Archive for the 'Careerism' category

Should we continue long-funded NIH grant programs under younger PIs?

Oct 13 2014 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

In the course of discussing the infamous graph showing the longitudinal increase in the median age of first-R01 award, and the other infamous slide deck showing the aging of the distribution of all NIH-funded PIs there is something that eventually comes up.

To wit, how do we ease the older investigators out of the system, at least to the extent of cutting down how many grants they submit and are awarded?
Continue Reading »

13 responses so far

McKnight doubles down on "riff raff" on NIH grant review panels

Oct 08 2014 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

We recently discussed a President's column at ASBMB Today by Steven McKnight in which he claimed that NIH grant review panels are contaminated with "riff-raff" who are incompetent to properly review proposals.

A Nature News piece published today notes that McKnight 'was “saddened” by suggestions that he has any gripe with young researchers or with diversity. He meant to criticize review committees as a whole, not just young scientists, he added.'

Very interesting. He was saddened, apparently, that not enough scientists understood he was calling them riff-raff! It is not only the junior scientists, it is also everybody else that he despises.

“A level of mediocrity has crept into the grant-review system,” he said. He recalled that earlier in his career, grant-review committees were packed with well-known scientists with established credentials. “Now when I look at the list, I’ll know zero names. Five or six of them will be people from fly-by-night biotech companies.” He said that he hasn’t done any quantitative research on this trend, “but I think I’m probably right”.

Let's just unpack that "I'll know zero names" business. There is an alternative hypothesis here, which is that perhaps McKnight doesn't "know" the names of people that he should.

Leaving aside whether or not McKnight actually performed any review of scientific quality per se, let us recall what happens in any age graded social situation. For my US readers in particular, I will remind you of who you "knew the names of" when you were a Freshman in High School or College versus who you "knew the names of" when you were a Senior in those respective environs. I submit to you that, as was my experience, when are looking up the social ranks, you know a heck of a lot more people than when you are looking down the social ranks.

This squares entirely with my direct experiences with my older peers in science. It is not infrequent that I refer to someone I think of as a hot Young Gun of science and the oldster has no idea who I am talking about. Even when the oldster has been impressed by the work that person has done in OtherOldster's lab but still mentally tags it to the OtherOldster. It is only with time, repetition and further excellence from the Young Gun that my acquaintance oldsters come to "see" the name of the Young Gun.

Note, this can be well into said Young Gun's independent career as an Assistant Professor.

I am not trying to excuse McKnight's snobbiness here at all. I am mentioning a common social experience that has to do with the accident of age and relative stature and has essentially nothing to do with relative merits of the people one "knows the name of".

Given that this is so common, however, you might think one would be hesitant to bray on about people's merits as a scientist based on whether your rapidly aging (and clearly not the most socially tuned) brain happens to recognize their name.

Note: Just for grins I'm reviewing the panel rosters in the
Integrative, Functional, and Cognitive Neuroscience IRG [IFCN]. These eight panels review a lot of Neuroscience grants. Admittedly I scanned quickly, and did not review the meeting rosters for ad hoc members, but I found zero individuals from biotechs. I also note that the Universities are heavily dominated by the R1s and the non-University Institutions represented are very well known Med schools and Research Institutes. I don't think I am even above the mean (or 25th percentile, frankly) in being able to recognize names across all of neuroscience.....but even scanning quickly I saw some big names all across these groups.

This may not be comprehensive data either but it sure as heck overmatches McKnight's "I think I'm probably right" comment.

56 responses so far

Query on postdoctoral training

Oct 08 2014 Published by under Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Is a lab that has 12 or more concurrent postdocs really "training" them?

Is this in and of itself evidence that this is the scientific workforce?

If, say, three-quarters of them ended up in faculty appointments would this change the equation?

34 responses so far

A pants leg can only accommodate so many Jack Russells

Oct 07 2014 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

Some DAOTI asked a silly question

got the simple answer of "no", demanded data and was summarily mocked. For this he got all fronty.

because of course he already knew the answer he wanted to hear in response to his question.

This all arose in the wake of an article in the Boston Globe about the postdoc glut that contained this hilariosity.

“They really are the canary in the coal mine,” said Marc Kirschner, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School whose lab of 17 scientists includes 12 postdocs. “They decided they’d go ahead and try to understand why a cancer cell is different from a normal cell, and here they are a few years out. They knew it was a competitive situation, and they were going to work very hard, but they didn’t see the whole system was going to sour so quickly.”

I bolded for the slower reader. My initial reaction was:

Right?

On to the point.

The world of "R1, TT" positions in science is incredibly diverse, yes, even within "biomedical" or just plain "biology". I repeatedly urge postdocs who feel helpless about the glut of postdocs to start by doing some research. Find out ALL of the people who have recently been hired all across the US in jobs that are somewhat remotely related to your skillset. Note, not your "interests". Your SKILLSET!

