Sunday, June 21, 2009

All three

I was talking with an older professor the other day about I'm concerned for my student's lack of data. Not entirely true - lack of extremely compelling/exciting/novel data. But I'm getting off track.

Anyway, he said that it is very rare to have all three: students, money and data. He said that usually it took two out of the three to get the third, and by the time you were close to getting the third, one of the other two was vanishing (ie, in my case, the student was graduating or the money was running out). He mentioned this was the most common reason that profs ended up keeping students longer than necessary or paid them far to low...

This made me start thinking back over my graduate career - evaluate a couple cases, and I realized he was completely correct.

However, this didn't really make me feel any better about my current situation. Basically, my only option to get data is to hire more students than I have funding for, essentially unbalance the students/money/data ratio.

I'm not very happy about this. It seems very irresponsible.

I'm going to try an experiment - supplement with undergrads. This may work or be an utter and complete failure. Undergrads do distract the graduate students from performing at 100%. But, managed properly, an undergrad can produce quality results. It really depends on the graduate student (and the undergraduate).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

3rd year review

The third year review. Whose crappy idea was this. It seems like a good concept. The asst prof gets feedback in an official sort of way - a mock 6th yr review. Like a practice thesis defense.

Except it really isn't.

I have to prepare my "packet" for my third yr review at the end of my second yr. If I was a theorist or someone who did simulations, maybe this would be okay - maybe I would have a paper in review right now. Maybe my students would have produced something novel worth submitting to a decent journal.

I'm an experimentalist. I work with theorists AFTER I (or my grad students) have data. Which means I (my grad students) have to have a working experiment or at least have preliminary data before we could even consider doing some kind of "quick and dirty" theory thing. This means that I have to have grad students who are completely functional. And experiments take time. Some never work.

I could be one of those asst profs who just shoves the grad students out of the way, takes the data, writes the paper, and leaves the students completely clueless about a paper that has their name as the first author. I refuse to take this tactic.

My students will understand every aspect of their PhD research. However, this takes time. There is a ramp-up period. I understand this. I will not be a bad advisor and inflict permanent mental trauma on my students simply to appease some completely asinine rule.

I spoke with my mentor about this. His response was that he got tenure with no published papers or awarded grants. That would not happen now, so it really was a pointless conversation.

Maybe, someday, this will change to a 4th or 5th year review which would really be better for everyone involved. I mean, I didn't practice my thesis defense or my job talk in my first year of grad school...

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Takes a village

I may have mentioned last summer that despite the fact that I was new, I had been assigned an equally new staff person to handle all of my stuff (grant applications, purchases, etc). At this point, I told my assigned mentor that this was probably not a good idea. The blind leading the blind concept. But it continued. Problems ensued - grants getting bounced because things were done wrong. POs not getting paid. Students (and me) not getting paid. Essentially, chaos.

Obviously, I don't want any of these things to happen. And obviously, the staff person is not just assigned to me - she is assigned to a group of profs. While she has made some of these mistakes with the other professors, they have also caught many of the mistakes in time, and rectified them (grant-related mistakes). I haven't been as lucky.

So, now it is May. This has gone on for almost one year. The other professors are looking for the person's head on a plate. I just want to be re-assigned to a more senior person - which may sound like the same thing, but it really isn't. I don't think the person is malicious, I think they just need more time. Granted, the job isn't that difficult and they do seem rather lazy, but at the same time...

Anyway, the point was just to emphasize that your staff is crucial. Just as your grad students and post docs are crucial, your admins and budget analysts and grants and contracts people are just as important. I'm hoping that this whole situation is going to be rectified soon - the head of HR is now involved, so my chair and assigned mentor (who in reality is really powerless) have pretty much been taken out of the equation.

The other profs have been really good about leaving me out of this. They have focused on their issues, which are more than sufficient to get a new person in, without dragging me into this. They are all full profs, so they don't have anything to lose by making a big stink. I obviously do.

I think one reason why there has been such a delay moving forward, at least in the department, is that she was hired by the chair - not transferred into the dept from another dept. So, if she is proven to be ineffective, it falls on our chair. This would be a sign that he made a mistake. Who wants to admit that?

