Month: June 2017

Relative

Things that feel like they happened ages ago, but were actually relatively recent: 

  • Last time my mom visited (last summer, feels like an eon ago)
  • One particular paper of mine that came out in 2014, yet seems like it’s been out for a decade. Even in 2015, it already felt like it had been out for a long, long time.
  • A conference in the UK (was three weeks ago, it feels like last year)

Things that feel like they happened recently, but actually did ages ago: 

  • Students  graduating. Most seem to remain present, at least in my mind, for quite a while past their graduation date. I only realize that a student has been out in the world for a long time when I ask, “Who remembers X?” in a group meeting and it turns out that not a single current group member has actually overlapped with X.
  • Two papers of mine that I feel were just published yesterday, but they actually came out in 2015.
  • The latest renewal of my big bread-and-butter grant. In fact, I need to write the next renewal proposal early in the next calendar year.
  • I’ve been out of grad school for 13 years — I feel like I only just graduated. I still feel like a total science noob. When I look at my CV, it feels like it belongs to someone else.

Things that feel like they take foreeeeevah, but actually don’t: 

  • Sorting socks (most hated chore ever)
  • Emptying the dishwasher (second most hated chore ever, but one that is undertaken daily… So maybe it is the most hated chore ever)
  • The first 15 min of my 45-min kickboxing class. The rest flies by.
  • Every faculty meeting ever

Things that feel like they last a split second, but actually take a while: 

  • Enjoyment of coffee, every day. My liquid soul mate
  • Kids growing up. Eldest is a rising senior in high school; Middle Boy is entering 5th grade; Smurf will be a 1st-grader in the fall.
    When did all this happen? How? WTF? No! Waaaaah!

Badmin

I have a female colleague who’s known for her niceness. It is true; she’s genuinely a very nice person. But the more I know her, the more I realize there is a considerable cost associated with her reputation; she might not feel it burdensome to pay the price because of her outlook on the world and her upbringing, but, to me, the cost would be too high.

A few years ago, on the blog, I wrote about who would take care of my kids if something happened to both DH and me. Some commenters were adamant that of course the kids should go live with the relatives back where I came from. Even if we forget for a second that the kids don’t speak the language, the main thing is — my kids are nowhere near tough enough to live where I grew up. My kids are wonderful; they are mellow (well, 2 out of 3 are), nice, well socialized, relaxed, and happy. Because of the naivete that arises from growing up in a functioning, well-structured society, within days of arriving in my home country with the intent to live there, my kids would get beaten, likely lose all their good clothes and definitely lose all their electronics, get swindled out of all their money and likely have their bank accounts emptied, have keys and documents stolen and subsequently their apartment robbed, and potentially be sold into slavery (okay, that last one is definitely an exaggeration; the rest — not so much).

Let’s just say that I grew up in what can be referred to as a low-trust society. There are many people in many parts of the world — most of the world, really — who grow up in similar cultures. Basically, from an early age I was taught to look out for people trying to take advantage of me; once learned, it is very hard to unlearn. By the standards of my home country, I am still quite naive, which is partly the reason why I am doing as well as I am here in the US — I am not as distrustful of people and all sorts of social structures as I could be, or as most of my compatriots are.

Part of my upbringing is not suffering fools lightly. Basically, the absolute worst thing is to allow someone to take advantage of you; if you catch someone trying to do that, you most definitely confront them because it’s a point of personal pride. Of course,  people there are also sensitive to hierarchies, but no one tolerates being made a fool of unless they absolutely have to.

