academic politics

Grant Woes

Yesterday I found out that one of my NSF proposals got declined. I was disappointed, as I think this was probably the best proposal I have ever written.

I read the comments and felt even more down. The comments indicated that it was poorly placed panel-wise.

It received 3 “goods”, and the comments were pro forma. First, the fact that there were a minimal number of reviews (usually there are more than 3 when the panel is well suited to review a proposal) was the first indication that there was no one there who would champion it. Second, the program manager had told me that theory proposals don’t usually review well just because; so this one didn’t either, even though the project is as applied as they come, I have plenty of preliminary data, and two enthusiastic in-house experimental collaborators who contributed letters of support. Comments were things like the proposal is poorly organized (Why did I not have a separate section on preliminary work as opposed to have each task  described in terms of what I have done and then what I  will do? Well, it has worked well thus far many times. Why is there no preliminary data comparing to experiments of other groups? Uhm, yeah, there are probably 6-7 figures showing exactly experiments from other groups versus theory without phenomenon versus my theory with phenomenon. Why is there no discussion on different materials used? Uhm, because they are well known and characterized and a detailed discussion is unnecessary for people at all in this field, while a brief discussion was indeed given.)

The thing with doing theory and simulation in the physical sciences is that, unless you want to be subservient to an experimentalist with DoD funding, there are not many agencies that fund purely theoretical work. And NSF allows for only a single submission window per year, and one proposal per division (which is pretty broad). People get creative and target several different divisions, but there are definitely whole topical areas that fall through the cracks. And I am tired of being shafted in experiment-only panels; I go through great pains to make the proposal readeable and understandable to non-theorists (not a single goddamn formula!) and then the panelists don’t even bother.

What’s funny is that this project is nearly complete. We have done well over 1/2 of it already with fringe funding (TA’s, internal fellowships, that sort of thing) so the story was as complete as I was ever going to write. There is no detail that I did not address because everything worth  addressing actually came up and was discussed in the proposal. As I said, I don’t think I ever wrote a better proposal, it was polished, and thorough, and just wonderful. And the criticisms just show it should not have been reviewed where it went.

I will tell you one thing: experimentalists to whom I show the work fall all over themselves with joy at the predictive capability of the simulation. As they should, because it’s unique and powerful. Maybe I will go against all I hold dear, clean up the code and allow for download at a fee. Maybe I should go with a Kickstarter campaign. I don’t need or want profit, but if everyone wants to use it, then I should be able to pay personnel to further develop it.

But I digress. Because there are not many agencies where a theorist of my ilk can get funding, every  three years I go through this cycle of despair: what if none of the grants get funded? What if I am completely out of money? What happens then?

I would not be as badly off as the people on soft money who lose their labs and their salaries (not common in the physical sciences, apparently common in the biomedical world). But not being able to have students would suck. I could still do some work on my own; but, in my department and college, how much you are worth locally equals how much money you bring in. I would suddenly become a lesser faculty member, and what I say would not matter as much as it does now.

My former postdoc is a junior faculty member elsewhere. He’s smart and overall just great, but has not been able to secure funding thus far in spite of writing grants continuously for a couple of years now. I can understand that he is panicked. If he doesn’t land a grant soon, he may never actually show to anyone what he would have to offer.

I never thought I would retire, ever. These days, I think I will retire when the time comes just to relieve myself of the need to stress about where the support for my students is coming from. As a full professor, I have A LOT of teaching and service. The time I have for research is spent on hunting for money. I wish I could spend that time advising students or writing papers or thinking about what we’ll do next.

It’s not the end of the world, and I am better off than many, perhaps most. Still lots of irons in the fire.
But I don’t think I want to spend all of my time this way.

When did it stop being important that we actually think and do science and instead what became important is scrounging for money to do the science?
It’s so exhausting and so effed up.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think scientists should be having completely free rein — it’s taxpayer money and stewardship is necessary. But we are at the extreme where considerably less good science is funded than proposed, which cannot be good.

I will lick my wounds for another day or two, but then it’s back in the saddle again, scouting new funding opportunities.

Faculty Retention Bits

Every so often I am reminded that money rules everything.

