Archive for the 'Uncategorized' category

Advice for Asst Prof stage 

Oct 27 2015 Published by under Careerism, Uncategorized

They will only stand up when you stand down.

17 responses so far

Repost: "Thanks, Doc."

Sep 28 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Reposting due to recent comment thread. This post originally appeared on the blog 8/28/2008.


Watching Michelle Obama speak at the Democratic Convention this week was awe inspiring and hope uplifting for many Americans and others worldwide. I was feelin' it myself. But what really hammered home the real message here, for me, was listening to various media interviews with African-American women. They explained in both humble and soaring terms how important it was for their dreams, aspirations and parental hopes that Michelle stood up there, brilliant, black, beautiful, charismatic and, let's face it, just plain fabulous. Her strength and will as an advocate for the downtrodden, her country and her family alike was a big hit for women everywhere who finally, finally see families that are just like theirs making a serious run at the US Presidency.

This reminds me of a phenomenon experienced by a scientist with whom I am familiar.

"The conversation usually ends with 'Thanks Doc, it means a lot'."

It is no news that US research science looks like a little bit of apartheid. White folks are overrepresented in the faculty ranks and overrepresented in the trainee ranks down to the undergraduate level, relative to the general US population. Frequently enough relative to local city or state populations as well. African-Americans and Latino-Americans are considerably underrepresented.

[Don't yeah-but me with your favorite allegedly overrepresented group in the comments, it is irrelevant to today's discussion.]

In the service ranks, this is a different story. Visit a few Universities around the country, attend scientific meetings in the usual hotspots of Washington DC, New Orleans, Atlanta, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago and unless you are in complete denial or completely oblivious you notice something.

African-Americans and Latino-Americans (and some additional nonwhite ethnic groups) are considerably overrepresented in the service ranks. Administrative assistants, janitors, animal care techs, facilities staff, hotel and convention staff..you name it.

These national realities are not just anecdotes, of course. Every time we talk about affirmative action issues in the Academy on a national level, the dismal stats are related.

I make my views on casting a wide net and dismantling artificial barriers to success in science pretty clear in my blogging. I argue this both from the perspective of an advocate for my scientific domain who wants progress made and as an advocate for the individual scientist and his/her career.

Michelle Obama and the scientist who receives the "Thanks Doc" conversations remind me of another important, perhaps more important, reason for dismantling artificial barriers to science career success.

It matters that "people who look like me, are like me, have families like me" are a highly visible part of the landscape. It matters a lot. And this is why I will smack down knuckleheads who bleat on about quotas and "taking slots from the more deserving" and crap like that. First, of course, because those types (almost hysterically, unbelievably, overrepresented in the fizzycyst population) display a fundamental intuitive misunderstanding of populations, central tendencies, variance in the distribution and the rarity of extreme talents.

Second, because they disingenuously ignore the warm fuzzies, opportunities and biases associated with the vast majority of the Academy looking just like them. Third because these morally shriveled little wankers are just plain fun to tweak and can be tangled up in their inconsistencies and hypocrisy with little effort. But I digress.

Unsurprisingly, the scientist to whom I am referring looks somewhat other than the vast majority of independent scientists at the University in question. Actually, I think people have a fairly difficult time discerning just what ethnic association fits but lets just say "nonwhite", pointedly underrepresented in science. Of a variety with which many people who work in support roles at the University in question identify. Ethnicity pegging is not helped in that this person does not speak, act, associate, recreate, hobby-ate, idea-ate, iPod-ate, etc in any particularly ethnically-specific or stereotypic ways that I can detect. This observation is quite important. Unlike Michelle Obama, for whom many aspects of the identity package are consistent with the women being interviewed on the radio this week, this scientist basically only looks "like them".

My subject scientist relates numerous conversations which follow a common thread. Some staff person will drop by the office to say "Thanks Doc. It's really important to see one of us in this office doing this job."

