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.
Like any of us, I get a lot of request to review manuscripts from different journals. It tends to come in waves where I might go a month without, then have 4 requests hit my desk all at once. I would say that I turn down roughly a third of the requests I get, either because I am too busy with other things or because I already have a few sitting on my desk. Fair or not, I tend to decline smaller journals more often, usually because the science is less compelling to me.
But rather than just decline, I almost always send an email to the AE and suggest that they send the review request to one of my trainees. I tell the AE that I will assist my lab member with the review, but I don't have time to spearhead it myself.
People have asked me why I do this rather than just accepting and having one of my people handle the review. It's true that usually the AE does not end up sending the review to a student or postdoc. But sometimes they do. And when they do, the student or postdoc gets to handle the correspondence. They get in the journal's system as a reviewer. They get their name in the head of an AE who might see their good work and remember them next time they handle a paper on the topic. They get direct recognition.
I am not a PI who like to put my name on things my people do. I want them as first authors. I want my postdocs as PIs on grant applications. I want their name out there in the position that reflects their effort and I don't understand the motivation for making them ghost writers.
Folks, there are lots of things that chap my ass, but few so much as the automatic defense of well know dudes when an accusation of inappropriate behavior is leveled by an unknown woman. You can count on it like the reflex of the leg jerking when struck at the knee. It doesn't matter if it's Woody Allen, some Neuroscientist with a long history that Vanderbilt has vowed to "vigorously defend", a major pillar of the science blogging community or a senior dude down the hall. Every time someone gets accused of sexual harassment you can count on a ground swell of excuses.
Every. Damn. Time.
Last week we even had a study published making it overwhelmingly clear that science has a problem. And yet the majority default reaction to accusations is to discredit the source. Maybe she didn't understand him or his culture! She's too tightly wound and he was just kidding! She's doing this to get her name out there or for money. I heard she's just crazy.
What goes seemingly unrecognized is that the penalty for reporting is SO high, that one just might have to be crazy to do so, even after enduring years of harassment. The easier path is to endure and leave as soon as you can with your degree/LoR/Paper/whatever. It's the path many choose, because the deck is stacked so heavily against them they stand to lose everything, regardless of the outcome. The false positive rate is vanishingly small, yet treated as the default.
And herein lies the problem. Sexual harassment is beyond tolerated to the point where it's almost encouraged because there is little to no penalty. Until we make reporting easy and effective - with actual punishment for this behavior - there won't be any improvement. The university will defend its lecherous men, science will revere its big names no matter what they did and society will defend the idea of the crazy accuser.
I'm often slow to the punch when things hit the internet, and as a consequence regularly avoid re-hashing things that others have covered better. Such was the case yesterday when the cover of Science hit the stands and others were quick to call bullshit, and zoom out a bit at a larger problem. Both of those posts are excellent and thoughtful and I would normally leave it to them.
But the apology by Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt sincerely rubs me the wrong way.
From Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt:
Science has heard from many readers expressing their opinions and concerns with the recent [11 July 2014] cover choice.
The cover showing transgender sex workers in Jarkarta was selected after much discussion by a large group and was not intended to offend anyone, but rather to highlight the fact that there are solutions for the AIDS crisis for this forgotten but at-risk group. A few have indicated to me that the cover did exactly that, but more have indicated the opposite reaction: that the cover was offensive because they did not have the context of the story prior to viewing it, an important piece of information that was available to those choosing the cover.
I am truly sorry for any discomfort that this cover may have caused anyone, and promise that we will strive to do much better in the future to be sensitive to all groups and not assume that context and intent will speak for themselves.
-- Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief, the Science family of journals
16 July 2014
Context: Science cover caption -- http://bit.ly/1ytCpYW
So the idea here is that if we had only read the article first we would TOTALLY GET IT and be all "OMG, that's such a great representation of the story!" Whereas it's great that Science is admitting a screw up, they are still confused as to why people were upset. Does it seem like these people would have a different opinion if they saw the picture after reading the article? Yeah, try again Marcia.
In many ways, it's almost pointless to talk about all the other aspects of pre-tenure if you can't get good people in your lab. The best laid plans are simply a terrible lab dynamic away from being burnt to the ground.