I am at a major public research university. It’s a very good school, and it has a lot to be proud of.

When we recruit, we try to recruit the best of the cohort. Often, we are successful. Alas, the more successful we are and the more stellar the faculty we are able to recruit are, the less able we are to retain them.

There are superstar faculty who stay here because of the quality of life, especially when their kids are young. Sometimes they leave eventually, in their 50’s or 60’s, once the kids are grown.

But there are those for whom professional ambition is insatiable. That’s not a bad thing. People are entitled to make whatever professional choices make the most sense. What is disconcerting is watching the exit process unfold.

The ambitious colleague becomes more and more demanding, requiring more and more gymnastics from the department, college, and university administration. Many of their needs get met. Funds for their salaries and equipment get raised via complicated intramural channels involving department chairs, deans, provosts, dozens of staff, and possibly people whose job is to find loose change between sofa cushions. Other faculty hear about the ordeal and are not crazy about it.

But it’s not enough. There are always more requests for everyone’s time, for more funds, for more of various things (lab space!) and less of various other things (teaching! service!).

At some point, there is simply no more money to be had. This is a public school — there are limits to how much of a raise or how much space or how much discretionary funds one can get.

The ambitious colleague moves, and leaves behind irritated colleagues who are tired of all the provisions that were made in the name of retention, an exhausted department chair, and a very dissatisfied dean.

I wish we could, when we interview, screen for “Is this person going to be a pain in the a$$ and waste the time of many people for many years, making them cater to their many whims; will this person deplete the good will towards the department and the retention funds that could have gone to someone  who actually wanted to be retained?”

Some people say “Well, you got a good person even for a short amount of time. That’s better than not having recruited them at all.”

Sounds true in theory, right? I am not so sure, though. The first order effect is, yes, the good work that the good person has done; but, if they are junior or have been here for just a short while, it is questionable whether their limited presence is a marked net benefit to the department, considering that the department invested money into the startup  package, and would take some time to make good on the investment. The second-order effects of having someone who is difficult on board include straining the budget, pissing everyone else off, and having multiple staff members spend time on servicing these extraordinary requests. When renormalized with the hassle, a lot of very difficult high fliers are not really highfalutin enough to justify continued retention maneuvers.

On occasion, the person is not being difficult,  and makes a good case (infrequently!) for more money or equipment. This is where I wish we were able to afford to keep the colleagues and I envy the schools who swoop them away.

TGI December and Reader Questions

‘Tis December!!! Phew. I must admit, posting every day in November has been tough, which was probably obvious from some of the less-than-inspired posts. When you start photographing produce, you know you are scraping the bottom of the blog-fodder barrel.

I think last year’s November blogging was easier, I am not sure why. I don’t remember having quite this many moments like “It’s roughly 11:30 PM, I am completely pooped and I finally got a few minutes to sit down. I want to go sleep, but I haven’t posted today. What the heck am I going to write about?” (Enter squash.) I had more travel but I think I was overall less busy. Or at least I felt less busy. Or I repressed traumatic memories of excessive busyness and insufficient inspiration. Or I just had a higher tolerance for my own vacuous posts. (I was kind of aiming for some serious academic blogging here. I guess that ship has sailed!)

Thanks everyone for reading!


OK, that’s enough meta self-flagellation.  EarthSciProf posted some interesting questions after the 15-Min Improv Blogging post.

1) How long does it usually take you to do a review? I take much less time than I did when I first started but am wondering about how long it takes you since you’re farther along.

It depends a lot on the length of the paper. In my field, there are letters, of 4-page double-column size (like Physical Review Letters) and there are comprehensive articles (like in Physical Review B, for instance), which can be anywhere from 4-5 to 20 pages long. I would say most papers are 6-10 pages of main text, anything over 10 generally means long appendices.

For a well-written letter in PRL, it takes 1-2 focused hours to read and write a good report It may be longer if there’s supplementary material or I have to look at a lot of references. These letter papers also tend to be reviewed for hotness rather than just interest and correctness; a common complaint is “This  is fine technically, but of too narrow a focus, and should be expanded and submitted to a specialized journal instead.”

