Month: May 2014


One of the things that annoy me most about collaborating are collaborators who operate on the timescales much different from mine, usually because our priorities aren’t well aligned. I have already written about this particular issue before, but as it periodically resurfaces, I periodically get re-irritated and thus have to periodically re-vent, and reposting old rants just doesn’t seem to have the same therapeutic effect.

I have a  collaborator who doesn’t seem to be encumbered by urgency when it comes to paper submissions. In the past, after a disastrous few papers, where we drove the co-advised (and since graduated) student crazy, I came up with a strategy: the student and I work on each paper until it’s done and ready for submission, I schedule a time with the collaborator in advance for them to look at the essentially polished paper, they suggest touch-ups (which they expect accommodated), I enter those and we submit. Sure, the student and I do all the heavy lifting, but at least the papers get written and edited fast.

This week I have been driven crazy again, and I can tell you it’s a remarkable feat of self-restraint that I didn’t already write about all this days ago.
Early this week, I  emailed the collaborator to tell them that I would be done with the paper later in the week, and then would be off to a conference starting next week, and I asked it they could perhaps look at the paper during my absence. The collaborator wrote back to tell me that they too were leaving town,  but not until around the time when I was to return from my trip. The problem is that they decided they had absolutely no time to look at the paper in the time preceding their departure  (which was almost three weeks from the point at which we were emailing and nearly two weeks after the point at which the final paper was eventually sent to them), but said they they would look at it soon after they came back.

I am really pissed, because, as far as the current student and I are concerned, the paper can be submitted today. It is not a rough draft that requires massive edits, I already took care of all of that. Still, the colleague supposedly does not have the time to look at it in next two weeks, they supposedly have weeks of their time in town fully obligated in the middle of summer (no, they are not writing a proposal), so we now have to wait additional 3+ weeks from the point of completion for the colleague to put on the trivial finishing touches.

This happens every time, with every paper. I do not buy that the colleague is busier than I am, because I am pretty darn busy and their group is not bigger than mine. These joint papers are simply not a priority for the colleague, which is OK, but they *are* a priority for me and the student, and if they cannot help they should at least not hinder!

If submitting a paper were equal to having sex, then the colleague would now be cock-blocking me. I think it’s safe to call the colleague a pub-blocker.

I have been in situations where I was the middle author, cared little and didn’t have the time to go through the paper in detail; in such cases, I either took myself off the paper or found the time to at least quickly skim the paper and said it’s OK to go as is. You either care and find the time to look at the manuscript, or you don’t care and consequently don’t find the time, but then at least you trust your collaborator that they can submit a coherent manuscript. The worst scenario is that you don’t care and don’t find the time, but also want to hold the reigns on submission. That is really, really douchey controlling behavior.

No, I don’t want to wait three weeks or more to submit what is essentially a finished paper. As a courtesy, you have two weeks. The last three days of those two weeks you are away, well boo hoo. There are the other 11 that you are here, find the freakin’ time.

Here’s the deal: papers are important. Papers are VERY important. Papers and graduated students are our products. There is possibly no aspect of our job (our job = professor in a STEM field at a major research university) that is more important than getting papers out. Published papers enable everything else: students graduating and getting jobs, new grants being funded, knowledge advancing.

I have no idea what the collaborator has in the pipeline for nearly two weeks prior to their departure that would prevent them from sitting to read the paper for an hour or two. But whatever it is, unless it’s editing of a whole $hitload of their other papers (and I know for sure that it isn’t) , IT’S NOT AS IMPORTANT!!! Stop pub-blocking. Move stuff around, read the goddamn paper, so we can send it to review ASAP. Then you can get back to whatever leadership or other service BS is so pressing in the middle of the summer. And you are very welcome.

