Sat Scat

Saturdays are generally the stupidest and deadest days on the interwebs. So, here are some Twitter links to hopefully make this Saturday—in what a few years ago used to be a vibrant academic blogosphere but is now more like a post-apocalyptic desert—a little less stupid and a little more alive.

When I looked at the tweets I bookmarked over the past couple of months, it turns out they’re mostly poetry (so much poetry!) and levity. It’s amazing how much better reading lots of poetry makes me feel; I highly recommend it, like looking at greenery or eating home-cooked meals. I deeply apologize to all artists and humanities teachers and scholars on behalf of all my haughty and dismissive STEM brethren. Absence of the arts or humanities from one’s life is its own punishment.

Without further ado, links! In two groups! If you’re not into reading poetry, scroll down for levity.

POETRY (and a smattering of SHORT PROSE)


White Papers, White Knuckles

It’s August, which means that, when I am not fielding the barrage of emails that signal the arrival of a new school year, I am preparing for proposal submissions in the fall. 

As flush as I’ve been in recent years, the funding winds haven’t been that favorable during the pandemic, which is a source of anger (mostly self-directed) and guilt (maybe if I didn’t suck so hard, I’d get these grants funded). 

In any case, I will be submitting between six and eight different proposals in the coming semester, three with new collaborators (which I am excited about, as it will be nice to have someone to bounce ideas and writing from), and between three and five by myself. There may be even more submissions, as a couple of proposals might go to multiple agencies. (By the way, this is a higher-than-usual number of proposals for me; outside of special solicitations, two-to-four per semester is more common for me, depending on current levels of funding.) 

Right now, I am writing white papers (white papers are short, written proposal pitches, 2-3 pages in length),  sending them out, and collecting feedback from program managers, so as to decide what goes where and when, and finalize the targets and timeline for submission. Paper writing has been somewhat on the back burner as I’m trying to get all these white papers out, and I am trying to fix that. I want to send in a manuscript revision and another new submission before September hits. 

I am also trying to suppress the waves of despair that wash over me every so often over all this work I have to do, but which will largely amount to nothing, even if I am ultimately successful and get one or two awards from all these proposals. Sometimes I wish there were a way out of the proposal-writing churn. It’s so disheartening knowing that I  have to keep slinging spaghetti at a wall with <10% stickiness probability. But that’s the job. And it’s better than many other jobs. But proposal writing (and not dislike of teaching or actually doing science) is the reason I will actually retire when I hit retirement age and not a moment later. I will not keep working forever, as I originally thought I would. At  least a new kid will be able to get the job in my stead sooner rather than later. 

Anyhow, all this reminds of the wisdom shared by @drugmonkeyblog on Twitter: When it comes to agencies that use panel reviews (like NSF or NIH), it’s good to keep in mind that sometimes program managers a priori discourage proposals that ultimately review well by the panel. I would agree with Drug Monkey to shoot your shot, because it’s happened to me and other people I know enough times that we’d get a proposal submission discouraged based on the white paper, supposedly as the topic isn’t a high priority or whatever, only to a) submit it anyway and have it review really well or b) not submit, but then later receive a proposal from someone else to review and that proposal is on the identical topic and with similar proposed methods as the discouraged proposal; this other PI , often with a better pedigree, either wasn’t similarly discouraged (great; now I can feel guilty because my white papers suck, too), or, more likely, didn’t care and submitted the proposal anyway. I’d say, if there’s panel review and you have an idea that fits the posted program parameters, go for it. (N.B. Funding decisions at DoD are much more dependent on what the program manager wants to fund. In that case, heed their advice and their discouragement.)