I follow this up with a call to do the same on RePORTER to find out about the vast diversity of grants that are funded by the NIH. Diversity in topic and diversity in geographical region and diversity in University or Department stature.

This is even before I tell people to get their "R1" noses out of the air and look seriously at Universities that are supposedly beneath their notice.

So what makes for a successful "competitor" for all of the jobs that are open? Is it one thing? Such as "vertically ascending eleventy systems buzzword biology science" training? That is published in Nature and derives from a 12+ postdoc lab with everyone busily trying to hump the same pantsleg?

"Everyone" here is, guess what? Your competition. And yes, if you choose to only seek out "R1, TT" jobs that are in a University that boatloads of people want to work in, applying techniques to topic domains that a dozen fellow postdocs are also doing right beside you, chasing CNS "gets" that a few scores of labs worldwide are also chasing...well, yes, you are going to be at a disadvantage if you are not training in one of those labs.

But this doesn't also mean that making all of those choices is not also putting you at a disadvantage for a "R1, TT" job if that is your goal. Because it is putting you at a disadvantage.

Vince Lombardi's famous dictum applies to academic careers.

Run to Daylight.

Seek out ways to decrease the competition, not to increase it, if you want to have an easier career path in academic science. Take your considerable skills to a place where they are not just expected value, but represent near miraculous advance. This can be in topic, in geography, in institution type or in any other dimension. Work in an area where there are fewer of you.

Given this principle, no, a big lab does not automatically confer an advantage to obtaining a tenure-track position at an R1 university. According to Wikipedia the US has 108 Carnegie-approved "Very high research activity" Universities. Another 99 are in the next bin of "high research activity" and this includes places that would be quite reasonable for someone who wants to be an actual teaching + research old school professor. I know many scientists at these institutions and they seem to be productive enough and, I assume*, happy to be actual Professors.

Would coming from a big lab be a help? Maybe. But often enough search committees at R1s (and the next bin) are looking for signs of independent thought and a unique research program. That is hard to establish in a big lab...far easier to demonstrate from a lab with one or two concurrent postdocs. Other times, the "big labs" in a field (say, Drug Abuse) are simply not structured like they are in cannon-fodder, bench-monkey, GlamourHumping, MolecularEleventy labs. Maybe this is because the overall "group" organized around the subject has Assistant Professors where those "big labs" have Nth year "postdocs". Maybe it is because this just isn't the culture of a subfield. If that is the case, then when an R1 is hiring in your domain, they aren't expecting to see a CV that competes with three other ones just like it from people sharing your lab. They are expecting to see a unique flower with easily discernible individual contribution to the last three years of work from that small lab. That type of candidate has an advantage for this particular job search.

So yeah. It is a stupid question to ask if [single unique training environment] confers an "advantage" for some thing as general as a tenure-track job at an R1 University.

I'll close with a tweet from yesterday:

and a followup

This all reminds me of a famous Twitter "independent scientist" jackhole who applied to a few elite Universities, couldn't get an offer and summarily declared all of science to be broken, corrupt, crowded with "diversity" riff raff and all sorts of other externalizing excuses. Make sure you don't fall into this trap if you are serious about succeeding in an academic career.
__
*actually, they say so.

21 responses so far

Faculty Recruitment by Trolling K99 Awards

Sep 22 2014 Published by under Academics, Careerism

Remember back in high school (for USians) how you received a deluge of college recruitment literature just after your PSAT and SAT scores hit the streets? Maybe I'm misremembering but it seemed as though colleges (and the Armed Forces) had access to the databases somehow and could target their recruiting.

I have heard rumour of search committees sending out letters to recent K99 awardees and inviting them to apply for open faculty positions.

Anyone else hearing anything like this?

29 responses so far

A Simple Question About Vendors of Science

Sep 19 2014 Published by under Careerism, Ethics

Most laboratories buy stuff that they need to do their research. It varies. From latex gloves to pipette tips. From mice to bunnies. From cocaine to ABD-xld500BZN....whatever that is. Operant boxes to sequencers. Stuff.

All of these cost money which generally comes from the laboratory budgets. Startup, unattached funds if you have 'em and, for the most part research grants.

Consider this scenario.

We usually get our genotyping done outside of the lab. I mean, I could have this service performed in house by staff but there are many small vendors in my biotech/university/science community that will do it for us.

I met this guy at the bar. Or, maybe I recently ran into an old grad school friend. Some woman I postdoc'd with back in the day. A friend of my spouse. Whomever.

This person is starting up a brand new biotech support company, mom-and-pop kind of thing. This GenesRUs company is happy to take over our genotyping services.

I secure a quote. Wow. Two times the most expensive bottom line I came up with for doing it in-house that convinced me to hit the vendors in the first place. Maybe 3X the price of other locals.

