Month: October 2014


I am done! Both of my NSF proposals have been submitted and I am breathing a big sigh of relief.

This is the first time I wrote two NSF proposals essentially in parallel (different directorates, no worries). They were both brand new, from scratch. The original plan was to write them sequentially, but the first one ended up spilling over and the second one had a last-minute program change which pushed the submission date forward and robbed me of 5 days.

I ended up submitting a very polished one and another that could have used a couple more read-throughs.

The latter one got the short end of the stick. It is not bad, but it is not as great as it could have been, and what’s missing are mostly the final touches.

I am too old to pull all-nighters, which I had to do last night in order to finish.

However, as if the fact that the program got changed last minute isn’t enough, the SRO* person informed me today that on account of Halloween they planned on leaving very early (before lunch) to do something with their kids. You could imagine how delighted I was to hear that. This is not the first time I ended up in a mad hurry to meet some I-need-to-leave-early-for-personal-reasons deadline of the cognizant SRO officer.

I really could have used another hour or two for another read through, especially since I hadn’t slept at all in order to finish writing. I had a student read through and especially hunt for typos, but  I did what I shouldn’t have (read the proposal after submission) and I now see that the student did a far less thorough job than I had hoped.

The thing is, funding at agencies that do peer review is so competitive… Typos kill. Everything seems to.

One can say “Well, why didn’t you just prepare everything well in advance?” to which I start cursing you under my breath. I have been working at capacity for a long time now, with extended hours every day. These things just take time to do really well. The last paper from the maniacal summer of paper writing was submitted on 9/11 (it got out recently after a lightning-fast review, yey!). Since then, I wrote two new proposals from scratch on top of regular teaching and life; one is mature and very polished, another is light and fun and has great ideas but as I now see has a few typos and some rough wording spots that I would have ideally ironed out with more time.

So about 6-7 weeks is enough to do two proposals from scratch, but it’s not enough to polish them both to high sheen. (Obviously, this is my experience. YMMV.)
Ultimately, I think I put more time and effort into the first one because I think it has a higher chance of funding.
But the other one is my baby, too!

DH says that the polished one won’t be funded but the unpolished one will. I guess we’ll see!

Good luck with writing to everyone who has NSF deadlines next week!


*SRO (Sponsored Research Office). They press the final submit button on proposals. These are called different things at different universities.


Proposal update: 1 submitted, 1 to go. Mad writing around the clock to meet the Oct 31 deadline (yep, that’s tomorrow) with the second one.


Pushing limits of human ability to process caffeine and sugar.

Caffeine has replaced blood, sweat and tears. Also urine.

Sugar has replaced sleep, air, and love.

If you haven’t already, fill out the poll below and tell all us crazy NSF folks where we should be placing the page numbers in our lovingly crafted unsolicited fall proposals. It’s a once-per-year chance, and circa ~10% paylines.
You can bet your sweet typesetting butts that font size, page number placement, and the position of Jupiter at the exact time when the Sponsored Programs Office clicks “SUBMIT” are all valid criteria based on which your proposal ends up not getting funded.

In the meantime, here’s the old post on writing in a time crunch.

And other AJ works dealing with proposals and funding.

Good luck everyone!



2CELLOS Rocking


These guys are awesome! (h/t to Eldest’s best friend B, who showed us one of their videos)

By the way, I will do the NaBloPoMo, sort of, unofficially (I did it officially last year but didn’t/don’t see much of a point to it).

Basically, I will post every day in November, because why not? People seemed to enjoy it last year and so did I.

It will certainly help get rid of the metaphorical lactic acid from my writing muscles after the brutality that is writing two NSF proposals in parallel. The proposal submission ship sails on Halloween; I will celebrate by gorging on sugar and scaring little trick-or-treaters whilst doling out candy in my witch attire.

Now back to work…


I think I might have never been this busy in my life.

Today I was at the Eldest’s swim meet (didn’t need to volunteer, yey!) While all the other parents were sitting around, chatting, playing with their phones and iPads, I had a legal pad, a pen, and a freaking textbook , and was doing undergrad homework problems (i.e. writing up solutions) on my lap, so I can post said solutions before the midterm. Normal people are able to chill over the weekend. Your humble host, not so much. The fact that I was able to find a Starbucks within a 2-min drive greatly  improved the whole experience.

This weekend, I have had three sets of homework solutions to write up (almost done!), and I have to create the midterm exam problems for next week. I also have to finish a brief internal proposal with a colleague and review a proposal for a federal agency. (I still have to go grocery shopping and cook for the week tomorrow. And there are also these kids who seem to expect love, care, and nourishment from me; what’s up with that?)

And this is all so I would have as much prime work time as humanly possible to finish my two proposals by Halloween. Why? Because I just found out yesterday that the  NSF program to which I had been planning to submit one of the proposals, with explicit (written!) encouragement of the program director obtained this summer, has in the meantime changed the program director; the new one is very, very far removed in his interests from the previous guy, so this program is now a no-go. I quickly found a new home for the proposal, but their deadline is 5 days earlier. In all, the proposal which is less done (because its deadline for the original program was later) is, as of yesterday, due sooner than the proposal that’s nearly done.

Of course, when it rains, it pours. There has been so much academic politics drama in the department… So draining. So pointless. So much time wasted by so many people. So much disappointment in colleagues whom I naively used to consider rational and humane, but have since grown to recognize as selfish, vindictive, and manipulative. Egomania, fueled by success in receiving grants and enabled by the money-hungry administration, appears boundless.

