Typesetting Grant Proposals

I am in a physical science field, addressing problems by means of theory and computation. I also work a lot with experimentalists.

When I write paper or proposals with experimental colleagues, since they all use MS Word, I use it too. I also use MS Word for a lot of small documents (writing homework assignments and tests, letters of recommendation, all sorts of administrative documents).

On the other hand, I write papers with my students exclusively in LaTeX. The students’ dissertations, which are largely based on their published papers, are also in LaTeX. There is really nothing like LaTeX for producing beautiful documents with a lot of math. And, of course, the publisher that is of greatest interest to physicists (the American Physical Society) prefers it — the beautiful REVTeX two-column template (REVTeX is a collection of LaTeX macros) is the gold standard of preprints, widely recognizable as the “template of the true physicist” (see arXiv, for instance).

I also write a lot of proposals by myself. This year is worse than average in the number that I have to submit. In the past, I have written grants in MS Word and I have written grants in LaTeX. And I have a confession to make: of late, I have been writing my grants in MS Word.

Grants are complicated documents, often bridging between disparate bodies of literature; they generally have strict formatting requirements and very high standards for readability and flow. Every grant writer will recognize the need to use the available page are efficiently, without cramming too much or wasting precious space.

LaTeX, in general, will let you format the document as you see fit, but will do so grudgingly. It always knows better than you what looks good, and it generally really does; it incorporates the best typographic practices, as it was meant as a tool that lets you focus on content while not dwelling over layout. However, writing proposals is where you need to have it your way because of the spacing requirements. I have lost a lot of time in the past wrestling with LaTeX to have the wrapped figure where I want it and not where LaTeX deems it appropriate, trying to reduce the white space around the figure etc. Also, excessive math (or virtually any math) has no place in proposals, even theory ones (typesetting math is what makes Latex superior).

While it doesn’t bother me in the least that I have to compile in order to look at the text when I write a paper, it bothers me a lot when I write proposals. The proposal is a work of both form and substance, in which text flow and layout are critical. Also, proposals are usually written (by me and the likes of me, at least) on a very tight schedule, and I find that just having one document that I can easily scroll down or up alleviates some of the tension. In contrast, when I write a  proposals in LaTeX, I usually have a master file and separate files for different chapters/sections  (which makes it easier to track content and edit), but — in the mad dash to the deadline —  working with source files in Latex  makes me feel disoriented and interferes with my work flow and thought process; none are good in a time crunch. So I go with the WYSIWYG MS Word.

So, yes; I am ashamed to say, these days I use MS Word to write proposals. *hangs head in shame, turns in physical scientist card*

I am actually a little worried about being judged for writing a proposal using MS Word instead of LaTeX during proposal review (the one I am writng now, in particular). There is a lot of “one true path” among scientists, from the choice of the operating system [e.g. real computational scientists would not use anything but Linux (Mac is acceptable, but Windows is only for the dimwitted)]  to programming language or any piece of software. I review a lot of proposals, and the ones from pure physicists, especially theorists, are usually written in LaTeX (with its recognizable Computer Modern Roman, a pleasantly plump font). I am seriously worried that my use of the Text Editor of Pure Evil will immediately dismiss me as not being a real scientist in the eyes of some who may review this particular grant. My husband thinks I am nuts for worrying about such things; of course, you’d think that the content of the proposal is what matters. But we all know scientists can be territorial, petty, judgmental, and dismissive (you know, just like other humans) and it is not inconceivable that I might be looked down up because of the non-LaTeXness of my proposal (not like my femaleness, apparent from the proposal cover page, will do much to help). Then again, it may be the nerves talking. I do tend to lose my belief in humanity and become more misanthropic than usual at proposal crunch time.

What say you, esteemed blogosphere? How do you typeset your proposals? Do you care about how people have typeset their  proposals when you review them? 

WTF Editor and What Professors Do All Day When Not in Class: A Two-Parter

I have submitted a paper to a journal that prides itself in rapid turnaround. It’s been a week and no action; it’s sitting on the editorial desk (well, metaphorically; rather in an inbox or a folder of some sort). I am getting really antsy, because they often send out for review within a couple of days from submission.

I have told myself I would give them 2 weeks and then nudge them. But I might have serious problems waiting that long… It’s a journal that does desk rejections, btw.

A few months ago, I had a Glam Wannabe journal sit on a manuscript for nearly a month and then desk-rejected.  I could have received a full review other places in the same amount of time. I was unbelievably pissed that they wasted my time like that. It will be a long, long time before I review for them again, I will tell you that. A$$holes.

What say you, blogosphere? How long do you allow the editors to sit on a paper before you nudge them to ask “WTF is going on? $hit or get off the can!” (Well, the polite version, anyway.) Do your actions depend on the typical or perceived or processing time for the journal? On how badly you want to publish in there? On how much coffee you’ve had?


