colleagues

Noisy

I drafted this post a while ago, but never published it. Perhaps it’s time, as ASBMB’s publication of “A Good Little Girl” (original post here) reminded me of it. This post will likely go *poof*  in a few days. 

—–

We voted for the promotion of a faculty member to full professor. The colleague’s record is quite strong. He commands massive amounts of funds, mostly from DoD, has a large group, and produces a lot of papers. In that regard, he’s a model faculty member. The support for his promotion was unanimous.

The colleague is a master of self-promotion. He’s what I would call “noisy.” He’s very vocal about his awesomeness, and he does not let anyone forget it for a second. Over the past several years, through my service to the department, I have been privy to just how much internal money has been spent to show this colleague institutional love. In fact, I wrote several nomination letters and assembled nomination packages for him to get internal awards, accompanied by flexible funds. (He received the awards; but, in case you are wondering, no, I never got a “thank you” for the work I put into those successful nominations).

But, when you look at this colleague’s record in detail, there are some interesting aspects.

The colleague boasts about his high student evaluations. Then you see that he has not taught an undergraduate course — any undergraduate course, let alone a required, high-enrollment one — in many years, since before his last promotion. All his teaching has been restricted to two graduate courses with 10-15 enrollment. Not exactly the world’s toughest-to-please student audience. Actually, if his evaluations weren’t great in this scenario, that would be quite alarming.

When you look at service, there is absolutely the barest minimum of service to both the institution and the department. He serves less than most of our assistant professors, and I can assure you that we really protect the time of our young faculty. Over the past several years, I offered him to serve on what I believe are the more meaningful among the university committees, and he always said he was too busy. Basically, his only service is to the profession and always in a capacity that enhances his visibility (e.g., conference program committees).

So it really pisses me off when someone comes to tell me I cannot decide to reduce my own teaching and service with “But-but-but, what happens to the institution? What happens to the students if everyone does what you propose? How can you be so selfish?” Because, of course, by being female I have to first and foremost think of my duties to others. I guarantee that no one will say a thing to this colleague who was just promoted. Nobody will even hint to  him that he mooches off others and he should pick up the slack in teaching and service. Nobody will scold him for being selfish, as long as he brings in the funds.  And that’s why this is all so fucked up. And he’s hardly the only one of his kind.

The colleague will go on his merry selfish way, with maximal free time to pursue funds and write papers and work on his visibility, and periodically make loud noises to remind us all how well funded and well published and how much more valuable than the rest of us he is. I don’t know what goes on in his head, but I bet he thinks he really is so much better than the rest of us, and I bet he believes that the likes of me actually prefer teaching required undergrad courses with huge enrollments and serving on university committees to writing papers and grants, because if we didn’t love it so much we would just not do it, like him!

I hate that selfish people prosper the most.

I hate that it is so hard for people who are not selfish to act selfish, and thus to prosper as much as the effortlessly selfish people.

I hate that women are not allowed to show that they are even thinking about being selfish without someone coming to tell them, “Tsk, tsk, tsk, won’t you think of the children?”

I hate that I am supposed to be everybody’s goddamn mother. Or secretary. (Or quiet diversity token. But that’s a story for another day.)

Don’t Confuse Style with Intent

Riker, Picard, and Kolrami

Riker, Picard, and Kolrami

Quote from “Peak Performance,” a 1989 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

[Kolrami has criticized Riker’s inappropriate joviality and lack of seriousness for a commanding officer.]

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Don’t confuse style with intent. Only a fool would question Commander Riker’s dedication to Starfleet and the men and women under his command. He is simply the finest officer with whom I have ever served.

Sirna Kolrami: We shall see if your faith is well founded.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The test is whether the crew will follow where Commander Riker leads. His… his “joviality” is the means by which he creates that loyalty. And I will match his command style with your statistics anytime.

********

A few years ago, a senior female colleague, whom I consider a friend, told me that I did not have the right personality to go into administration. I don’t think she wanted to be mean and I believe she told me her honest opinion. I also have no intention whatsoever of ever going into administration. But her remark did sting, as they always do when a person whose opinion you value confirms some of the worst fears or most negative opinions you have of yourself. What I heard was a confirmation that how I am, my entire personality, is simply wrong for being a senior member of academia.

