Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Lunch break(down).

Yes, I am eating late today.

Yes, as you might guess from the title, I am not having a great week so far.

I think this is partly because I had unrealistically high hopes on Monday, which were all dashed yesterday and today.

So much for thinking positive?

Perhaps the saddest, most bloggable thing was talking to a near-tenure young female assistant professor.

She confessed to me that although she had the obligate C/N/S paper to get hired, she hasn't published much on her own (Pubmed confirms this) and is really on her last chance to get an R01. And her personal life isn't going so well, either. And she's clearly wondering whether she's going to be able to hang on to having her own lab.

One of the things that made me so sad about this was that her project was really novel and interesting. And I couldn't tell whether she was in this dire situation mostly through being inexperienced? But I don't want to blame the victim here, I learned that lesson already. So isn't it also partly the fault of her department for

a) hiring her


b) not giving her enough guidance/support as a young, clueless faculty member?

Maybe both?

It was very clear to me from talking to her that she did not know:

a) how to focus on ONE fundable, doable, affordable project and just do it

b) how to mentor students

c) how to write grants

d) how to start collaborations/ask for help from other labs to use their equipment and/or new techniques

e) that she should probably be trying to find a mentor.

So here is someone who is way ahead of me in some respects, but I've learned all these (essential, I think) lessons already as a postdoc (and d & e already as a grad student).

And meanwhile here I am having run-ins with the TorMentors who are telling me they now think it's going to take a miracle or two for me to get an academic position.

I'm more than a little astonished that they felt the need to bring this up with me in a very patronizing way, which means they must think I haven't considered (BOY, I MUST BE DOING A GREAT JOB OF HIDING IT!!) other options.

And I really don't believe in miracles.

So it's pretty hard to tune these people out. It's been one of those weeks again where I just feel shut out of the club, like I'm missing the Handbook of Unwritten Rules, don't have the password, etc.

Cold comfort to think academia has no idea what I could contribute if only they'd give me a chance.

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At 4:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the things that made me so sad about this was that her project was really novel and interesting.

This is the problem. She's not going to get funded to do novel and interesting. She's going to get funded to do "know-it-will-work". If she were to do a straight-up extension of what she did as a post-doc, then we already know (because her postdoctoral advisor was presumably well-funded, and because it generated a C/N/S paper) that this work is (in the minds of the study section, which is all that counts) both novel and interesting.

Her lack of awareness of this concept is a failure of mentoring on the part of the department that hired her, as you postulate. The likely reason is that in previous times of funding largess, mentoring was unnecessary because if you just kept plugging at grants long enough (two or three submissions), you got funded. Getting funded is the major bottleneck in tenure decisions so with cash in hand, she would have had the luxury of time to get the rest of it figured out for herself. It doesn't work that way anymore. This situation is the fault of lack of higher-level vision at her department and institution, but this isn't much comfort for her, unfortunately.

At 10:47 PM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

"It's been one of those weeks again where I just feel shut out of the club, like I'm missing the Handbook of Unwritten Rules, don't have the password, etc."

I know that feeling very well. There's this unspoken division of people into insiders and outsiders, based on their background, connections, and most of all their ability to ape their scientific elders. It shows up in so many different ways. For example in reactions to seminars: distainful indifference to the outsider's talk versus warmth, appreciation and often hype for the insider. Even when the ousider is talking about his single author paper in PRL (our supposedly top journal, the equivalent of your Cell i guess) while the insider is talking about work in a lesser journal to which he contributed 0.1% with the other 99.9% coming from his famous advisor. So it goes.

Well, it's nice to find a blog by someone who is just as pissed off about this as i am :)

At 2:31 AM, Blogger Mr. Procastination said...

Interesting post. I guess I need to learn on a, c en d in order to have any chance on academic future... I am terribble at asking people for something and I have 101 ideas in my head which create to much chaos now and then, therby losing my focus.

Writing grants I like a lot! :-)

Could you please inform me about what is a C/N/S paper (Cell/Nature/Science?) and what is an R01. Do you mean that she didn't published a lot as a first author?

At 6:09 AM, Blogger Average Professor said...

