More advice to junior faculty (grant writing edition)

(by potnia theron) Sep 27 2016

How many times do I need to say this??

You can argue about font (Ariel gives you the most bang for your buck, but what the heck, you like Georgia, I don't care). You can argue about which citation method (I prefer Author, date, but will tolerate numbers. I understand you want to save space, but remember, it is easier for me, the reviewer to read author, number. Ask yourself, what is more important: the space you save, or my comprehension of what you say?) to use. You can argue about justification (although justified on the right *will* add weird spaces in the middle, your choice, gospodin).


You need to leave some white space. If you push the spacing to the limit (i.e.lines vertically crammed together), and minimize the margins to 0.167 inch, and leave no extra space between paragraphs (an extra 6pts looks nice), you will have massive, Soviet blocks of text. My eyes will glaze over and I will not appreciate the gorgeousness of your ideas, your logic and your prose.

I want to fund you, young junior faculty, young untenured padawan. Really I do. I want to give you a score so that you can go forth and prosper. But, dammit, sometimes I feel that I am fighting an uphill battle.


21 responses so far

Junior Faculty Strategies (part 1)

(by potnia theron) Sep 20 2016

One early, early lesson I learned was that most everyone, faculty or private sector, has to do service. Service is (very broadly) the stuff you do to help keep the institution going. Or the discipline going. Or the society going. It's writing grant reviews and paper reviews writ large. Nobody pays for it, yet it's necessary professional work.

My Famous, Very Important thesis advisor used to crow with delight that he avoided such things as they wasted his (incredibly important) time. Yet when you find people who knew him in his less famous youth, it wasn't always quite that way. Nice to know.

Part of this lesson, articulated best by my current (and very good) chair is that taking the bull by the horns, also known as being proactive, makes service more tolerable. Figure out what you want to do, and then say this to the person making the decsions about what you will do, and what you assignments will be.  My chair's view is that someone doing something they choose, they want, is going to be more successful for the department, for the individual, for everyone concerned, than forced or assigned to something they don't like. I admire chairs that get it right. They have a delicate job of balancing tasks that need to be done with people who might be able to do them while supporting the ones that are good enough to do things outside that list. Bad ones don't give a hoot, and care only about how it looks outside (i.e. The former chair from hell).

So, one thing for which I have always volunteered, even as a senior person who could tell the chair exactly from whence he has emanated, is tenure/professional development for jr faculty. Since arriving at almost-MRU I've made changes, some of which I made at my former MRU place, observing the success of such changes. Most things involve meeting more often with jr faculty, giving them more feedback, and showing them successful versions of other people's CV's and tenure files. Some of these changes I get credit for. Others, well there's that familiar odor of credit going to the biggest dick on the committee. In this case, this committee, I am glad that there are no dicks, but the guys often still get the credit for the work. It's just a bad smell. (aside: I truly have reached the point in my life where I Just Don't Care. Or, as folks around here say: there are no more fucks to give. My reward is seeing people move through the system, good people who need help in figuring it out, and in the end are successful. It's nice being a BlueHair).

What I don't get, are the junior faculty who ignore our  advice. It's very much "our" and "us", as I've worked towards the committee speaking with one voice. I've finished a set (of about 6) meetings, and during the course (this is the mid-year meeting, another innovation, twice a year, mid-year  is the one NOT before annual reviews, much more informal) of these meetings things that happened to us, the committee:

1) jr faculty did not bother to update their CV and file, despite being told to multiple times.

2) faculty who in discussions, go off on tangents, taking time to trash other junior faculty as "destroying their science". Really?

3) Faculty who out and out lied to us about what they have done (do you think we don't know? really?).

In general, it boils down to how you, Mx. Jr. Faculty, take our advice. I love it when your argue back with us. I love it when you say: this is what I think for these reasons. We (the committee) have changed our minds as a result of such discussions and that goes into the letter we write that goes intro your folder.

But to sit there and nod, every six months for 4 years, saying of course, and then absolutely ignore our advice? Makes no sense to me. Let alone what will happen at tenure time.