A comprehensive paper takes longer to go through and write a report. Between 2 and 4 hours, depending on length.  Flying on planes is my favorite time to review papers, as there are no distractions. (Crappy papers take longer to review, because I start reading, get irritated, drop the paper before finishing, then have to still do it later, but then I procrastinate because I have already experienced the pain.)

A few months ago I was a referee for a good review paper, it was probably 60 pages (double column) and it took me all day. It was written by people I respect, so I ended up writing a lot of comments in the margins and scanning the marked-up document into a PDF which became part of the report. There should be some karmic brownie points in it, I hope.

What about you, blogosphere? How long does it take you to review papers? 

2) You posted something about a few months ago here

about only a small percentage of collaborations working out long-term. Any advice/guidelines/rules of thumb that you use to cut things off when a collaboration doesn’t seem to be going anywhere?

Ugh. This is a tough one, but I will give it a shot. All collaborations of mine that have dissolved owing to nonfunctionality were simply abandoned to die by all (dis)interested parties; at some point, no one attempted resuscitation any more. The parties stopped communicating and went on with their lives, never discussing the collaboration. The upside is that technically there was no confrontation, so everyone is still formally on good terms. This is not a bad thing in the long run.

I also have several collaborations that are generally healthy, but are on-again off-again, depending on funding and interests. We work together, then go our separate ways when the grant ends, then rejoin a few years later to do something else. I like this type of collaboration. It’s with people I enjoy working with, who have the same zeal, similar attitude to advising students and publishing, but we don’t have to be joined at the hip. In contrast, I have a colleague who does everything collaboratively, with several long-term collaborators. I find it stifling.

Are you on a grant together? If not, then just cut your losses and part ways. If you are on a grant together, then you need to produce something one way or another for your own sake, even if the collaboration is not working out. Proceed as best you can alone. If you feel appropriate, offer to include the collaborator on papers on your own terms; if they don’t agree or are being difficult, that’s your answer. I have found even very demanding people, when you do all the work and offer to have them as a coauthor on a polished paper, will swallow the pride/whatever other bug they have up their butt and say “Sure, go ahead and submit. Looks good!” I take myself off of papers to which I didn’t contribute enough, but most people don’t.

EartSciProf, if you have a specific situation, I am sure the readers would be happy to offer their insights.

Here are also some thoughts on collaboration from the depths of the Academic Jungle.

Wise academic blogosphere, please help EarthSciProf with the collaboration dissolution tips! 

Research University, Now With Words

I am at a major public research university. Sure, this is a university and teaching is important, for some definitions of important; anyone who says that research does not beat teaching to a pulp is a liar.

Bringing in extramural funding is the most important metric in most STEM fields. It translates into overhead dollars for the university. It also generally translates into high-profile work, for money means you are doing work that is “hot” and also money can pay for a lot of smart students and postdocs who actually do the work in many fields (with the exception of math and some fields like theoretical physics and computer science). The most highly paid and most coveted members of the faculty are those who do flashy, news-worthy, high-profile work. [Between research productivity and  funds raised is an implication (–>) rather than equivalence (<–>), i.e. money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for high productivity or flashy papers; there is such a thing as having too much money to efficiently handle. But I digress.]

We are professors, yes, but our peers and our administration care about research almost exclusively. So, where do teaching and service come to play?

Teaching has to be good. If it is bad, you will not get tenure. It has to be decent. But, anything better than decent, unless it is at the level of prestigious national teaching awards, is not rewarded. Being better than a decent teacher is all on you, and feel free to do it if it makes you feel good. But, if you are doing a better-than-passable job, people may (as I know from experience) ask what it is that you are not doing instead when you are wasting time on this silly teaching business. Not all colleagues are like that; in fact I have several in the department who really value and do an excellent job of teaching while also having some political gravitas. However, for the most part, spending considerable time on teaching is looked down upon by the most-research-productive colleagues, who sometimes consider teaching a nuisance that should be minimized or avoided to the extent possible.


