This and That

  • I had an invited talk at a conference I don’t usually attend and there I met one of my former grad students, who’s now happily employed in industry. He said how one of his younger friends from his postdoc group had tried to talk to me at an earlier conference this summer, but couldn’t get to me because I was ‘too popular.’ I almost choked on my fourth coffee. I am so not a superstar; it’s hilarious that someone would see me as perpetually besieged and thus unapproachable. Although I suppose one can be a big fish if the pond is small enough. Or something.
  • You know how most people feel science is boring? I don’t know what happened to me, maybe it’s the effect of reading and writing too much fiction, but I find myself very easily annoyed and almost impossible to amuse by scientific papers. Have papers always been this goddamn awful? Or have I been exposed to an unusually bad batch of poorly written and creatively infinitesimal technical prose?
  • Maybe this is the real reason why only some hobbies are acceptable for academics in STEM fields? When you start writing fiction, technical writing becomes unbearable? The slow and painful and decidedly non-flashy nature of scientific research looks dull and drab, and, once you see it, you cannot un-see it?

Anyhow, a bit more on the acceptability of hobbies for STEMcademics. Anything physical is obviously OK, lauded even (e.g., running, rock climbing, whitewater rafting), as are music and painting, although I don’t know many practicing painters or musicians among scientists, even though I hear math and music often go together, so often that my tin ear must mean that I am deluded about my ability to do advanced math. But yes, there are a lot of runners and gym rats among STEM folks. Artisanal baking or cooking are OK, too.

Some other hobbies appear to be shameful. Nobody ever confesses to gaming or to watching movies or TV shows. A number of my colleagues lament how they wish they had more time for movies or TV, thereby simultaneously boasting how virtuously busy they are (protestant work ethic?) and signaling how lowly of a pastime they consider video entertainment to be. Then there are the hobbies that involve parts of the brain that should be used in cranking out papers, such as blogging or writing. One should never admit to engaging in these hobbies, lest one wants to be told they have too much time on their hands and should spend it writing papers instead.

I wonder how people would react to saying you don’t just occasionally play an instrument, you compose music and/or are seriously involved with a band or an orchestra. Or that you don’t just cook for your family, you’re actually a part-time chef at a restaurant and/or have written cookbooks. Or that you aren’t just a gamer, that you develop and sell games (unless you’re in CS and specialize in computer graphics or animation). Or that you’re a lifestyle or makeup vlogger. Or that you paint or sculpt so avidly that you’ve exhibited your art and/or made some serious coin off the hobby.

While running marathons seems to be universally lauded, because physical exercise is considered a good destressor and generally beneficial to your performance on the job, it seems to me that being too serious about nearly any other pursuit might raise eyebrows of colleagues; they think it siphons creativity from where it is supposed to lie: your job. As if creativity is a well you can only deplete, as if it’s not replenished (at least for some of us) by a large variety of creative pursuits.

This attitude has even been coded in the university effort reporting protocols. You don’t report the fraction of a 40-hour workweek you spend on a project; you report a percentage of your overall expended effort; presumably, when it comes to work hours, sky is the limit. There is an underlying assumption that all your effort goes into your job.

Remember Ken Cosgrove on Mad Men, who wrote science fiction? His boss Roger Sterling told him to knock it off, because the advertising job (where a client shot Cosgrove in the eye) provided everything a man could possibly need. If I remember correctly, the following night, Cosgrove wrote a sci-fi story about a robot who could only turn one knob on or off.

Not sure where I’m going with this.

Sometimes I get really grumpy about how little of myself I can show to the world, and how little the people with whom I interact get to know me and I them. It’s probably for the best, I know, for people usually consider me to be too much along every imaginable axis, but this making of myself small and palatable and partitioning of the self into bite-sized pieces is exhausting, saddening, enraging. I had a 15-min meeting with our (newish) department chair which took me two months to schedule, yet I could tell that she couldn’t wait for me to leave. She’s always been friendly and polite, but I’ve always had the feeling that whatever time we’re scheduled to spend together is too long.

So few of us really know each other. It would be nice to be known by someone other than kids and husband. But, if to be known is to always to be considered too much, then perhaps maybe not.

One could say that your colleagues are not your friends and I suppose that’s fine. But we spend decades working alongside one another, it’s almost a shame not to develop something resembling friendships, kind of like with neighbors — life thrusts you together, why not make the best of it? But most colleagues are focused on their work and family and don’t want to broach anything non-work related and don’t seem to (although, how would I even know?) have much going on outside family and work, except maybe church. Outside work, I’ve made some near-friendships in town, parents of my kids’ friends and folks in my sci-fi book club. It’s all great, but again, my foreignness (everyone else is local) and my general intensity freak everyone out. So I tone myself down, enforce quiet and passivity, and focus on absorbing. I think many people want to be heard, but don’t necessarily hear others. They want an audience, but never listen. Wanting people to consider you as a real multifaceted person, as someone who’s not just a minor character in their narrative, appears to always be an imposition.

