watched it happen on more than one occasion. Even if the risk is low, who decides what is acceptable risk for someone else to take?

Allowing people the right to gauge their own comfort level with the openness of their science, in their field and their situation is something my colleagues have earned from me.

7 responses so far

Teach your way to tenure?

Feb 04 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There appears to be a new trend sweeping through the basic sciences. Basically the equation is simple: fewer grants means fewer Assistant prof awardees, thus fewer successful tenure cases. That is, UNLESS tenure is evaluated differently.

I've been hearing more and more about biology departments taking a different tack with new PIs, given the current funding environment. The idea is that since federal funds are harder to come by, we have to insulate assistant profs by strengthening their tenure portfolios in other ways. Easiest way to do that? Why teaching, of course! A robust teaching portfolio and a history of applying for grants* is apparently going to be enough to clear the tenure bar in some places.

Hmmmmm....

Dunno about this, folks. My first issue with it is that the outside evaluators almost never weigh in on non-research topics. Obviously the candidate's letter would go out of it's way to point to the increased teaching load and expectations, but I still don't know how this would play.

Obviously this would put new PIs at a greater disadvantage when it comes to getting their research programs started. There would be less time for mentoring lab trainees and one bad postdoc or student could sink the ship. I have heard that places are upping their start-up packages to compensate for this, but no one can replace the PI's time spent working with trainees. Even being able to afford a tech for 3 or 4 years doesn't fix that.

The cynical part of me looks at the equation and sees the overhead gap being replaced by butts in seats. I get it, each department and college needs to find a way to make their numbers. However, this looks like a short-term fix with long-term repercussions. But in our system of transient administrators, I wonder whether the goals of tomorrow are important today.

Whereas I am not opposed to finding different ways to evaluate tenure and balancing a department with people on different parts of the teaching - research spectrum, this shift seems to be forcing it in a way that may not be to a department's long-term advantage.

*And presumably getting promising feedback, not just consistent triage.

12 responses so far

Spreading those grant aps around

Jan 08 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It's always the simple questions, right?

This is an important question and, with funding rates set to "career-wrecker" levels, you need to know how to maximize your chances. The responses were varied on this question, so here's my take:

1) You can absolutely send similar proposals to different agencies. In fact, NSF specifically asks you whether the proposal you are submitting has also been submitted elsewhere. This can actually bring up co-funding opportunities with other agencies.

However, you need to realize that if two agencies fund the same project independently, you can only accept one award. Period. Doing otherwise is called fraud and gets you in a world of shit.

2) When it comes to submitting for institutional pots of money, pretty much anything goes. In the overwhelming number of cases an institution will not have money available to complete an entire project that you are shopping to a major federal funding agency. However, it will provide money to generate preliminary data towards that project. And if the federal award is granted and the projects overlap too much, your institution will be more than happy to stop payment on the internal award and accept the federal money. That can be worked out.

Most labs in basic sciences will have 2-4 projects, with varying levels of overlap. Spreading grant proposals for those projects around as widely as possible is just good business. The chances of having a project simultaneously funded right now by multiple agencies are so low as to be unconcerning. If you are worried about it, then make the two proposals different enough that both could be defensibly accepted. But one cannot afford to write a new proposal for every deadline.

4 responses so far

The grant game: Momma said there'de be days like this

Dec 11 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Lot of NSF BIO folks are getting feedback on their grants right now. As expected, most of it is bad news.

Merry Christmas.

But lest we forget, those of you getting rejections are in great company. We're slogging through a historically lean time and this shit is just hard right now. We hear about people's successes, often without seeing the trail of rejections that got them there.

The reason I started this blog way back when I was bright-eyed and bushy tailed, rather than the jaded dough ball I am today, was to provide an unvarnished view of (hopefully) getting to tenure. Even in the worst of times, when I really thought I was never going to make it, I tried to be honest. I did that because, at the time, I didn't see a resources out there that told the whole story and not just what shows up on the CV. Success is visible to everyone, failure remains in the shadows.

Making it as a research scientist right now requires persistence. The ONLY reason I've been semi-successful is because I got back up every. damn. time. I don't have better ideas than my colleagues. I'm not smarter than they are. I don't have the pedigree or awards many of them have. But it turns out I can take a punch pretty well. I'm not alone.

