Repost: Eye on the Prize...

I have a whole bunch of reasons I was thinking about an old post of mine in the last few days. Politics, mostly, but also some blog topics floating around here or there. Rather than frame it my way, I'll just put up something I posted on June 13, 2007.


There's been some interesting hoopla in the last couple of days sparked by Zuska's post examining gender discrimination in academia by way of excoriating those who ignore their own inherent privileges. The ensuing discussion became vehement and led Rob Knop to post his own examination of privilege and, more importantly, the strategy of demonizing one's natural allies that some perceive in Zuska's approach. I've also been reading Chembark's little rant suggesting that poor stewardship of the public's (grant) money verges on ethical misconduct. And YoungFemaleScientist expresses a common enough frustration with the dismal prospects for scientific transition. There's an older one from Adventures in Ethics and Science on gender equity in science too. Finally, the situation at MIT with the tenure denial of James Sherley (tip to Dynamics of Cats) has been picked up by both Nature and Science in recent issues.
All of this has me thinking about agendas, advancing the same and styles of discourse and approach. Your Humble Narrator must confess to agenda, really, who doesn't have a series of agendas? In terms of the future and present conduct of biomedical research science, most specifically in YHN's chosen field, I have...opinions.


One boils down to this:

  • I believe that my science is best accomplished by getting the "best of the best", meaning the smartest and most motivated people to participate.
  • The only way to get the best of the best is to cast a wide net.
  • Therefore diversity of opportunity is a GoodThing.
  • Systematic blocking of opportunity, on any grounds, is counterproductive.
  • Thus I'm generally in favor of efforts toward diversity and fairness in scientific transition to independence and grant awarding.

Careful readers will have noted that there are some areas in the NIH grant review and funding process that bring YHN close to the ranting stage. Indeed, I've been known to rant quite a bit in person. In essence I think that the deck is stacked in favor of the well-established investigator and against the newer or untried investigator. In a way that is not clearly justified by a legitimate attempt to get at the "best possible science" and is not consistent with the idea that each and every application is judged on its own merits. This stifles the opportunities for young scientists to become independent investigators and thus violates the opportunity to cast a wide net round-by-round when it comes to funding decisions. It is my sincere belief that we cheat our science when we use any systematic means to block a given category of investigator from bringing a grant proposal to the table. Interestingly, it occurs to me that issues of gender and racial balance in science would be greatly addressed by a re-balancing of the senior/junior investigator success in awarding grants.
But what I've really been pondering is style of approach and how to have a real impact for the issues you favor. Be they gender participation, opportunities for scientists in training, opportunities for ethnic minorities or what have you. Ranting feels good but it just DOESN'T GET THE JOB DONE! Take my current soapbox. Readers will have noticed that I participate in grant review. No biggie, many people do. But in this position, I have the ability to have a direct effect. Not by fiat, of course. There's a room full of people voting on grants and for the most part only the three assigned reviewers' opinions affect the score. However, I have my pile of grants with which to work and I can choose to work in such a way to systematically rule out bias in favor of senior investigator grants and then attempt to convince the panel of the correctness of my view. At the least, my presentations get others to think about they way they view things like an implicit bias against new investigators. At best, I manage to "save" a grant or two (and yes, I think I have demonstrably done so for at least once currently funded grant) from what I see as unfair treatment by the current system. This is not, obviously, because I personally vouched for the proposal but rather because I showed the panel the strengths that were already there! Thus this observation is not to brag. Certainly I will lose the argument, so to speak, more often than not. The vast majority of the time, senior investigator proposals are better anyway so I'm not even motivated to push up a junior investigator application. But at least I'm in a position to make an argument in the good cases...in position to try to advance the agenda.
The essential point is this. Getting into a position to be effective is better than just shouting. Keep your eye on the prize. Postdoc hell? Making tenure as a woman in male-dominated fields (ok, every field)? Making it as an underrepresented minority in science? It is WAY better to get there and work your influence from within. You may not have "made it" for a long time. Heck, YHN has hardly "made it" in any sense. Privileged white males get denied tenure too, as has been discussed elsewhere in blogoland during the abovementioned hoopla. Soft money science employment means anyone can be out of a job by not bringing in the grant money. There is much discussion in current funding times of very senior people "closing their labs" perhaps a few years earlier than anticipated because of failing to renew grants. But even with out having "it made" you can work influence.
My thoughts on non-ranting approaches to the ends are mostly directed at the disgruntled postdoc, I suppose. My recommendations:

  • Your job, from about year 2 of postdoc'ing is to get a Job(tm), meaning a position in which you are permitted to write research grants (not just fellowships).
  • That next paper you are working on is not going to drop a Job(tm) in your lap, no not even if it is in Science or Nature. (If you are at that level of science, so is your competition). Don't wait to apply for a job or a grant because you think this next result is going to seal the deal- it won't.
  • Important caveat to the above: Never, never, ever lose sight of the fact that you have to produce for your current PI or you are sunk. I don't care how exploitative, etc. You have to produce for sake of your own career. Stop doing that Society-of-Fellows stuff....really.
  • Write papers. This is the currency of your career and everyone knows this. It is also a common disgruntled post-doc topic. "The PI won't let me publish, it isn't cool enough for a high impact journal". "My experiments aren't working.". "I got put on a service/lame/unproductive project". True, true, ain't it awful. Thing is, it is YOUR behind on the line. Learn how to manipulate that obstructive PI to your advantage. Swallow your pride and publish in "bad" journals. Publish methods. Anything. You have to publish. ...you knew this.
  • Writing a grant "for" (or with) your PI is not "exploitation" it is training. How cool is it to get your hardest knocks in the grant review process while it isn't really your behind on the line?
  • "Networking is stupid and cheezy and insulting. And I suck at it." Etc. I've been there. It isn't my forte by a looooong stretch. But guess what? It is the JOB, so learn how to do it.
  • Take any position that lets you write a grant. Startup is nice, as is the triumphant arrival at a new department that recruited you heavily. But this is not the only way. Get promoted from within to "staff scientist", "adjunct research professor" or anything else that your Institution lets write grants. Be careful because unwritten policies and changes thereof abound.
  • Take over service Cores of Big Grants . Seems lame, eh? Guess what, you show up on CRISP as a PI.

....this is going to be an open thread for a bit.


I reflect that some of this is my sheer incompetency in translating an incoherent rage response into the type of evocative and coherent expression that people like Zuska, msphd and PhysioProf can pull off. Or perhaps I was speaking in part to myself with that post. I revisited it yesterday and it felt like advice I needed to think about this week.

11 responses so far

  • Becca says:

    For the record, this has always been one of my favorite DM posts.
    I've probably more or less said this before, but the whole "get yourself a good job with tenure first, then change the system" advice provokes mixed emotions in me.
    Firstly, it reminds me of Ms. Mentor, who is kind of awesome (although, of course, we all know DM is totally hotter than Ms. Mentor- whoah, sorry. We'll blame that on the influence of Dr. Isis).
    Secondly, a while back I made a fairly flippant remark about professors with tenure not having anything real to complain about... so logically, if you wait until tenure to change the system... yeah.
    I think ultimately, the "eye on the prize" thinking is incredibly valuble... as is the idealistic "change the system! We are... SCIENCE!" thinking. It's best in a dynamic equilibrium.
    Hmm. Now I am a-curious what exactly about politics/blogosphere/ect. is making DM distracted from keeping his eye on the prize.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Secondly, a while back I made a fairly flippant remark about professors with tenure not having anything real to complain about... so logically, if you wait until tenure to change the system... yeah.
    There's a critic of FSP The Great floating around here and there, don't know if it is you, who comments now and again that she rings hollow because she has it "made". It is never true, of course. It has implications all up and down the career paths if simple "tenure" at the associate professor level is the stopping point. if "Professor" is the stopping point for people who deserve to make the additional UniversitySpecialTurbozProfessor ranks, the National Academy/IOM, etc..ditto.
    It may be the case that you are always most able to make the changes for the people that are just behind you but so what? Should I stop arguing for transition and first grants just because I am long past that stage? I don't think so.
    Now I am a-curious what exactly about politics/blogosphere/ect. is making DM distracted from keeping his eye on the prize.
    Are you kidding? Do you youngun's really not understand that we are reaping the dubious benefits of a 35yr+ sustained political perspective, this perspective has now failed big time, we are facing the prospect (not inevitable, prospect) of some very lasting and severe problems resulting from these failures and the country is inexplicably not 95/5 in recognition of the essential facts? This is worrying to me.

  • Becca says:

    Nah, is not me. FSP rings hollow to me because I can't grock her. No one would ever question whether I have teeth.
    I love FSP and find her blog awesome. That said, I cannot relate to most of her struggles in a very personal manner. Still, I'd not make the leap to assume that her struggles were trivial.
    And this youngun understands that "may you live in interesting times" was meant as a curse for a reason. However, I fail to comprehend your statement. What Political Apocalypse !!1eleventy! are we worried about today?

