Howdy, Strangers!

*cough, cough*

Someone needs to dust in here.

Hi everyone, it’s been a while! I lay low this summer, busy writing fiction and enjoying it, as well as just immersed in the literary Twitter community. But I would never abandon my academic blogosphere! I hope to go back to writing in this space more regularly, once or maybe twice a week.

I think I got swept by fiction writing because it’s something new, where I have  room to improve, and—this is most important—it all depends on me. I don’t have to train anyone; I don’t have to find ways to lift anyone to competence; I don’t have to figure out how to make them even want to rise to competence. What I produce is all mine; what I do with it is all mine; no one to consult, no one to ask for permission, I can just do whatever I want. Sure, there are rejections, but I have to say they don’t bother me nearly as much as professional rejections, perhaps because writing isn’t my career; I see on Twitter that writers who are much more serious about their craft do suffer after rejections a lot.

The grant game is soul-crushing. NSF reviews have become completely nuts. This year, the reviews I received were borderline unhinged; they had nothing to do with the proposal. I have been at this long enough (and this particular proposal was funded by another agency in another capacity) that I know it’s not my profound inability to explain myself. No, this time a reviewer went on about a proposal weakness being the use of a technique that I never proposed to use at all and that has nothing to do with my project, save for perhaps a passing similarity in the name.

And this goes on and on, this insanity of having to write grants to NSF, year after year, only once per year per directorate, in order to get some pittance of money, and what you get back are these half-assed—nay, no-assed—reviews written by God knows who about God knows what, because they sure as shit weren’t about what I’d written.

I have a new crop of students, who need to be trained from scratch. Among them, it seems one is quite capable and independent, the rest appear average, which means they can do well but need a lot of hand-holding at the outset. I understand that’s my job and I will do it…

…But, boy, am I exhausted just thinking about it. In my heart of hearts—and maybe my midlife crisis is speaking here, too—it’s not all that interesting to, yet again, take new people and spend years bringing them to competence on so many little details, only to have them leave right after they’ve achieved it. I have a new postdoc who is not from my immediate field, but I needed at least someone energetic and senior enough to help me wrangle all the new students. Right now, the postdoc is a costly addition of still undetermined helpfulness.

We spend so much time being negative in science. Finding reasons not to fund something, not to publish something. That’s what it’s about when it comes to money and prestigious papers, if we’re being honest. We’re all about sniffing out the claims that are too bold, the ideas that are not that novel, the reasons why something can’t, shouldn’t, won’t work as promised. Sure, we should evaluate, but at the core of peer review is a distrust of authors, of their work, of their claims,  and the reviewers (who we pretend aren’t deeply affected by their own biases, insecurities, and jealousy) are these shiny knights, supposedly protecting science from the outrageous! preposterous! money-wasting! but most of the time really decent, serious, solid, if incremental work.

So I write short fiction. I write fiction, because I don’t have to train anyone but myself. I get to be weird and creative, as opposed to serious and evaluative. I worked as an editor for a bit, but dropped it because it sapped my creativity and made me bitchy; I didn’t want to evaluate and reject people on yet another front. I want to create, freely, to the best of my ability. It’s sad that I don’t get to do that in my work. I haven’t in a long time. I wish I could find a way toward it again, but it’s too late — I am too deep into working with students, having to maintain funding to feed them, having to spend energy on training them, having to keep the pipeline full.

Instead, I write short fiction to feel creative and vibrant, and to have no one to answer to or worry about but myself. And I’m getting really good at it.


  1. It comforts me to hear about the uselessness of comments on your grant applications, because that has been my experience with humanities grants (especially the NEH); only when it happened to me, I was too young to realize how very uninformed some of the comments were and spent a lot of time trying to work out whether there really was something wrong with my idea. Also of course I wasn’t required to win these grants, only to apply, so I didn’t need to keep working at it. Twenty years later, I realize how great an idea I actually had and how totally off-base the comments were.

    I’m glad to hear how much you’re enjoying your fiction writing.

    Here’s my advice to young scholars in all fields: stick to your guns and keep working on your ideas, or if you have to modify what you’re doing because you have to win grants, don’t lose sight of or faith in the thing you meant to do, just play the long game to get at it.

  2. I justo found out this week researchers in social sciences and economics mostly work on their own. They write their own papers, so they don’t have to train and wait for students to get up to par. And they don’t write proposals. They are 100% focused on their scholarly work, not on getting funded. Sounds appealing 🙂

  3. Thanks for this.

    At some point, academic science took a wrong turn. I sometimes joke about working at “the idea factory.” But a more accurate description today would be the “paper factory” or the “student factory.” At my shop, the higher-ups on the food chain (promotion committees and deans) talk only about “more students, more papers, more dollars.”

  4. Ugh, yes to the “paper factory” comment above. I just got my PhD in an experimental social science field, and I’m leaving academia for this very reason. Academia isn’t a place for idealists anymore; it’s a place for people who know how to game the system. I was extremely successful in my PhD program; my advisor says I am 1 of the 3 most productive students he’s ever had (and that’s saying a lot, since he’s a bigwig in the field and has had dozens of students). But I recognize that I became successful only because I learned how to play the game correctly: I ran experiments until something worked and published like crazy, without regard for whether my findings were replicable. So basically…I was an extremely bad scientist, and academia (including my advisor, award committees, etc) rewarded me for that with accolades. It made me incredibly disillusioned with the whole system. I’m doing a postdoc now while I’m job searching in industry, and honestly, I can’t wait to GTFO.

    Do you ever consider leaving your professor job and moving to industry? The pay is certainly better…

  5. I hear about the golden days of novel research getting funded and un-novel research getting constructive comments; regardless of the level of incrementalism. My tenure advisor regales me with these stories. There’s always industry, but I find that I had to ‘play the game’ far more when I was in industry. I just take the tactic of putting in for every agency known to humankind. I have learned to hate every review that happens since more often than not it’s only positive comments with a poor score, still. I’ll never understand.

    It really sounds like the burn-out is hitting hard. Maybe a fiction-writing sabbatical is in order? You have a capable post-doc to help you bridge, no? A break from the BS can do wonders

  6. “In my heart of hearts—and maybe my midlife crisis is speaking here, too—it’s not all that interesting to, yet again, take new people and spend years bringing them to competence on so many little details, only to have them leave right after they’ve achieved it.”

    I feel the same way. I want a postdoc-heavy lab, but I’m still junior, so I can’t really have this. We’re just small instead. But I’ve learned I get so down and despondent when most of my energy goes to training lots of new people who are bad at most things. I know you’ve got strong views on this, but I’m in a research-focused, extremely light teaching institution, and I view my primary responsibility as the research rather than the training or teaching. The training & teaching can and should happen, but not at great expense of actually getting things done in a timely way. If I’m lucky, half of my funding will be coming from contracts with monthly progress reports. (Already some does.) I want to spend my time thinking about these hard problems, which happen to have real and immediate potential impacts, and making steady progress, rather than reminding people for the bazillionth time to test their code and actually do the freaking reading. I don’t mind some of this, but it does feel like an awful lot of knowledge is wasted when they return to medical school or choose a postdoc in a lab doing something completely different.

  7. Hopefully sabbatical will help? While I’m not relaxing as much I’d like two months into my sabbatical, I am getting some decent chunks of time to find, explore, dig into, spend time with, and really analyze (good) datasets. I’m not just spending my time training somebody to collect good data and worrying about data quality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s