It’s a Blog! It’s a Book! It’s a Blurb!

Hi everyone! It’s time for my hopefully not-too-frequent plug for Academaze, a book of essays and cartoons on academic life at a research institution. It’s the best of the blog — originally Academic Jungle, then xykademiqz — between 2010 and 2016.

If you’ve bought and read Academaze, please go over to Amazon and leave a review. Reviews affect the Amazon algorithm and really help people find the book.

The reason I wrote Academaze is the same reason I blog: to share my experiences and, by doing so, perhaps to help some who need advice and to occasionally entertain. I have no expectations of getting wealthy off Academaze, but I’d love for Melanie Nelson of Annorlunda Books, who took a chance on this unusual project and who put a lot of time and money into making it a reality, to get a return on her investment and feel like it was ultimately worthwhile.

So, if you enjoy the blog, please consider buying Academaze — electronic or print (the print book is gorgeous, just sayin’) — and please leave a review if/once you’re done.

The book is really cool, I promise! Here’s a review blurb in APS CSWP & COM Gazette, and you can find others here.


Reader Question: Funding Strategy for Pre-tenure Faculty

As Saturday is always the slowest, most boring day on the web, presumably because everyone is grocery shopping/watching kids play sports/mowing or plowing, depending on season/doing laundry, I will do my best to post something on Saturdays (at least every other Saturday) going forward.

MechEngPhD asked:

… I’d be particularly interested in hearing about your pre-tenure funding strategy, e.g.: Thoughts on focusing on a few agencies you expect will become your go-tos vs. broadly applying to any relevant call, even if you don’t see much long term funding potential for your work at the agency putting out the call? For early career awards with 3 opportunities to apply while on the tenure track, any particular timing strategy?

Unfortunately, and not at all surprisingly, there is no one right answer that will guarantee oodles of funding. I will try my best and bear in mind that I cannot really give advice on most biomedical fields (those that rely on NIH funding). DrugMonkey’s blog is the place for NIH folks.

The answer depends on how far along you are (green, straight from grad school (yes, it’s still possible in some STEM fields) or a seasoned postdoc/research scientist with years of proposal-writing experience), how generous your startup is, and how clear you are on the few big 5-to-10-year projects that are supposed to make your name, because those are what you need to write about for your young investigator awards.

For instance, let’s start with NSF CAREER. I would recommend submitting to a regular NSF program once or twice (or more times) before the first CAREER try. Maybe you get funded, but even if not, you will get some feedback and hone your proposal-writing skills. If you do get funded, great! You can still try for CAREER in your second half of the tenure track. I’ve known people who got it in year 5, so it’s a nice chunk of change to ride across the tenure line and into the first associate-prof years. I did get CAREER on my first try; I wrote it in the summer after year 1 and after having spent the year writing collaborative grants with colleagues. I was fresh from the PhD and without any grant-writing experience. Even all these years later, NSF remains a mystery. I have 100% success rate when I am the second fiddle to a male experimentalist on a collaborative grant, but a much more modest success rate when I apply by myself; based on my experience on panels with commonly 100% male PIs on the proposal roster, I am probably the only female PI when I submit and, if only 1 or 2 proposals get funded, I find it hard to believe that I will be the one championed the most vocally; in fact, I think all or nearly all of my single-PI NSF declinations were Recommended and often ranked near the top of the Recommended batch. It is hard not to wonder if I’d have an easier time jumping to Highly Recommended (and thus most likely funded) with the same proposal, but a different set of genitals.

But I digress. Back to the topic at hand.

NSF CAREER funding rate is higher than for the regular programs; the applicant pool in MUCH, MUCH smaller; it’s 5 years of funding with a lot of freedom in what you do, so this is an award to which I highly recommend you give your best shot (or three). Which project is appropriate for CAREER? Ask yourself what you want to be famous for 10 years for now; what you would work on if someone gave you half a million and told you to use it for your craziest, most high risk/high reward project. That’s CAREER. In contrast, proposals for the regular program are smaller in scope and more specific in the question they address.

Bottom line: Submit to both regular program and CAREER, but different types and scope of projects. Getting a PECASE hrough NSF doesn’t come with extra money. (PECASE = Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers; awardees are chosen from the recipients of young investigator awards across agencies who are nominated by their awarding agencies.)

As for DOD agencies, you should not even try without program-director enthusiasm. For these, I would say spend the first year or so getting good prelim data using your startup and travel to DC, talk to program directors, send them white papers until you find someone who is really enthusiastic about bringing you on. That’s the person who will be likely fight for your young investigator award (as all program managers have to make strong cases to their higher-ups and brass for funding). I did get one of the DOD young investigator awards back in the day.