Friday, May 29, 2009

To post doc or Not to post doc

I have lately been on numerous panels. Work life balance. How to get a faculty position. How to prepare a successful packet. How to succeed in a faculty position.

(BTW: The last is my personal favorite - I've been doing this under 1 yr. What do I know about succeeding. I think I asked the other panel members as many questions as the audience asked. I had an advantage - I was sitting next to them.)

However one panel which I haven't been on officially (because there isn't a panel dedicated to it), but which basically becomes a discussion at every other panel is: should you post doc or not. This is a complex question, which is really dependent on the individual. So, I've compiled a short list. This was compiled this morning during a phone conversation, but it was compiled none the less.

Positives (+)/Negatives (-)
+ you need rec letters b/c: a) you didn't work with enough people during your PhD to get 3 "solid" letters for a faculty application, b) you and your thesis advisor hate each other (happens frequently)
+/- you need more publications: this isn't necessarily a good reason, the bar goes up the longer you work, and it necessarily guaranteed that you will get publications
+ need to expand your network
+ want to change fields: plan to do at least a 3yr post-doc
+ you need more skills: this is a valid reason, but don't screw your post doc advisor over - ie only post doc for 1 yr. You cost your post doc advisor a lot of money. Even if you have a fellowship.
+ you and your significant other need to match up (time line wise)
- everyone else post-docs: not true (except in bio/chem/physics/math)
- can't decide between industry and academia: post-doc'ing isn't really going to help in that decision

So, in the end, I don't really have any advice - unless it has to do with rec letters or research field.

But, just the same, everyone keeps asking me for my advice. No one asked me last year. It isn't as though the day I became a prof I was handed the magic book that had all of the secrets to the prof universe.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Yep - I have been totally MIA for the past several months.

I taught my first course - which was total chaos - but really enjoyed it. I haven't gotten my evaluations back yet, so here's hoping. I may not enjoy it so much in a couple months when they roll in.

Other than that not too much to report - I've gotten a couple grants, which has been...

Yes, all of the above. Even scary. No one mentions that once you get a grant, you actually have to do the work. This implies hiring more grad students/post docs. Which implies growing your research group. Everyone focuses so much on the difficulty of getting grants, no one warns you what happens post-grant getting.

As such, my group is growing way faster than I had planned. I'm almost in double digits. Counting undergrads, I'm well in the double digits. I have to appear calm and confident to everyone, all of the time. Simultaneously, my mood is alternating between " oh shit, oh shit, oh shit" and "I'm so awesome". The swings are much, much worse than anything I have ever experienced. A some point it will all blur together into some nice balance of "I'm the shit", but that hasn't happened yet.

Anyway, everyone, good luck.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Number of Grants

So, FSP wrote a post about the appropriate number of grants to file. And she put it as 5-6 a year. As I have had 5 grants denied in the last 2 months alone - and I'll get to this in a minute - I have to disagree. I'm going to go with the number of "as many as is humanly possible to file and still do a reasonably good job". This number will of course vary with your teaching load and how fast you can write.

Also, the number of relevant announcements ebbs and flows - in the summer/early fall, there were more announcements than there were in November, and right now I'm in an upswing again. But, again, I'm not about to not-submit just so I can get some sleep. But, I'm not going to waste my time submitting to a not-relevant announcement either.

So, about the 5 rejections. 3 were for NSF grants. I've officially been rejected from NSF. I'm not really all that upset, which is kind of funny. I got a couple "goods" and a couple "excellents", but apparently, you have to get all "excellents" to get funded. As I was never a straight A student, except for one semester in second grade, I really don't see this happening. Maybe this is my being pessimistic, but it just seems like (probabilistically) it isn't going to happen - 5 reviewers all thinking "she's excellent!". Not likely. And I didn't really get any useful feedback saying what I could do next time. Maybe I won't be submitting to NSF again anytime soon...

The other two rejections - one was a Young Investigator and one was an NIH. NIH - they said what I could do next time - focus on a specific disease. And the YI - well, those are beauty contests, basically.