What do we profs do all day when we don’t teach? Well, here you go.

Smurf the Little had an owie ear, was taken to a doctor and then to daycare this morning by DH. However, Middle Boy puked repeatedly and quite grossly yesterday evening and last night, so I stayed at home with him today, as I didn’t have to teach. The Puker will be 8 this spring, so he’s not high maintenance, and he was also starting to feel better, so I was able to work. What I did today:

  • reviewed 2 proposals for two different federal agencies (one US, one Canada);
  • reviewed 1 paper (revision, didn’t take very long);
  • wrote 2 letters of recommendation;
  • edited a full-length conference paper a student is submitting;
  • edited a colleague’s paper, which I promised to do even though I also asked to be taken off the author list because I didn’t do much for the project;
  • hastily submitted belated paperwork and a report for an existing grant that I hope to get renewed and I really should be behaving better towards the program manager;
  • filed paperwork for a no-cost extension of a grant;
  • organized and submitted paperwork for a recent trip;
  • filed justification for airfare for an upcoming trip;
  • booked yet another upcoming trip;
  • emailed pretty extensively with two grad students on technical stuff, and talked over the phone with one of them;
  • emailed lightly with three or four panicked undergrads, who realized the reign of terror is upon them as they are taking a class with me;
  • emailed w/ some 20 or so other people about various upcoming meetings or scheduling midterm classroom for my huge class etc;
  • prepped class for tomorrow;
  • scanned some pages for student HW I had assigned yesterday because the library doesn’t have the undergrad text on reserve yet;
  • organized and submitted paperwork to establish an undergrad’s research position  and a add a grad student’s MS to a PhD in another department;
  • read/skimmed two papers that a colleague sent me as of possible interest (they were);
  • worked on my annual report that’s due in about a week;
  • worked on the figures for a manuscript that should be submitted likely by Feb 1;
  • obsessed/fumed over the fact that the stupid paper from part 1 hasn’t gone out to review (or come back desk-rejected) yet. Okay, this is not work, but it takes energy. Even though it’s only dark energy… BWAHAHAHA.

Not bad for a lazy overpaid layabout academic on sick-kid duty, huh? As you can see, I make a great secretary. Who dabbles in teaching and research.

I still haven’t done the stuff I need to do for the awards committee I am on, and I have yet to write the paper to accompany the invited talk I am giving in February (I really shouldn’t have accepted the invitation, I don’t like to publish conference papers — too much time on something people don’t read or cite). Two journal papers are nearing submission by end of February, and a grant too; I am chipping away at those as well, but didn’t today.

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.


Proposal update: 1 submitted, 1 to go. Mad writing around the clock to meet the Oct 31 deadline (yep, that’s tomorrow) with the second one.


Pushing limits of human ability to process caffeine and sugar.

Caffeine has replaced blood, sweat and tears. Also urine.

Sugar has replaced sleep, air, and love.

If you haven’t already, fill out the poll below and tell all us crazy NSF folks where we should be placing the page numbers in our lovingly crafted unsolicited fall proposals. It’s a once-per-year chance, and circa ~10% paylines.
You can bet your sweet typesetting butts that font size, page number placement, and the position of Jupiter at the exact time when the Sponsored Programs Office clicks “SUBMIT” are all valid criteria based on which your proposal ends up not getting funded.

In the meantime, here’s the old post on writing in a time crunch.

And other AJ works dealing with proposals and funding.

Good luck everyone!




I think I might have never been this busy in my life.

Today I was at the Eldest’s swim meet (didn’t need to volunteer, yey!) While all the other parents were sitting around, chatting, playing with their phones and iPads, I had a legal pad, a pen, and a freaking textbook , and was doing undergrad homework problems (i.e. writing up solutions) on my lap, so I can post said solutions before the midterm. Normal people are able to chill over the weekend. Your humble host, not so much. The fact that I was able to find a Starbucks within a 2-min drive greatly  improved the whole experience.

This weekend, I have had three sets of homework solutions to write up (almost done!), and I have to create the midterm exam problems for next week. I also have to finish a brief internal proposal with a colleague and review a proposal for a federal agency. (I still have to go grocery shopping and cook for the week tomorrow. And there are also these kids who seem to expect love, care, and nourishment from me; what’s up with that?)

And this is all so I would have as much prime work time as humanly possible to finish my two proposals by Halloween. Why? Because I just found out yesterday that the  NSF program to which I had been planning to submit one of the proposals, with explicit (written!) encouragement of the program director obtained this summer, has in the meantime changed the program director; the new one is very, very far removed in his interests from the previous guy, so this program is now a no-go. I quickly found a new home for the proposal, but their deadline is 5 days earlier. In all, the proposal which is less done (because its deadline for the original program was later) is, as of yesterday, due sooner than the proposal that’s nearly done.