9 responses so far

Anger, self-discipline and living the examined life

(by potnia theron) Sep 15 2016

I am back to dealing with stupid people, ageist people and most of all people who do not see older (ie in their eyes not-pretty) women. I get angry. Oh do I get angry. I am much better with anger now than I was 10 years ago, let alone 30 years ago. I hold on to this, from the Buddha:

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

This is often attributed to the Dalai Lama and stated as :

Anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

So how not to feel anger? This is the problem. More wisdom from the Dalai Lama that I found whilst looking for original quote:

Responding to a trying situation with patience and tolerance rather than reacting with anger and hatred involves active restraint, which comes from a strong, self-disciplined mind.

Or as a former partner used to say: Aye Yai Yai. Strong mind. Check. Self-discipline. Working-on-it.

Years ago, when there were women's groups (we called them "encounter groups" which is now SO out of date that it doesn't even sound bad anymore), we discussed how to confront scary situations (like talking to your boss or coming out or something like that). One of the things this group, my group, did was do other scary things, things we did just because they were scary. Jumping off a high dive board. Roller coasters. Sky-Diving. All done with friends, with support. Those were hard, but they made many of the other scary things easier to do. It didn't make them less scary. The talking to the boss stuff is and will be and always was scary. Just doing scary things made it easier to do other scary things.

So, I shall endeavor to practice self-discipline. In eating! Then maybe when I have to deal with self-discipline because someone refers to me as "old and useless" I will not want to punch them quite as much as I do now.

5 responses so far

Choosing one's path in life

(by potnia theron) Sep 14 2016

We all spend a lot of time thinking about choosing a path through life.

My grandmother did not have this luxury. She was sent, by her mother, to work in a factory when she was about 7 years old. So my first step today is acknowledge my grandmother and her life, and understand what she did that makes my life today possible.

The genesis for these thoughts is a quote I stumbled across.  I really don't like it:

By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future.―Zelda Fitzgerald

I don't like it because it is fatalist. It doesn't specify  age, but it suggests whenever one does find a direction, no matter what age, it is too late. I reject this now, and I rejected it when I was 30 and feeling time's winged feet even more strongly than I do now.

This quote does, however reflect one underlying truth, the sense of wasting time, of regret for things not done, the anxiety of passing time that plagues people of every age. What I felt at 20 and 30 far more than I feel now, at 60.  And, yes,  it is true that in many ways paths narrow through life. At 60 one does not have the time stretching in front of them off to a little unseen pinpoint in the future that one does at 20.

It is very tempting to me to fall into the trap of that quote. To think "I'm old and there's not a lot of choices left to me". And more poignantly to think "there's  not enough time left to do something new with me and my life". To which my inner self replies with one of my favorite Dalai Lama quotes (from when I heard him in my youth):

Live life without regrets

It works on multiple levels: live right now so that you will not regret anything in the future, but once you have lived life, do not waste energy regretting what you have already done. If I had done otherwise with my life I might not realize the things I am tempted to regret now.

So I come to another Dalai Lama quote:

Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.

One response so far

How NIH proposal percentiles are calculated and some instructions to reviewers

(by potnia theron) Sep 12 2016


I am ad-hoc'ing on a study section, again. This time there was a presentation (phone confer) on scoring to "normalize" scores. A lot of good stuff was discussed, and I'm going to post parts of it over the next while. I tried to paste in the slide but it was blurry, so I'm just including the formula (exactly) and paraphrasing the text.

WHY, oh WHY am I going on about scoring? The people who read this column and sit on study sections know everything I'm going to say here. This column is not for them (though they can read & laugh). This is for the folks submitting proposals. One of the best lessons I ever got was: the more you understand about how NIH works, the more likely you are to get funded. While one must write a good, strong, kick-ass proposal, that is content, the stuff that falls into the basket of "grantsman/grantsperson -ship" may make a difference. If funding is at 9%, and truly the difference between 9% and even 12% is trivial, then everything one can do to move one's self towards 9% is a good thing. Do not get lost in grants-ship, but understanding the process, understanding what reviewers are told and what reviewers do is important. Thus...

To start with, calculating percentiles, which I actually thought it was different than this.

Here is the formula:

Percentile = 100 (rank - 0.5)/Total # R01s in 3 rounds 


  • Rank in order final impact scores from all R01 applications in the current and prior two rounds of this study section
  • Find rank of proposal in question
  • Calculate per formula

Note: ONLY R01's. Excluded are R21, R03 and other non-R01 mechanisms in that study section.