So, right now, I'm working on three different ones, all due in January. I was working on two, which is a kind of comfortable number. But then a program manager called and asked me to submit. This normally wouldn't be a problem - adding one - but this one happens to be a group submission (me plus a couple other people). So I had to pull together a team. Again, normally not a big deal - but the holidays change things. Everything becomes choatic.

It isn't us (the PIs) who are the problem. It is the budget and admin people. We have to get budgets approved, which means we have to get our budgets approved. And apparently pulling together a budget is akin to balancing the federal budget. So, my other two have been put on hold (as I'm the only PI on those), and now I'm working on forcing this larger one through the budget people. And there is cost-sharing involved.

Well, Happy Holidays to everyone.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Roller Coaster...

Friday was an incredible exhausting day. It started out in neutral, so to speak. I had to call a bunch of granting agencies/foundations and leave messages/speak with assistants to arrange phone calls with program managers for next week. I managed to successfully orchestrate that, so I was pretty proud of myself.

I was chairing a student symposium for the department which was from 10am-3pm, and there were industry judges and both an oral and poster session. So, at 9:30, I left my office and went over to the hall where it was. (Note, extensive planning had been done in the weeks leading up to this to enable me to just "show up"). I brought the judge's gifts with me (and they were awesome, by the way). So, from 10-3, I got to meet with undergraduate/graduate students, which I really enjoy, and learn about a lot of research going on in my department - which was also useful. And we had Halloween cupcakes. This was one of the admin assistant's ideas - which I strongly supported - and they were great.

Around 2:30, we announced the winners of the symposium (presentations and posters) and one of my students won the poster contest, which was awesome!

And, about 10 minutes later, I got an email from DARPA, saying that my grant (which I submitted in August) had been positively reviewed, and would now enter into contract negotiations - ie, I got a grant! I am planning a party for my group for next Friday.

At this point, I think it was a good thing I had on heels (which I never wear and therefore, they make me virtually immobile), because they kept me from jumping up and down and screaming.

After the whole symposium wound down, I went back to my office, and shot off a bunch of emails (namely to my post-doc advisors about the DARPA grant). Then my department chair called.

As back story: When I arrived, I had one person filing my grants (who was awesome). Then the chair hired a new person - who knows less than I do, if that is possible. I asked to keep the first person. (Let's call this person AP - for awesome person. We can call the second person CP - for crappy person.) Apparently, CP's job was to file grants for everyone in my building to let AP file grants for everyone in the other building. AP couldn't handle both buildings - which I completely believe. Therefore, I had to use CP.

AP has been doing this forever and would semi-proof read my grants - make sure I hadn't forgotten something obvious, like an equipment justification section, or make sure I wasn't asking for an obscene amount of money in comparison to other other grants recently awarded. This is stuff I didn't even think of (the latter) or know how to write (the former). Now that I know to do this, I will. But AP's experience is really helpful.

AP thought this was unfair (a new professor working with a new grants manager - essentially the blind leading the blind), and continued to file my grants. My chair found out, and got pissed. I requested to meet with him (in person) to discuss this next week. He opted to call - conference with everyone - at 5pm on Friday. Not surprisingly, it turned nasty. I'll just stop here.

Then at 5:30, I had a meeting with a professor in another department to discuss teaching - this professor has won lots of awards in teaching and volunteered to meet with anyone who wanted advice. He asked how my experience was going so far. I said it was okay. He asked how I liked my department administration. It was like he read my mind - bizarre. I pseudo-lied, and said I liked my division - I love my dean. And, as this prof is smart, he said what I couldn't say - that my chair is a grumpy ass, but his term is also limited. So, as long as I get along with the dean (whose term isn't limited), then I should focus on that, and somewhat ignore the chair (obviously not ignore - but keep my eyes on what is really important). We are meeting again next week to actually talk about teaching.

Well, a lot of other stuff is also going on, which is probably obvious as my blogging is getting more and more sporatic. But I felt like I needed to at least give a feeling for the rapid emotional roller coaster that occurs in a single day. The ups are much much higher, and the downs are much more pronounced than when I was a grad student or post doc. So the total swing is just more exhausting. I'm sure I'll develop a coping mechanism of some sort, but I'm just not sure what it is going to be or when it is going to kick in.