That is the crux of the issue. Image is important. Identity is important. It matters to the larger issues of diversity that we have readily apparent, quotidian, barebones diversity. It matters to our social fabric of opportunity and fairness. It matters to the fundamental principles of what it means to be an American citizen when we are talking politics. It matters to the fundamental principles of the Academy as well.

10 responses so far

Sports and work ethics

Sep 28 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I was having an online exchange with someone (who may or may not wish to self identify in the comments) about mentoring for work ethic. 

As part of the meander, this person observed that sports participation may have a lasting influence on one's general work ethic, style, etc.

I felt more as though my approach* to sports as an adolescent and twenty-something was very similar to my evolved work style as my career developed. From this I conclude that it was probably something more essential about my personality that drove both styles or work ethics.

Interesting to think about causal lines though. 

How about you, Dear Reader? From whence comes your work ethic?

*it will not surprise you that I was never about putting in the 110% required for the very top echelon. 

34 responses so far

Question of the day

Sep 23 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Provocation from Michael Eisen:

Has me thinking... Would you do it? Would you pay $25,000 of your own cash money to secure publication in Nature.

I think I would do that. Have to take out a loan to do it but I think I'd chalk that up to career investment.

30 responses so far

Thought of the day

Sep 15 2015 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, Uncategorized

If you are not the (or a) PI on a grant, you can be cut off of it at any time. 
Where do people get the idea they have rights independent of the PI's plans? 

32 responses so far

PSA on indicating statistical significance

Sep 09 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Do not, under any circumstances, for any reason, EVER use the same symbol to indicate different comparisons between points on sub-panels of the same figure that depict similar data sets.

[ e.g., if you have a dose-response function for one genotype depicted in Panel A and for the same measure in a second genotype in Panel B, don't use # to indicate a difference from the vehicle condition on one panel and a difference from the highest active dose on the other panel. ]

14 responses so far

Brief thought on GenX scientists

Aug 18 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I detailed some of the ways that my generation of scientist had been screwed in a well received prior post.

Today I thought about another factor. Scientific impact of a scientist is captured by paper citations, which is related to the number of people working within a sphere of investigation. A given scientist's reputation can be burnished by the number of publishing scientists that he or she is respected by and viewed by as a thought leader. 
Scientific progeny are a key factor. The trainees that exit out labs, gain faculty positions and start up vigorous publication trains very frequently boost our own reputations.
When the odds of trainees becoming traditional, independent, academic research scientists are lower for a generation of mentoring scientists, this will cripple the apparent importance and influence of that generation. 
How convenient for the Boomers.

9 responses so far

Repost: An Honor Codes' Second Component and Research Science

Aug 12 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

This was originally posted October 4, 2007.


Many academic honor codes boil down to two essential statements, namely "I will not cheat and I will not tolerate those who do". For "cheat" you may read any number of disreputable activities including plagiarism and research fraud. My alma mater had this sort of thing, I know the US military academies have this. Interestingly a random Google brings up some which include both components (Davidson College, Notre Dames, Florida State Univ (which as been in the academic cheating news lately), and some which do not (CU Boulder, Baylor); Wikipedia entry has a bunch of snippet Honor Codes. The first component, i.e. "don't cheat" is easily comprehended and followed. The second component, the " I will not tolerate those who do" part is the tricky one. Continue Reading »

12 responses so far

Repost: On submitting a grant application from a University you plan to leave

Aug 11 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

This entry was originally posted 2/9/2011.


  • A bit of confusion has arisen on the Twitts over who can serve as the PI of a grant application submitted to the NIH, who "owns" the award and what the implications are for moving the award to another University.

    For a highly related topic I recommend you re-read my old post Routes to Independence: Beyond Ye Olde Skool Tenure Track Assistant Professorships (original).