  • juniorprof says:

    What Political Apocalypse !!1eleventy! are we worried about today?
    A dead economy means no jobs.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Becca, six years ago, the U.S. economy tried to tank. The person who was widely considered to have the magic economic touch, who embodied the fundamental American assumptions about our economy, did what "everyone" thought needed to be done to put the economy back on track. One of the things that isn't being talked about much yet is how his actions in pushing the economy back toward growth had a big part to play in the bubble that resulted. Basically, in my opinion, we were feeding the economy at the top with fake money when we should have been feeding it at the bottom with real money.
    If his actions were wrong, our assumptions were wrong, which means we don't have a great handle on where to go next. From there, what juniorprof said. Given that, the number of people who want to try to "stay on track" are frightening.
    If that's still unclear, let me know and I'll expand it into a blog post.

  • DrugMoney$$ says:

    Shorter SZ: Repubs were the ones who raided the bank playing "Monopoly" as kids.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    No, no. Shorter SZ is always "It's not that simple." Sometimes I just hide it better than others.

  • Becca says:

    Hmm. I raided the bank playing Monopoly as a kid (we worked out a whacky set of house rules encouraging sneaky raiding with strict penalties for robbers that got caught; kept us on our toes). Does this mean I am doomed to become a Republican someday?! Say it ain't so!
    For the record, I also grew up in circles where anti-Monopoly was available. A less fun board game I have never known (and that includes "Life"- which has a only a small single redeeming value- putting two little blue people in the car next to each other when you get married).
    Stephanie Z- please do expand into a blog post. Your answer was clearer than DM, but still not entirely intelligible. Specificity in pronouns might help. Although, I'm unsure if you and DM are even really talking about the same thing (you mention a 6 year time period, he mentions 35 years). Try simple words like "pricey houses no one wants"- that's about my level of understanding. To be honest, I'm still not sure it's not all fake money.
    Anyway, I'm young and healthy. I'll go plant trees if worst comes to worst.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Okay, Becca. Here you go. It's written pre-coffee, so let me know what looks like it was produced through a bleary-eyed haze.

  • TreeFish says:

    Getting back to DM's post....
    I am about to accept a position at a medical school/center. They are right up my alley with research and are giving me $800k start-up. I am at a very competitive private medical school right now, and have tried my balls off to publish, think, learn, and schmooze.
    I haven't done everything I wanted, but I kept trying new techniques and new ideas for experiments (many times through tears, fears, and beers). I had opportunities to write grants for (er...um...with?) the PI and received a less than 5%ile; I have been ghost-reviewing for the PI for years; and write my own papers. It has been an absolutely amazing experience; but not without its moments of absolute despair.
    Somehow, though, I got through it (thank you Guinness, Bitburger, and Mrs TreeFish and the Treetadpole!), and now things are looking up. I am lucky to have a supportive faculty, who helped me land a tt-jobbyjob...and an unbelievably hands-off mentor (who I haven't seen in a few months), who probably would have scared others off based on her...uh...handsoffness.
    The flip side is that I have also seen some very bright people who have been unable to fight through the tears, fears, and beers-- and are now floundering in their 4-8th year of post doc. They seem a bit reluctant to try new things; to risk failure by trying new techniques or new ideas; they defer to the PI when writing papers...or even thinking about the merits of an experimental idea. FUCK THAT! I was also astonished when two of them told me that they were Res Asst Profs, and that THEY HAVEN'T YET SUBMITTED AN R01 PROPOSAL! WTF?! CUT THE GODDAMN CORD, TAKE YOUR THUMB OUT OF YOUR MOUTH, AND START ACTING LIKE A GODDAMN GROWN-UP SCIENCEY DUDE/DUDETTE.
    I am lucky enough to have published some really nice papers, though only one of them was in a C/N/S journal. The other papers, though, are fucking cool regardless of where they're fucking published. Time and my colleagues are my goddamn editorial board.
    So, I guess that I am unequivocally endorsing DM's view that you have to keep your eye on the prize at all times...at all costs. Your PI wants you to train a rotating neuroscience 1st year, but you're in the middle of the mostawesomest experiment ever? Tell the PI to go pound sand. What, is he/she gonna fire you?! No! The PI will be miffed by your obsession, annoyed by your selfish-ass, and delighted by your cool-ass data. Fuck 'em all! Look out for number one-- cuz if you win, your lab wins. You don't have to be a jack-ass just because your singularly focused on number one. An emergent property of your personal success is the success of your lab. Life begets life...motherfucker!

  • Nat says:

    I've just printed DM's post, and TreeFish's comment out.
    It's time for me to get going. Well, it's overdue frankly, but giddy up!

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