To end, related Twitter wisdom: 

Another 5-Min Post

  • Super busy here with white papers for proposals. So, so many white papers. 
  • Trying not to get overwhelmed by the sheer wastefulness of so many people writing, so many pitches being  made for one to be allowed to do research, and so very few actually being allowed to do proposed research. In my experience reviewing grants, many, oh so many grants are perfectly good grants. Nothing wrong with the ideas or personnel, and some nice science would get done. But it will never get done.
  • As I said, writing white papers, so many white papers, to be able to submit proposals, to be able to get any of them funded.
  • My shoulders and neck are terribly stiff, and maybe it’s the overhead fan in the bedroom, but maybe it’s all the sitting and maybe it’s all the stress.
  • I’m going on vacation soon, and going on vacation is one of the most stressful activities an academic can engage in even in non-COVID times. There is so much work to do before going on vacation, and so much waiting when you return, that it would make anyone resent taking any time off, because it is never, NEVER, really time off.
  • I hate August. The summer is basically over, because the university already started with endless emails for all sorts of orientations for all different groups of incoming bodies. Every morning I wake up to dozens upon dozens of university emails needing my presence for this or that. I wish they would leave us the %$^#% alone until our contracts start in late August. Spring business overflows well into June; fall business starts in early August. No, academic summers are most definitely not oases of free creative thought.
  • Student graduating, going off to a good job. I am glad, but not so glad about the last-minute dissertation edits. This student has a hard time with what is essentially anxiety-fueled procrastination masquerading as  perfectionism: endless crossing of trivial i’s and dotting of trivial t’s while avoiding engagement with the challenging parts of work, or in this case, writing. We will get it done on time, but I will have to read and comment on some chapters during vacation. (See above on academic vacations being essentially bullshit.)
  • Yeah, this has been more than 5 min. 

‘Sup, blogosphere? What have you been up to? 

5-Min Post

– Being an associate editor for a relatively large technical journal takes a lot of time. 
– That doesn’t mean I no longer review papers. I just had to tear some authors a new a$$hole, because the work is so technically misguided, so completely clueless of prior art and main issues in the problem they supposedly solve, I didn’t even know where to start with the critique. I always feel bad after writing a scathing (it’s professional but but definitely pointed) critique. I need to go look at some kittens now. 
– ‘Tis the white-paper writing season. I spend a lot of time zooming with collaborators, hashing out ideas, talking about references, in prep for proposal writing in the fall. 
– As I discussed on and off, my affiliation implies I do applied physics, and I often get erroneously dinged in review (especially of proposals) that my work is not basic-science enough, even though it really really is. I won’t fight this any more. I have rounded up a bunch of new collaborators and we will do super applied problems with wild abandon. And then, one day, I will retire, and all this hunting-for-grants shit will be behind me. 
– Students graduating and getting nice jobs. Yay!
– Other students making nice progress in research and papers getting submitted. Yay!
– White papers and nascent collaborations. Feeling almost hopeful about my research program’s future. But hope is for suckers. 

How’s it shaking, blogosphere? 

Blingy Linky


Reading Recommendations

I received some requests for reading recommendations, so here they are. The is basically my TBR (to be read) list, and is heavy on speculative fiction and horror. 


Philip Roth’s American Trilogy. I saw the movie The Human Stain, and the trilogy was highly recommended by some people whose literary tastes I trust, it’s considered a late 20th century classic, and I’m always interested in learning more about the US and understanding the forces that shape its culture. 

Gareth L Powell’s Embers of War. I know nothing about it, except that it’s a space opera (hell yeah!) and it’s being made into a TV show, so I’m here for it. 


In the first row here, we have three novels published by Angry Robot books: Ginger Smith’s The Rush’s Edge, R.W.W. Greene’s  The Light Years, and Chris J. Panatier’s The Phlebotomist. I know Rob Greene and Chris Panatier fairly well from Twitter, and they are excellent short-fiction writers, so I have reason to believe the books will be really good, and they each have two more novels coming out shortly, also with Angry Robot. 

Andy Weir is the dude who gave us The Martian, and I hear from a number of people Project Hail Mary is just as good, and probably better. (Fun thing: DH and I independently bought this book, so now we have a spare, which we’ll probably donate to a Little Free Library.)

Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Octavia Butler is widely accepted as one of speculative fiction’s all-time greats, so it’s high time I read Kindred, which is likely her best known novel. 

Dark Matter Magazine is a relatively new pro-paying speculative fiction magazine, and it rose to prominence with lightning speed. The stories within are great and the print magazine is just gorgeous, with plenty of full-color art on the cover and inside; each print issue sells like hotcakes. If you like print magazines, I highly recommend buying Dark Matter. Of course, there is also the electronic version in all popular formats. 

Stephen King’s latest is a crime novel, Later. ‘Nuff said. 

