Month: October 2016

How to Work on a Proposal at Home, on the Sunday Morning before a Monday Deadline

Smurf is sitting next to me in the home office. Being 5 and fidgety on a chair with wheels, he keeps wheeling himself to and from the desk. He often finds himself suspended across the wide chasm between the chair, on which he kneels, and the desk onto which he holds. I lose patience and bring in one of the chairs from the dining room, which are nice and sturdy and, most importantly, have no wheels. At least I don’t have to constantly look out for him falling nose first onto the hardwood floor.

He is sitting quietly in his chair and coloring the Gangar Evolution Tree coloring page. “Sitting quietly” means that he is singing to himself and sniffling loudly. I am periodically asked to help retrieve a Sharpies marker cap, because everyone knows that kids absolutely cannot write or draw or color with anything that has any chance in hell of being cleaned or washed off.

He hands me a sheet of paper with half a dozen monsters, three on each side. I cut them out so he would tape them to the window by our front door. I apparently cut the arms off one monster, mostly because I had no idea they were the monster’s arms (they we not attached to it, but floating), and also because cutting around them would have seriously maimed the monsters on the other side. After a bout of crying (I didn’t say whose), we decide that he will redraw the arms and we will tape them next to the apparently armless monster. This all caused the hunt for Red October Scotch tape, which turns out to have been used by Smurf yesterday in an inexplicable connection with him carving a Jack-o-lantern with his dad.

I must have said “Put on your socks” 5 dozen times since this morning. He finally puts them on when I refuse to help him tape the arms onto the monster unless he complies.  Parenting — it’s all about exasperated bargaining with a much more energetic and determined opponent.

The newly attached arms are a smashing success.


7:00 AM Wake up. Bathroom, check email

7:15 AM Wake up the Littles (i.e., the younger two). Give them breakfast, pack lunches for all kids. Eldest does his own morning routine.
Drive Eldest to school at 7:50. (Some days he takes my car when he has swim practice right after school; not today.) Back to finish getting everyone and self ready. Make coffee to take to work

8:20 AM Out of the door with the Littles, drop them  off at school barely before 8:30

8:50 AM At the office. Work on grant proposal. During the day, take 30 min to meet with a visitor, 10 min to chat with a junior colleague, a few bathroom breaks. I eat at my desk.  I brought cans of chicken soup, pretzels, and graham crackers to the office on Monday, so that’s what I have been eating during the week. Last week one of my grad students walked in on me (the door was ajar) as I was at my desk, eating soup from a can. “Is… that what you eat every day?” She seemed positively heartbroken for me, so I lied to make her feel better. “Oh, no! I forgot my lunch, this is just my emergency soup.” She breathed a big sigh of relief. Little does she know that her advisor eats like a bag lady. Or, as a sage youngling once said, I eat like… like… like a grad student!

8:40 PM Leave office, go to pick up Eldest after swim practice. DH had already picked up the Littles at 5:30, fed everyone, and drove the two older boys to their 6 PM and 7 PM swim practices. Have 5 min to spare, so go get self a burger at a fast food place, and eat in the car while waiting for Eldest

9:20 PM Bedtime routine with the Littles, accelerated. They don’t want to go with DH, so both are past their bedtime, and Smurf most definitely so. Both are tired, so bedtime routine doesn’t take long

9:50 PM Shower

10:20 AM Sit down to write this post

10:40 PM Second work shift. I have a certain number of faculty applications to screen and score before a meeting tomorrow at noon. I also have a midterm tomorrow at 9:30, thank godness that’s done at least. If in bed by 1 AM, I will consider today a smashing success.