For example, when I told a colleague that I give 3 midterms, hour-long and in-class, over the standard 2 longer evening exams (more frequent exams are less nerve-wrecking for the students because their grade does not hinge on any one exam so much, and it’s also less daunting for me to grade so I do it faster and they get the results sooner), the colleague told me that I must have too much time on my hands; he, who apparently must be the yardstick by which all workload is to be measured, has only one midterm (this is way too few for undergrads, in my opinion). So it’s not “you do this, I do that,” it’s an explicit statement that me doing something that I feel benefits the students is indicative of an unforgivable professional deficiency (not being busy enough). The same colleague told me “That’s loser talk” a few years ago when I complained that a grant was unjustly slaughtered in review (likely by this guy); needless to say, I am not discussing grants with that colleague again.

People who run very large groups and raise a lot of money generally have very hectic travel schedules and are overall very busy. I know from what students tell me that it translates into many cancelled and rescheduled classes, which is probably not a big deal for graduate students, but it is for undergrads, whose days are usually packed to bursting with classes, labs, project group meetings, and often part-time work. The extremely busy colleagues would often love to have the absolute minimal teaching load, and perhaps they should, for everyone’s benefit.

What about service? There are some important service assignments, and I understand and endorse that they have to be done. Many of them have to be done by faculty (e.g. serving on PhD dissertation committees, or tenure and promotion committees). My beef with service is threefold. First, there are people who really do the fewest and the lightest assignments; they tend to be either among the very high performers or, unsurprisingly, among the very poor performers (deadwood) who have mentally checked out. My second beef is that there are many committees that are pointless because what is needed is money, but the money is not forthcoming; while meeting to brainstorm and bloviate may appease whomever because it seems like something is happening, nothing really is, so the whole thing is a time-wasting charade. Third, service doesn’t do anything for an individual’s career unless it is a formal administrative position (e.g. you serve as department chair), and even so the gains appear… dubious.

The most aggravating part of life at an R1 university is that, during the semester, teaching and service can easily eat up your entire work week. I have several student papers to edit, I haven’t been able to get to them in way longer than I would like. We are dealing with a completely nuts situation, in which much of the core university mission work (teaching, service) takes up so much time that, if you are at all conscientious, your research — the only part that can potentially advance your career — suffers terribly; if you don’t want to neglect your research (or your career in general), you shaft the core mission or your personal life, usually both.

I don’t think faculty are at fault here. People do what is expected of them, and smart people read expectations very well.

Do Not Send

Recently, I did something I had never done before: I asked a program manager at a funding agency to not send a proposal to a certain individual.

To be honest, I had always thought that excluding people from lists of potential reviewers for papers or proposals reveals a lack of conviction in the merit of the document or a lack of belief in the review process — surely, all scientists are objective! But I finally got over my naivete and did what I probably should have started doing a long time ago, because a couple of proposals and probably more than a couple of papers were likely mishandled by this individual in the past.

When you do work in computer simulation, the system does not exist until you code it up. Your understanding of the physical reality affects what your computer simulation will look like. It can look and act very much like the real system, in many aspects or in a few. It may behave entirely unlike the real system, which means that either you don’t understand the physics well enough, you are having issues coding up the physics, or possibly both. But at no point does it stop being important whether or not you understand the system; at no point does it become solely about having more computational resources. You cannot cure faulty physical assumptions by throwing CPU cycles at the problem.

I don’t think I am being a revolutionary when I say that all numerical techniques are approximate. They all have limits of applicability and accuracy; some of the limits are fundamental, some are computational. We as scientists have to understand the limits and work within the constraints. Throwing enormous resources at a problem is sometimes necessary, but often it is not — the question is what you are after, what question you want to ask of your simulated system. Sometimes, a slingshot is just enough to kill the sparrow. Other times, you do need a cannon, for the problem is a pirate ship… Or a whale.

The individual is a subscriber to the One True Technical Path for all problems in my area. That’s silly, there is no such thing as the one true technique, in principle or practice. Unfortunately, this individual has single-handedly managed to damage the prospects of a number of people who do not subscribe to The Path and is hurting the community because of his strong connections to the funding agencies. I actually feel bad on some level, because I don’t think he’s aware how many people he has managed to piss off and alienate; there are stories circulating about his abuse of the peer review process; I am not the only one who has him listed as someone not to send proposals to; many very smart people don’t want to discuss science with him because they don’t want the hassle.