But. But. This person is so nice. And we have a personal connection of some sort. Gee, they are still so small that they will come pick up from us at basically any time we want? And have results back prontissimo?

And you know. I HAVE the grant money. It isn't going to kill our budget to dump a few extra thousands on this top-cost option every year. Even if it amounts to tens of thousands, hey, it's just grant money, right?

The question, Dear Reader, is this.

Is it okay for me to use my PI's prerogative to spend my grant money this way? Just because I want to?

25 responses so far

Tough love

I got tough-love comments only about twice in my postgraduate academic training prior to becoming a PI.

Once was from a friend in a far different graduate program when I was in the depths of writing my dissertation. This one is in my top 5 life touch-stone conversations I would guess. Basically it boiled down to "If you find all of this so unpleasant, get the hell off your ass and do something else. I mean seriously, wtf is wrong with you?"

The second tough-love convo came from a mentor who had just seriously pulled the rug out from under me and I had disappeared (essentially) from work for several weeks. That one was more----nuanced in effect on me. But in the end s/he was right. Shitty things happen but dude, it's your fricken career and your fricken life. So sack up and get back to work.

On reflection, I didn't have anywhere near enough people doing this to me throughout my career. Two was not by any means as many as I could have benefitted from.

As a mentor, I rarely start these conversations. I doubt I've had a trainee that doesn't get at least one such conversation from me that could qualify, but I find them unpleasant and avoid them.

No doubt just as my mentors did.

They are hard conversations to initiate and hard ones to receive.

Even on the Internet from some anonymous blowhard.

17 responses so far

Peer Review: Advocates and Detractors Redux

A comment on a recent post from Grumble is a bit of key advice for those seeking funding from the NIH.

It's probably impossible to eliminate all Stock Critique bait from an application. But you need to come close, because if you don't, even a reviewer who likes everything else about your application is going to say to herself, "there's no way I can defend this in front of the committee because the other reviewers are going to bring up all these annoying flaws." So she won't even bother trying. She'll hold her fire and go all out to promote/defend the one application that hits on most cylinders and proposes something she's really excited about.

This is something that I present as an "advocates and detractors" heuristic to improving your grant writing, surely, but it applies to paper writing/revising and general career management as well. I first posted comments on Peer Review: Friends and Enemies in 2007 and reposted in 2009.


The heuristic is this. In situations of scientific evaluation, whether this be manuscript peer-review, grant application review, job application or the tenure decision, one is going to have a set of advocates in favor of one's case and detractors who are against. The usual caveats apply to such a strict polarization. Sometimes you will have no advocates, in which case you are sunk anyway so that case isn't worth discussing. The same reviewer can simultaneously express pro and con views but as we'll discuss this is just a special case.

The next bit in my original phrasing is what Grumble is getting at in the referenced comment.


Give your advocates what they need to go to bat for you.

This is the biggie. In all things you have to give the advocate something to work with. It does not have to be overwhelming evidence, just something. Let's face it, how many times are you really in position in science to overwhelm objections with the stupendous power of your argument and data to the point where the most confirmed critic cries "Uncle". Right. Never happens.

The point here is that you need not put together a perfect grant, nor need you "wait" until you have X, Y or Z bit of Preliminary Data lined up. You just have to come up with something that your advocates can work with. As Grumble was pointing out, if you give your advocate a grant filled with StockCritique bait then this advocate realizes it is a sunk cause and abandons it. Why fight with both hands and legs trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey?

Let's take some stock critiques as examples.

"Productivity". The goal here is not to somehow rush 8 first author papers into press. Not at all. Just give them one or two more papers, that's enough. Sometimes reiterating the difficulty of the model or the longitudinal nature of the study might be enough.

"Independence of untried PI with NonTenureTrackSoundin' title". Yes, you are still in the BigPIs lab, nothing to be done about that. But emphasize your role in supervising whole projects, running aspects of the program, etc. It doesn't have to be meticulously documented, just state it and show some sort of evidence. Like your string of first and second authorships on the papers from that part of the program.

"Not hypothesis driven". Sure, well sometimes we propose methodological experiments, sometimes the outcome is truly a matter of empirical description and sometimes the results will be useful no matter how it comes out so why bother with some bogus bet on a hypothesis? Because if you state one, this stock critique is de-fanged, it is much easier to argue the merits of a given hypothesis than it is the merits of the lack of a hypothesis.

Instead of railing against the dark of StockCriticism, light a tiny candle. I know. As a struggling newb it is really hard to trust the more-senior colleagues who insist that their experiences on various study sections has shown that reviewers often do go to bat for untried investigators. But....they do. Trust me.

There's a closely related reason to brush up your application to avoid as many obvious pitfalls as possible. Because it takes ammunition away from your detractors, which makes the advocates job easier.


Deny your detractors grist for their mill.