This is a bit of a catch 22, because it is hard to recruit until you get established and hard to get established until you have some good people in the lab. Some will have the name of their institution or the prominence of their particular program to help them out here, but if you're direct-recruiting you have a lot of work to do here. You need to be proactive.
Reach out to colleagues. Seriously. Every year for the first couple of years here I emailed a dozen or so colleagues asking them if they knew of any undergrads or finishing MS students that they think would be a good fit for my lab. It didn't always work out that the student was interested, but it got the ball rolling and put some applications on my radar when it came time to look over the pool.
I have been incredibly fortunate to have had mostly excellent trainees in the lab. I had some terrific students sent my way who laid the groundwork for the lab's identity and put us in a position to make a mark. It's not a stretch to say that they played a significant role in me getting tenure, but I always kept in mind that they were taking more of a chance on me than I was on them. Could I get the funding for their project to be successful? Could I keep them paid every semester and summer? Could I get them to conference to talk about their work? Would I have connections to be able to introduce them to the people they should be talking to?
All of these things matter. Not every trainee will have thought that through before accepting a position in your pre-tenure lab, but it's worth keeping in mind yourself as you recruit. There's no question you'll be spending more time looking for that "diamond in the rough" than your more established colleagues, but the time spent pays off in enormous ways when it works out.
This is a topic I think I'm going to get some strong counter arguments on, but it's also something that has been essential for my labs ability to navigate tight funding lines. For my own success, one of the best things I did pre-tenure was diversify my research around two central themes. At any given point we've had two to three minimally overlapping projects around each theme. Some have worked out great and some have resulted in only a single publication. But they have all produced something.
More importantly, this strategy has kept up publications in two different scientific fields. Because of that, we've gotten federal and state funding in each of these areas and continue to seek funding for the different projects in each. Diverse topics means diverse research funding sources and programs.
Of course, diverse research topics also means spreading resources thinner, including time and money. It means having to stay on top of more than one body of literature. You'll find that there are certain things that students can't train other students in. It's time consuming and you risk being the jack of all trades and master of none.
But I'm watching the consequence of a single focus play out with a friend of mine right now. He's been successful as a solid contributor to a field that has ballooned recently. But in the last few years there has been a massive $$ dump into the field, with a focus on a few labs. The result is that those labs have more people and more money and churning out papers rapidly. The field has been suddenly and massively tilted. Not only does this have significant consequences for my friend's research program, but his trainees are on the outside looking in as well.
BTW, neuro peeps, how is that whole BRAIN initiative going to distribute funds?
In any case, I'm not suggesting you diversify your research program in case some funding agency drops a lot of money on your direct competition, but there are numerous benefits to keeping a wide base. It made my pre-tenure experience better and more successful.
The Monkey has a post up about the internal awkwardness of the feelings related to congratulating a peer on their success. The conversation stems from this tweet from Karen James. There was much agreement on the twits that people find it difficult to see others succeed. In particular, this rang true with pre-tenure folks who have milestones they see is career-critical and have watched others make it to these points faster than themselves.
Been there. Done that.
Here's the thing: it never really gets better. I left the following comment on DrugMonkey's post and it is the unfortunate truth.
It doesn't matter how successful you have been or are being, there will always be someone running just a bit faster. And you will always compare yourself to front-runners and forget that people are comparing themselves to you and feeling less successful. It's the nature of the business, it's human nature and even if you're sailing along at a solid clip, it won't get easier. Be happy for them and move on.
Nearly every single position has different constraints and requirements. For the first couple of years I had this job I was constantly looking at one of my foreign collaborators and stressing over the fact that their publication rate was way better than mine. It turns out that this collaborator has zero teaching responsibility and an automatic budget to count on in addition to any grant funds. That is not my situation.
While that's a bit of an extreme example, even colleagues who work in comparable positions as mine have very different responsibilities and commitments. Some are doing better than I am and some are falling a bit behind and I completely expect that there will be peaks and valleys for all of us in the coming years. Nevertheless, one will always focus on the labs setting the pace.
It's okay to be competitive. It's okay to strive to be the leader. But don't define your success that way or you will undoubtedly spend more time chasing windmills than developing your career.