I am probably crazy to even feel bad for him, because I know he feels underappreciated. But being an a$$hole to everyone around you is not going to win you friends or recognition. Only the unusually creative and original are allowed some eccentricity; mere mortals need to rely on working hard, doing a good and rigorous job, and not becoming someone everyone loves to hate.

Do you have someone on your “Do Not Send To” list?

The CHE: Retire Already!

By way of Undine, who blogs at”Not of General Interest,” I found this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article addresses academics retiring,  or, more precisely, not retiring early enough to make room for deserving up-and-comers. The whole piece is fairly obnoxious (“The Forever Professors: Academics who don’t retire are greedy, selfish, and bad for students”), but it brings up a couple of discussion-worthy points about teaching amidst the steady “kill the elderly” drumbeat.

The main premise of the article, which the author — herself a newly minted emerita — seems to espouse with suspiciously high enthusiasm, is that older academics owe it to others to retire: to the younglings waiting for tenure-track positions; to the poor departments whose budgets are drained by the high salaries of the oldies; to the apparently zombie-like students who crave exposure to the brains of young, fresh, energetic faculty.

No. No, older faculty do not owe their retirement to anyone. Why? First of all, if there’s one thing I learned in the US, it is that everyone looks out for themselves, and those who are concerned with societal benefits get called the s-word; older faculty should make their professional plans however it suits them, within the law. Secondly, for the most part those faculty who don’t want to retire are really energetic, sharp, and well-funded. I know a top-notch female scientist in her 80’s who would put me and any of my readers to shame with her globe-trotting schedule, the size and funding of her group, the number and variability of collaborations, and the publication output. I know a professor in his early 70’s whose recent graduate said that the professor was not just a very active septuagenarian, he was in fact the most active and energetic person of any age that the student had ever met. My PhD advisor is in his mid-70’s; he teaches, advises, travels, and publishes with enviable zeal, which I can only hope to have at his age.

Professors are blind to the incontrovertible fact that in the scheme of things, they are replaceable cogs who are forgotten the moment they are gone.” I don’t think this is true at all — the blindness — for anyone who has ever paid attention to what happens after people retire. Indeed, the second you are gone, nobody cares any more. Which is perhaps as it should be, and all to more reason not to choose to retire out of the goodness of your heart. Because no one will pat you on the back after you are gone.

“But ‘commitment to higher education’ covers some selfish pleasures. First, teaching is fun. It offers a sanctioned ‘low-level narcissism,’ as one friend put it, that’s hard to find anywhere else in life other than in show business.”

True, teaching is improv. Why exactly is it bad to find teaching, or improv, personally rewarding? There are plenty of narcissistic big mouths who enjoy the sound of their voice in corporate America and nobody begrudges them for bloviating. Why are academics supposed to teach for 100% altruistic reasons? Why would it be wrong to enjoy putting on a show? It sounds like great fun for everyone involved.

“Second, the continual replenishment, each autumn, of fresh-faced 18-year-olds causes the bulk of the professoriate to feel as if we are hardly aging at all.”

This is stupid and plainly incorrect. The fact that the kids in our classes are really young actually puts it clearly into perspective how old we are becoming. Parents of young kids everywhere will tell you the same thing. If anyone can delude themselves into thinking they’re beyond aging, it’s NOT the people constantly exposed to young humans. Or at least those among us with access to a mirror or the tiniest bit of self-awareness.

“Third, because teaching is part of a life of the mind, by teaching to 70 and beyond, professors feel they provide living proof, to anyone who might question them, that their minds remain sharp as tacks.”

And this is somehow supposed to be a reason to prevent them from teaching? It’s bad that they are not getting dementia, because we just can’t have sharp old people? For goodness sake.

“Finally, remaining within the confines of academe past 70 not only protects professors from the economic and professional uncertainties of life, but also substantially pumps up their wealth at the end of their careers.”