Of course, when it rains, it pours. There has been so much academic politics drama in the department… So draining. So pointless. So much time wasted by so many people. So much disappointment in colleagues whom I naively used to consider rational and humane, but have since grown to recognize as selfish, vindictive, and manipulative. Egomania, fueled by success in receiving grants and enabled by the money-hungry administration, appears boundless.

Now back to work.

(Ms. Mentor dubbs October the exploding-head-syndrome month.)

The Curse of ATTTS

>>   Dear undergrad: You come to class irregularly and don’t come to discussion because you have team meetings for another class seemingly non-stop. You submit homework intermittently. After you had come to inform me how much more important that other class is to you than mine, you asked me to move the time and day when the homework is usually due so that I can even better accommodate your schedule for this other class. My response?



>> I have lost another colleague to the curse of ATTTS (Administrators Taking Themselves Too Seriously).

We are having way too many faculty meetings, one every week. They run for 2 hours each and it’s a waste of time, especially in the midst of the proposal-writing season for most of us. My class somewhat overlaps with the meetings, so I am always late. The other day, I was on my way to the meeting at about 30 min past, when I ran into a colleague who was already leaving the meeting; the colleague informed me the meeting was still in full swing, but that they had to leave. I jokingly pleaded “Take me with you!!!” to which the colleague responded “Oh, it’s not that bad.” The colleague had recently taken up a college-level admin position and the Koolaid has apparently been overflowing their glass. I remember a time not that long ago when the colleague  would have smiled or laughed at the joke, or even commiserated at the thought of yet another meeting. The colleague has since been fully assimilated and, I fear, can never go back to being a real professor. (By the way, the meeting was deathly boring, with the same old characters droning; even though I was late, I left early because I had way too much work to do, and  nothing was getting done. Life is too short anyway to spend listening to people’s verbal onania).

I really hate meetings. That’s probably because too many meetings are poorly run, don’t stay on target, go overtime, and don’t accomplish anything. So I avoid them like a plague. When I am in charge of a committee, I do as much as humanly possible via email and only meet occasionally when the amount of material or the way it needs to be handled is such that it’s more efficient to meet once and knock it all off the list at once. Enjoying daily meetings, which admins do, is completely alien to me. I am now confident that I will NEVER be an administrator, because I would be a really bad one, unable to keep any of the Koolaid down.

There are two types of time I devote to work:

1. Prime time, the large blocks of time when I am at work and fully alert, during the day or early evening. This is the time when I read papers, write manuscripts and proposals, meet individually with my students, essentially do my science. I also prep for classes and teach during this time, create exams, and review other people’s papers and proposals. I am extremely protective of my limited prime time.

2. Not-exactly-prime time, which would be the time when I am tired in the evening, or small amounts of time on the weekend or during the work week, which are insufficient to do a large amount of work that requires creativity or deep focus. This is the time when I grade exams, prepare homework or write solutions, organize upcoming travel, file for travel reimbursement, do the budget or boilerplate for proposal submissions. I might also write letters of recommendation or sometimes finalize reports for manuscript review. If at all possible, I try to schedule most meetings during not-exactly-prime time, since prime time is sacred.

Now that I think of it, my ATTTS-afflicted colleague has always displayed just a little too much tolerance for meetings, while  writing papers or proposals together was just not a very high priority; it seems that a lot of stupid non-research stuff has always cluttered the colleague’s schedule. Perhaps the colleague had been running out of research breath for a while and this might be a natural consequence. I, however, find that I am in better scientific shape than ever, have more and better ideas, am writing better papers and proposals and doing it faster than before, and am feeling bold and confident.

I am not saying admin work is not important. It is, and someone has to do it.
I just don’t understand a scientist who prefers this work to actual science. And who so readily morphs into  a full-fledged Koolaid abuser.

Question from Reader: Dishonesty in Fellowship Application

Reader Sameir had a question:

… I just found out that a student has copied my NSF proposal for his GRFP * and got awarded the fellowship. What should I do? On one side I think it is only a student and I should let it go, on the other hand this level of dishonesty is unacceptable.


Sameir, is it your grad student or an undergrad working with you and currently applying to grad school (presumably to go elsewhere)? Could you tell us a little bit about how the student got the proposal, and how you found out about him/her using the proposal for the fellowship? (I am just  asking for completeness.)

Blogosphere, what say you? What is the proper course of action for Sameir? Should the student be penalized and, if yes, how? Should NSF be notified?


* GRFP: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program