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.


Attitude and Aptitude. Alas

Graduate students come with a range of technical backgrounds/levels of preparation, a range of natural aptitudes/talent, and a range of attitudes toward gradate school (comprising the willingness to work hard, coachability, etc.). There are other relevant axes if excellence, but for now let’s focus on these three.

Ideally, a student has a great aptitude, background, and attitude. It’s also common to have someone with a good background and aptitude, but less than ideal attitude; with some (or a lot) advisor irritation, these students often produce good work. Sometimes the student’s attitude improves when they switch groups to one better aligned with what they want to do,.

In the past,  I’ve had students who were poor along all of three axes, and those usually left with a Master’s.

A good attitude can compensate for a lot of deficiency in background and aptitude. A LOT. Perhaps all. But perhaps not.

A few years ago, I had a student who had the right attitude (StuOne), but StuOne’s background and aptitude for what we do in the group were not high. Moreover, while StuOne worked hard and was coachable, I think StuOne’s sights were always on a software development job for which, to be honest, one generally does not have to have a PhD (except in the generic “I know how to think analytically and troubleshoot complex problems” sense) and definitely not a PhD in my field. I tried a bunch of projects with StuOne, but StuOne just couldn’t do them, even with plenty of hand-holding. We had talks of StuOne leaving because it was starting to seem highly unlikely that StuOne could complete any work in my group. Eventually, and probably 3-4 yrs into StuOne’s PhD, I found one project that StuOne could do, which was on the small side and much more focused on code development than on physics; StuOne ended up doing well on it. StuOne received what I would call a fairly minimal PhD compared to what I expect in my group, but definitely enough by my department’s standards. StuOne  went on to get a well-paying job with a household-name company.

I faced a similar advising situation more recently and it’s one that saddens me. This student (StuTwo) has a great attitude, does everything asked of them, pours their heart and soul into all they do, and is the group’s social glue. But StuTwo’s aptitude for the work we do in the group is average at best and their Bachelor’s preparation was woefully inadequate. StuTwo has spent three years taking coursework but, perhaps because their aptitude isn’t very high, they don’t seem to be getting as much from their coursework as they could and should. Things aren’t sinking in well and they aren’t able to make the higher-level connections I need them to make. Also, StuTwo suffers from anxiety (I didn’t diagnose them; they told me). The normal course of what happens in academic science — someone graduates and leaves, and others in the group have to pick up their slack; funding doesn’t come through, a person has to switch from one project to something else — appears to greatly stress out StuTwo.

StuTwo is now done with coursework and is hopefully about to ramp up in their research. I have qualms about StuTwo’s ability to complete the project they started on, because it’s a very challenging one, but StuTwo is really into it and wants to keep working on it. The prospect of not having data when my grant-renewal time comes is really stressing me out.

Anyway, StuTwo’s PhD program moved to requiring dissertation proposals earlier during the student’s time than before, so StuTwo had to do it this summer. Despite several dry runs and PPT checks, it did not go well. AT ALL. One committee member (my longtime collaborator) basically said StuTwo should be kicked out of the program altogether; that they are too slow on the uptake, and that there’s no way they could complete a PhD in my group; this committee member hasn’t said anything that I haven’t thought myself at one point or another. Others chimed in with their stories. They shared that sometimes they would get a student to a PhD with great effort, which they regretted. One committee member revealed that they never regretted letting an underperforming student go, but they always regretted not having done it. The dissertation proposal paperwork wasn’t signed. Several committee members were in favor of chewing everything down into small, bite-sized pieces and providing a super-detailed outline of what is to be done in the near future, then revisiting. We can do that; I have a lot of mixed feelings, though.

On the one hand, I am resentful that such bite-sized pieces are needed. Graduate students are not kids; this is not middle school (seriously, I wish my kid’s middle school provided sufficient guidance on their projects; it’s all crazy and up in the air). This isn’t undergrad, either. Bite-sized pieces shouldn’t be required in the course of a PhD. The chunks should be larger and the student should be able to cut them up on their own or tear them off smaller ones with their incisors and basically figure out how to best swallow them without choking. The best PhD students never require micromanagement; they take broad direction and just run with it.

On the other hand, I think I can get this student to graduation, but it will be with a great investment of time and energy on my part. If there are intellectually nontrivial issues, I will likely have to be the one to solve them, which is what happened with StuOne. But maybe that’s OK. In the words of a colleague, faculty are usually the best people in their groups.

I feel like I owe it to this student to see them through, in part because they are such a good member of the group and have such a great attitude. In part because they’re three years in. One committee member feels my loyalty is misguided and is perhaps correct.

I met with the student after the dissertation-proposal fiasco and we discussed what comes next. I tried to convey the committee’s concerns as tactfully as I could. I mentioned the possibility of mastering out (they’re also getting a Master’s in another related field, so those would be two MS degrees). StuTwo felt this was unfair, that they were just about to ramp up (which is true) and that they weren’t able to do much work because of coursework (which is fine, but they demonstrated very poor absorption of concepts from coursework) and then went on to talk about how their anxiety was going up because of past deadlines: StuTwo gave a very thin talk at a recent conference on what should have been much more preliminary work; StuTwo was also sent to a Summer School to learn some cool stuff, but this was apparently all too much. StuTwo needs a very structured schedule and low-to-moderate demands on their time, otherwise their anxiety flares up. To be honest, I’m not sure how StuTwo will work in corporate America, but at least I can try to get them to a PhD with reduced stress and hand-holding. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can make all the stress go away completely.