Seriously, the wealth of professors is the problem? Anyone in my field in industry will out-earn me within a couple of years of getting a PhD. Academics are middle class, and usually comfortably so, but it’s complete bull$hit to say that they are wealthy. And why is it that no one begrudges the wealth of dentists or physicians or lawyers, who all have graduate degrees and are all better paid than academics? Oh, yes, it’s the academics not doing anything useful again and, of course, tenure: nobody should be sheltered from the economic and professional uncertainties of life!!! How hypocritical that all this was written by a newly retired and presumably previously long-tenured professor .

The problem with teaching is that it offers an ongoing sense of redemption. In the real world, which you have now re-entered, if you muck up, there are consequences. In the university, you get a new semester to pretend nothing bad ever happened.”

Whoever wrote this appears to be staggeringly naive about university politics. Maybe you get a fresh crop of students to profess to each semester, but all your colleagues remain alongside you for several decades. If you think elephants have great memories, try tenured academics — they forget nothing. In these multidecade-long  professional relationships, the consequences of screwing up are real and serious. Sure, you may not get fired because of tenure, but you can get squeezed out of lab space, passed up for raises, ignored and disrespected in group meetings, so you will elect to leave or be miserable.

In my place of employment, plenty of people retire as soon as they can, move away from the cold, just go do something else. Those who don’t are generally very active in research, teaching, and service. We should leave them alone and let them do their jobs.

Riff-raffin’ It

A lot has been written around the scientific blogosphere about some prominent gentleman of science lamenting the fact that science today is populated by riff-raff as opposed to the intellectual giants among whom he undoubtedly counts himself. I am not in the mood to retell what was already covered elsewhere, so if you are interested go ahead and check out these links (here here here and here)

I have a somewhat related riff-raff story of my own.

Some time ago, I was nominated for a university award, which is very competitive and several letters of reference are required. I suggested the names of several colleagues, all senior to me but not dramatically (perhaps 5-10 years). I suggested them because I know a) they are serious scientists who do good work on topics close to mine, b) they follow my work and would be able to write about it in detail, and c) they would be willing to write these letters for me because they think I am a serious scientist who does good work, too. These colleagues are from all over the world.

It was brought to my attention that some of them may not be not high-profile enough to write letters for me for this internal ward.

I felt a little offended on my colleagues’ behalf. First, they are excellent people and some of the top people in our relatively small field (not small for a physical science, small when compared to most biomedical fields, for instance). Many of them are in Europe, where getting a full professorship is much harder than in the US (basically, a chair has to become vacant). Many of them don’t care about the accolades the way we do in the US —  for instance, even some very prominent people never bothered to become fellows of the appropriate professional societies, even though I am sure they would be shoo-ins. Lastly, most of them, being outside of the US, don’t maintain meticulous professional pages with awards and honors; for all I know, they could be drowning in awards, I wouldn’t be able to know without point-blank asking.

First of all, this was a competitive but ultimately university-level award. I wanted to ask people for whom it would not be too much of a stretch or effort to write about my work and whom I would be comfortable asking because I believe they wouldn’t mind doing it for me. I must be riff-raff myself, as I don’t rub elbows with MIT or Stanford folks; I do know people in these places (and god knows I send them enough grad students with REU experience and awarded NSF fellowships; where are my brownie points?!) and I will bother them when the time comes to write letters for my inevitable second Nobel prize. But for an internal award? Not so much.

Why is it that whom you know and who vouches for you are  the most important proxy to scientific quality? And why is it that a select few get to have an opinion about everybody’s work ? Surely the opinion of someone who doesn’t follow your contributions at all because they do barely related things cannot be more valuable than that of someone who does follow it? Why does being at Elite U endow someone with superpowers to judge everyone everywhere for everything?  If only a handful of universities are worth anything, why not close all the other ones and be done with pretending that there is important science elsewhere? We who are not at Elite U give them that power.

There are kick-ass riff-raff people everywhere. They are smart, curious, respectful to colleagues, and they they make doing science fun. They are my riff-raff.  Don’t anyone dare say anything bad about them.

To wrap up on a cheery note, here is good cheap wine that DH and I have been enjoying lately. Apothic Red — it’s great, and about $8 per bottle at Costco. (I do not recommend Apothic Dark.)