??   Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Next week things will go back to normal, where normal means less time at work, more time with the kids in the evening, more cooking, and less uninterrupted intellectually stimulating work. All temporarily suspended activities — like reviewing papers, proposals, and varied other service — will resume on Monday. My students are also eagerly awaiting my return to the world of the living,  with their many, many manuscript drafts. Like this:

Graduate student waiting for advisor to emerge from the grant-writing cave

Graduate student, waiting for advisor to emerge from the grant-writing cave


The Joys of Faculty Meetings

In a shocking and completely unforeseen turn of events (not), today in a faculty meeting this happened not once but twice: I point out that something is wrong with the motion currently being discussed and I propose a change. The chair shoots it down “because reasons.” Within minutes — nay, seconds! — one of the Important People rephrases and proposes the same thing, and the chair falls all over himself to implement said change.

Similarly, I start a discussion. Right after me, a colleague says he totally agrees with me and elaborates a little bit. From there on, everyone agrees with the colleague or disagrees with the colleague or elaborates on what the colleague has said (i.e., they all refer to him by name). Just as if I had never opened my mouth.

You know what, it’s totally my fault. It serves me right for sacrificing ~90 min of my grant-writing time today to attend this crap meeting.

If you are asking why I am not changing institutions, the reasons are:

1) My family is happy here and we have a solved two-body problem.
2) Honestly, I do not think it would be any better elsewhere.

But, sometimes, I seriously hate people.

Back to grant writing.

This and That

What have I been up to? This:


Also fitting, from Cyanide and Happiness:

Wrapping up proposal No 2, which due on Monday of next week, so not much will happen on the blog until then… Although I do have some really stupid punny cartoon ideas…

On the upside, I have every intention of doing NaBloPoMo, unofficially, of course. In plain English, this means I will blog daily in November, as a cleansing ritual after all the grant writing.

In the meantime, here are two great new reviews of “Academaze:”

By MI, on

By TH, on as well as on her blog.

Big thanks to MI and TH for these lovely reviews!

Wesley Soul Crusher

One down, two to go.

It’s the middle of the grant-writing season for many of us NSF folks, with a number of divisions having deadlines in late October or very early November. Mercifully, one division went to year-round submission, so the third grant is what I will be working on in November.

I am in that unenviable spot where I am exhausted and need to sleep, but my brain is in overdrive, so I don’t sleep well. It’s also the weekend, when I should be getting some rest, because I have kids who are only young once and they need me around, and because I need the rest so I would actually be able to work full steam during the week. Yet I can’t get the rest because my head is on fire and the clock is ticking. At times like these, I completely understand the impetus to start abusing prescription stimulants. Not that I ever would (caffeine is my drug), but I think I understand how someone who chooses to go that route feels when pressed against insurmountable workloads.

I have to say I envy NIH folks on having multiple submission deadlines throughout the year.  I wish I could spread it out a bit and not kill myself every October.
Before you ask why I don’t spread it out and write sooner, I did, it’s just there is so much other stuff, like the actual science with my students, and getting the papers out, that I can’t spend all summer writing grants too. We have to do the work and publish it for the grants we already have. And there are also spring deadlines in other agencies. And, you know, giant classes to teach.


Many people I know now routinely submit two grants per unsolicited window (so once per year). I do it too, and still find it very hard, as I need an intellectual break to do a good job on both, but there is no time for it. Earlier this week I submitted a grant with a new collaborator and it took a lot of time and energy from me, because it’s completely new and it’s always tough trying to follow someone else’s vision and still pull your weight. It took longer than we had agreed upon and thus cut almost a week into the writing on my single-PI grant, the one I am currently working on. It also left me drained and unwilling to work on said single-PI grant, even though I intellectually know that it is much more important to me. On the positive side, the it’s a revision, so I will be able to use some of last year’s material.


I chatted with someone the other day about what it is that makes grant rejections so soul-crushing.

Paper rejections happen and they are nowhere nearly as devastating as grant rejections.