This is tangentially related to your post; you might be interested in this white paper from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on "Investing in Early-Career Scientists and High-Risk, High-Reward Research."

To quote it, "The future prosperity of the United States will depend, in part, on having a healthy, creative research enterprise. Discouraging bright students from becoming researchers and preventing those who persevere from pursuing their most daring ideas are not good strategies for building the nation’s future."

And, reading some of the NIH stats makes me once again glad that is not my primary (or even secondary or tertiary) potential funding source.

This is my fave rec in the report (most likely because I'm applying for tenure in the fall): "Reward quality over quantity when evaluating publications."

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

The fact that your "mentors" are telling you that you won't get an academic position sucks! If there's an area in which they feel you are deficient surely it would have been more beneficial to let you know rather than just saying that you wouldn't get a job.

I know the reality is that there are nowhere near the number of positions available for the number of applicants but there are a ton of dumbfucks and non-English speaking people out there that help to inflate this statistic (obviously I'm referring to jobs in the US). There's also a lot of people who somehow get positions that they are incapable of succeeding at which could be what has happened to the Asst Prof you are referring to.

That being said though, it is almost impossible to get major funding as a new investigator. Perhaps she should have looked into smaller grant opportunities as well as the R01 instead of pinning all her hopes on the seemingly unattainable R01 pot-o-gold.

At 7:29 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 4:38,

To be fair, her stuff IS an extension of her postdoctoral project, and it SHOULD work. And it is working.

I think she just needs some mentoring, someone to tell her she needs to focus. I wasn't sure how to tell her that myself without sounding, you know, arrogant.

Right now she's in panic mode. I've seen it enough times to know (and been there myself) so I know the tendency is to become more scattered.


Your comment made me feel better!


It's good that you like writing grants! I do too. Unfortunately this person doesn't.

To answer your questions, yes, and an R01 is a big NIH grant (well not as big as they used to be, but harder to get). She did publish as first author before she got her own lab. When you have your own lab, in our field you become Last or Senior author. That's where she needs more papers.

Average Prof,

Thanks! I didn't know that was actually out. I had heard that it was coming.

Lately I'm getting a lot of flak for trying to work on something novel and interesting (see earlier posts and comments therein).

The thing about 'quality' that bugs me is the tendency to equate C/N/S with quality. It's just not true that papers in other journals are of lower quality.


Exactly. Constructive feedback would have been good. The truth is, they are the kind of people who don't know what they like (in papers or in people) until they see it. They're terrible teachers because they aren't good at identifying weaknesses and providing suggestions for overcoming them.

You're absolutely right that I should have suggested to her to apply for smaller grants. I actually thought of that but forgot to mention it when I had the chance. I have a few friends who have had a lot of success with that approach.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Becca said...

Unusual grants (e.g., private research funds) are often a great bet. For the record, R21s are smaller than R01s, but these days the payline is about the same, so don't just suggest "smaller" without any specifics. A non-strategic R21 might be a waste of time from the 'get me tenure' angle.
I don't know if there's someone suitable, but can't you think of a mostly-decent senior faculty who might serve as a menotor for this Young Professor? Try to suggest it, or introduce them. Forging connections between people is something grad students and post-docs are expected to do (I didn't actually realize that it was expected until recently). So it shouldn't come off as arrogant.

At 6:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a junior faculty, I can attest to the importance of a)-e). But one shouldn't underestimate the difficulty in a) c) e). One fundable doable project doesn't cut it these days and it is important to have more than one iron in the fire as it were. In the current NIH climate (and yes it extends to the NSF as well), writing grants has become incredibly difficult. However the NIH does make allowances for new investigators. The Great Z has explicitly mentioned that such competitvely scored applications be funded out of turn. This results in a percentile payline of ~20-25. Not bad. Private foundation grants are useless for tenure, since most departments de facto expect an R01 at the time of tenure review.

As for mentoring, most senior folks just don't have the time. This may not be for any malicious reason, but simply that most PIs time is spent writing that ever elusive R01 or useless committee work. Getting someone to read your proposal (the gargantuan 25 pager) is like pulling teeth.

So, what am I saying... well the system is broken beyond repair.


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