Archive for the 'Scientific Mentoring' category

Affirmation in science is a rare beast

Aug 22 2013 Published by under Academics, Scientific Mentoring, Tribe of Science

GMP has an observation up at Academic Jungle that resonates:

2) Nobody ever pats you on the back and tells you "Good job." Ever. Except perhaps the people whose approval in the professional arena doesn't mean much, like your partner or your parents. ...The fact that you are supposed to forever go on based on your own convictions and some internal source of energy (must be nuclear, eh?), without ever expecting to get a little energy back in the form of praise from colleagues in the professional community is a really tall order. ... I never expected that I would have to be the sole engine propelling myself and all my group members for the next 40+ years. I praise my students when they do a good job, but for us grownups there is no such thing. I suppose you get an award every now and then, but what's that, a pat on the back every few years? That's a lean affirmation diet.

It's totally true. Frequently so, anyway. Those who are supposed to be reviewing and helping with your career locally, such as a Chair or even Dean type of person, are universally motivated to tell you that you are not good enough so that you will work harder. Grant review, paper review...there are some warm fuzzy comments made but somehow the criticisms seem to loom larger. Peers who want to talk about your papers like to bring up the stuff you didn't do or the flaws or explicate the methods. This is science and a healthy part of it, but it can be hard on the ego since there is never any impression of universal acclaim followed by more and more and more unquestioning approval of your work.

There is a subtle feeling we encourage in science about expectations as well. Sure, you just published a paper, got a grant from the NIH or graduated a PhD student.....but here's the trick. If you really belong, if you are really one of us...that is expected! So why should there be any special notice for your accomplishment?

Each novel accomplishment for your career simply raises you to a new level of expectation. Just scored your first Nature paper from your own laboratory? Hey, that's great. But now you are a CNS Glamour Lab and, well, of course that is what you do. (Hey, when's the next one coming out?)

Over the years I have tried to go out of my way to congratulate my peers, especially the more junior ones, when I see they got a new grant award. Tried to take special notice of their papers and congratulate them on trainees flying the coop. Say something about their selection for study section. I've tried to remind some of my closer peers more directly when I see them as an important part of the field and our overall endeavor. And I don't just limit it to the plebes like me or extramural scientists either. SROs and POs in the NIH need to get some positive feedback too. Your senior faculty won't be hurt to know you think of them as the best person to serve as Chair or even to make a run at a Deanship (should they be so crazy).

I am not natively a person who is effusive in praise. So I've had to make a conscious effort. I've done so ever since coming into contact with the Imposter Syndrome in blog-discussions, which was a big factor in crystallizing my thoughts on this.

33 responses so far

LinkedIn: yea or nay?

Jun 04 2013 Published by under Scientific Mentoring, Tribe of Science

It's been a few years but I still have about the same approach to LinkedIn. I'm on there mostly for the networking that might extend to my trainees and other junior scientists in the field. I don't find it that useful for me in any direct sense.

How about you, Dear Reader*?

UPDATE 06/05/2013: Arlenna points to a page on creepy LinkedIn behavior and a privacy setting you might want to check.

__
*and PhysioProf

44 responses so far

Screwing over a junior colleague to make your point about Impact Factor is stupid

I generally like Stephen Curry's position on the Journal Impact Factor. For example, in today's confessional posting, he says:

mostly because of the corrosive effect they have on science and scientists.

In this we agree. He also posted "Sick of Impact Factors" and this bit focused on UK scholarly assessment. I enjoy his description of the arguments for why the Journal Impact Factor is leading to incorrect inferences and why it has a detrimental impact on the furthering of scientific knowledge.

But he pulled an academic nose sniffer / theological wackaloon move that I cannot support.

I was asked by a well-known university in North America to help assess the promotion application of one of their junior faculty. This was someone whose work I knew — and thought well of — so I was happy to agree. However, when the paperwork arrived I was disappointed to read the following statement the description of their evaluation procedures:

“Some faculty prefer to publish less frequently and publish in higher impact journals. For this reason, the Adjudicating Committee will consider the quality of the journals in which the Candidate has published and give greater weight to papers published in first rate journals.”

He then, admirably, tried to get them to waver on their JIF criterion....but to no avail

The reply was curt — they respected my decision for declining. And that was it.
I feel bad that I was unable to participate. I certainly wouldn’t want my actions to harm the career opportunities of another but could no longer bring myself to play the game. Others may feel differently.

