Grouchy Academic Thoughts

Time flies.

An up-and-coming professor who had just made tenure when I started graduate school is now at the tail end of being mid-career and is starting to talk about what she will do when she retires.

A talented researcher employed at an institute, who, as a visiting scientist a little more than a decade ago was giving my male graduate-school contemporaries hilarious and largely misguided advice on dating, has recently purchased a small bachelor-sized house on the outskirts of a large European city and is counting days until retirement.

People go from up-and-coming to past-their-prime in the blink of an eye.

We are all working and thinking hard and the time goes by and then we’re done. I know so many smart people who will die not having left much behind them, not because they didn’t work hard or do everything that they were supposed to do, but because they are human and being human means being largely and inescapably irrelevant in almost every way imaginable.

The world I live in is full of very smart  and hard-working people, so full that it makes me think that being smart and hard-working is no big deal. I am afraid it is becoming more and more difficult to remind myself that people who are quite as smart and quite as driven are really relatively rare in the grand scheme of things. Even so, most of them don’t amount to much more than passing their genes along, just like their less-calculus-savvy brethren.


My kids are growing up fast. They will grow up soon and move away.

Kids start cute and magical and full of promise, and then become…  grownups. Grownups are neither cute nor magical. And they sure are full of… well, definitely not promise.

I wish they could stay cute and magical, always.


A little while ago I received a big grant, with what were the best reviews I have ever received in my life (you bet they are going straight into my feel good folder). And then yesterday I got a rejection of another grant (effing 13th of the month).

I have another trip, and then another, and then it’s the NSF fall proposal writing time again. Sigh.

Recently some of my students conveyed that I am terrifying, apparently for saying things such as “This introduction needs work,” and “Your axis labels are illegible. I told you last time that letters have to be at least this size so they are visible when the figure is reduced to 3 in width,” and “Cut all that text from the slide, no one is going to read all that. Replace it with these three bullet points and put this figure in. And don’t forget to look at the audience when you talk, you’ve been looking at the screen the whole time.” That’s some traumatizing feedback.

I wonder how they would take the relentless stream of rejections (punctuated by acceptances) that are the staple of professorial life at a major research university.

Honestly, sometimes I feel that, half the time, what I do is write papers and proposals and then read the dismissive reviews written about them; the other half, I read other people’s papers and proposals and then write the dismissive reviews myself. Whether receiving or handing out, there is only so much criticism that can pass through one’s system before one permanently turns into a cynic.

It’s not that bad, of course, especially not for papers. These days it’s very rare that I will get a really negative review of a paper, the most negative ones are of the kind “Sure, this is fine, just not scorching-hot enough for this prestigious Glossy Mag venue.” But grant rejections still hurt, always.

One reviewer said the proposal is too ambitious and reads as my wish list, as I have no actual experience doing similar work. Apparently, having done related work since 2008 and having a number of highly cited papers (referred to in the proposal, using my own published figures in the proposal) does not count. Maybe because at the end of the day it’s “not transformative.” (Most work is not transformative at all, or at least not any more transformative than a whole bunch of other unfunded ideas, but it’s such an awesomely passive-aggressive non-sequitur word of rejection to throw at someone whose proposal you don’t like just because.)


Never take something just because it’s free if you would never be willing to pay for it.

Words to live by… especially when it comes to student recruitment. I am advising a student who came in with their own external funds to do a terminal Master’s. I though I’d be able to get some useful research done with them; I was very, very wrong. Not only did nothing useful come out of it, they ended up being only a net drain on time, resources, and effort. Lesson learned.


  1. I’ll add to the list.

    Never plan an event, even a one-day meeting, with people who want a strategic partner. Your whole schtick will be “How can we bring together interesting people to network at this meeting?” and their whole thing will be “How can we establish a relationship with you so that we benefit for the next few years?”

    In my own defense, I didn’t realize their true intent going into this.

  2. My last grant rejection was infuriating because instead of believing what we said about the technology or looking at the link we provided for the exact model of the technology we were using, they assumed we were using a technology that was 20 years out of date (and is no longer used by anyone) and thus could not be what we said it was. Next submission we will waste space providing a picture. So irritating. It’s been a month and I’m still pretty pissed about that. Stupid NSF reviewer who convinced the other people on the panel that we were using said ancient technology. Could not one person have said, maybe they’re not lying, why don’t we look at the link they provided?

  3. That’s the most depressing thing about panels. It’s enough for someone loud to bring up something supposedly wrong with a proposal; unless someone else who is at least as loud is championing it, the proposal is dead in the water.

  4. *sigh*

    And yes, if we had been using said out-dated technology that we didn’t even think of mentioning in the proposal because that’s how outdated it is, then yes, what we said about it would have been a lie. *sigh*

  5. Ditto to n&m’s comment about reviewers being wrong & convincing the panel. Yes, it’s my job to convince the reviewers that I can do the work but if citing my previous work & using published figures still has them saying I am lying – there’s not much to be done. Except write a really snarky response to reviewers & hope the jerk isn’t on the 2nd panel.

    And sigh, transformative. I get what nsf is trying to do, but it makes a very convenient dismissal of any proposal that you don’t like.

    I almost made the “free” student mistake. I ended up being on the committee and, wow. Not free.

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