Archive for the 'Ask DrugMonkey' category

Is your NIH PO a little....grouchy?

Feb 27 2015 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism

Another one, paraphrased from multiple correspondents:

Dear DM: 
is it just me or are all the POs getting increasingly grouchy and unhelpful?

A. Reader

I am not certain, since I hardly have a representative sample. But I'd say no, this is probably just a bad run for you.

When encouraging you to interact with your Program Officer(s) I tend to emphasize the useful interactions that I have experienced. Consequently I may fail to convey that most of the time they are going to be unhelpful and even discouraging.

Try to see it from their position. They hear from dozens of us, all complaining about some dirty review deed that was done to our application and looking for help. Round after round, after round.

They cannot help everyone.

So take it in stride, as best you can, when you get a seemingly dismissive response. This same PO may become your best advocate on the next one*.

*and then treat you like effluvium again after that. It's happpened to me, I can tell you.

36 responses so far

What would you ask Sally Rockey?

Feb 26 2015 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey

Apparently Sally Rockey, NIH Deputy Director in charge of the Office of Extramural Research is on some sort of University tour because I have received several queries lately that go something like this:

Dear Drugmonky:
Sally Rockey will be visiting our University soon and I have the opportunity to ask a question or two if I can get a word in edgewise between all our local BigWig voices. Do you or your Readers have any suggestions for me to add to my list of potential things to ask her?
A. Reader

I have my thoughts and suggestions, of course, but mostly my Readers know what those are.

How about you folks in the commentariat? What would you ask Sally Rockey if you had her in a small room with your peers?

49 responses so far


Feb 03 2015 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Day in the life of DrugMonkey

Some people try to get into a mental frame for grant writing with disruptions of their normal workaday routine.

I tend to fit grant writing into a normal, regular old working style.

This all started because someone wanted to know what special snacks or food I use for "grant mode".

I don't.
Continue Reading »

20 responses so far

Things I should not have to point out to people and yet, here we are.

Things that I actually have to say to some people.

yes. it is bad news that there is yet another way for people to fuck themselves the hell up on stimulant drugs. yes.

No responses yet

Repost: Should I hire a postdoc or a technician?

Dec 08 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

This repost is via special request from some n00b Assistant Professor who has apparently lost access to Google.

It was originally posted 25 Aug, 2008.

The comments following a recent post touched on the newly independent investigator dilemma of who to hire first: A postdoctoral fellow or a technician? We'll leave aside the best answer ("both") as impractical because, as Professor in Training noted,

I only have enough money to pay ONE postdoc's salary for 18 months ... or ONE tech ... that's it. While that would be great for me, that's certainly not enough time for a postdoc to get more than one study done (in my field probably only 75% of a study). Is it even advisable to employ a postdoc for such a short time with no great certainty of being able to pay their salary beyond that point?

YHN tends to recommend "tech" and PhysioProf tends to opt for "postdoc"...sounds like a new discussion to me!

To define terms just a little bit for those less steeped in the biz, I covered the job category of "technician" here:

A "technician" in the biomedical sciences is an employee of the laboratory (well, actually of the University) who is not "in training" (such as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) and does not (usually) have a terminal doctoral degree. (For example long-term PhD scientist employees who are too far along to really be "postdocs" and are not PIs are not really "techs".) Most typically the tech has a bachelor's degree in a scientific major and a few will have advanced credentials such as Veterinarian Tech specialties or subject-based Master's degrees. It is not unusual for the tech to have continued her education while working in the laboratory by taking advantage of University educational repayment policies.

One of the most important parts for today's discussion is that the technician can be viewed, non-pejoratively, as 100% an employee working "for" the lab head or Principal Investigator (PI). Someone who is expected to do what is asked at all times with the goals of furthering the lab agenda. In this employment relationship the PI is unequivocally understood to be "the boss".

A postdoctoral fellow/trainee is a person who has acquired a terminal doctoral degree (Ph.D., D.V.M, D.D.S., M.D.) and is working under the supervision of an independent investigator. Here one key difference is that the postdoc is in a dual role, the balance of which is debated. The postdoc is considered a "trainee" in the sense that s/he is working in part for her (his) own benefit, to acquire skills and tools that will be required to obtain and launch an independent research career. This notion implies a degree of independence from the PI, an ability to work on stuff other than what the PI has "told" her (him) to do, possibly to work on stuff that is only of benefit to the postdoc (and not the lab or PI directly), etc. I happen to believe that the postdoc also has a responsibility to help the lab and, in essence, to do the job for which s/he was hired and to make all data generated accessible to the PI...but not every postdoc agrees with that. In truth it is also likely that some PIs either explicitly or implicitly think that postdocs are basically indistinguishable from technicians when it comes to the employment relationship. So there's a spectrum.

