12 comments

  1. I love this.

    Speaking of idle thoughts, would you care to opine on how you pick collaborators and what kinds of traits you weight heavily? My spirit is being crushed by feeling I have to rewrite almost everything my collaborator sends me. I discard poorly written graduate applications too. Perhaps I’m being superficial, but I worry that if people can’t string logical thoughts together–and respect parallelism, tense, precision, and the like–that there’s no limit to the kinds of logical and syntactical errors they might make in their analysis. I also find editing exhausting. But maybe these correlations aren’t so tight. For instance, I write decently, but I don’t speak very clearly. Perhaps my collaborators write impeccable code and fully grasp the nuances of their results, even if they can’t organize the thoughts on paper? I’m trying to figure out whether to attempt a second paper with this group.

  2. You could really be the next Jorge Cham, you know … but for faculty. Just keep it in mind in case you get really sick of the grant-chasing game 🙂

  3. This is totally off-topic, so I understand if you choose to ignore it. But I am really curious about your opinion on the following. How essential do you think that grant-writing (or fellowship-writing) experience is during a postdoc? If one of your students with academic aspirations was trying to decide between a postdoc with (1) Famous dude with no grant-writing experience but awesome science vs. (2) Somewhat less famous dude with plenty of expertise in this but less exciting science, how would you counsel them? Would it matter if they were a good writer already?

    I am also curious about your experience, with this and with teaching, since I know you went straight into a faculty position.

  4. Good question. I promise I will write about it soon (last week of class here). There are many ways to get good training and even more ways to not get good training. What you want is an environment where you will be respected and have the opportunities to learn (from advisor but also others in the group) and do creative work with some independence, which you will be able to publish on the timescales relevant for academic job search in your discipline; given multiple options that satisfy the former, go for the highest pedigree (name recognition of school and/or the PI). For some people, being the only postdoc in a smaller or newer lab works. For some people, that means being one of a dozen postdocs in a large lab. I don’t think there is a foolproof way of picking a postdoc, because some small newer labs end up fizzling altogether and some large labs have a poor track record of placing people in faculty jobs.

    Grant writing, in my view, is icing on the cake. If you are in a place that is respectful and wants to help you succeed, I cannot imagine that they would stop you from writing fellowships. Also, I can’t imagine that the PI will send you away if you say “I want to learn to write grants” (again, in a place that is invested in its trainees). I would be delighted if any of my students wanted to partake in grant writing!

    I had never even seen a grant application before I started in a faculty position. But then I wrote like 6 or 7 (actually I think it was more) collaborative grants with colleagues that first year, and then I wrote an NSF CAREER that first summer, which I got on the first try (alas, I wish it were that easy to keep being funded with the NSF now that I am senior). So if you are a decent writer, generally bright and willing to learn, you will get better at writing grants quickly (sadly, that’s still not a guarantee of getting funded). I can’t speak for the biomedical sciences, but there aren’t that many postdoc fellowships in the physical sciences. Generally a postdoc is funded on advisor’s grant, i.e. postdocs don’t typically write grants to fund themselves.

    (For a short answer, this sure got long and rambling. Anyway, more coherent stuff later.)

  5. Thanks! Not at all rambling, and I appreciate your outlook as well as the quick response. Of course, if you have more to say on the matter, I’m all ears….

    Famous PI has never written a grant, I believe. And working at this particular place may actually preclude me from writing any grants, regardless of his or my desires.

    I just don’t want to shoot myself in the foot with this, given that I’m lucky enough to have other very good options.

  6. Famous PI has never written a grant, I believe.

    Huh? Now I am curious what kind of position (and what field) does a famous PI have where he’s never had to write a grant!

  7. @xykademiqz: This is anongrad. I tried to send you an email answering your questions — I’d rather not publicly divulge those details. But I’m not sure it made it through. What’s “googledy mail”?

    Anyways, I’ve now filled in my proper email (I’m guessing I’ll get assigned a different icon now?), so you can contact me directly if my earlier email didn’t make it.

  8. I need to throw my hat in the ring and say that tenure-track PIs, especially if they’ve done good science, should be seriously considered too. Tenure-track PIs crave your success with a passion that senior PIs do not always muster. Tenure-track PIs need fantastic publications promptly. They are often on to something hot and cool if they’ve been hired recently. They *may* not offer the same degree of independence, but if you find someone doing work that excites you, it’s an edifying collaboration. I’m saying all this out of some self-interest, but it’s based on observation too: I can see that my fierce–perhaps naively fierce–dedication to my trainees’ development is giving them a really different education than what their peers are receiving, especially peers in big labs.

    I’m in a more biomedical field. Showing some grant-writing chops is virtually a requirement for getting a tenure-track job, and it impresses the basic science administrators too.

  9. @Asst. prof: When I started working for my advisor, he was an asst. prof. While I’d say that on the whole, the arrangement has worked out well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him “passionately” craving my success, though he does seem pretty passionate about his. So I think that on this front, YMMV, and it’s not good to generalize one way or the other about who may be more committed to the success of their trainees based solely on career stage. Needless to say, our host seems pretty passionate about her trainees’ success to me!

    But I will say that I also interviewed with someone just starting out as well, just because I liked his work. I consider his offer one of the “very good options” I mentioned above.

    What do you mean by “grant-writing chops”? In bioengineering (my area), I’ve seen a number of people get jobs without prior grants or fellowship funding. Though the prevailing wisdom is what you say. So I’m not sure what to believe, exactly, as people do love to talk and myths do get promulgated….

  10. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him “passionately” craving my success, though he does seem pretty passionate about his.”

    The within-group variance is surely greater than the difference in the between-group means, but I’d bet those mean differences exist. I firmly believe there’s basically no cost to my reputation to promoting my trainees, i.e., the rewards of success aren’t zero-sum. Other PIs might view trainees more as competition. I’m sorry about your boss. The people I know who really leave some grad students hanging tend to be more senior people with huge labs; they can afford to lose a few students.

    “What do you mean by ‘grant-writing chops’? In bioengineering (my area), I’ve seen a number of people get jobs without prior grants or fellowship funding.”

    People can get jobs without past funding, but it’s always great to show in as many ways as possible that you can already do what the new job entails. “Chops” here = high-scoring grant proposals. The importance of funding varies by department. My department is adamant that when making tenure decisions, it doesn’t give a crap about funding or the number of publications; it only pays attention to the quality of the intellectual contributions to the field. The dean and tenure review panels (composed of members of other departments), however, also consider total pubs and dollars. As much as it would like to, my department can’t ignore this. I’m at a private R1 with 100% (12-month) salary, but I still have a target recovery that must be obtained from external funding, and which the dean considers when evaluating tenure and promotion.

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