Tooth Fairy Adventures

My Eldest, now a teenager, is a sensitive and dreamy kid, always with his nose in a book, and generally more interested in the imaginary than the real world. In contrast, my Middle Boy (MB) has his feet firmly on the ground and his head very much out of the clouds. He’s very curious, adventurous, and, at the ripe old age of 7, first and foremost a little realist. He has propensity for science, forming hypotheses, discovering, pulling apart, digging through all the stuff. He’s impossible to hide anything from (especially candy) and he’s absolutely relentless when he has his mind set on something.

That’s why it’s so endearing to see how passionately he has been holding on to the myths of Santa and (especially) the Tooth Fairy. While neither DH nor I are particularly gifted in the stealth department, we are trying our best not to burst his bubble entirely until he’s ready. Over the past couple of years, MB would look at us suspiciously on Christmas morning and ask if Santa was real. We would respond with “What do you think?” and he would say he thought Santa was real, to which we’d say “Well, there you go,” and we’d all happily leave it at that.

MB has lost several of his baby teeth, and each tooth loss is a major event, accompanied by excitement and anticipation of the Tooth Fairy visit. He gets very upset whenever one of his friends tells him the Tooth Fairy isn’t real. I am usually successful at playing the Tooth Fairy; I sneak in after he’s asleep, take the tooth and leave a bit of money and a small toy or some candy. Still, I almost had my cover blown not once but twice, but my inquisitive little boy, who misses nothing, was beyond forgiving in the face of ample evidence of parental involvement. He really, really wants to keep on believing that the Tooth Fairy is real.

A few teeth ago, I simply forgot my TF duties. I usually put the goodies under his pillow when I am on my way to bed, this one time I just forgot, I am not sure why, I might have been really tired or just distracted. The following morning, MB was up earlier than usual, absolutely devastated that the Tooth Fairy hadn’t come. In what I like to think of as a brilliant display of natural improv ability, I matter-of-factly picked up the phone and called the Tooth Fairy Headquarters to ask what had happened, and that there had been a tooth there all night but it hadn’t been picked up,  and that I now had a very disappointed little boy on my hands.  The HQ told me that the Tooth Fairy had an unusually busy night and was running late, but that she would be there shortly and that he should just stay put and check back around his usual wake-up time. My little boy’s eyes were wide with awe and anticipation, while the Eldest, whose school starts early and who was finishing breakfast during my call to Tooth Fairy HQ,  was in real danger of choking on his food while semi-successfully muffling the laughter. Needless to say, the Tooth Fairy was eventually able to retrieve the tooth and leave some goodies in the time that elapsed between the HQ call and MB making his way back to the room after having visiting the bathroom. Us Tooth Fairies sometimes have very tiny windows of opportunity to do our jobs.

A more recent adventure started with MB waking me up at 2:30 am to ask me to help him pull his tooth. I sleepily yanked it a little, proclaimed it wasn’t ready yet, and hoped we would all go back to sleep. But, 5 min later, MB came back excitedly to show me that he had indeed managed to pull it out, so I had to get up to help him rinse it and prep it for the Tooth Fairy. As you can see, my normal Tooth Fairy routine was disturbed, as I had no intention of waiting another half hour in the middle of the night until he fell asleep, and was planning on just doing my job in the morning, in the hour between my and his wake-up times. Alas, it’s summer so it’s really bright in his room at 6:30; he was thus sleeping even lighter than usual and woke up as soon as I tried to peak into his room, looked under his pillow, and was again disappointed. This time I told him to just go back to bed, that the TF definitely didn’t have enough time to do her job since he’d only pulled the tooth out in the middle of the night. About 10 minutes later, I came back; I put the goodies under his pillow, quickly took out his tooth, the hardwood floor creaked, and I tossed the baggie with his tooth out of the room  and into the hallway just in time for him to turn around and see me supposedly trying to turn on the fan in his room. He asked if I was the TF and I said “Oh, I am just here to turn on the fan, it’s really hot in here,” and he took it! He found the baggie with a dollar bill, a marker (one of the felt-tips that I use for grading), and a couple of Skittles (don’t judge, the TF had to scramble), and he happily hopped downstairs to show the loot to his big brother.