Now back to my nice colleague. I recently realized that the key to her reputation as nice is that she grins and bears it when people are assholes to her, whatever the reason for their assholishness; I asked her how she does it, and she said she rationalizes it by telling herself that they must be stressed or have another good reason for the behavior. (She might be able to do the whole “turn the other cheek” because she is deeply religious.) In contrast, my impetus is always to call the person out if I feel they mistreated me, and people really really don’t like to be confronted about the things they might have done wrong. They always say that it’s an accident, a misunderstanding, that I’m imagining things. The fact is, most of the time I am not — when I run these scenarios by other people, most of the time what seems fishy to me seems quite fishy to others, too. It has taken me a long time to trust my gut again after years of gaslighting. The thing is, everyone here seems to expect to get away with being a jerk, and people really don’t appreciate being confronted with bad behavior. I know there will be people in the comments coming to tell me that I need to be more trusting and positive and what not, but the bottom line is that many people act as assholes, small or big, at least some of the time (me, too, of course). Sometimes it’s carelessness, sometimes it’s cruelty; often it’s something in between.

If you are nice and honest, I will be like that, too. But I am not your punching bag.

To me, the only way to have a successful long-term personal or professional relationship is to clear the air after a conflict. If I feel something is wrong, and I decide not to bring it up, that generally means I am done with you. If I care about continuing a relationship, I will confront you; if will be unpleasant, but we can move past it. In fact, one of my best collaborators these days is a person who, on account of foot-in-mouth disease, offended me several times early in my time here; there was a lot of friction as a result of that. Since then, we’ve gotten to know each other and he’s both relaxed around me and matured overall and I have learned to calibrate what he says with respect to his propensity for blunders, so we now work very well together. Had I pretended that what he was saying didn’t matter early on, I would have probably stopped speaking with him years ago and we wouldn’t collaborate today.

Why am I thinking and writing about niceness? In this society, and especially but not exclusively for women, being nice seems to mean being an eternally sunny person who won’t put up a fight if I am yelling or insulting them because I am tired/stressed/angry, and who won’t bring it up later either, so we can both pretend that I am not a bully.

There is a higher-up bad admin (Badmin); a very, very unpleasant person. Honestly, I don’t understand how we hired this person into a leadership position. Badmin does not tolerate being contradicted at all, he does not actually ever want input (it’s all just pretense), and he thinks we all work for him. Badmin has surrounded himself with a buffer of very kind, very mellow people, some male, some female. They act as a Maxi Pad for his bile, so less gets to the rest of us faculty than it would without them. Of course he likes to be surrounded by nice people, because he can bully them without any backlash. My nice colleague from above has spent some time as one of the buffer folks and I wonder how much toll it’s taken on her. As dedicated as she is about forgiving and understanding, it could not have been easy. I could not have done her job; daily interactions with this insufferable person would have been impossible for me.

I thank my lucky stars that I am a faculty member and don’t have a direct boss. I am doing my best to avoid the Badmin and I am not doing anything for him that I absolutely don’t have to (today I managed to sit for an extended period in a meeting led by him without saying a single word; I am quite proud of myself). Yes, I am taking the avoidance approach because I don’t care about having a good relationship with him and I am low enough on the totem poll that he likely doesn’t notice; my hope is he’ll soon move on to bully others elsewhere, but he better not try to interact with me directly, as I won’t hold my tongue. I just hope other faculty understand just how much shit some of our nicest colleagues take for the team.

Feedback on Grants

During the whole “no R01, no tenure” Twitter/Scientopia storm, I somehow stumbled upon this great post by Holly Witteman:

http://holly.witteman.ca/index.php/2017/06/12/tenure/

It’s longish, but please go read it — Holly kicks ass! Also, I learned that yogurt is great for keeping blood sugar in check!

One interesting thing that she wrote is that she always has a full draft of each grant 6-8 weeks before the deadline; she then has people comment on the draft and has enough time to incorporate the feedback.

My question for today is: Who (if anyone) gives you feedback on your grants?