Should be simple, but isn't. Particularly when the critique is basically a reviewer trying to tell you to conduct the science the way s/he would if they were the PI. (An all to common and inappropriate approach in my view) If someone wants you to cut something minor out, for no apparent reason (like say the marginal cost of doing that particular experiment is low), just do it. Add that extra control condition. Respond to all of their critiques with something, even if it is not exactly what the reviewer is suggesting; again your ultimate audience is the advocate, not the detractor. Don't ignore anything major. This way, they can't say you "didn't respond to critique". They may not like the quality of the response you provide, but arguing about this is tougher in the face of your advocating reviewer.

This may actually be closest to the core of what Grumble was commenting on.

I made some other comments about the fact that a detractor can be converted to an advocate in the original post. The broader point is that an entire study section can be gradually converted. No joke that with enough applications from you, you can often turn the tide. Either because you have argued enough of them (different reviewers might be assigned over time to your many applications) into seeing science your way or because they just think you should be funded for something already. It happens. There is a "getting to know you" factor that comes into play. Guess what? The more credible apps you send to a study section, the more they get to know you.

Ok, there is a final bit for those of you who aren't even faculty yet. Yes, you. Things you do as a graduate student or as a postdoc will come in handy, or hurt you, when it comes time to apply for grants as faculty. This is why I say everyone needs to start thinking about the grant process early. This is why I say you need to start talking with NIH Program staff as a grad student or postdoc.


Plan ahead

Although the examples I use are from the grant review process, the application to paper review and job hunts are obvious with a little thought. This brings me to the use of this heuristic in advance to shape your choices.

Postdocs, for example, often feel they don't have to think about grant writing because they aren't allowed to at present, may never get that job and if they do they can deal with it later. This is an error. The advocate/detractor heuristic suggests that postdocs make choices to expend some effort in broad range of areas. It suggests that it is a bad idea to gamble on the BIG PAPER approach if this means that you are not going to publish anything else. An advocate on a job search committee can work much more easily with the dearth of Science papers than s/he can a dearth of any pubs whatsoever!

The heuristic suggests that going to the effort of teaching just one or two courses can pay off- you never know if you'll be seeking a primarily-teaching job after all. Nor when "some evidence of teaching ability" will be the difference between you and the next applicant for a job. Take on that series of time-depleting undergraduate interns in the lab so that you can later describe your supervisory roles in the laboratory.

This latter bit falls under the general category of managing your CV and what it will look like for future purposes.

Despite what we would like to be the case, despite what should be the case, despite what is still the case in some cozy corners of a biomedical science career....let us face some facts.

  • The essential currency for determining your worth and status as a scientist is your list of published, peer reviewed contributions to the scientific literature.
  • The argument over your qualities between advocates and detractors in your job search, promotions, grant review, etc is going to boil down to pseudo quantification of your CV at some point
  • Quantification means analyzing your first author / senior author /contributing author pub numbers. Determining the impact factor of the journals in which you publish. Examining the consistency of your output and looking for (bad) trends. Viewing the citation numbers for your papers.
  • You can argue to some extent for extenuating circumstances, the difficulty of the model, the bad PI, etc but it comes down to this: Nobody Cares.

My suggestion is, if you expect to have a career you had better have a good idea of what the standards are. So do the research. Do compare your CV with those of other scientists. What are the minimum criteria for getting a job / grant / promotion / tenure in your area? What are you going to do about it? What can you do about it?

This echos something Odyssey said on the Twitts today:

and

are true for your subfield stage as well as your University stage of performance.

6 responses so far

Thought of the day

Aug 17 2014 Published by under Careerism, Day in the life of DrugMonkey

Your failure to achieve exactly the career outcomes that you desire in academic science is 100% because the systems are broken and you are undermined by nefarious opponents using underhanded tricks to block you.

___
H/T: he knows who

8 responses so far

Replication costs money

I ran across a curious finding in a very Glamourous publication. Being that it was in a CNS journal, the behavior sucked. The data failed to back up the central claim about that behavior*. Which was kind of central to the actual scientific advance of the entire work.

So I contemplated an initial, very limited check on the behavior. A replication of the converging sort.

It's going to cost me about $15K to do it.

If it turns out negative, then where am I? Where am I going to publish a one figure tut-tut negative that flies in the face of a result published in CNS?

If it turns out positive, this is almost worse. It's a "yeah we already knew that from this CNS paper, dumbass" rejection waiting to happen.

Either way, if I expect to be able to publish in even a dump journal I'm gong to need to throw some more money at the topic. I'd say at least $50K.

At least.

Spent from grants that are not really related to this topic in any direct way.

If the NIH is serious about the alleged replication problem then it needs to be serious about the costs and risks involved.
__
*a typical problem with CNS pubs that involve behavioral studies.

34 responses so far

Older posts »