Later in the day, I found that he had used the marker to write on the bill “To: MB; From: Tooth Fairy”.  The Tooth Fairy’s heart melted a little.


I haven’t been blogging much as I am a) recovering from the semester and b) writing technical stuff 24/7. So I am a little tapped out. As I am thinking about writing, it’s fitting that I write about writing.  Perhaps I should go full-meta and write about writing about writing…  For now, I give you a few technical writing and publishing vignettes.

The wimpy paper

The paper is competently written, correct, and boring as hell. Why? Because there is no story. Each figure is clear, pretty even.  The problem? The text pertinent to each figure is banal — just stating what the figure shows, what each symbol or line means (needlessly duplicating the caption), and trivially reading off trends. For example, all you get is

” For parameter C>C0, A increases slowly with increasing B. For C≤C0, A is independent of B.”

Yeah, I can see that from the figure, so what? Tell me why it’s important! What does it mean about the system at hand? Give me some nontrivial insight that the figure corroborates. For instance, “This dependence has been predicted based on the Orthodox Theory, but it was never experimentally measured before. The measurements presented in Fig. X confirms that Orthodox Theory accurately describes the underlying physics.” Alternatively, “The dependence of A on B presented in Fig. X is in contrast with the Orthodox Theory, which predicts A to be a monotonically decreasing function of B for all values of C.” Then go on to say what you think happens and why, ideally support with a different set of experiments or new theory theory.

I hate the wimpy, non-committal papers where the authors don’t state any conclusions or make any strong statements. Science isn’t stamp collecting, it requires you to understand and interpret data; the understanding and interpretation are what’s included in the body of knowledge.

The “I will make you sweat” paper

In my field (and many others, I am sure), there are comprehensive papers and there are letter papers that are typically 4 pages long. A well-written letter should be readable and understandable with <50% of the focus on the part of the reader. You should nudge me towards what I should think, with figures and text playing off and reinforcing one another. Don’t make me sweat like a constipated buffalo, reading two terse, cryptic paragraphs over and over again, trying to figure out what on earth you are talking about and how any of it has anything to do with the data in the figure (or common sense, for that matter).


This is mainly for professors, but others can play as well, and I know the variation will be drastic among fields.

How many papers can you conceivably write in a year?

I mean, the papers on which you are the lead author or do a significant amount of writing? I work almost exclusively with trainees and each paper is a lot of work: I can’t just sit and write it, we have to do the back-and-forths, the edits and the teaching. It takes a lot of time. I think my upper limit for papers where I am really involved would be 1 paper per month on average (more during the summer, less during academic year); usually, it’s less than that, roughly 1 paper per group member per year (senior ones can do 2, junior ones have 0, but it comes out roughly about 1 per group member per year). Full disclosure, I had 8 papers last year; I suppose if I had more than 12 people in the group we’d run into my own bandwidth limitation.

I see these people with 20+ papers per year from their group and I wonder — how? I suppose it depends on the length of the paper (a 4-page letter versus a 12-page comprehensive paper), how many senior people are on the paper (which can be a blessing, as they hopefully know what they are doing, and a curse, since they can be super busy and make it hard to get the edits done with), if you have good postdocs or research scientists… But still, how do you produce so many papers per unit time? I suppose there are these elevated planes of productivity that are like Mount Olympus: only a select few ever reach them.

Which brings me to a related question: There is definitely a need to edit and revise papers before submission. At some point, the gains from successive edits become insufficient to justify the extra time. This issue is particularly important when attempting to publish in high-profile journals,  as an insane amount of polishing goes on just to get a chance to pass the editorial desk and go out to review. A recent paper of mine with collaborators took years of hard work of several people, and about 2 years of writing and editing, and eventually went into a Glam Offshoot. Unfortunately, it seems we may have missed the wave of interest or whatever, because, after all that time and effort and the battles with reviewers, it doesn’t seem to be attracting much attention. Oh well.