Btw, a whole bunch of people whom I had in my fall graduate class have either mastered out and left or changed their original groups. I count four who seemed fine in my class, but have since left their research groups completely, and three who swapped groups. One of the group-swappers joined my group and is kicking ass; he’s on par with the best students I’ve ever had had. But there’s something going on in how we recruit students or maybe the funding demands are so high that we can’t tolerate the natural learning curves of PhD students, but so many people mastering out or leaving groups is bad for everyone’s morale. This is one more reason why I am reluctant to kick this student out; StuTwo is a well liked in the group, so their departure would likely be hugely disruptive to others.

But, note to self: I need to be much more selective when I recruit in the near future and I don’t think I will ever again recruit from StuTwo’s PhD program.

What say you, blogosphere? Thoughts? Shouts and murmurs? Related anectdotes? 

Howdy, Strangers!

*cough, cough*

Anyone home? It’s really dusty in here.

I know my blogging frequency has dropped to nearly zero, but I’m still here and I plan to stay here, just not as often as I used to. I don’t want to commit to a posting frequency, because all commitments make me want to flee screaming (exhibits A and B), but I will try to post every couple of weeks; that should be doable. Maybe. Hopefully. In all seriousness, it should be.

Right now my research group is full of new members, so we’re ramping up. A couple are really good, the rest are so-so, but they work hard and have the right attitude. So-so means that they can be effective and successful with the right project and within a relatively limited set of parameters. For periods like this one, when new group members aren’t producing yet, I have a backlog of lower-urgency papers authored by recently graduated group members to polish and submit during dry spells.

I am headed to a conference in Canada, afterwards have some roadtrips with family. Middle Boy just turned 12 and is 5’10”. I watch a lot of middle-school basketball, which I love (thank heavens he doesn’t play baseball), so it’s great fun plus bonding time. Eldest is doing great in college. Smurf is entering 3rd grade! Can you believe it? I blogged at Academic Jungle when he was born! I’m bringing some of those old posts back up for this particular occasion (one, two, three).

My fiction writing, for those who care about it, is going OK. I placed in some contests, had some semipro sales for my speculative fiction, and had some (lengthy!) holds and final-round shortlists at pro-level markets, but no pro sale yet (insert sadface emoji). I’m currently volunteering as a slush reader at a pro market (i.e., reading unsolicited submissions; slush is a term from the days of paper submissions, when received envelopes formed highly slippery piles in editorial offices); I’m learning a ton.

How’s everything on your end, bloggy friends? Anyone still here? Or has everyone migrated to Twitter? I am mostly active on Twitter under my supersecret  literary pseud, much less as @xykademiqz, but nonetheless feel free to stop by and say ‘hi’ if you tweet. Btw, as xykademiqz I subbed an ultrashort story to a contest judged by Roxane Gay and got an honorable mention, plus some cool swag.

Tell me what you’ve been up to and, if you have topics you’d like me to discuss on the blog, please leave a comment.

Stay cool, lathered in sunscreen, and well hydrated!

In Which Xyk is Called Cynical and Perhaps Rightfully So

We all know that one by George Carlin (paraphrasing): ” Inside every cynical person hides a disappointed idealist.”

I wonder if I’ve hit the level of cynicism that ends up being toxic to those around me, rather than serving the primary purpose, which is to steady me for inevitable disappointment in the face of people’s bad behavior. A junior faculty member — who, if I am being honest, seems to me to have had a pretty charmed career and life — told me that I was being too cynical when I mentioned that some initiative was never going to happen because it would hinge on the involvement of people know for not giving a fuck about anyone but themselves.

Look, I come from a background where people are distrustful because people are untrustworthy. I was taught to always look for an ulterior motive, to always assume others are there to take advantage of you. I was always too soft, too trusting, and too easily disappointed and manipulated for my ancestral culture, which is in part why I was always so uncomfortable there. I am much more comfortable here in the US, where the whole society works better, and where hard work is usually recognized and appreciated. Only here I have the opposite problem: according to local standards, I am too distrustful, too negative, paranoid even. I was told by a senior female colleague (who’s local) that I always assume the worst about people’s intentions, which isn’t really true, but I admit that it takes me a lot of intellectual effort to imagine the best and be charitable, especially when my previous experiences have been negative.

My colleagues are generally nice. However, in my particular subfield, we have a few whose values are just not aligned with the rest of the department. They put in minimal teaching, eschew service, show up to meetings only when they have a vested interest in what is being discussed. I know for a fact that they think less of those of us who do teach and do service, because they occasionally let it slip. They think that we are not serious scientists, because if we were hardcore, like them, we’d ignore teaching and service, too.