I am much more serious in my blog writing than I am in real life. I think my family and my students would roll their eyes at how stuffy I sometimes sound on the blog, especially when I am in advice-giving mode.  I am really not serious in real life, at all. (You should hear our family’s dinner conversations.) However, it’s a real challenge in faculty meetings to not blurt out the jokes that pop into my mind while the colleagues drone on. If you ever felt the urge to laugh at a funeral, that’s  how I feel in just about every meeting ever. With age, I have gotten better at keeping my mouth shut and distracting myself so as not to disrupt the super-serious and often time-wasting proceedings.

But my personality seems to be perfect for teaching undergrads. Peppering my lectures with “good bad jokes” (this is verbatim from a student comment) works well to keep the students engaged and generally everyone in a good mood. The courses I teach are very “mathy” (again, an expression a student used) and challenging on their own; for many undergrads, every avenue that can be used to relate such material to something practical or enjoyable is not only welcome but, in fact, necessary for the students to feel a real connection with what they are learning. Goofing around with them fits the bill.

I am also myself with my graduate students and my collaborators, as I let my pun-happy freak flag fly. I hope most of them don’t mind. At least they are all used to me.

But I never forget that my personality is wrong, that being a goofball is out of the norm, yet another item in the long list of ways in which I am not how I should be for where I want to be professionally.

This year, I am chairing an important university-level committee. It was a surprise that I was chosen to chair it, considering I had been myself the whole time leading to the election. But now that I was supposed to take up my chairing duties, I had every intention of being dead serious, like my predecessor, because it’s a very important committee.

We had the first meeting the other day and I had the floor to myself for quite a while, because there was a lot of material to present to the new members. I was very nervous and I felt at times that I couldn’t find appropriately weighty words, becoming of a serious academic. But I could always find a metaphor, a light self-deprecating joke, or a slightly sarcastic remark. And within minutes, I was relaxed, and so was everyone else on the committee. To my complete surprise, I was able to run a very efficient meeting. Here are some unexpected aspects that I noticed.

  • I covered all the material that I was supposed to cover, and I believe I did it clearly, and in considerably less time than my predecessor. An incisive remark or an appropriate metaphor is often more efficient at conveying meaning than three paragraphs worth of admin-speak. I will hypothesize that actual living academics in meetings with other academics might, in fact, like to have their information conveyed clearly and succinctly, just like all other humans do in every aspect of their life. Who knew?
  • I was nervous, but I guess so was everyone else, especially the new members. I think I (inadvertently) set a lighthearted tone that helped everyone relax quickly.
  • When I compare this meeting to the ones over the past years (different chair every year), I believe I spent overall less time talking myself while other senior members of the committee chimed in more. I am not sure what the reason is; maybe I am a blithering fool who’s not worth listening to? Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing overall — everyone sharing their impressions with the new members is vastly superior to just me dispensing wisdom for an extended period of time.
  • What is interesting is that some people who were very quiet last year spoke quite freely and cheerfully this year. It might be that they are simply more relaxed as they are no longer new. Whatever the reason, it’s good to finally hear from them!

Overall, I was surprised at how well everything went, how efficient the meeting was, and how cheerful everyone seemed as they were leaving. I did not suck at chairing this meeting, despite acting like myself.

You may call me Commander Riker.

A Good Little Girl

When you are a woman in a male-dominated STEM field, weird things happen to you. People say weird shit or give you weird looks or write weird letters of recommendation for you. And this is just the good guys, the male colleagues who are at the core respectful and supportive of you.

A few years ago, there was some paperwork to be submitted by a deadline as part of a large collaboration. I was stressing out about it, and a very senior collaborator (older than my father) was mocking me for wanting to make the deadline “like a good little girl.”

And you know what? He was right. As a woman in science, who’s always done well in school, I have always been a good little girl who played by the rules. I see the same thing with the students in my undergraduate courses. Young women are very rare, but the average performance quality of the women is much higher than the average of the male students. And the good female students follow the class rules, while many of the good male students do not. The good female students come to lectures, come to discussion, and start their homework on time; when I emphasize something in class as important to remember, they remember it and are able to do it on the exam. With good male students, there are those who are “good little boys,” but there are a number of those who really have atrocious study habits, who skip classes, then cram and bother me mercilessly right before the exam to try to make up for what they missed; there is nothing of the kind among the strong female performers.