So how do you decide when to pull the trigger? When it’s perfect? (Never.) When you are sick of it? When the student reaches the point of sending you two emails per day, begging you to submit already? When your grants are up for renewal? When you’ve done the three back-and-forths with student, edited the final version for two weeks and it’s as good as it’s going to get in the near future?

Update: This week’s PhD comic


Over the decade that I have spent in my home department, I have witnessed several faculty colleagues retire. A number retired in their 60’s or 70’s; they had been active in research and faculty governance till the very last day, but were forgotten soon thereafter and are hardly ever mentioned today. Their labs were given to others and the department life went on. Each such retirement reminds me that, no matter how much you give to your work, your work will take it all, scoff at you for not giving more, then turn on its heal and walk away without so much as a thank you.

Then there were a few who retired much younger, with 10 or more good professorial years remaining. Their academic stories are not happy.

There are people in the department for whom no one among the colleagues seems to care. Everyone considers them deadwood, inactive researchers, generally someone most wish they could get rid of. These people wield no power in the department political arena. In whispers, they are described to junior faculty as irrelevant, so the younglings would learn not  to mind them either.

Among these tenured-but-disenfranchised academics, some are a real net drain on the department as they don’t do research, teaching, or service well at all, so it’s really hard to find any redeeming qualities. These extremes are very, very, VERY rare, and ironically show no interest in early retirement.

But most simply run low on external funds, while remaining good and engaged teachers. They often take on a heavy service load, doing laborious tasks that benefit the whole department. These people deserve more gratitude and respect than they are given.

One such colleague recently retired. My guess is that he’s no more than 55 years old. I never got to know him well, but he must have been a quality researcher once upon a time at least, or else he would not have gotten tenure. In recent years, I watched him try — and fail — to get some more meaty service and administrative roles; the writings on the wall was that the department had given up on him. At that point, his main flaw was that he did theoretical work for which there had never been a huge amount of funding available, the well had since run dry, and he hadn’t been able (or willing) to successfully switch fields to a more lucrative one. A few other “shinier” faculty were brought in from the outside into his area, so he slowly became wholly marginalized. Over the past couple of years I can’t say I ever saw him in faculty meetings. The department gave up on him, communicated it loudly and clearly, until he gave up on the department, too, and left.

I wish him well in whatever he does next.

It’s sobering to see what can happen in nominally harmonious departments. Sure, nobody quarrels, everything is very civilized and outwardly friendly. We just shut people out of the decision-making process, and take away their abilities to contribute or advance in ways that don’t involve external cash precisely because they don’t bring in enough external cash. No need to abolish tenure; we can’t formally fire them, but we are apparently very good at making them want to leave.


A day in the life:

  • 6:30-8:30 Morning routine (lunches, drive Eldest to school, wake/feed the Littles, make self presentable)
  • 8:30-9:00 Morning commute (w/ possible drop-off of 1-2 of the Littles)
  • 9:00-5:30 Work
  • 5:30-6:00 Evening commute (w/ possible pickup of 1-2 of the Littles)
  • 6:00-7:00 Dinner prep, dinner
  • 7:00-8:30 Playtime with kids (DH is the bomb!)
  • 8:30-9:30 Bedtime routine (baths, books, PJs)
  • 9:30-10:00 Cleanup
  • 10:00-12:00 (or 1:00) More work and/or some TV


So here’s a handy comparison between how much I spend versus how much I would like to spend on different tasks (below, 0<x<2).



Clearly, what my day is missing is 8 additional hours.  My hope is for the humanity to populate a planet with a 32-hour day ASAP.

In other news, it’s finals week…



Summertime… And the Funding’s Not Easy

I am bracing for a summer of proposal writing, paper writing, and conference travel. Proposals that are going out in the fall are important, as are the papers that will enable me to write a competitive renewal for another agency about a year from now. I am very excited, but also twice as anxious.