So why did the junior colleague say I was cynical? Because I pointed out, in response to his idea that we should have a local topical workshop, that I’d thought about the same thing  years ago, even ran some numbers and inquired about funding, then polled people about their interest, and it turned out no one was interested in putting in any work but everyone was interested in gracing us with their presence and giving a talk if I organized, to which I thought, Fuck you all, I am no one’s secretary, if you all are too high and mighty to organize, then so am I, and I dropped the whole idea.

So, yes, I suppose I am cynical.

I’ve been faculty for 15 years. The novelty has worn off. I know these people. Some are nice. Actually, most are really nice. Most are also reasonable, well-meaning and hard-working. But not all are nice and not all are reasonable; in fact, I consider some of them so selfish that I will not expend any of my good will or time to do anything that benefits them. I will never harm them or their students, but I will avoid them and I will ignore them and when the time comes that I can choose to benefit someone, I will not choose them.

Now, politically savviest folks around here manage to treat these clearly self-serving individuals as if they are not self-serving. The savvy folks give everyone the benefit of the doubt, treat everyone with kindness, no matter what happened in the past. (I am willing to bet it has to do with savvy folks all being church-going protestants. Turning the other cheek?)

That I cannot do. I treat people with kindness and good will until they’ve shown that they don’t deserve either. Afterwards, I am still civil and polite, but the good will is gone. I am not vindictive, but I do get uncharitable and unhelpful.

And you know what? I am so, so, sooooo tired of having to understand and excuse people’s bad behavior. And by people’s, it’s mostly the dudes’. They go on their merry way, stomping around like clueless elephants, oblivious to how they act and whom they hurt.

For instance, this is what recently happened with a longtime collaborator, with whom I’ve published several papers, who’s been in many of my students’ thesis proposals and defenses and always asked pretty pointed questions. I was in the thesis proposal presentation of one of his students and I asked some questions about motivation. They are working on a topic that was hot 20 years ago and stopped being hot because of major technical issues. The student was motivating the talk the way it had been motivated in its heyday, to which I brought up the fact that with that motivation many people in my fields will roll their eyes and say you’re doing stuff that’s no longer relevant. The student didn’t seem to be able to respond regarding whether the work should be differently motivated. After the student left, my collaborator (there were three additional people in the room) became hostile and said that if it were him instead of the student, he would have crushed me and sent me back to my home department. Yes, he used the words “would’ve crushed you” and “sent you back to Your Department.” I was shocked at the hostility of the comment, and I said that it is true that the problem has its heyday 20 years ago and that if there are new developments, which there are, then then new developments and the vistas they open is what should be pitched. He proceeded to yell how there was someone at FancyPants U who got a large defense grant to do similar stuff, which to him apparently meant I should shut up, that all technical issues were moot because a defense agency known for funding “blue sky” projects had thrown money at someone with a good pedigree.

I didn’t want to make a scene, or make the scene worse; it was my collaborator’s group’s event and there were three other people there. This is a guy who’s been rough to my students; we’ve had papers together, but obviously I am just a theory serf. Things work out as long as I don’t challenge him.

I left feeling like complete shit. I kept feeling like shit the rest of the day and for a few days afterwards.

What am I supposed to do with feeling like shit? I can’t go confront him, because women inciting direct confrontation only get labeled crazy and difficult. We are only collaborators; we’re not friends. I don’t know him well enough for a heart-to-heart. Whenever I brought up grievances with colleagues in the past, they always, always, played dumb, pretended they had to idea what I was talking about, or insisted that I had misunderstood (yes, the good old woman labeled crazy when she says something a dude doesn’t want to hear). So all I can do is a) vent to husband; b) vent on blog; c) find a way to deal with this internally. I feel hurt personally and betrayed professionally. The way to deal with this internally is to stop considering this man a person who is safe and well-meaning; instead, he becomes someone who should be avoided. This means I will not be pursuing papers or collaborations in the future. I will avoid having him on my students’ committees, and I will be less likely to participate on his students’.

Will he notice the cooling off? Maybe, maybe not. Most folks don’t or if they do, they don’t care. There will be no healing or whatever you want to call it. There will be me withdrawing because that’s all I can do to protect myself from feeling like shit in the future for the same reasons.

Now, does this make me cynical? The fact that, going forward, I will be acting aloof toward this person, forgoing the most charitable assumptions?

Perhaps. But people in general — and let’s face it, this mostly refers to dudes because women are socialized to be attuned to others — need to mind their behavior and the feelings of others more. I know people often say, “Well, if you have a problem with something, say something. Otherwise, people assume there’s no problem.” That’s bullshit. Those are the same people who say, “What’s the harm in asking? If you don’t want to do it, just say no.” These are all dudes who never assume that people might not be willing to speak up for all sorts of reasons. That their own paths are so smooth because so many others (women, minorities) anticipate their actions and move out of their way.

Then — shockingly! — those of us who’ve spent 40+ years moving out of the way seem insufficiently optimistic and unwilling to be charitable in the assumptions about others. Surely something is  wrong with us to have become so cynical in our dotage.