If I write a grant on my own, I could make myself finish a draft 6-8 weeks before the deadline. But, if I am the sole PI, there is really no one who is an experienced grant writer and who can spare the time to read through my grant; people are busy writing their own. These days, if I get feedback from anyone on solo grants, it’s from my own group members (senior grad students and/or postdocs). Some junior faculty I am supporting see my well-scoring/awarded grants, but this is more for their benefit,  so they’d learn how to assemble a grant (I don’t want to ask them to give me feedback  prior to submission mostly because I don’t want them to think they owe me this labor when they, too, are super busy).

When I was a whipper-snapper on the tenure track, a couple of people looked at my CAREER grant, which I thought was very helpful; I got the grant on the first try. This was the first and last time that anyone senior had actually carefully read and commented on a whole grant of mine before submission, unless they were a collaborator. Since that first solo-PI award, my faculty mentors figured I knew what I was doing and were less willing to carve out the time to give me feedback, so I took the hint and stopped asking.

One of the best things about writing collaborative grants is the built-in feedback on the writing. Especially in small collaborations, with 2-3 people total, it’s really possible to assemble a very nice and clear proposal after everyone’s chimed in on every part, so the result is an amalgam of all the voices. Bigger collaborations can get a bit nutty, sadly.

How about you, dear readers? Who gives you feedback on your grants?

 

 

Vignettes

Well, I spoke with the program manager who was in charge of my recently declined proposal. He said the proposal was actually ranked near the top and he tried hard to find some money to fund it, hence such a long delay in receiving the decision… But he was ultimately unable to fund it and strongly encouraged me to apply again next year. I guess I feel somewhat vindicated. It was a really good proposal.

And ’tis the season to write white papers to various DoD agencies. No rest for the wicked. Or academics in STEM fields.

***

I am currently watching dramas involving middle-aged people.

a) A cute indie movie I stumbled upon on Amazon Prime: What Other Couples Do

It’s got indie/low-budget/perhaps some amateur actors written all over it, but it was heartwarming and had decent writing. At 87 min runtime, well worth it.

b) While We’re Young  (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Sayfried). Arthritis in the knees is all I will say.

c) Watching next: Patterson (Adam Driver)

d) Some levity: How to get people to look you in the eyes

***

Here’s a real text I sent to DH to let him know that he needed to grab something to eat on his way home. (E stands for eldest kid. He recently got a part-time job, which he really enjoys.)

E is at work
Little boys ate
Please go buy something
To put on your plate

G-ranting

To paraphrase what a senior colleague said years ago, when I was just starting out, I never have a shortage of ideas, only of time and money.

I got a declination on one of my NSF proposals submitted last fall (so far got 1 award out of 2 that received decisions; btw, have you noticed that NSF emails notices of declination at 10 PM their time?). This proposal was very polished, and was actually placed in the recommended category. But. One reviewer basically thought the proposal was important with (and I quote) “many excellent aspects,” yet gave it a “fair” after a weirdly lengthy (note I didn’t say detailed, more like circular and repetitive) review because, in summary, there was one aspect that he simply didn’t believe I could do the way I said I could, despite me having published on it and despite me having specifically addressed this issue in the revised proposal (I suspect this person reviewed the proposal last year as well and gave a “fair” for pretty much the same reason). It seems that there simply is no persuading this person that I can do the things I can do; or, as DH says, this is someone who’s competition.

I vented over email to my former postdoc and then talked over the phone with a colleague from another institution, and now I feel better. So this post is (shockingly) not going to be me venting. At least not right away.

I remember a recent conversation with another colleague who said he was grateful that he’s still in the game; that there were a number of senior folks who had given up and whom ever-shrinking paylines had brought from being flush, with a big lab, down to completely broke. The colleague believes that, as long as you can keep fighting, submitting various grants left and right, and you have your good health and energy, things are as good as one can expect.

There has been a fairly heated conversation in the Twitterverse, which then spilled over to the blogosphere, where I caught a whiff of it through Potnia Theron’s blog. In a nutshell, there are assistant professors in the biomedical sciences– excellent, hard-working junior folks who’ve given their all to the quest for an NIH R01 — but who were unable to land an R01 and will now be denied tenure and kicked out despite having the papers, the talks, the ideas… Everything but the money.  I really feel for Dr Becca and anyone else who might be facing this fate.