I was mistaken in that (I think???) in the olden dayes, they used to exclude the top and bottom scores. This is/was an acceptable statistical process to eliminate outliers. I may be mistaken on this one. Now, at study section, there is a range of scores (the 2-4 reviewers). Anyone who wants to vote outside the range, needs to indicate this to the SRO (Scientific Review Officer, person running the study section), and sometimes such voters are asked to write something to justify the reason why.

Part of the reason for talking to all the reviewers before SS, and this set of slides lies with problem of "score compression". This is where people tend to use 2 or 3 (on scale of 1-9) as the average, and have lots of 1's. The instruction is (quote):

5 is a good medium-impact application and the entire scale (1-9) should be used

So, we are told to follow the following to ensure: Scoring practices that promote clear ranking of applications

Consider the full scoring range (1-9) for each application. Scores need to distinguish between applications.

This my friends, is the heart of the problem. Few reviewers (almost said "no", but of course many of my near and dear friends would say that its not them) wish to give what are perceived as really low scores (<6). Here is NIH's best advice on to get the range:

Remember that a good, medium-impact application is a 5. Start with the assumption that the overall impact score of every application is a 5 before you read it, then adjust based on impact and relative strengths and weaknesses. Don’t give equal weight to each criterion.

It's not so much that the scores can't be scale (of course they can be, and are scaled). But that bunching the scores in the upper ranges means that the difference between 1 & 2 is not going to separate out scores. They really want you to start scoring at 5.

For low impact applications, use the 7-9 range, not the 4-6 range. The 4-6 range is appropriate for good applications with medium impact, and the 1-3 range is appropriate only for those applications with truly high impact.

This is just another way of saying: use the range. Reviewers are also supposed to "balance the range", and they don't want this done:

Don’t use R21s, R03s, R15s, or other non-R01 mechanisms to balance the distribution of R01 scores. They have no impact on R01 percentiles. The full range of scores should be considered for each mechanism.

Again, use the full range for everything in the same mechanism.

What does this mean to lowly-first-time scientist studying bunny hopping? Even if your score is bad (7+) and your proposal (your proposal, not you!) was triaged (not discussed), do not despair. NIH wants some score down there. And what do you do next? Read the reviews. Read the reviews. Read the reviews.

3 responses so far

I'm so cynical

(by potnia theron) Sep 09 2016

Somebody I haven't heard from in yonks and yonks just endorsed me on LinkedIn. I don't really care about this (advantage: bluehair). But then I remembered that I saw that her name recently. And then I remembered where: as a PI on a proposal going to a study section on which I am an ad hoc reviewer. Its the first time in a couple of years I've done this particular SS. And, they just released the roster.

I'm glad I'm not one of the reviewers for this proposal.

25 responses so far

Safety for People I Love

(by potnia theron) Sep 06 2016

I have two good friends, let's call them David and Batman. They are younger than me and bring a lot to my life. Their wedding was an incredibly joyous occasion. It reminded me of the changes we've seen in the last   m20 years.

D&B are going to Florida. They are still at an age where they go clubbing. I know, I know there is no upper limit on age at which one goes clubbing, but I have passed it. For me. Mostly.

I was saying goodbye to them, and could not help but worry. "Be careful at clubs in Florida". They smiled indulgently at me. "Maybe you shouldn't go to clubs at all in Florida". They rolled their eyes at me. "The world's not safe for people I love".  I was at the limit of our friendship, perhaps. So, I looked up and said "okay, I know you guys have enough parents and don't need another mother".

Without missing a beat, Batman said "oh, I don't think of you as a mother, I think of you as the really cool older sister". I love this man. I really do.

Be safe guys. The world may be a better place than it was even 20 years ago, but it's still dangerous for all kinds of people that I love.

No responses yet

Signs I'm getting old (or just grumpy)

(by potnia theron) Sep 06 2016

From one of my societies:

Are you looking for ways to connect with colleagues and peers while enhancing your leadership capabilities and influencing positive change?

In a word, No.

Besides, there is not much I care to enhance, except my hair color, at this point.

Would you like to share your expertise, expand your thinking, and contribute to the next great idea?