Bottom line: Alignment with an individual program director’s vision and programmatic needs is critical for both regular and young investigator program. The benefit is possibility of long-term funding and generally larger grants than NSF. DOD awards sometimes come with more oversight/frequent reporting/more micromanagement, but this varies among agencies and even among different program directors, and you might  not even mind it too much if the money is good (which it is) and you’re not allergic to micromanagement (unlike moi). Getting a PECASE through DOD agencies DOES come with extra money.

DOE is extremely competitive, regular program or young investigator. For the regular program, what happened with me is that I submitted for years, received good reviews but no money, grew frustrated, but then made it in through a super competitive specific call that led to a transition into the regular program. Their young investigator program didn’t start until I was in my last year on the tenure track, but it’s exceedingly competitive and it carries no guarantee of transitioning into the regular program.

Bear in mind that, unlike with papers, with proposals you can submit to multiple agencies, you just can’t receive money from multiple federal sources for the same work. DOE will explicitly encourage you to submit to multiple places. It is perfectly fine to get funded by one and withdraw the proposal from the other.

Bottom line: DOE is great, but quite hard to get into and might require several years of sustained effort to break in. I love it because it’s in many ways similar to NSF with their focus on great science (I have experience with DOE BES) and the flexibility they provide to the PI, but with more money and with potential for long-term funding. Getting a PECASE through DOE doesn’t come with extra money.

In response to the original reader question, associate prof left a great comment with several insights, wherein they mentioned that their dean had told them to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. This is annoying and dismissive (also indicative of the likely gender breakdown in that conversation *sigh*), but kind of true. It means that you have to prioritize everything: papers as well as grants, regular and young investigator. Unless you are some sort of grant-writing prodigy and/or don’t have impeccable pedigree (oh, yes, that matters — a lot!), you will end up being rejected more often than not, so there’s no point in spending too much time wondering what you should apply to when the answer is — to everything, all the time, until you get enough money. Then take at most a semester break, and start all over again.

(A good question here is what is enough money. Enough money is enough to support a viable research group, smaller initially, perhaps bigger when you’re more established. Count the number of students and postdocs you envision. Multiply each by the loaded annual pay (loaded=base cost plus fringe benefits plus overhead and, for students, tuition, which is often not overheaded). Add to it 1-3 months of your summer salary (loaded). Add to it the cost of equipment (most should have come from startup), supplies, user fees projected per year. Add to it some money for travel (several trips per year). That’s enough money.)

Make sure you use your startup funds aggressively. Startup is there to help you get the data you need to get funded. Startup is not meant to last forever, and by trying to make it last too long (past, say 3 years) you are effectively strangling your research program. Operate with optimism and do good science with your startup funds in the first 3 years on the tenure track. Get papers out, train your folks, get more data, go give talks, show everyone you’re a force to be reckoned with.

Or, as Edna Mode would say:

Image result for edna mode gif fight win


A new bane of my parental existence: People who insist on carpooling for the sake of carpooling and who, anxious about achieving perfect reciprocity, end up wasting way more of my time (and theirs) texting about it than is saved by carpooling.

Stop texting me and just let me take everyone’s kids, OK?

I love driving. I don’t mind driving my kids anywhere and don’t mind driving other people’s kids when the families need me to. Middle Boy doesn’t like riding with just anyone; unless he’s being driven by the dad of one of his best friends and the parents of another, he strongly prefers being driven by me or my husband to random other parents. Receiving a ride from peripheral folks is not helpful; it actually makes him uncomfortable.

Mostly I want to have a simple weekly schedule and not have a patchwork of pickups and dropoffs by random people because they need it on certain days, but are too anxious to not immediately return the favor. This unpredictability wastes valuable mental real-estate (“Who’s picking up on Wednesday again?”), not to mention my time.

There is this mom who insists on carpooling when our three boys go to certain basketball practice. The kids either have the practice 5 min from home (where they all go to school) or at one of the other schools that are no more than 10-15 min away; this is all in the evening, when traffic is light. Just drive your goddamn kid! Or relax when I say that it’s OK for me to both drive and pick up! So many fuckin’ time-wasting texts for something that I don’t need or want (carpools), because the mom needs or wants them or thinks she’s saving money or gourd knows what, yet cannot fathom that I don’t give a toss if things are not 100% reciprocal immediately.

I will drive everyone. Everywhere. Whenever you need me to. Yes, all the time if you’d like. It’s really not a problem. I promise it’s not. Seriously.

Stop texting me about goddamn carpool.  I don’t want it. I don’t need it. If/when I do need it, I will ask you.

If you need it, just ask. Then receive the favor and relax about it. Do not — I repeat, DO NOT — bug me about returning the favor. Sure, you’re afraid that I might end up wanting your kidney sometime in an unspecified future as a payment. Who knows? Maybe I will. But I sure as $hit don’t want carpool now.