Even in my research group, the young women are uniformly the cream of the crop. They write the best-quality, well-commented code; when I ask them to complete the code documentation before they leave, they actually do it. On average, their technical writing is better, they are more methodical and less sloppy in their research, and generally follow instructions better/are more coachable than my male students, and thus improve faster along every training direction (technical competence, data visualization, technical writing, presenting).

With smart male students, I sometimes have to battle over the stupidest things. Yesterday, I told a student to try something because the simulation wasn’t working. He was grumbling because he “knew” it wouldn’t work; I said he had to do it anyway, and to do it and come show me. Of course, it worked, and he seemed surprised that it was actually a good idea. *eyeroll* I never have to put up with such crap with female students. If I ask that they do something, they go and do it, and then also build upon it and develop it in different directions or augment or try something new. There is never that step that’s like pulling teeth to get them to simply do what I say. I am not saying all male students are disobedient, far from it; rather, if I have to pull my hair out because someone is obstinate, it’s always a boy, never a girl.

I am sure these experiences have to do with how boys and girls are socialized. Across cultures, girls are taught to be people-pleasers and to defer to authority (men from certain cultures are taught the latter, as well, and it shows in how they respond to coaching). The challenge is to get women to balance this deep-seated deference with speaking their own mind, developing and sharing their own ideas, and getting recognition for them.

Now, where am I going with this? Say, a good little girl grows up and gets a faculty position. Maybe that good little girl is me, or you.

The good little girl is in danger of a) doing much more service then necessary, b) doing much more or more laborious teaching than the colleagues who are not good little girls, c) generally being misinformed about what all that teaching and service really do for her career, because everyone expects her to act as a good little girl and, at the same time, thinks less of her for doing so.

People tell you that it’s important to do service, because journal editors remember you when you review for them and university colleagues remember you when you serve on their committees and program managers remember you when you serve on their panels. I am definitely guilty of vastly overestimating how much certain service roles would benefit my career. For example, I sat on 3-4 panels by the same program manager at the NSF, where I thought I would eventually get funding. I never did, and he left, so all of that is just a waste of time. Sure, maybe it helped make me a better proposal writer, but I doubt it; it’s the case of diminishing returns — I either know or don’t know how to write proposals at this stage of my career, I am not going to have my eyes miraculously open in this regard over a decade into a faculty position.

Similarly, there were university awards that I felt my service on certain committees might help me get. I did get them. But then I saw my colleagues, who completely eschew all service, getting similar awards, and I felt like I have wasted a ton of time for no good reason.

I review papers for journals, probably a paper per week, because I feel that if I am to be entitled to good reviews of my own work, I should do the same for others. It turns out, there are plenty of people who have high demands on the reviews they receive, but review very little themselves because they feel it’s not a good use of their time. (How does the dichotomy not blow their minds?)  A colleague with a huge group literally laughed at me for reviewing a lot for a journal where we both publish. “You realize that’s not going to help you get your own papers published, right?” he chuckled.

It is entirely possible to be very successful and to be completely selfish. These people are the ones who are happy to let the likes of me — good little girls, who feel insecure about their belonging in the enterprise of science and thus want to do their share, to please, to not feel like they take more than they deserve and they deserve so little — do well more than necessary, as it benefits them. Women do more teaching and service than average in their academic STEM departments (this is true across my college) because everyone gently perpetuates this myth that more teaching and service will benefit the women in the long run. Maybe, but it’s a weak, higher-order effect.

Scratch that. It’s mostly a lie. Any recognition or warmth or fuzziness that your willingness to please and serve and make deadlines and generally play by the rules will produce for you, the good little girl, among your colleagues, takes too much of your time (the time that’s subtracted from research, family, hobbies, watching grass grow) yet is much, much  smaller than the recognition than any of your self-centered colleagues gets for bringing in another grant or publishing another Glamour Mag while doing minimal service and teaching.

If you feel teaching and service are important, that the institution wouldn’t function without them, and if you really truly enjoy these activities, then go ahead and do them. But please don’t do them because you think they will benefit your career, other than in a very small and indirect way. People who are whispering these lies in your ear want you to be the one doing the dirty work, so they’d be free to pursue the really high-payoff activities. They are not evil incarnate; they do it because they can. They simply recognize that you are a good little girl, and we all know the good little girls will do anything to be liked and useful and helpful. There is no benefit to you if you do as expected; there is a likability penalty if you don’t.