So if you're getting bad news right now, scream, cry, drive around listening to country ballads, or whatever else you need to do. But turn that thing back around. If you have to change the focus, do it. If you have to add a section to make a case for feasibility, dig in. Sulk for a day or two, then figure out what you need to fix and get it back in.

You're only knocked out when you don't get off the mat.

19 responses so far

Flipping a classroom or flipping out?

Dec 04 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Flipping the classroom: it's all the rage! Certainly there are enough data out there to support the case that students learn better in an active learning situation than a straight lecture. So obviously we should all be rushing out to modify our classes to fit a new paradigm, right?

At what cost? Superstar scientist, Meg Duffy, has a post up about flipping an intro bio classroom. Granted, 600 students is a rather extreme case, but the workload realities of this course change are real. It's clear she is seeing benefits of the transition, but it's also clear it is coming at a significant personal cost.

Will it be rewarded?

How does your university reward teaching? Does it? Does it care only for the end-of-semester student evaluations? If so, will flipping the classroom result in better evaluations? I don't know the answer, but I know that there is little correlation between how much the students learn and the tenor of their evaluation of the course.

For people in non-teaching focused institutions considering flipping their classroom, what is the incentive? To me, it is improving the retention of my students. Will that help at promotion time? Will that be recognized as an achievement by The Powers That Be? In many cases advancement is strongly tied to research output and teaching is considered only if the person falls in the "needs improvement zone". Your results may vary.

If using novel strategies to education comes at an enormous personal cost to educators, with little recognition for the effort, then our current incentive structure is unlikely to promote adoption of active learning strategies.

16 responses so far

Workload underachiever

Dec 03 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Workload at a university is a funny thing. There's no one-size-fits-all because there's a lot of variables. How much does someone teach? How much do they research? How big is (are) their class(es)? How big is their lab? What committees are they on? It's a puzzle and almost everyone thinks they are doing THE MOSTEST!

And here's where perception and reality do not always match: Some things are easier to bean count than others.

Classes are the ultimate in terms of ease of counting. There's clear data on class size and contact hours that can be compared across the board. Prof A teaches two 30 person classes and Prof B teaches 1 70 person class and co-teaches a smaller seminar. We can compare those directly.

Committees are harder, but once you add up the number of committees, the responsibility of the person on each committee and how often they meet, it's not too bad.

Research is tricky. Do we count the number of grants? The total $$ someone is bringing in? Do you count submission effort? Panel service? How about the number of students in the lab? Postdocs? Techs? Where do they fit? How about thesis committees? Papers? Does it matter where they are getting published? Adding to the mix is that all of these things are hard to compare across disciplines.

Generally this can be worked out with whoever is determining the workload. But the perception across the department may not reflect this. In my department I have noticed the perception that those who teach less due to their research efforts are somehow, "not pulling their weight".

Not surprisingly, I'm writing this because I want to avoid ending up in this situation. However, I am teaching under load for my department, but our level of grant support is on the higher end. So, when the departmental teaching load gets circulated for curriculum planning, are my colleagues going to think "he's not pulling his weight" or "that makes sense based on his research program"?

I am left trying to strategize. Do I develop that new course I've been thinking of? Do I just keep my head down until someone with influence on workload tells me to pick up my teaching? Does perception matter now that I have tenure? None of this is straight-forward and if I asked everyone in my department I would probably get n+1 opinions.

But for now, I am one class meeting away from sabbatical. It can't come soon enough.

4 responses so far

Trainees as easy open access cannon fodder

Nov 04 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Ladies and gentlemen, I have nothing against Open Access publishing. In fact, I take steps to ensure all my lab's publications are available to anyone, either in published or preprint form. I am happy to get our science out to as many people as possible and agree that open science is the way forward.

So why am I writing a post with a title like the one above? Because there's a difference between supporting open access and supporting OA journals that have little standing in the field.

Specifically, I'm talking about journals like PeerJ. I got into an argument on twitter this evening when someone with a tenure track job suggested that another person who is on the market publish there. The argument was rapid turn around, but the reality is that speed is not the issue if the trade-off is a publication that will not be counted.

Like it or not (and I don't), trainees are not in a position to dictate the terms in which they will be assessed. Hiring committees are unknown commodities and they almost certainly have a mix of people with different expectations on them. What I can promise you is that a publication in any unknown journal is barely going to register with the majority of hiring committees, as we currently stand.