Okay, so why do I think a tech is more important to secure for a brand new PI?
That isn't your job anymore. Scutwork. Tedium. The stuff that is absolutely necessary to the running of your lab which is not particularly demanding in intellect and may be incredibly time-consuming. Yes, you specialized in this as a lowly graduate student and took pride in the fact that you were able to do this work as a postdoc while still doing more high-falutin' intellectual labor. Postdocs around you who couldn't find their behind with both hands when it came to the basic work were to be derided. Fine. But this is not your job anymore!!! My position is that the more time-consuming scutwork you can get off your plate the better. Since nobody likes scutwork, it is far better to rely on an employee who is paid to do a job, can be readily fired and replaced, for this sort of thing.

Your first deceptively hard question as a new PI is that of determining which tasks in the lab really do not require your input, after basic training and given that you will continue to supervise and troubleshoot. I say deceptively hard because my experience in talking with some fairly advanced postdocs and even junior faculty is that they have not really thought about this question. They get stuck in the usual traps. "It is more work than it is worth to train somebody to do this." "I only trust my own work/data/analyses." "My hands are the best." "This is too important to screwup." Etc.

All true. Being a PI takes a big leap of faith in the work of others. This is, in my view, part of the deal. For the huge increase in scientific terrain you are able to cover as a PI directing the efforts of other scientists, you are accepting the risk that someone else is not as good as you*. So get over this. Your job is to learn how to set up your management style such that you can tolerate human frailty and still make excellent progress on what interests you.

Progress and Work Ethic. Management of personnel is one of the hardest things for new PIs to learn. After all, we were motivated self-starters so we can't really understand why everyone else would bother to be doing this stuff if they weren't self-wackaloon-motivated. Sadly, not every one is just like you (ibid), new PI! Which means that you may have to evaluate an employees work effort and apply some judicious boots to the posterior. Perhaps even with threats of dismissal and actual dismissal for poor performance. It is very much easier to do this with a technician who is supposed to be working 100% at your behest.

Stability. In most cases postdocs will be transient visitors to your lab, lasting 3-5 years at best. So sure, a good one may get you through tenure. But postdocs can and do leave for all kinds of reasons. Their interests and relative focus on your stuff necessarily changes as time elapses. The tech on the other hand, can be a more or less career employee in whom your investment over time continues to pay you back over intervals of a decade or more.

Availability. Unless you are very lucky or very HawtStuff, recruiting a good postdoc to your laboratory is far from given. I've seen this from all ends, as a postdoc, peer of postdocs, mentor to postdocs , as a PI seeking fellows and as a peer to other junior faculty looking to hire. I've seen situations in which the fellow (or grad student) was very focused on joining the lab of the local BigCheez and quickly evolved to be working most closely with local junior investigators because the fit was so obviously better. The bottom line is that for a postdoc the prospect of joining a starting Assistant Professor's lab is very much of career concern.

An additional concern with availability is that it is not unusual for postdocs and PIs to come to arrangements far in advance of the actual start date. Very anecdotally, I'd say the better the candidate, the more likely this is the case. So a junior PI who manages to recruit and lock-in a highly promising candidate may have to accept that she will not be arriving in the lab for a year. That's a big hit, especially if that is the first year in which teaching loads have been reduced. Technicians are typically hired with a fairly short lead time on the order of weeks at worst.

Data Stream Strategy for the Long Haul. This one verges dangerously close to the argument over being an investigator who operates on the cutting edge at all times versus the small-town grocer. So YMMV. If, however, you have an aspect of your research program which can putter along with relatively little input from you, is of lasting importance to your scientific goals and interests and, most importantly, can support a steady stream of bread-and-butter publications I recommend getting this going. It is not necessary that the tech does all of the work up to publication-quality figures, of course, mainly that s/he is able to generate good quality and interesting data at your direction. Or the tech is capable of doing most of the work with you sailing in for the essential parts.

It is all very well and good to shoot for GlamourPubs. If you manage to get them, you are set. I get this. Not getting them is, however, excusable. In most environments, meaning that even if not in your specific department you can get a job elsewhere. Perhaps one theoretical tier down, but still a research-focused job. What is not optional is publishing somewhere, anywhere**. When it comes to most decisions that matter, tenure and review of prior progress when it comes to grant review, 0-fer is not excusable. Published articles can be debated on their merits with respect to actual impact, importance, brilliance, what have you. A lack of publication can not be debated or defended***. Admittedly the postdoc who is half-decent has a greater possibility of getting all the way to a submittable manuscript. But the bread-n-butter tech is near guaranteed to make sure the data are available to writeup when you are feeling the publication pinch.

Final Thought. It basically comes down to risk management from my perspective. If you can get a very good, hardworking postdoc right away the choice is pretty clear in opting for the postdoc. I am quite pessimistic, however, that new PIs can pull that off. When it comes down to a postdoc who will not show up for 12 months, a postdoc who is lazy, distracted or really focused on interests that are not sufficiently in line with yours...well, the technician wins every time.