So by refusing to play, he has removed himself as a guaranteed advocate for change. By drawing a hard, nose-sniffing line in the sand that he refuses to play if the game doesn't change.

I prefer a more practical approach to all of this. I think I've alluded to this in the past.

I certainly agree to review manuscripts for journals where they are overtly concerned with "impact and importance" and the maintenance of their Journal Impact Factor. Certainly. And no, I do not ignore their obvious goals. I try to give the editor in question some indication of where I see the impact and importance and whether it deserves acceptance at their high falutin' journal.

But I use my standards. I do not just roll over for what I see as the more corrosive aspects of Glamour Chasing. I rarely demand more experiments, I do not throw up ridiculous chaff about "mechanism" and other completely subjective bullshit and I do not demand optogenetics as the threshold for being interesting.

Stephen Curry could have very well done the same for this tenure review. He could have emphasized his own judgement of the impact and importance of the science and left the JIF bean counting to other reviewers. He could have struck a blow in support of the full and comprehensive review of the actual meat of this poor young faculty members' contributions. Instead, he simply left the field, after sending up an impotent protest flag.

I think that is sacrificing actual progress on ones goals for the fine feeling of chest thumping purity. And that is a mistake.

46 responses so far

Eve Marder on the vagaries of life.

Eve Marder has an opinion piece up in which she discusses the "luck" involved in career outcomes.

Our present world is filled with great angst. Our junior faculty are writing too many grant applications for not enough money. Our postdocs rightfully feel that they are in purgatory, not knowing when and if there will be an academic position for them, should they desire one. Our graduate students are watching the struggles of postdocs and faculty. For me, this era is especially frustrating, because it is a time of extraordinary opportunity for scientific discovery, and it is criminal that our young scientists can not experience the excitement and challenge of scientific discovery without being worried about their futures.
There is no right answer to the question of how long a talented scientist can or should remain in a ‘looking for a job’ limbo. Every individual must take into account their own ambitions and circumstances as they try to answer this question. And all of us should also be aware that we have the potential to be successful in many careers, in and out of science.

Go read (and comment).

15 responses so far

The conversation is not about whether or not the guy is a sexist; it is about what he said

siiigh.

that is really what I find so distasteful of this whole affair. The witch-hunt being carried out by some of these commentators reeks of McCarthyism like persecution to seek out "impure thoughts" and destroy those who may harbor them. There is ZERO EVIDENCE that DM is actually sexist, other than an idiotic comment he placed on facebook.

There is no better way to address this than with illdoctrine

10 responses so far

NIH taskforce recommends changes for training and sustaining the biomedical workforce

Remember the task force? Well, the Executive Summary has been issued [PDF].

A few pullquotes of interest from the Recommendations:

NIH should create a program to supplement training grants through competitive review to allow institutions to provide additional training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options, and test ways to shorten the PhD training period. The best practices resulting from this program will help shape graduate programs across the country. The working group felt that including diverse types of training (e.g. project management and business entrepreneurship skills needed in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, or teaching experiences needed for a successful faculty position in liberal arts colleges) would be particularly valuable for those who go on to conduct NIH-funded research as well as benefit those students who do not follow the academic research career track.

Shorter: Alternate Careers, duh! But they expect training programs to "partner" with business, private foundations and SBIR awardees.... yeah, without putting the money into training grants for this it is very unlikely to happen.

To encourage timely completion of graduate degrees, NIH should cap the number of years a graduate student can be supported by NIH funds (any combination of training grants, fellowships, and research project grants), with an institutional average of 5 years and no one individual allowed to receive support for more than 6 years.

Emphasis added. This addition is huge, if you ask me. It makes it seem pretty serious. I like this. I'm not a fan, at all, of extended graduate training. I am not a fan, at all, of putting publication requirements of any sort in place as the barrier to the PhD. This focus on timeline is the right way to go about it.

To ensure that all graduate students supported by the NIH receive excellent training, NIH should increase the proportion of graduate students supported by training grants and fellowships compared to those supported by research project grants, without increasing the overall number of graduate student positions.

and...

To ensure that all postdoctoral fellows supported by the NIH receive excellent training and mentoring, NIH should increase the proportion of postdoctoral researchers supported by training grants and fellowships and reduce the number supported by research project grants, without increasing the overall number of postdoctoral researchers.