What’s interesting are the comments at Potnia’s blog (presumably the Twitter conversation, too, but I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole). Basically, there are some people who say “Well, it must be the applicant’s fault, they must have missed something.” This is obviously totally infuriating, because a smart person on the tenure track can do everything right, and take to heart (and the keyboard) all the input and all the well-meaning comments he or she can, and it still can just not work out.

That’s what is so terrifying that people don’t want to admit it to themselves. If the paylines are 10%, that doesn’t mean everyone gets 1 grant in 10. That means many people never get a grant and completely run out of money, and some others get a 50% or perhaps even higher hit rate. That means you — yes, you who’s currently funded! — can at some point completely run out of money and then never recover.

I cannot tell you how often I have been “on the bubble” with the NSF, e.g., grant ranked 3 when only 2 are highly recommended (i.e., basically guaranteed funding). When I write grants by myself (again, this is mostly an NSF ailment for me), I often don’t seem to possess whatever the magic dust is that makes someone want to go to bat for a proposal. Mine is a painfully, painfully male-dominated field; in such a field, based on what I have seen on panels, unless a female applicant is a veritable superstar (think a household name), she is unlikely to be prioritized for the coveted 1 or 2 spots. On the other hand, my experience with playing second fiddle to (male) experimentalists  has resulted in NSF funding with a very high percentage (close to 100% in two-person collaborations). So maybe I suck and my collaborators are all geniuses, or maybe my work is greatly appreciated as a means to make the experimental project more shiny and complete. Not sure how important gender is here; the fact that many experimentalists think theory is useless also plays a role. But, regarding gender, and this was on a computation-friendly panel, I will tell you that the guy who gave me a “fair” above noted that I am a woman and that I advise many female students (having one female student at a time through most of my career is  apparently a lot), and that my many female students and I constitute our own broader impact. *eyeroll* Which is apparently not important enough to result in funding. Whatever.

Running completely out of money is a clear and present danger in all STEM fields. The real dread that you might not be able to have any students or postdocs (if you are in one of the departments that don’t have many TAs and everyone is supposed to be paid off grants) or pay for any supplies to even do the work yourself. Constantly worrying about grants is by far the worst part of the faculty job. I never thought I would retire, but now I catch myself thinking “30 more years, that’s 10 consecutive grant renewal cycles.” And I don’t even dislike writing grants — coming up with new ideas is fun! If only it weren’t for the futility of it all — so many ideas that had nothing wrong with them, that were interesting and important and doable, but will never be realized…

Bummer.

😦

The Card

Every year on my birthday, I get a card from our mortgage lender. And every year, this makes me angry.

This year’s card was cute and the woman who underwrote our mortgage jotted down a couple of sentences. I bet she has a daily slot on her calendar along the lines “9:07 — 9:12  Sign birthday cards for the clients whose birthdays are three days from today.”

My husband thinks this is a nice gesture. His reasoning is that the card is hand-written, plus they don’t actually have to do it, as I already have the mortgage. So why do they do it?

This is what I think makes me angry: who gives them the right to use information provided on a mortgage application to contact me in a personal manner, a manner that is really reserved only for friends and family? Whom is this supposed to fool? Does anyone actually feel warm and fuzzy when they get a “happy birthday” from a random company they do business with? At least Starbucks gives you a free order on your birthday; I can’t even wipe my a$$ with the card.

The lender lends me a fair sum of money, which I pay back with interest over a couple of decades. Why do they have to appropriate my personal celebration in a manner that mimics yet only mocks actual personal connections?

Instead, they could send an honest card on the anniversary of signing the mortgage, which would say:

As we watch one more year pass 
Yes, we still own your sorry a$$.