    To distill it to a few simple points for the current discussion:

    • The University (or Research Institution, company, etc) submits the grant to the NIH and receives the award from the NIH.
    • Anyone who the submitting institution deems to be a PI can serve as the PI. Job title or status is immaterial as far as the NIH is concerned.
    • Postdocs, Research Scientists, Staff Scientists, etc can be the listed PI on most broad NIH mechanisms (there may be the occasional special case like MD-required or something).
    • The submitting institutions, for the most part, permit anyone of tenure track professorial appointment to prepare NIH grants for them to submit but it gets highly variable (across institutions, across their respective non-professorial and/or non tenure track...and across time) after that.
    • The question of how study sections view applications submitted by those of other than tenure track professorial rank is a whole 'nother question, but you would be making a mistake to think there are hard and fast exclusive principles.

    The second issue has to do with moving the award to another institution, given that a PI on an NIH award decides to go somewhere else. Although technically the University owns the award, in the vast majority of cases that institution will relinquish the award and permit it to travel with the PI. Likewise, in the vast majority of cases, the NIH will permit the move. In all cases I am aware of this move will occur at the anniversary of funding. That is because the award is in yearly increments (maximum of 5 unless you win a PECASE or MERIT extension* of the non-competing interval). Each progress report you submit? That's the "application" for the next year of funding. Noncompeting application, of course, because it does not go back to study section for review. At any rate it makes it less painful for all concerned to do the accounting if the move is at the anniversary.

    Soooooo.....

    Point being that if you are a postdoc or non tenure track scientist who wants to write and submit a grant, you need to start snooping around your local University about their policies. Sometimes they will only let you put in a R21 or R03 or some other nonrenewable mechanism. Sometimes they'll let you throw down the R01. Just depends. Most of the time it will require a letter of exception to be generated within the University- Chair or Dean level stuff. Which requires the approval of your current lab head or supervisor, generally. You need to start talking to all these people.

    Since these types of deals are frequently case-by-case and the rules are unwritten, don't assume that everyone (i.e., your PI) knows about them. Snoop around on RePORTER for awards to your institution and see if anyone with non-TT professorial appointment has ever received an award from the NIH. Follow up on that rumour that Research Scientist Lee once had an award.

    If you are really eager, be prepared to push the envelope and ask the Chair/Dean type person "Well why not? University of State1 and State University2 and IvyUni3 and Research Institute4 all permit it, why can't we?". This may require doing some background surveying of your best buddies spread around the country/world.

    Final point:
    Obviously I wouldn't be bringing up these theoretical possibilities if I hadn't seen it work, and with some frequency. As a reviewer on a study section I saw several applications come through from people who had the title of something below tenure track assistant professor. Instructor, Research Scientist and yes, even Postdoc. I myself submitted at least two R01 applications prior to being able to include the word "Professor" on my Biosketch. I have many peers that were in a similar circumstance at their early stage of grant writing/submitting and, yes, winning.

    No, you will not be treated just like an Assistant Professor by the study sections. You will be beat up for Independence issues and with doubts about whether this is just the BigCheeze trying to evade perceptions of overfunding. You will have "helpful" reviewers busting on your appointment as evidence of a lack of institutional commitment that the reviewer really thinks will get the Dean or Chair to cough up a better title**.

    In all of this however there is a chance. A chance that you will receive an award. This would have very good implications for your transition. (Assuming, of course, that you manage to get the grant written and submitted without too big of a hit to your scientific productivity, never forget that part.) And even if you do not manage to obtain a fundable score, I argue that you get valuable experience. In preparing and submitting a half-decent proposal. In getting some degree of study section feedback. In taking a shot across the bow of the study section that you have ideas and you plan to have them review them in the coming few years. In getting the PO familiar with your name. In wrangling local bureaucracy.

    All of this without your own tenure clock running.
    __
    *there may be other extensions I am unaware of.

    **One of the first questions I asked an experienced reviewer about after joining a study section. Sigh.

  • 20 responses so far

    Repost: Peer Review- Advocates and Detractors Redux

    Aug 10 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

    This post originally went up on the blog 20 Aug 2014.


    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.

    5 responses so far

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