Don’t fall for the bullshit. Your success does not depend solely on them liking you. If you kick their butt with your record, they can dislike you and you will still be fine. More than fine, actually.

You may be a good little girl, but you are not a stupid one.

Are you postponing working on your own papers or proposals, or not relaxing over the weekend, because you are constantly backlogged with service obligations and teaching?
Don’t. Just don’t. As someone who does that constantly, I am telling you — just don’t.

You have tenure? Congratulations! Now:

  • Go, right this minute, and put a “Not available to review” status at journals that often prompt you to review for them. Commit to rejecting all new review requests, no matter who sent them, for the next 2 months.
  • Get off of any new committees that you were put on in the past month. Or the past six months. Cite a scheduling or personal conflict.  Apologize profusely.
    Many people think women are flakes anyway. You might as well act like one, for once.
  • Stop attending faculty meetings till the end of the semester. Cite a scheduling or, better yet, a research-related conflict.
  • Write down (or pull up, if you have it already) a list of all papers you have in the works with your students, and write a revised, accelerated timeline for the submission of each. Meet with students at least once about each of those papers in the coming 2 weeks.
  • Write down (or pull up, if you have it already) a list of all proposals you have in the works and write a revised, accelerated timeline for the submission of each.
  • Decide on a small number of trips you will take each year. I traveled twice a month every month of the last year and have barely recovered.
    I think I should aim for a number of trips between 5 and 10 per year. 1-2 funding related, 4-6 talks at conferences/universities. 1-2 freebies, such as conferences where you can learn something new. That’s plenty.
  • Commit to 2 months of no work email on the weekends. None whatsoever. (It can be done. So I hear.)
  • Commit to 2 months of reading 1 nontechnical book per week. (Or running. Or yoga. Or blogging. Or anything that you can do just for you.)
  • Vouch to never again miss out on family fun (or quality time with your dog/marathon/whatever) because of stupid service.

People seem not to realize that good little girls become awesome grown women. Even the women seem to occasionally forget it.

We could and should be just as self-centered as any mischievous little boy.

 

Question from Reader: Managing the First 1-2 Years As an Assistant Professor

A New Assistant Professor (NAP) has a question:

I have worked at an industrial research lab for five years and have finally received an offer from a well-known US public research school as an assistant professor in engineering.

I am so excited but at the same time I am a bit anxious about setting up a new research lab, recruiting graduate students, getting grants, and teaching.

Would you please give me some advice about how I can successfully manage the first one or two years as assistant professor? What would be my
priority in the first two years; writing papers or writing proposals, or teaching, or mentoring graduate students? Probably, all of them….

I would appreciate any of your advice in advance.

First of all, congratulations to NAP on landing a tenure-track position at a major research university! It will be quite a ride.

I responded briefly to NAP via email, and will expand on that a little bit. (All my advice is for a physical science field at a major research university in the US, so if you are reading and your field or institution type or country is different, obviously some or even all of the advice will not hold.)

1) Teaching: Try to make sure you teach grad courses in your specialty (rather than large enrollment undergrad courses) in the first 2-3 years. Teaching well takes a lot of time, especially initially. Teach the same 2 courses a few times during your fist few years, until you get your research program going. Ideally, you will have senior faculty mentors (often formally) who should be there to advise you and to also be your advocates when it comes to shielding you from some of the unnecessary burdens. Many universities have formal mentoring programs, make sure you take advantage of that.

2) Startup: You probably received a startup package that covers equipment, stipend and tuition for a couple of research assistants (RAs) for 2-3 years, and some travel and summer salary money.

2a) Summer salary: In the US it is common for physical-science faculty to have 9-month contracts, i.e., they are not paid over the summer, unless you teach the summer courses or more commonly have money from grants to cover summer salary. Indeed, at research universities it is expected that the salary will be eventually brought in from grants. However, it is typical that a startup will include funds to cover a couple of months of summer salary for a couple of years, until you land your first grant (or five).