Some yahoo on the Twitts seemed to think that I would be dismayed by something in this report, perhaps the salary increases. If you remember comments made by PP about increases to trainee salaries you will likewise recall that his objection that these increases came in the context of a static full-modular grant limit of $250K/year, a fixed year-to-year escalation clause for traditional budget grants of about 3% and the tendency of Program to cut budgets by a module or two in any case. Salary increases put massive pressure on research grants. This plan to shift more of the postdocs currently supported by the NIH from research project grants to training grants has excellent potential to first, manage the salaries and benefits better and second to disconnect those issues from the grant budgets. There is even some potential that PIs would need fewer grants, be able to use them more flexibly (salaries are entirely inflexible save for firing people) and therefore worry less about churning out the applications.
So I love this proposal. Question is, will they look at a department like mine, assess how many trainees have been supported by research grants over time and just hand out that many slots in new TG awards? Second question is, how in the hell are they going to enforce the "without increasing the overall number of...." part? They could, I suppose, take a look at the budget justification of all the research awards in the department, subtract out these new training grant slots and then tell people they cannot put any more trainees on the research grants. maybe.

NIH should revise the peer review criteria for training grants to include consideration of outcomes of all students in the relevant PhD programs at those institutions, not only those supported by the training grant. Study sections reviewing graduate training programs should be educated to value a range of career outcomes. This recommendation could be phased in relatively quickly.

Sure it could. Easy to get the study sections on board with new initiatives is it NIH? How's that "Innovation" coming along? How are you doing in getting R21s reviewed appropriately? What about ESI applications? Are you still having to pick them up with expanded paylines or are the study sections returning appropriate scores? HAHAHHAHAHAAHA!!!!!!
The first part is good though, you can force applicants to some up with new analyses, sure. Although verification will be a nightmare. The way this is done now is mostly as added-value. That is, departments / TG groups are motivated to include all the trainees not supported by the TG itself that make the group look good. There is no requirement to mention the trainees who didn't work out, failed, went on to shame as data fakers or anything else at all. So far as I know anyway.

NIH-supported postdoctoral fellows need to be adjusted ... index the starting stipend according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) thereafter.

Sounds great...but see above. If they are going to also index research project grants to the CPI-U then no problemo. Increase my budget (even in the noncompeting years) by the amount you are requiring me to increase my postdocs' salaries / benefits and we have no problem.

The large jump between years 3 and 4 is meant to emphasize a transition from postdoctoral training to research production, and to incentivize PIs to move fellows to more permanent positions.

Yeah....that's going to work out really swell. What this incentivizes is pushing experienced postdocs along after three years and scooping up noob ones. There is no "move fellows to permanent positions" being facilitated here. Especially since they dropped the ball on superannuated postdocs/staff scientists:

The working group encourages NIH study sections to be receptive to grant applications that include staff scientists and urges institutions to create position categories that reflect the value and stature of these researchers.

That's it. After identifying the problem of sub-PI level scientists and their lack of permanent homes in the system, such as it is. This is what they come up with. FFS, I even laid out the solution for you blockheads! Look, many of these people do not WANT to be in the grant-getting rat race. They just want to do science and to let someone else worry about the details. And how are institutions supposed to "create position categories" when just one section later the report is lambasting the soft-money system? It's like they are being intentionally obtuse here. Where are the fantasy dollars supposed to come from?

Combined with the emphasis on making a salary jump to discourage keeping 7 yr+ postdocs around, this is not good. At all.

39 responses so far

I really don't give a flying fig about your interpretation of your data

SciCurious has a post up today, rambling on about some apparent bugaboo of the trainee set. There's a survey and everything so go read it.

What I take away from this is that there is some aspect within the culture of science in which there are some bragging rights to be obtained on the basis of how many papers you read. "Read".

This is asinine.

Some commenter named 'brian' irritated me with:

I disagree with these definitions of reading. An abstract and figures are in no way reading a paper. To truly grasp what authors are trying to say you need to have a working knowledge of the entire article, intros and discussions are critical since bad assumptions and wrong interpretations are the most likely errors in any paper. Abstract and figures and a quick skim of the discussion are a cop out way of upping your read list.

This comment seems to personify that subject which is SciCurious original motivation. People in science who are really, really focused on how many articles they read and the nature of the "reading" of such articles.