Now back to work.

(Ms. Mentor dubbs October the exploding-head-syndrome month.)

The Curse of ATTTS

>>   Dear undergrad: You come to class irregularly and don’t come to discussion because you have team meetings for another class seemingly non-stop. You submit homework intermittently. After you had come to inform me how much more important that other class is to you than mine, you asked me to move the time and day when the homework is usually due so that I can even better accommodate your schedule for this other class. My response?



>> I have lost another colleague to the curse of ATTTS (Administrators Taking Themselves Too Seriously).

We are having way too many faculty meetings, one every week. They run for 2 hours each and it’s a waste of time, especially in the midst of the proposal-writing season for most of us. My class somewhat overlaps with the meetings, so I am always late. The other day, I was on my way to the meeting at about 30 min past, when I ran into a colleague who was already leaving the meeting; the colleague informed me the meeting was still in full swing, but that they had to leave. I jokingly pleaded “Take me with you!!!” to which the colleague responded “Oh, it’s not that bad.” The colleague had recently taken up a college-level admin position and the Koolaid has apparently been overflowing their glass. I remember a time not that long ago when the colleague  would have smiled or laughed at the joke, or even commiserated at the thought of yet another meeting. The colleague has since been fully assimilated and, I fear, can never go back to being a real professor. (By the way, the meeting was deathly boring, with the same old characters droning; even though I was late, I left early because I had way too much work to do, and  nothing was getting done. Life is too short anyway to spend listening to people’s verbal onania).

I really hate meetings. That’s probably because too many meetings are poorly run, don’t stay on target, go overtime, and don’t accomplish anything. So I avoid them like a plague. When I am in charge of a committee, I do as much as humanly possible via email and only meet occasionally when the amount of material or the way it needs to be handled is such that it’s more efficient to meet once and knock it all off the list at once. Enjoying daily meetings, which admins do, is completely alien to me. I am now confident that I will NEVER be an administrator, because I would be a really bad one, unable to keep any of the Koolaid down.

There are two types of time I devote to work:

1. Prime time, the large blocks of time when I am at work and fully alert, during the day or early evening. This is the time when I read papers, write manuscripts and proposals, meet individually with my students, essentially do my science. I also prep for classes and teach during this time, create exams, and review other people’s papers and proposals. I am extremely protective of my limited prime time.

2. Not-exactly-prime time, which would be the time when I am tired in the evening, or small amounts of time on the weekend or during the work week, which are insufficient to do a large amount of work that requires creativity or deep focus. This is the time when I grade exams, prepare homework or write solutions, organize upcoming travel, file for travel reimbursement, do the budget or boilerplate for proposal submissions. I might also write letters of recommendation or sometimes finalize reports for manuscript review. If at all possible, I try to schedule most meetings during not-exactly-prime time, since prime time is sacred.

Now that I think of it, my ATTTS-afflicted colleague has always displayed just a little too much tolerance for meetings, while  writing papers or proposals together was just not a very high priority; it seems that a lot of stupid non-research stuff has always cluttered the colleague’s schedule. Perhaps the colleague had been running out of research breath for a while and this might be a natural consequence. I, however, find that I am in better scientific shape than ever, have more and better ideas, am writing better papers and proposals and doing it faster than before, and am feeling bold and confident.

I am not saying admin work is not important. It is, and someone has to do it.
I just don’t understand a scientist who prefers this work to actual science. And who so readily morphs into  a full-fledged Koolaid abuser.

Question from Reader: Dishonesty in Fellowship Application

Reader Sameir had a question:

… I just found out that a student has copied my NSF proposal for his GRFP * and got awarded the fellowship. What should I do? On one side I think it is only a student and I should let it go, on the other hand this level of dishonesty is unacceptable.


Sameir, is it your grad student or an undergrad working with you and currently applying to grad school (presumably to go elsewhere)? Could you tell us a little bit about how the student got the proposal, and how you found out about him/her using the proposal for the fellowship? (I am just  asking for completeness.)

Blogosphere, what say you? What is the proper course of action for Sameir? Should the student be penalized and, if yes, how? Should NSF be notified?


* GRFP: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

Hanni El Khatib

By popular demand (not that I needed much arm twisting), here’s a bit more music I enjoy.

If you like The Black Keys, I highly recommend Hanni El Khatib. (His latest album, “Head in the Dirt,” was produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.)

I heard HEK last year in concert in a small venue. He’s a pretty serious guy and an excellent guitar player. He seems to be lying low at the moment, presumably working on a new NSF grant proposal album.


One of my favorite songs, “Nobody Move”


A phenomenal cover of Louis Armstrong’s “You Rascal You”


Probably the best known one, “Family”


“Penny” wins the award for the least likely (yet phenomenal) pairing of song and video

How long does it take to write a proposal?

For my professorial  readers (or otherwise readers with PI status):

How long does it take you to write, from scratch, a single-investigator grant proposal that will undergo peer review?

For physical scientists and many others, I am talking about a standard NSF 15-pager or similar. For biomedical folks, that would be an NIH R01 (however long it is).
I am assuming we are talking about a new proposal (not a resubmission), and I am also assuming that you don’t just drop everything and disappear into a cave to write, but rather continue to tend to other normal academic duties, like teaching or service.