The assumption that I have (1) expertise (2) expansive thinking and (3) the potential to contribute to the next great idea is not founded on solid data or repeatable results. Besides I am not in a sharing mood.

The Society for Really Good Science relies on members like YOU to provide volunteer leadership and support for its many programs and events.   As a volunteer you will join an exclusive group of leaders, from all levels, as you work to shape the future of our association and enjoy great personal and professional rewards.

I really do like The Society for RGS. I want to support them. I give them money. I am glad that others want to do this. I am glad there is a place for mid-career people to do things like this. But me? Not so much. I fully embrace my blue-haired grumpiness.

No responses yet

J Neurophys new policy

(by potnia theron) Sep 02 2016

From J. Neurophysiology:

We recently announced a new policy to allow prepublication of articles on a preprint server like bioRxiv prior to submission to the Journal of Neurophysiology.  Now we have gone one step further: effective on September 8, you can transfer an article to us directly from bioRxiv.  We are the first neuroscience journal to facilitate transfers from this preprint server.

Probably a step in the right direction.

No responses yet

Managing Techs: Part 1, a case study

(by potnia theron) Aug 22 2016

DJMH said in a comment to the last post:

I would like to know why you thought it was appropriate to involve the tech in this. You're the manager, and you put the tech in the uncomfortable situation of possibly ratting out a co-worker.

This decision, and in fact, management of techs, is very much a function of who the tech is.

In the last post I didn't include some background, etc, (like that post needed more length, anyway). So, here's some relevant information that when into my managing techs, in general, and this one in particular. I am, as readers know, old for these parts (being the internet). I'm doing my best to uphold Boomer Honor, which according to some is oxymoronic. Or just plain moronic. I've been a prof for about 30 years, and been pretty steadily NIH funded since the beginning. I've had 7 techs in that period of time, but some years with no tech at all. And they are all very different people, with different goals and different skill sets.

Also relevant is that I run a small lab. During the year, it's me, a postdoc, a tech. Now I've got a (yes, a, as in one) grad student, who is an MD/PhD, which is about the only kind of PhD student I'm willing to take at this point. In the summer I get another 2-4 summer types, and we really ramp up the experiments.

But irrespective of size I try to run a lab that in today's lingo is "flat". I try and reduce the hierarchy and the effects of hierarchy, as appropriate for people's goals and skills. This is much easier in a small lab. I involve the tech and postdoc in everything that is of even remote interest to them. Of course there are things, such as each other's salary, that they don't have to know. But we meet as a group and talk about what people are doing, and everyone gets some say in what they do. Yes, there are things, such as the nitty gritty of extracting data from electrophysiology recordings, that no one wants to do.

So why did I involve the tech in the problem of Jane? Firstly, it was Tech who brought the problem to me. She is the one who signs off on the time cards, something she & I discussed and agreed upon. Secondly, if Tech had said: I don't want to do this, it would have totally, and appropriately, fallen to me. But this particular person, Tech, is functions very much as a "lab manager", and is incredibly good with people.  She had set up the complex schedules for our summer experiments (which involve extensive human  labor, often working in pairs), and really knew the summer students. She was outraged that someone would take advantage of the lab in this way. She was outraged that someone would behave unethically.

In this situation, in this case, it did not occur to me NOT to include the tech in the problem. Even if I had discovered the problem, and I decided that I needed to be the one to handle it, I would have presented it to both the PD & Tech and gotten their opinions on what was happening, and what should be done about it.

Yet, I would have done this with all the techs I have had over the course of my career. There were some who were professionally younger, as opposed to chronological age. There were some who were computer/electronic wizards, but not so great in managing people. But by having this  tech talk to the student first, it was one way to defuse the situation (if it was an honest mistake), and keep the inquiry casual.

If I had endless & bottomless money (hahaha) I would hire people of many different skills, and have lots of people with lots of different abilities. I'd have a programmer and a people manager and a data processor and an animal wrangler. But despite what some people think, even aging blue-haired profs don't have endless money, and hire the best they can and work with what they have.

So in hiring a tech, one needs to ask oneself, what is the most important thing  I  need in my lab, right now, to get the data, papers, results, I need for this stage of my career? Early career people have different needs then recently tenured, etc. Talking about how to hire and how to manage is another post. Stay tuned.




10 responses so far

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