Bollocks.

Science is about apprehending what has and has not been demonstrated on a particular subject. About understanding what has been supported by evidence, what may be provisionally inferred and what has been provisionally (or repeatedly) rejected. As a practicing scientist, this understanding permits us to design better or more interesting experiments, make better or more interesting interpretations of our data and set better or more interesting provisional inferences. There is no score card for "how many papers I have read". There is only a scorecard for how great your science chops are.

It therefore follows that the nature of reading a scientific paper may vary tremendously in the service of the real goal. The nature of this reading may not be the same across different scientists (who are interested in different things) or even within scientist across time. Some details in a paper may be irrelevant to one person, but highly pertinent to another. Details of methodology (who gives a crap what kind of rat they used...a rat's a rat....until I happen to be interested in a strain difference, that is) or of outcome (quarter-log, half-log shift in the dose-response function, who cares? we'll just up the starting point for the clinical, titrated dose.) and especially of the interpretation (dude, I don't care one bit whether this drug is likely to be abused recreationally, it's just a good probe for the endogenous system...) will vary.

For the trainees, I sympathize.

I understand, I think, how you come to this misunderstanding of paper count as a measure in and of itself of scientific acumen. It is because over the course of a scientist's lifetime, she reads a hella lot of papers and draws together a hella lot of stories. So for the noob(ier) scientists, the scope of understanding of the most impressive and vigorous scientists seems a little daunting. Intimidating. Because you are looking at what seems an unbounded ability to reel off citations of relevant papers in the service of some point the Big Swinging type is making. But this is natural accumulation. It builds up over time.

And here's a little hint. The brilliant types with seemingly unbounded ability to reel off citations don't "read" all the literature in the way brian, above, would have it either. They read in a variable fashion.

Sometimes it is just a glance at Figure 2. Sometimes it is the deepest of deep readings and pondering the paper over several days that is required. Sometimes it is a series of re-reads over months or years. Always, in service of the real goal which is to understand how the data presented in a paper fit into a scientific story that is of interest.

Never in service of bragging to one's peers about how many papers one has "read' this month.

I mean Jesus, do you even listen to yourselves? Doesn't that sound insane?

There is another reason for the quick glance-at-the-Figures level of reading which trainees find incomprehensible because it is so damn insulting. I really don't care what you think about your data. I care what I think about your data.

This is a horrible realization for trainees that spend many, many long hours crafting their rationale and interpretation in the Discussion section. Who have also spent many long hours arguing with their PI and lab mates (and peer reviewers) about the design of studies, which ones will create the story, what can be included in a manuscript, etc. You have sweated bullets over this! And all the reader wants is to see the Figure? AAAAAaaaaaauuuggggghh!

Yeah, you need to get over that.

31 responses so far

Repost: Take the Money and Run

The Hermitage has a post up entitled The Academia Ghetto that bemoans:

...the state of mind that awards, programmes, initiatives, etc are pointless unless a white dude can win it, serve on it, or vote in it.

You will also note that the D-List Monktress anticipates my opinion, perhaps having previously read the repost I'm serving up, I don't know.

I realize many senior monks’ responses are ‘get yours and tell everyone who thinks otherwise to fuck themselves’, but the reality of the situation is that Everyone Who Thinks Otherwise comprises a substantial amount of my academic peerage.

Yeah, no crap. Majority is majority. And bigots are bigots. There is very little you can do about it in this scenario, save to punish yourself in a vain attempt to change the idiots' minds about you.

I want to re-emphasize a point I made before. People in Hermitage's situation vis a vis fellowships, funding and platform presentations have a simple reality to face. What is the alternative? Are you telling me you are going to not apply to some fellowship just because it says "Minority" or "Women's" in the title? Don't get me wrong, I think you should be applying to regular awards as well. For certain. But to avoid applying to a nice program just because it is going to somehow look bad to certain people if you do win the award? This seems very, very stupid to me.

The following originally appeared Dec 7, 2008.


In a recent episode of "Ask Dr. Isis", the domestic and laboratory goddess fielded a question from a person underrepresented in her field of endeavor:

I'm a black female graduate student ... I've been very careful in choosing schools and advisors that seem to value my ideas and potential, not just the diversity I can bring to a brochure photo. At the same time, I recognize that there are doors open to me that are unavailable to the vast majority of people in my field- fellowships that seem tailor-made for my circumstances. I'm not one to turn down free money, but at the same time it makes me feel as if I'm something of a novelty item, a token, or in the worstcase, a fraud who's only there because of her skin color and reproductive system. It can be hard to tell if this stems from my own insecurities, or if this is something I should be genuinely concerned about.