2b) Personnel: Try to recruit 1-2 grad students who will start during your first year, or bring in a postdoc whose quality you trust, to help you build up your lab. You need people right away, but you don’t have to bring everyone you think you will ever need right away. There is a learning curve when it comes to recruiting people, so your first few may be awesome but they may be duds too. Fingers crossed.

2c) Equipment and building a lab: Lots of money, lots of time. Start shopping right away. However long you think it will take, it will be even longer.

3) Funding: Since you are in the College of Engineering, the requirements to bring money will be high for tenure. At least some of your grants should be peer reviewed (NSF or DOE or NIH, depending on what you do), others can be DoD (AFOSR, DARPA, ONR) or industry. Getting funding is probably the highest priority at the start. For DoD you need to make personal connections with program managers so you will have to travel to DC to meet them and see where their interests lie.
Map out all the early career/young investigator awards you are eligible for (some have limitation of years post PhD), see how many tries you have for each one, and what you need for each. Hit as many of them as you can, potentially staggering them, but generally hit them hard. A few are due in the summer so you have a full year of practicing with regular NSF proposals and collaborative proposals etc. before the first wave of young investigator awards.

(A bit of parenthetical info: People in the physical sciences tend to be in the College of Letters and Science or the College of Engineering (computer science and materials science, for instance, could be in either, depending on whether they are standalone or associated with an engineering department). The funding requirements in the College of Engineering are generally different as a whole than in the Letters and Science. There are fewer TA-ship available in Eng because the departments do not teach service courses, and everyone is expected to bring in lots of grants. Among the departments in the L&S, there are differences. For instance, chemistry and biochemistry will typically have high requirements on grants, similar to chemical engineering, but with often larger groups because of the supply of TAs. People in statistics and computer science and some branches of engineering and applied math have very similar requirements as to how much money should be raised and the publication pace. In the physics departments, condensed matter experimentalists will raise money and publish at a pace similar to chemists or chemical engineers or materials scientists, while theorists in general and the people in particle physics or astrophysics may not be facing very high grant raising requirements, and grants may not be an important part of the tenure review in those fields. In my math department, it is specified at tenure time that they do not expect grants or evaluate grants as a component of excellence. In general, departments that teach large service courses will have lots of TAs, and I know people in physics and chemistry who have had multiple students on TAs throughout their PhDs.

In general, in the College of Engineering, grants will be a significant component based on which you are evaluated. In you are in College of Letters and Science, depending on the field, they may or may not be considered as a metric of accomplishment.)

4) Papers: If you have data from your industry position or previous postdoc or some collaborative work that you can write up for publication, write those up during the first year. Alternatively, write a review paper or two. Backlogged, collaborative, or review papers are a good way to bridge the gap between starting a new position and having papers out from your own lab (which realistically won’t happen right away). Depending on what you do, you could have single author papers (I did during the first few years on the TT, while my first students were being trained).

5) Service: Keep institutional service minimal, and professional service in the capacity that will enhance your exposure, visibility, and/or potential for getting funds. Travel to see program managers, travel to give invited talks and lectures. Do not organize a major conference as early assistant professor, but do participate on the program committee if invited. Definitely volunteer to sit on review panels and generally review proposals for relevant agencies, it will drastically help improve your grant writing abilities.

6) The first few years are crazy, but it does get less so by the end of year 3. Try to be nice, but avoid unnecessary obligations in terms of teaching and service. Your primary duty is to get your research program up and running — which means grants and papers — and anyone who is is not helping you focus and is trying to divert your time is not your friend early on the tenure track. Once you have gotten your first couple of grants, you have papers coming out, and you have several students staggered in seniority, it’s OK to diversify your teaching (show you can teach undergrads, try novel techniques) and service (ideally something you care about, like curriculum or facilities or new faculty recruitment).

Good luck!

What say you, blogosphere? What did I miss as critical advice during the first 1-2 years on the tenure track? 

Sexist Logorrhea

Apparently, a septuagenarian Nobel laureate thinks women are a distraction in the lab and cry a lot; calls for gender-segregated labs. The Internet erupts.

Whatever. I am actually relieved every time something like this happens. I am relieved that occasionally someone is actually stupid enough to say out loud what many think and act according to anyway.

Over the past several years, I have been a witness of pretty serious discrimination of other women by people considerably younger than Hunt. These men would fight you to the death if you even hinted that they were sexist because of course they don’t think they are; yet, their actions speak differently.