I spent an extraordinary amount of time in the past few months either on panels or reviewing proposals. I think I might have OD-ed on critiquing other people’s would-be projects, because I am facing feelings of overwhelming dread and despair at the thought of all the effort I am going to put in and out of which very little,  if anything, will likely come.  There, I am saying it: I am not a very confident proposal writer, which is a bad thing to be when the ability to write strong, persuasive proposals makes or breaks your career. This is where suffering from Dunning-Kruger  instead of the impostor syndrome would come in handy.

During my panel excursions, I came across several people who are very well funded. Most of them turn out (unsurprisingly) to be very good and persuasive proposal writers. Even when they don’t get funded, when their ideas are only halfway formed, they still write compellingly and are generally ranked near the top if not at the tippity-top of any proposal roster. I really don’t think I am that persuasive, at least not routinely.

Most proposals I have reviewed are incremental.  People are doing their thing and want to continue doing their thing; who can blame them? There were a few PIs who wanted to do something out of the norm, but they were usually slammed as “too speculative” and “not enough preliminary data.” On the other end are the proposals that have so much preliminary data that “they have already done the work” or “it is not clear where the novelty lies.” I am becoming convinced that it is, in fact, fundamentally impossible to have the right amount of preliminary data.

All this bullshit has to do with ridiculously low paylines. On the last panel I attended the funding rate was about 10%. We reviewed about 30 proposals and will fund 3. A vast majority of proposals are by serious people who do good work and who wrote good proposals that, if funded, would result in good and important science. And a vast majority of them won’t get funded and will have to wait another year before they are allowed to try again.

So what are the criteria that do get you funded by NSF panels? Honestly, it is largely a crapshoot and that’s what’s so demoralizing. You need to put forth a really strong proposal, but everyone else does it, too. Then you have to be lucky and well placed on a panel. If you are reviewed by a panel where people are not experts in your field, sure, they can gloss over some technical minutiae where the experts would kill your ideas, but you still won’t get funded because no one will champion you. The fate of your proposal is decided in the first 15-20 min of panel review, when the manager goes around the room and asks each panelist which proposal they consider to be the strongest and most worthy of funding. Basically, everyone gets to suggest their favorite and the funded ones are nearly always from among that list. If you are no one’s favorite, you are pretty much toast, most of the time. The only scenario in which you might rise to the top is if people tear down each other’s favorites to shreds, and then you come out as the underdog against whom nobody has anything really damning (this happens relatively rarely, in my experience).

I am anxious just thinking about the upcoming proposal writing. I have 2-3 topics on which I want to write. Are they earth-shattering? Probably not, but then again, nothing is. Are they non-incremental enough and science-boner-inducing enough to get funded? Perhaps; it depends on the panel and how good of a job I end up doing with the writing. I have been mulling over the ideas in the back of my mind for months, now is the time to start writing what NIH folks would call “specific aims” and NSF folks (at least on my side of the NSF pond)  call themes or topics or thrusts (more of a DoD lingo) or (rarely) aims; sometimes people call them tasks or goals or objectives. (We can argue whether all these terms are synonymous with one another, but we won’t.) Bottom line is — if you can articulate 3-5 main lines of study, each worth 2-3 papers, those are your proposal information quanta. Partition your narrative any finer, and you risk being told that you are presenting “a laundry list of topics” or that you are “going on a fishing expedition” or that “the proposal lacks focus” (all panel favorites).

You may have noticed that at no point do I say what I actually really want to do. I don’t say these are the topics I am burning with desire to explore. There are things I would love to do, but I either can’t get the money to do them (now or ever, here in the US at least) or I am too much of a novice in certain fields to be able to write a competitive proposal on the topics that excite me. The need to write proposals, coupled with the perpetual lack of time to learn new things really well, ends up resulting in (at least me) not being as mobile between subfields as I would like. I know, I know, that’s the system and it’s not going away, but I can at least indulge myself with a little exasperated whine-and-rant combo before it’s time to roll up my sleeves again and get crackin’. Those proposals aren’t gonna write themselves.

