Archive for the 'Careerism' category

What is a "staff scientist" and is this an attractive career option?

Jan 17 2017 Published by under Academics, Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Our good blog friend, occasional commenter and behind the scenes provoker of YHN's blogging nearly on par with CPP, @superkash put up a twitt poll:

An extended discussion is going on and there are a few things of interest to me that are emerging.

What IS a "staff scientist"? Does it have a defined role? How is it used both formally by institutions and in less formal career-expectation space? How is it viewed by the hiring PI? How is it viewed by postdocs?

Is it, or should it be, a mere evolution of a postdoc after a certain interval of time (e.g., 5 years)?

Is it, or should it be, in part a job-job where a person is hired to do one sciencey thing (generate data from this assay)?

Is it, or should it be, a job where the person "merely" does as the PI instructs at all times?

Does it come with supervisory responsibilities? Is part of the deal to remove this person from ever having to consider grant-getting?

Is permanence of the job in a way that is not the case with postdocs an implied or explicit condition of the job title?

57 responses so far

Here's the deal

Dec 14 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH Careerism

When a lever of power unexpectedly extends into your operant chamber, press it.

That is what they have done to get to where they are. Constantly.

I know it irritates you that the world works this way. It irritates me too. This irritation changes nothing.

Take the opportunity. If needs be, remind yourself of all those times the system screwed you over. Let this make up for that.

Press the damn lever.

14 responses so far


Dec 07 2016 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

I recently attended a scientific meeting with which I've had an uncomfortable relationship for years. When I first heard about the topic domain and focus of this meeting as a trainee I was amazed. "This is just the right home for me and my interests in science", I thought. And, scientifically this was, and still is, the case.

I should love this meeting and this academic society.

This has not been the case, very likely because of the demographics of the society (guess) in addition to a few other....lets call them unusual academic society tics.

This year was a distinct improvement. It isn't here yet but I can see a youth wave about to crash into the shore. This swell of younger scientists (stretching from postdoc to nearly-tenured) looks more like modern science to me. Demographically, and on many dimensions.

This gives me hope for the future of this academic meeting.

19 responses so far

Creeping infantilization of scientists

Dec 05 2016 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

I recently attended a scientific meeting during which it was made clear that their prize for young investigators had an age cutoff of 50 or younger.

Now the award was not literally titled "for Young Investigators" as so many are, but the context was clear. A guy who looks phenotypically like a solidly mid-career, even approaching-senior, was described as a "rising star" by the award presenter.

This is ridiculous.

It is more of this creeping infantilization of generations of scientists by the preceding one (Boomers) or two (preWar) generations. The generations who were Full Professors by age 40.

This is all of a part with grant reviews that wring hands over the "risk" of handing an R01 over to a 30 year old. Or a 38 year old.

I think we need to resist this.

Hold the line at 40 years of age on early-career or young-investigator awards. If your society is such that it only starts the awards at mid-career, make this clear. Call them "established stars" instead of "rising stars".

25 responses so far

Really, it's normal

Dec 01 2016 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

It's okay. It's perfectly natural and healthy. Everyone does it, you know. I mean, it's not like anyone brags about it but they do it. Regularly. So go ahead and don't feel ashamed.
Continue Reading »

34 responses so far

Overtime rules

So. A federal judge* managed to put a hold on Obama's move to increase the threshold for overtime exemption. Very likely any challenge to this will fail to succeed before a new Administration takes over the country. Most would bet there will be no backing for Obama's plans under the new regime.

NIH is planning to steam ahead with their NRSA salary guidelines that met the Obama rule. Workplaces are left in a quandary. Many have announced their policies and issued notification of raises to some employees. Now they are not being forced to do so, at the last hour.

My HR department has signaled no recent changes in plans. Postdocs will get raises up to the Obama threshold. There are some other categories affected but I've seen no announcement of any hold on those plans either.

How about you folks? What are your various HR departments going to do in light of the de facto halt on Obama's plans!

*activist judge

56 responses so far

SFN 2016: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary

Nov 03 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

As the neuroscientists in the audience prepare for their largest annual scientific gathering, I like to remind my Readers to attend to a chore which will improve their odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. This includes a little bit of homework on your part, so block out an hour or two with your coffee cup.

Part of the process of sustained NIH funding includes the long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Sure, they do turn over a bit and may jump ICs but I've had some POs involved with my proposals for essentially the entire duration of my funded career to date.

Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.

To this I can only reply "Well, do you want to get funded or not?".