  • We have enough women,” said in earnest by a colleague in a faculty meeting discussing hiring. Women make <20% of faculty.
  • L is not a real candidate,” said by a colleague about a female candidate. The colleague and I were on the recruitment  committee together, I know we ranked all candidates, top 20 were all stellar, L was ranked 3, and we interviewed 5. She is not a diversity candidate, she’s a highly qualified candidate who also happens to be female.
  • A few years back, some colleagues and I went through serious diversity training in preparation for serving on the faculty recruitment committee. I remember finding the training illuminating. That’s where I first found out about how women are expected to act communal and men agentic, and how women are penalized if they act insufficiently communal. I saw the examples of recommendation letters and the difference in the language people use for men and women, how letters for women always veer towards too personal, with comparatively less focus on achievement, excellence, competence, and with different adjectives used for women and men. The male colleagues went through the motions and, when it was all done, said it was all pointless bullshit and a waste of time. We all saw examples of those letters of recommendation; they completely shook my world, but apparently did nothing for my male colleagues. You truly can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.
  • At the university level, we reviewed three candidates from the same general field (different subfields) coming up for tenure. If you just looked at the number of publications and quality of journals where they appeared, the number of  citations, the number of grants, the woman was the best of the lot. But if you looked at external evaluation letters, you’d be appalled by the language. According to the letters, the two men were superstars in the making (not made yet, with writers bending over backwards to attribute lack of citations to the fact that the candidate is a visionary), while the woman’s achievement were downplayed, with statements to the effect that she must have come up with some of her most heavily cited findings by accident! It was disgusting. I read about these instances happening, but it was blatant and real and clear as day. These letters then led to the committee dissecting the woman’s record with a scalpel and a fair bit of skepticism; everything worthwhile she did had to be qualified, while the men were fine just on potential and the letters.  (You bet I was vocal about it.)
  • Being a member of the program committee for a conference in my field, it routinely happens that there are no women suggested for invited talks unless I suggest some. It’s amazing how I can think of 3-4 women easily, and the other 15 dudes together cannot think of single one.

That is not to say that there aren’t men who really and truly are the champions of women. They exist (thank you, guys!), but are definitely a minority. For instance, I have the good fortune that some of my department colleagues, including the chair, are really genuinely supportive of women,  really put their money where their mouth is: they advise female students and actively support female colleagues. However, I would say that less than 20% of men in my department are true diversity champions, who believe a diverse workplace is a better place for everyone. The rest, a vast majority, make allowances for exceptional specific women (“Of course, you are awesome! You are much better than other women!”) but do not see why there is a need for diversity; science is fine just the way it is! They consider all our “hysteria” about women in science to be tiresome political bullshit that has to be catered to when writing about broader impacts in NSF proposals. They will often say things such as “We hire the best candidate, not an affirmative action candidate!” To everyone who ever said that I want to say the following: it sounds like you have no freakin’ clue how it is to objectively evaluate candidates for anything very competitive. There are always MANY highly qualified candidates, any one of them would be a good choice. Now the question is how to pick 1 or some other small number from among these uniformly excellent men and women. I am disgusted to see that people think all of these few spots belong (!) to “real candidates,” i.e., men. The fact a woman is just as good as any of them still does not make her a real candidate in the eyes of some, even fairly junior colleagues with professional wives and daughters.

So I don’t understand the outrage that another sexist a$$hole suffers from the foot-in-mouth disease. Because, really, it’s not a big surprise. It’s just how things are.

In my experience, many men in the physical sciences, even among those who think very highly of their own enlightenment, don’t really think that science needs more diversity, but rather that’s it’s simply something women want and are very loud and annoying about and should be accommodated on occasion to stop the whining (or to snatch the rarely seen unicorn-female-superstar-real-candidate).  They consider all efforts to promote women as a nuisance that gets in the way of doing science as they are used to. My European colleagues can be a special brand of offender here, as they often see (and speak of) the quest for promotion of women as an American problem and not something relevant to where they live and work (this from a colleague who works on a large team of about 50, with a single woman, a student). It is very hard to change people’s minds when they think they are blind to sexism and that all they see is merit. Trying to convince them that much of the merit is really in the eye of the beholder would be positively quixotic.

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.