Now, we can argue all night whether this is just or fair or right, or whateverthefuck, but it. is. reality. Feel free to test that reality all you want, but have a back-up plan. Unless you happen to be applying to a place that happens to be severely pro-OA and has a majority of people on the committee who feel that way, you'll need it.

And here's where the rubber hits the road: Feel free to be the campion of OA in your career. That's on you. But do not require that of others who have yet to attain the position you inhabit. There are labs in this world that can get away with publishing exclusively in OA journals that are not considered "high impact" and still place their trainees in TT positions. They do so on the reputation of the PI. But those labs are currently few and far between. Would it be great if that were not the case? Sure, but we live in today.

Again, we can harp on the ideals and what should be practice, but to ask trainees to suffer the consequences of your revolution is a mind-numbingly arrogant thing to do. They should not be held accountable for your religion.

9 responses so far

Curious about what your NSF PO is doing right now?

Nov 04 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Many of you are waiting to hear back from NSF right now. Full proposal panels in DEB and IOS have met and your fate is sealed... though you don't know what it is yet.

IOS Program Officer, Michelle Elekonich, guest blogged here two years ago and in Part 3, gave a run down of the funding process. If you want to know why your PO is making you sweat it out, that may provide some background.

And while you're clicking, Part 1 and Part 2 of Michelle's contributions are good reading as well.

6 responses so far

How do you structure a job talk?

Oct 28 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Many people applying for academic jobs this season are well into the process. Interviews are happening across the country and more are on the way. If you're putting together a talk for an on campus interview, you'll want to make sure you're communicating to your audience the information they'll need to make a decision. Obviously, it's not all going to come down to your talk, but many faculty will only see you during this time.

The most critical piece, IMO, is figuring out whether you need to include a full Future Directions section in your feature talk. I've seen it done several ways, but what you present on the work you plan to do at the hiring institution is obviously the key. In my current job, the future directions was a separate talk. I still gave a 5 minute compressed version for those who wouldn't see the second talk, but it was just a teaser.

If you're asked to put everything in one talk, I would roughly break it down like:

30 min of highlighting what you have done

20 min of talking about what you will do

10 min for questions

People often say that their completed work is either too much or too diverse to cover in 30 or 40 or 50 minutes. This is good and probably why you are being interviewed. However, it is up to YOU to create a narrative about who you are and what you bring to the table. What led you from one training environment to another*? What is the flow to your science and what you have accomplished? What are you going to take from that and apply to your new awesome lab?

Your audience should come away with a feel for the flow and trajectory of your career. That is your take home for them. You want them to think "Wow, she did all that and is ready to really take off on an original path!"

Look at the structure of your talk and make sure that is front and foremost.

 

 

 

* Or, what is the best possible spin you can apply post hoc?

18 responses so far

Can one grant even get its own science done?

Oct 24 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The current issues with federal science funding are well documented. Anyone familiar with the science blogging world or running their own lab will be way too familiar with the downturn in support for science in the US. But even before the overall funding decline, there's been a stagnation that is really catching up with us.

Drugmonkey has talked about the static modular budget at NIH. Briefly, the budget for your average NIH R01 hasn't changed in years, whereas all the costs have increased. Consumables, salary, tuition, travel, services... they are all more expensive than the were 10 years ago. Substantially.

NSF is similarly impacted. A big difference here is that indirect rates are calculated into the overall NSF proposal budget. Guess what else has risen 10% since I started my position? So, we have costs of everything climbing and a static budget. The reality is that we can't afford the same work we could 5 and 10 years ago. Period.

When writing a proposal there's pressure to keep the budget down. As such, we whittle away (often negotiating for crumbs with collaborators on the proposal). Once funded, the budget is almost certainly cut by some amount, further reducing the buying power. NIH grants can even be cut substantially during the funded period!

But, in the increasingly competitive environment, does anybody dial the science in their proposals back? Hell. No. The demand is higher than ever.

So here is the reality of running a lab right now: You need multiple sources of funding that can offset one another. I am watching people taking the one grant-at-a-time approach and falling short in big ways. Without substantial resources from somewhere that allow you to add personnel or leverage grant funds, completing the work as written gets harder by the day.

Think broadly, my friends. Collaborate. Leverage funds against departmental, college or university resources. Apply for local money that will allow you to offload a salary for a bit. Be on the lookout for these additional pots of money, because a single grant can easily collapse under its own weight these days.

6 responses so far

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