A version of this post originally went up Nov 12, 2008.

One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA is to stroll around NIH row. Right? The National Institutes of Health populates quite a bit of real estate in the vendor/exhibitor section of the poster floor. If you are new to SFN, go find it once you arrive. If you are and old hand, I expect you know what I am talking about.

This blog has frequently discussed the role of Program (meaning the individual NIH Institutes and Centers which fund grant proposals) in determining which grants actually receive funding. Although the priority scores assigned by the study section review (and the resulting percentile ranks) are very, very important there is also a role for Program Officials (POs). The ICs will frequently fund grants outside of the order of the percentile ranks based on a number of factors having to do with the type of science that is proposed, their view of the quality of the review and various IC initiatives, desires and intentions. The process by which the IC selects the grants which it is going to pick up for funding outside of the percentile order is a bit opaque but believe you me it is done by real human POs with typical human virtues/failings.

Consequently, there are social factors that matter. These factors matter in deciding just which applications get picked up and which do not.

I'm sure that the official line is that the process is objective and has nothing to do with interpersonal schmoozing......HAHAHAHAAHAHA! Get real.

This is not the time to get on your high horse about the way the world should work. The annual meeting of a large-ish (like SfN or Experimental Biology) or IC-dedicated-ish (like RSA, CPDD) societies is the time for you to work with reality to nudge your current and future grant applications ever closer to funding.

So find the big row of booths which are populated by the NIH ICs at the upcoming SfN meeting in San Diego. The brain institutes will dominate, of course, but you'd be surprised just how many of the ICs have interests in the neurosciences.

Hi, My Name is....

sfnbadge2016My closest collaborator and the PI on a most critically important, albeit low-N, developmental biology study once gave some firm advice when I was preparing a slide on the topic of schmoozing NIH Program staff. It was pointed out to me that nonspecific calls to "go schmooze" are not necessarily all that helpful and that trainees could use some specific pointers. Therefore, I'll include some thoughts on somewhat more concrete steps to take for the shy/retiring personality types. Please excuse if I am insulting anyone's social intelligence.

First, you need to spend some time in the next day or two figuring out a couple of basic things. Which Institute (or Center) supports your lab? The labs in the departments around you? Hit RePORTER if you need to, it is simple to search your PI, look at the results page for the specific way your University or local Institute is described. Then go back to the RePORTER search and pull up all the awards to your University from a given NIH IC.

Second, ask your PI who his/her POs are. Who they have been in the recent past, if necessary. This is optional but will be useful to make you seem with it when you get to the meeting. If you happen to hold an individual NRSA fellowship, this would be a good time to re-check the name of your PO!

(And I simply must remind the too!!!! There is nothing more embarrassing then having no idea who your PO is when s/he is standing in front of you. Yes, I've known peers who don't know who their PO is. Also, as I mentioned, your grants can get reassigned midstream with no particular notice to you. This is a good time to recheck.)

Third, click on over to the websites of 2-3 relevant ICs. You are going to have to look around a bit for the "Organization" structure because the ICs all have different webpage designs. And I will note that some make it really difficult to do the following research (so if you are stymied it may not be you). Using NIMH as the example, you'll see a bunch of "Offices and Divisions" listed. At this point you are going to just have to wade through government gobbledygook, sorry. It is not always clear which Division is the most specific to your interests. Under each Division (the director of which would typically also have a personal portfolio as supervising PO) you will see a number of "Branches" also with a head PO (and often some additional POs) listed. As you are reading the descriptions of the research domains of interest to each Division and Branch you might want to note the ones that sound most like your areas of interest. Maybe even jot down the PO names. If you are really feeling in the zone, you can go back to RePORTER and search on a PO name to see the extend of her/his portfolio.

Fourth, if you did manage to get some PO names from your PI you may be able to shortcut this process a bit by just plugging their name into the staff directory or IC page search box to figure out which Division/Branch they inhabit. And again, maybe just search out this person's portfolio of funded grants on RePORTER.

Fifth, you can email a PO in advance and ask if they are attending the meeting and if so, can you schedule a meeting with them. This is an optional step but if you are the busy/scheduled type and/or you really need to see a specific PO this is a way to go. This is a good time to mention to the PO when your presentation will be taking place as well.

Now you are ready to take a stroll on NIH row!