Update: One thing I forgot to mention originally but was reminded of by the first comment. The chances of getting a technician working for you for free are next to zero. It is possible to get a postdoc for free, however. A postdoc may come with their own fellowship (there are many international-study type fellowships where a country funds individual fellows to go abroad, for example) or you may be able to secure a slot on a local institutional training grant for your postdoc. This is not a guarantee but these situations are considerably more likely than getting a technician working for you but paid for by some other source of support.

*almost by definition, the fact that you are a PI now means the smart money bets you were a better-than-average postdoc. Very likely you had more motivation, intellectual curiosity and, yes, better experimental hands than the average bear. Which means that on average, postdocs that come into your lab are going to fall short of the standard of you! (Yes, even accounting for an inflated view of self.) Deal.
**"anywhere" means "peer reviewed" and is environment specific. Whatever your field considers the supposedly lowest denominator or a minimally respectable "dump journal" or whatever.
***usually. I could tell you some stories. But really, make it easy on yourself and publish something already!

19 responses so far

Thought of the Day

Oct 01 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey

Some days...

I tell you, one of the most hilarious parts of this blogging gig is this.

On the one hand, any time I try to gently suggest that postdocs could work a little harder, might need to actually produce a little more, need to figure out how to close out "projects" into submittable manuscripts AND THAT THIS IS A TRAIT THAT THEIR PIs HAD AS POST DOCS.....

I get pushback.

From the hordes of Internet postdocs who are all brilliant, wonderfully productive, practically PIs themselves in all significant ways and are, sadly, only held back by their current rat bastige PIs who fail to help them in some egregious manner.

On the other hand,I have recieved a lot of commentary behind the scenes from PIs. Who tell me the most hilarious stories about postdocs who fail to produce, are completely delusional about their own efforts, accomplishments and/or levels of effort.

There is only one possible conclusion.

The postdocs who read my blog and the PIs who read my blog are entirely independent sets with no possible areas of population overlap.

35 responses so far


Aug 20 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Day in the life of DrugMonkey

I want you Readers to succeed in your careers and your grant seeking.

You are not bothering me* in the least when you email with questions.


*I may ignore you but mostly I respond.

4 responses so far

On coming up with multiple ideas for R01 proposals

A question to the blog asked the perennial concern that is raised every time I preach on about submitting a lot of proposals. How does one have enough ideas for that? My usual answer is a somewhat perplexed inability to understand how other scientists do not have more ideas in a given six month interval than they can possible complete in the next 20 years.

I reflected slightly more that usual today and thought of something.

There is one tendency of new grant writers that can be addressed here.

My experience is that early grant writers have a tendency to write a 10 year program of research into their initial R01s. It is perfectly understandable and I've done it myself. Probably still fall into this now and again. A Stock Critique of "too ambitious" is one clue that you may need to think about whether you are writing a 10 year research program rather than a 5 year, limited dollar figure, research project that fits within a broader programmatic plan.

One of the key developments as a grant writer, IMNSHO, is to figure out how to write a streamlined, minimalist grant that really is focused on a coherent project.

When you are doing this properly, it leaves an amazing amount of additional room to write additional, highly-focused proposals on, roughly speaking, the same topic.

34 responses so far

Strategies for your #A2asA0 Resubmissions

Jun 30 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

A query came into the blog email box about how to deal with submitting a new grant based on the prior A1 that did not get funded. As you know, NIH banned any additional revisions past the A1 stage back in 2009. Recently, they have decided to stop scrutinizing "new" applications for similarity with previously reviewed and not-funded applications. This is all well and good but how should we go about constructing the "new" grant, eh? A query from a Reader:

Do you use part of your background section to address reviewer comments? You're not allowed to have an introduction to the application, but as far as I can tell there is no prohibition on using other parts of the application as a response to reviewers.

I could see the study section as viewing this a) innovative, b) a sneaky attempt to get around the rules, c) both a and b.

I am uncertain about the phrasing of the Notice where it says "must not contain an introduction to respond to the critiques from the previous review". In context I certainly read this as prohibiting the extra page that you get for an amended application. What is less clear is whether this is prohibiting anything that amounts to such introduction if you place it in the Research Strategy. I suspect you could probably get away with direct quotes of reviewer criticisms.

This seems unwise to me, however. I think you should simply take the criticisms and revise your proposal accordingly as you would in the case of an amended version. These revisions will be sprinkled throughout the application as appropriate- maybe a change in the Significance argument, maybe a new Experiment in Aim 2, maybe a more elaborated discussion of Potential Pitfalls and Alternative Approaches.

Given the comments, perhaps you might need to state some things twice or set off key points in bold type. Just so the next set of reviewers don't miss your point.

But I see no profit in directly quoting the prior review and it just wastes space.

10 responses so far

High school email-an-expert projects: Respond or ignore?

I have been experiencing a sharp uptick in high school projects that are apparently titled: "Email questions to some random expert on the internet" lately.

Is anyone else getting these?

Do you respond? In what depth?

17 responses so far

Older posts »