I absolutely hate it that people are made to feel this way. Unsurprisingly, as with most academic one-upsmanship and tear-downsmanship it is based on the underconfidence and personal failings of the one doing the tearing, not the limitations of the one being dismissed. Nevertheless, I hear questions related to grant/fellowship seeking and I perk right up.

Continue Reading »

7 responses so far

The problem with graduate student training fellowships

such as the NIH NRSA F31 mechanism, is this.

The announcement says the following about the purpose of the program (emphasis added).

The proposed predoctoral research training must offer an opportunity to enhance the fellow's understanding of the health-related sciences and extend his/her potential for a productive, independent research career. The application should document the need for the proposed research training and the expected value of the proposed fellowship experience as it relates to the individual’s goals for a career as an independent researcher.

ok. And just how might we expect to find such an "opportunity"?

The sponsoring institution must have adequate faculty and facilities available to provide a suitable research environment for a high-quality research training experience. The proposed research training experience must enhance the applicant’s conceptualization of research problems and research skills. The sponsor should be an active investigator in the proposed area of research, and be committed both to the research training of the applicant and to the direct supervision of the applicant’s research. Applicants are encouraged to identify more than one mentor, i.e., a mentoring team, if this is deemed advantageous for providing expert advice in all aspects of the research and training program. In such cases, one individual must be identified as the principal sponsor who will oversee and coordinate the applicant’s research training program. The primary sponsor, or a member of the mentoring team, should have a successful track record in mentoring predoctoral students. The research training should occur in a research-intensive environment that has appropriate human and technical resources and is demonstrably committed to research training in the particular program proposed by the applicant.

In practice, this means a successful applicant needs to be already enrolled in a well-respected graduate program at a high-falutin research University. The primary mentor has to be a BigCheezDoodle scientist of international repute who has already mentored a swath of trainees who are currently occupying professorial jobs. The mentor's laboratory had better be larded up with research funds and be pumping out the papers with regularity as well.

Ok, ok, so this is not an obligation...but it sure does help with reviewers if these kinds of elements are to be found in an F31 application.

But here's my problem. If the applicant graduate student already has this available, the good training program and the awesome mentor...she. doesn't. need. a. fellowship. to. provide. her. with. an. "opportunity". She doesn't need the fellowship to enhance her training much either. She's in a strong training program with a strong mentor and kickingly productive laboratory.

All the fellowship does, is increase the number of worker bees trainees the BigCheezDoodle can have working in his laboratory. Basically, the fellowship for Grad Student Doe only benefits Grad Student Smith who the PI can now take into the lab because his proprietary slot on the Institutional training grant has now opened up or because it frees up a salary line on one of his five R01s!

So what would it look like if the NIH leaned more heavily on the idea of using F31 NRSA graduate student fellowships to provide opportunities that would be otherwise unavailable? This would mean a bias for primary mentors who were struggling, wouldn't it? Mentors who didn't have much in the way of research funding would surely be able to provide a better training environment if the grad student didn't cost any money to the lab.

Extra points for applicants from poorly-funded graduate programs (no Institutional Training Grants!) so as to boost those programs upwards, right? This would have all the positive synergy benefits claimed in those Institutional Training Grant awards.

The obvious drawback, from where I sit, is that you churn out more trainees who have acquired training that is better...but still isn't top flight. And I suppose that is the question. Are the F31s really just there to lard up the successful laboratories with yet more money so as to increase, on a population basis, the number of top flight training slots that are available? And all this "opportunity" for the specific applicant business is just window dressing?

Maybe they should scrap the Individual NRSAs in favor of more Institutional training grants, if this is the real goal.

25 responses so far

Just a job?

A question arose in another venue.

Is graduate school attractive simply as a job? Without any particular motivation based on training or credentialling for a future job that uses the PhD?

Minimum wage is what, $21K or less depending on the state. I've seen grad stipends in the $25-28K zone. Job conditions are damn attractive compared to some minimum wage jobs, opportunities for slacking and even moonlighting abound.

Hmm.

6 responses so far