The first thing to remember is that this is their job! You are not wasting their time or anything like that. The POs are there at the meeting, staffing the booth to talk with you. Yes, you. From the trainee up through the greybearded and bluehaired types. So have no concerns on that score. Plus they are quite friendly. Especially in this context (on the phone when you are complaining about your grant score is another matter, of course).

Second, the POs of a given IC will usually have a schedule floating around on the table indicating when you might find a specific person at the booth. Not that you shouldn't talk with whichever PO happens to be there, but you may want to leverage your researches to speak with a specific person.

Third, hang around and swing back by. There are going to be times when the POs are all seemingly occupied by rabid squirrel PIs, gesticulating wildly and complaining about their latest grant review. So you may have to brave up a bit or just wait for a quieter time to get the attention of a PO. Don't worry, there will be plenty of literature sitting on the tables for you to read while waiting your chance to horn in. There is usually a magazine rack full of Funding Opportunity Announcements and similar interesting reading somewhere in the booth.

So what do you say once you get the attention of a PO? Well introduce yourself, indicate who you work under and indicate that the grants you work on are funded by the IC or, where relevant, that this person is the supervising PO for one of your PI's grants. Tell her a little bit about your research interests-remember, on of the primary jobs of the PI is to tell the POs what is the most interesting current and future science!

After that, act dumb! Seriously, just lay out where you are career-wise and science-wise and say "I don't really understand much about grant support and I figure I need to get up to speed for my future career".

Or you may want to troll 'em with a few choice questions from our discussions here- ask about R21 versus R01, New Investigator fears, RFA versus PA versus totally unsolicited proposals, etc.

Remember, the goal is not solely information transfer. It is to start the process of individual POs in your most-likely IC homes knowing who you are, putting a face to a name and, hopefully, coming away impressed that you have a head on your shoulders and are doing interesting science. You are trying to create the impression that you are "one of their investigators". Yes, my friends, POs have a pronounced tendency to develop proprietary feelings for their peeps. I've been described as such by POs at a time when I didn't even hold funding from the IC in question! So have a few of my peers. If you have trained under their awards, attended "their" society meetings, maybe had a training grant or even just a travel award...well, they are going to be looking out for you when it comes time to pick up New Investigator grants or fellowships or even old-fogies' R01 applications.

I understand that this may sound pretty crass and forced when written out. I would observe it ends up being quite natural when you do it. And it gets easier with practice, believe me. This sort of thing is far from my natural behavior and I was very slow to pick it up. I've seen the results, however, of getting oneself on the radar of Program Officials and it is a very GoodThing.

16 responses so far


Oct 26 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH Careerism


Lorsch says that he knows first-hand that Generation X scientists are not whiners: “I do not hear complaining from the people who are trying to get their first grant or renew their first grant, the people trying to get a lab running,” he says. “It’s the really well-funded people who’ve lost one of their grants — that’s who call me and scream.”

18 responses so far

Query of the Day: Career Self-Awareness

Oct 24 2016 Published by under Careerism

Aptitude for different roles in academic science is a tricky business. Until a person has been serving in a particular capacity, we never really know how well they will do. Sometimes one is very surprised, on both the "more capable"and "unexpected disaster" fronts.

And yes, I am fully aware that Imposter Syndrome gets in the way of self-assessment.

I am also aware of the Peter Principle.

Nevertheless the question of the day is whether you think about those future roles that you might reasonably be considered to fill. Do you have a firm idea of your strengths and weaknesses as an academic/scientist? Are there certain roles you could never do, wouldn't be good at? Are there other ones you just *know* are right for you if only given the chance?

I think that I do. At my stage, these next-steps are mostly leadership roles for which I am utterly unsuited. I know this about myself and there is no way I would pursue them or feel slighted if passed over for that behind-the-scenes grooming/encouraging process.

I see other people who I think are eminently suited to be leaders of larger collectives. I've been able to observe several people who ascended to power (ahem) from petty to very grand indeed. I think I know what sorts of people do well and I am not that. At all.

Of course this post isn't really about me but rather about those that do not seem to be aware of themselves. I marvel at that phenotype that doesn't seem to recognize their own skill set and the strengths and limits that they express.

This got me to pondering and of course I am now curious about your experience, Dear Reader.

Do you feel as though you have a good assessment of your suitability for various next-roles that might lie ahead of you?

39 responses so far

How do you respond to not being cited where appropriate?

Oct 10 2016 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, Peer Review, Tribe of Science

Have you ever been reading a scientific paper and thought "Gee, they really should have cited us here"?

Never, right?

Continue Reading »

25 responses so far

Older posts »