There are several aspects to it, I think. First, there is actually the livelihood of your trainees and staff at stake, and even your own if you are in a soft-money position. The real devastation that comes from not being able to pay the people you are responsible for. A colleague told me today that several of his students would simply be unfunded starting in the spring. He seemed flippant about it, like it wasn’t his problem, which really bothered me, but perhaps I shouldn’t assume anything, because I don’t know what goes on in his head. I know that I often have to do remarkable gymnastics with the funds to make sure everyone is covered at least minimally if a grant doesn’t come through, but I have never just thrown my hands up in the air and said, “No money, you are on your own!” to anyone to whom I have committed as an advisor. This responsibility to keep everyone funded really weighs on me, heavily.

Then there is the fact that grants are written for a hostile audience. When you write a paper, most referees try to be constructive and help you improve the paper. In contrast, during grant review, the goal is to find a reason not to fund you. The comments are not for you, they are advisory to the program director. The comments are not aimed at helping you and they can often seem completely unfounded. Here are my favorites from last cycle, in which none of the scores I received were below a “very good.”One person simply doesn’t believe I can use a couple of techniques even though I have papers and preliminary data and figures showing that I can, and indicates that I should get an expert (read: chaperone) to make sure I do it right. Another person doesn’t comment on what I proposed to do, which is very complicated, and instead complains that I didn’t say I would do something else instead, which is even more complicated and simply so far out there that nobody can get to there from the current state of the art with one student and $300k total over three years, and most definitely not before what I proposed to do is done first.  A third person claimed that I was confused about a technique that I (and others) routinely use and that the technique cannot do what I say it can do (which it can).

So you get these comments that are not only not instructive, but can be misguided, hostile, and often make no sense. And in their senselessness, they convey one simple thing: the panel (or ad hoc reviewers) just didn’t like your proposal and don’t want to see it funded, and there’s usually nothing more than that. The written comments make no rhyme or reason precisely because they are post hoc justification for the fact that the reviewers just didn’t want your work and liked something else (or perhaps someone else) better.

Finally, in contrast to manuscript review, you have no opportunity to respond to the jabs in proposal review. You just have to try to retool the proposal for next time, to be read by a completely new and different set of people. And hope you get 3 or 4 of them who are not cranky or slightly biased against uppity women, and hope at least one of them will actually decide to champion you over someone else. I am not sure the probability of this happening is even 10% for most mere mortals.

(I know, I know. Excuses, excuses. My colleague from above would call this “loser talk.” I know I am whining and should roll up my sleeves and get back to work.)

Young grant writer Wesley Crusher.

Brand new Ensign assistant professor and grant writer Wesley Crusher…

Principal Investigator Wesley Crusher, many, MANY grant submissions later.

… and many, MANY grant submissions later.


Not “a leader”: Firing off multiple emails to colleagues who are at least as busy as you are and asking that they invest a lot of their already heavily obligated time into activities of no value to them professionally and of dubious value to the institution. The proper term is “a deluded email spammer currently in an administrative position.”

Not “good at delegating”: Delegating 100% of your duties to your already overworked underlings, some of whom are wholly unqualified to perform said duties. The proper term is “not doing your job at all but collecting the pay.”

Not”cultivating the alumni donor base”: Saying that our main role is to make our undergraduates feel all warm and fuzzy about their time in the department, so they would become donors once they are out in the world, earning the big bucks, instead of challenging them with our teaching so they would acquire the skills to actually make the aforementioned big bucks. The proper term is “having drunk the corporate Koolaid a little too eagerly,” also known as “have you no fuckin’ shame?”


Alas, I speak not of the fun kind, the province of randy college youth

Nay… My tale goes far back, all the way to the last millenium… And it is a dark one.

Every year, come October, the pearly gates windows for NSF unsolicited proposals swing open. As if in a trance, thousands of pilgrim scientists gather to worship at the feet of the unfeeling behemoth. In a month of pure agony, their bodies and souls are possessed by the tyrant, yet they remember little. Their consciousness barely punctuates the thick caffeine haze, wherein hearts race and thoughts scatter… Come November, the pilgrims wake up with a vague feeling of shame and regret, chafed, hopelessly trying to remember what it was that left that foul taste in their mouths.

