Author: xykademiqz

Purple balls are awesome. When made out of glass, that is.

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 those employed in American academia in the 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$$.

 

Divisible by Eleven

Today, a dear friend from my childhood congratulated me on turning 22, twice over!

In that honor, I will blog every day for 22 days; if I hit my stride and am in the mood, maybe I will do that twice over, as well!

***

How did I spend my birthday? I got up at 4:30. Yes, I have joined this [insert adjective] crowd… Never say never, ’tis all I say. I am an extreme morning person, so the drive and the morning freshness and the endorphins are all so awesome! Who knew? Anyway, I was kickboxing at 5:15, back home by 6:25, ready for work and out the door by 7 am (DH is taking a few days off and staying with the offspring). All day I have been working hard on a paper that one of my student has been bugging me about every day for weeks. I have also been obsessively checking for any updates in the status of my two remaining pending NSF proposals [NSF will go offline end of June, as they are moving buildings (no more Balston *sniff*) and going to Alexandria]. I had a meeting with collaborators regarding pitching a white paper to another government agency. On my way back home, I will stop to grab some food; I want steak, but Middle Boy has been a little butt and doesn’t want to go to the steakhouse I like, so we’re not going anywhere because if he’s gonna sulk we may as well save some money and not spend the whole evening trying to get him to not act like a little butt while racking up the bill that could only be justified by a wonderful relaxing evening which ours will most definitely not be with Sulky McSulkerson.

There might be some consumption of Bailey’s with DH over video entertainment later this evening.

Tomorrow, I get up early-ish in order to drive another 5 hours round trip to bring Eldest back from Big Deal Music Camp before it’s time for Smurf’s barely-after-lunch 6th birthday party. (Smurf’s b-day is on Sunday, but the magician wasn’t available, so Saturday it is.)

***

A senior colleague told me that I might improve the chances of getting taken seriously by some very old-school (read: assuming only dudes do good work) program managers in a Muy Macho Federal Agency by referring to my famous PhD advisor. I laughed. The colleague means well, I am sure. However, fuck that $hit. At this age and career stage, I refuse to request consideration based on who my PhD advisor was.

Navel, Meet Gaze: The Midlife Edition

This is a personal, soon-to-go-poof post; if you decide to comment, don’t be a douche.

I’m in my early 40s. I have a lovely family and professional “success.” I admit I constantly worry that I will run out of funding and that everyone else is somehow better at grant writing than me, and this is the main reason why I don’t feel like the professional success sans quotation marks that I objectively probably am. I could be striving for more professional recognition and indeed I do, but at this point recognition is quite amorphous: does becoming a fellow of the relevant professional societies (or maybe a member of the National Academies?) constitute further success? I suppose it does, but I can’t say I really care much about any of these. The fellowships should be feasible in principle, some perhaps even very soon; I just need to bother people to nominate me.

Yet I am still hungry, personally and professionally, and I need to direct that hunger in a way that’s neither destructive nor seems (to me) pointless or self-indulgent. For instance, I set some health and fitness goals and am working hard toward them. And maybe I will sign up for some races and whatnot, and while this is all fun and good for me, these goals are both ephemeral and unremarkable, achievable and achieved by many, and often so. What makes them superficial (to me) is that they don’t feed this hunger deep inside; they are simply distractions.

Maybe I need to learn to play an instrument, or learn a new language, or finally find some time to master the graphic tools needed to make digital comics? All valuable, but ultimately they, too, are distractions. Distractions from what? I don’t know. Midlife, I suppose. I know a number of people my age who are content to coast in whatever comfortable state they currently are until they retire or die. And there is nothing wrong with comfort, especially if you’ve spent much of your life being uncomfortable. I suppose I should be ashamed of my overall privilege that’s leading me to whine within the whole midlife crisis framework when what I should be instead is grateful for my good fortune.

The thing is, I am as hungry as I was when I was 20. I want more and bigger and different, of everything. There is so much to do, and experience, and learn.

But I am not alone, I have dependents. I feel guilty that all this energy that’s directed at me and away from them is shortchanging them, while on the other hand it’s probably a good thing that I am not smothering them too much. Besides, directing more energy towards cooking or cleaning  a) fuckin’ sucks and b) is not really going to help quench whatever is burning deep down, unless you plan on me cooking and cleaning all day every day until I drop.

If you read things on the web, all this can apparently be attributed to… *drumroll*
You guessed it — my ovaries! They are supposedly realizing that their egg-popping days are numbered and are freaking out about it. It’s funny how, for women, there can be no thought or feeling, especially one hinting at discontent, that does not allegedly have a source in the reproductive system. Seriously, since my ovaries seem to be doing all the thinking, maybe they should be nominated for that professional society fellowship.

I should have been crazier in my late teens and early 20s (although I have had a fairly nonlinear trajectory by most supernerd/academic standards), but I was too busy being crazy about one particular boy and too insecure about my professional abilities to let my freak flag fly.

Young women out there, especially scholarly types, please make good use of your youth. I promise that you are way cooler in every way imaginable than you give yourself credit for. Let your inner nerdy vixen out to play; party with wild abandon.

Back from Travel

I’ve been traveling. I had a great time at a conference in the UK. This was a meeting of my core research community and it’s always great to get together with old friends and colleagues.

I hadn’t been in the UK before and I was overall very positively impressed. The people are friendly and easy to chat with, and not in the polite-but-aloof way that I find most Americans to be around where I live. The Brits I encountered (not colleagues; random other people and colleagues’ spouses) seemed relaxed, not too guarded, funny/sarcastic, and direct — all things I love and miss.

Also, why can’t we have (more) passenger trains in the US? Seriously, every time I am in Europe, I love traveling by train, and British Railways didn’t disappoint. Trains are a perfect way to connect small cities to larger area hubs. It is stupid that they are not ubiquitous in the US.

I didn’t take many pics that could be shared online. But, here’s one, on maintaining dental hygiene while abroad: when you bring only one travel adapter, you might end up having to unplug your computer in order to charge your toothbrush.