Marie Vibbert (Galactic Hell Cats) is another writer I know from Twitter, and her short fiction is outstanding. She is the very cream of today’s crop for (hard) short sci-fi and she’s also very witty. I expect the novel to be a blast. 

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo came up on Twitter in a thread on well-done novels with LGBTQ themes. Unlike most books on this list, Evelyn Hugo is supposed to be realistic (not speculative) fiction. 

(have read) Hailey Piper is an excellent and extremely prolific writer of horror, and she tackles all lengths: flash, short stories, novellas, and novels. Benny Rose, the Cannibal King is a slasher-type novella I enjoyed, and she’s got a bunch of new books coming out. She also has plenty of free-to-read short fiction available on the web. 

Eric Larocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke  was recommended somewhere on Twitter, likely in a  horror thread. The gory, mesmerizing cover of this epistolary novella sealed the deal for me. 

(have read) Aeryn Rudel’s Night Walk and Other Dark Paths is a collection of dark short fiction. Aeryn Rudel is an excellent  writer and the collection is really well done. Highly recommended. 

Finally, as a (creepy) treat, here’s my drawing of Benny Rose, the Cannibal King. Yay fan art!


What have you been reading, blogosphere? 

No Purse Strings Attached

I received some crappy grant news several weeks ago. The update that shook me most was a declination of a competitive renewal. During the post mortem with the program manager, I was told that one issue was that the  productivity hadn’t been “outstanding enough.” Mind you, on the three-year grant I had one major code release and nine peer-reviewed papers.

What really grates my cheese is that one full year of the three-year period was the fucking pandemic. After all the hand-wringing and expressions of sympathy and understanding from various institutions, including the funding agencies, unsurprisingly, no one actually cares. Yes, please, drop the female PI with two school-aged kids who  spent the last 15 months sitting next to one of her kids in the shared office. Who got interrupted a million times each workday during virtual school. Who was expected to extend endless leniency to her graduate students as they battled fear, low motivation, and flare-ups of chronic mental health issues due to the pandemic.

The worst thing is I don’t know if the given reason is real. Maybe I was slated for the hatchet no matter what, likely because (I suspect) a retirement might be happening, but it’s easier to say it’s my fault. Or if it was really my fault, and I should have somehow done more, somehow squeezed out more from myself because I am apparently the only one who’s not supposed to be cut any slack, and can thus be squeezed further. I have to show not just good productivity, but outstanding productivity, even though 1/3 of the grant was during the global pandemic, and screw me for having  been affected by it like the loser that I am.

More than anything, I feel deeply ashamed for being a failure. Every time I get a grant rejection I feel like a worthless piece of incompetent shit, and this rejection just slayed me. Of course, I need to keep my chin up and stay cool in front of my group, and this also isn’t something to be shared with colleagues (as one put it the first and only time I brought up grant rejections with him, this is loser talk).

If you’re wondering what I am doing this summer, and this fall, and forever, it’s writing grants. I will always, always write grants, and will get most of them rejected, and will then write more grants, and it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t leave much time to actually do the work that gets funded, as long as I write, endlessly write, until I drop dead or retire,  whatever comes first. (Death. Death will come first.)

How’s your summer going, blogosphere? 

Sunday, Linky Sunday


Comic: Fat Mermaid: Wardrobe Malfunction


Stuff That’s Been on My Mind of Late

  • Man, I hate the new editing environment in WordPress. But, we must adapt.
  • There are a bunch of topics I’ve wanted to blog about, but the time hasn’t been there. For now, some nuggets:

I’ve been writing fiction since 2017, which kind of blows my mind. Since I started, a lot has happened in my relationship to fiction, writing, and everything else (talk about a nondestructive outlet for midlife ennui!). One thing I’ve been mulling recently is the importance of having a trusted critique partner (or a few). You don’t send out anything for publication before it’s been vetted by another pair (or pairs) of eyeballs. This is quite important, because you, as the original author, become blind to some relatively obvious slips in wording, punctuation, but also more damning ones, in the story structure, pacing, characterization, etc. You need someone who gets your writing to figure out what you were after and tell you when/where/how you failed to achieve the goal. It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are, you need critique partners.