Writing Papers with Graduate Students Who Don’t Want to Write Papers, Take Seven Gajillion

Over the past few weeks I have been working on papers with several students in parallel, and I am again pulling my hair out and wondering if there is a  way to get the writing done and the students trained without me going bald.

Reporting findings in written form is an inherent part of doing science. If you don’t publish your work, it’s as good as nonexistent. But, even more generally, scientists and engineers with advanced degrees will likely have to write technical texts one way or another, regardless of where they work, so it is important to train graduate students to write.

To me, writing has always been the easy, enjoyable part of every project. Sure, literature survey for the introduction is a bit of a pain the butt, but starting to write a paper means that the technical hurdles have (mostly) been overcome, that we have done the hard stuff and now it’s time for the frosting on the cake. Getting to write the paper has always been the reward part for me. Also, writing helps me distill my thoughts: the process of trying to explain what was done and how the reasoning went in a coherent, fluid form, often helps me understand the problem even better than before.

In contrast, I find that most of my students dislike writing. While for international students it may be the insecurity about their command of English, I find that even native speakers and non-natives with excellent command of English would largely still rather not write than write. Even students who may be very good and engaging presenters are often surprisingly lackluster writers or just horrible procrastinators when the time comes to start putting words on paper. “That’s because they are novice writers,” you say, “surely they will learn with practice, and writing will become easier;” that’s true, but only to a degree. Many simply really, really don’t want to write, don’t want to learn how to write, and would rather I left them to do their reading, derivations, and coding. They love being immersed in the technical nitty-gritty of their projects.

Writing is to science what eating fiber is to diet: necessary to keep things moving.

When you were little your mother probably bugged you about getting fiber through fruits, vegetables, and grains. Once you are all grown up, you probably understand the importance and include it in your diet, even if you don’t really like eating it. With my PhD students, I definitely stress very strongly the importance of technical writing. I used to iterate ad nauseam with each student until each paper was perfect; that took forever and the process often didn’t converge, so I had to take over. Right now, after the framework of the paper is agreed upon, I have a policy of 3 back-and-forths with edits before I take over and do the final rewrites; I ask the student if he or she wants to iterate more, as occasionally I do have a student who does want to keep going a little more to perfect their craft. However, most students are very happy when I take over; some procrastinate endlessly with their edits, some will tell me that they hate writing and don’t want to do it, or that it’s just really hard and they would rather I did it.

You know, it’s my duty to emphasize the importance of technical writing to students and to offer them the opportunity to learn. But do I actually have to shove the writing down their throats? I mean, if they are resisting learning, is it really my duty to force them to learn to write? We are dealing with young adults, but adults nonetheless.

I am wondering if I should reduce the mininum technical writing requirements to “full drafts for those who want to learn how to write, figure and figure captions for those who decide they don’t care to learn how to write,” or some similar scenario. Basically, when I see someone is fighting me and just does not want to write, perhaps it is OK for me to say “Fine. You supply the figures I tell you to make, I will write the paper. But don’t tell me that I didn’t tell you it’s important to learn how to write, and if you ever want to have another crack at it, let me know. In the meantime, you are relieved of this ominous duty.”

What say you, blogosphere? Is it OK to relieve the suffering of both myself and the students who really really don’t want to write?  Sure, that will leave them scientifically constipated, but I’m tired of having to chase them in order to force-feed them professional whole grains. I am not sure it’s in my job description or in anyone’s best interest.

A Chemical Imbalance — The Movie

A Chemical Imbalance — a film, a book and a call for action

The movie (below) and project are about women in STEM and their continued under-representation. The movie illustrates the issue through historical data and interviews with several faculty from the University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry (recipient of the Athena Swan Gold Award).