In the spring, some of them bear the fruit of the unholy alliance. They care for it lovingly during its three-year-long life… And what a precious gift it is. So small, so feeble, so rare… But what an honor to be bestowed such a gift, and to be free, if but for a little while, of the unquenchable thirst that overtakes every fall…

For when you see a disheveled scientist carrying a cup of coffee, know that F*cktober is upon us. No one is safe. Best to procure some lubricant.


I drafted this post a while ago, but never published it. Perhaps it’s time, as ASBMB’s publication of “A Good Little Girl” (original post here) reminded me of it. This post will likely go *poof*  in a few days. 


We voted for the promotion of a faculty member to full professor. The colleague’s record is quite strong. He commands massive amounts of funds, mostly from DoD, has a large group, and produces a lot of papers. In that regard, he’s a model faculty member. The support for his promotion was unanimous.

The colleague is a master of self-promotion. He’s what I would call “noisy.” He’s very vocal about his awesomeness, and he does not let anyone forget it for a second. Over the past several years, through my service to the department, I have been privy to just how much internal money has been spent to show this colleague institutional love. In fact, I wrote several nomination letters and assembled nomination packages for him to get internal awards, accompanied by flexible funds. (He received the awards; but, in case you are wondering, no, I never got a “thank you” for the work I put into those successful nominations).

But, when you look at this colleague’s record in detail, there are some interesting aspects.

The colleague boasts about his high student evaluations. Then you see that he has not taught an undergraduate course — any undergraduate course, let alone a required, high-enrollment one — in many years, since before his last promotion. All his teaching has been restricted to two graduate courses with 10-15 enrollment. Not exactly the world’s toughest-to-please student audience. Actually, if his evaluations weren’t great in this scenario, that would be quite alarming.

When you look at service, there is absolutely the barest minimum of service to both the institution and the department. He serves less than most of our assistant professors, and I can assure you that we really protect the time of our young faculty. Over the past several years, I offered him to serve on what I believe are the more meaningful among the university committees, and he always said he was too busy. Basically, his only service is to the profession and always in a capacity that enhances his visibility (e.g., conference program committees).

So it really pisses me off when someone comes to tell me I cannot decide to reduce my own teaching and service with “But-but-but, what happens to the institution? What happens to the students if everyone does what you propose? How can you be so selfish?” Because, of course, by being female I have to first and foremost think of my duties to others. I guarantee that no one will say a thing to this colleague who was just promoted. Nobody will even hint to  him that he mooches off others and he should pick up the slack in teaching and service. Nobody will scold him for being selfish, as long as he brings in the funds.  And that’s why this is all so fucked up. And he’s hardly the only one of his kind.

The colleague will go on his merry selfish way, with maximal free time to pursue funds and write papers and work on his visibility, and periodically make loud noises to remind us all how well funded and well published and how much more valuable than the rest of us he is. I don’t know what goes on in his head, but I bet he thinks he really is so much better than the rest of us, and I bet he believes that the likes of me actually prefer teaching required undergrad courses with huge enrollments and serving on university committees to writing papers and grants, because if we didn’t love it so much we would just not do it, like him!

I hate that selfish people prosper the most.

I hate that it is so hard for people who are not selfish to act selfish, and thus to prosper as much as the effortlessly selfish people.

I hate that women are not allowed to show that they are even thinking about being selfish without someone coming to tell them, “Tsk, tsk, tsk, won’t you think of the children?”

I hate that I am supposed to be everybody’s goddamn mother. Or secretary. (Or quiet diversity token. But that’s a story for another day.)

Good news

Took Smurf to the doctor yesterday; he doesn’t have an ear infection — yet.

Found out that one of the NSF programs to which I am applying this fall has recently abandoned the proposal window and moved to year-round submission.
Pure unadulterated joy!

Now only two full proposals and one preproposal before the end of the month. I might even make it.

October. Eh.