Then I look at my technical work and this type of peer feedback is completely absent. Sure, if you write a collaborative paper there’s built-in feedback, but what if you’re writing a solo proposal? Or even smaller nuggets of text, like biosketches for this and that? I often wish there were someone who would do a once-over on some of the stuff I write by myself, but as senior academics we are not supposed to ask for help or feedback, even though my guess is that more people would benefit from it than are willing to admit.

Someone somewhere said something mildly negative/disparaging (implying cowardice) toward tenured academics writing under pseudonyms. People are free to think what they want, obviously; below is my take. By the way, I also write fiction under yet another pseudonym (pen name). I try hard to keep both activities decoupled from my job. Why? 

My job is my family’s livelihood. I have a right to keep working and providing for my family. This right trumps pretty much any other obligation anyone might think I have.

Tenure is a protection against being fired at will, but if a department/college/institution wants to get rid of you, they will get rid of you. I have seen numerous cases (not necessarily at my institution) where a faculty member’s life was made very unpleasant on purpose. They weren’t fired, but they were very effectively pushed out. My college leadership is such that I have no doubt they would work hard to make my life difficult if I gave them enough reason to want to get rid of me. I do not doubt for a second that most institutions are the same.

Even if we put job security aside, I don’t want my blogging or my fiction writing to interfere with my work duties. I need to be able to apply for grants and write papers without everything nontechnical that I have ever published (some widely read blog posts; some widely read  stories) coming up when I am googled. I am a woman in a field that remains stubbornly male-dominated and pretty “square” in many ways, and I don’t need colleagues/competitors to be given any more ammunition for not considering me seriously or passing me up for funding or high-profile publications.

Similar holds for students and student parents. Let’s say some very uptight parent or some very conservative student finds some of my fiction writing (I am a member of the Horror Writers Association, FFS); who’s to say they wouldn’t go to my department chair or dean and demand that I be reprimanded or fired? It is a sad fact that a shocking number of people are unable to decouple fictional characters and their actions from those of the writer. I personally know writers who are also teachers and who have had these exact grievances filed against them by concerned parents (i.e., supposedly someone who writes “that” must be a violent miscreant and should not be teaching college students).

Pen names have been used for centuries, and I don’t think that using one (or a few) as a person employed in academia is disingenuous. If I worked in industry, people would presumably understand that I couldn’t write or say things that would be at odds with the company’s mission or brand. Academia is a bit different because of the protection of tenure, but not that different (especially the modern, highly corporatized flavor of the research university), and tenure is not an indestructible armor. Even without losing one’s job, one can easily lose the ability to perform multiple aspects of said job. Working in a (conservative, male-dominated) STEM field, yet publishing nontechnical stuff under the real name as a woman in the day and age of easy googlability and lightning-fast cancellations/firings over social-media activities  would be dangerously naïve.

What’s been on your mind of late, blogosphere? 

Reader Question: Apply to Grad School Again?

A reader who applied to grad school this round without much luck asks:

Last time around I wrote to you looking for advice on how to apply for graduate school. It was really helpful, but as it turned I didn’t get any offers this year. But, at 25 and after 3 academic degrees, I am not sure what to do in my life at this point. Beginning from my college days, all my academic life, I have been working hard to make a career in academic research. So far, I didn’t have to twitch an eye lid on deciding whether I should continue in academia, because I was among the best of my peer group and enjoyed doing science. So, I would like to hear from you and long time readers of the blog if I should persist for another attempt to apply to graduate school? Or what are the other alternatives available to miserable souls like mine?

What say you, blogosphere?

My response, without any additional details that might have affected this particular case, is that this PhD admissions year (in the US) has been highly aberrant, not only because of the pandemic, but because of the election that affected funding agencies (their budgets and timelines). The best undergrad I have ever had (he had papers, talks, everything), who really should have gotten into the very top PhD programs, didn’t. I personally took no new grad students, and I know my department, in all, accepted fewer students than usual, too.

So, from that standpoint alone, I would say go for it again. However, before doing so it would be useful to go through the particulars of an unsuccessful application and inspect how it looks from the standpoint of someone who is deciding whether or not to accept the applicant into their research group (i.e., whether or not to invest time and resources in them).

Good luck!