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May 18 2018

Repost: A few thoughts on abstracts for NIH grants

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Again, an old one that still applies.

Abstracts, which are now called project summaries, are critical to your grant. Sometimes, that is all that someone who gets to score you will ever read (i.e., the other people on study section who are not your reviewers). Writing the abstract after the rest is done allows you to take the best sentences from elsewhere in your grant combine them, smooth them, adjust them. This should not be too hard to write, after you have written your kick ass grant proposal. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to make sure its good.

As an aside – if you get funded, the abstract is what is publicly available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. If you are applying for jobs, ten to one someone on the search committee will check you out in RePORTER. If you are doing anything within the academic community, someone will check you out. It is very good to have those abstracts readable for all those people who will be checking you out.

I am busy reviewing grants now for an October study section. I have just read five abstracts and it is hard for me when I see how bad some of them are. I want to support these people, I want to advocate for them. I want to see them funded. These are all young investigators (this is a mechanism, in this institute, designed for young investigators, which a separate pot of money set aside for them). But these abstracts makes my job harder. Not that you should care about how hard the reviewer’s job is. BUT… making things easy for the reviewer ups your chance of being funded. I’d like to put 40 hours into each grant and figure out exactly what the PI means. I do not have time for that (nor does NIH expect me to have time for that). But if I understand your grant, it is much more likely I will perceive what is good about it.

These abstracts are not bad in the sense of poorly written and sentences that don’t make sense (though there is some of that). There are problems in the sense of poor choices about what to include, poor choices about what to emphasize and poor choices in opening & ending sentences.

Problems (things not to do):

1. Having divided your summary into categories (not necessarily bad, but certainly uncommon), starting with “Personnel” and discussing the PI in the third person (She will do this…). Did someone else write this grant for you and therefore is talking about you? But more to the point – as a reviewer I am less interested in what you will do, or why you are so lovely, than in why is this project interesting, important, and most of all, significant.

2. Spend 2/3 of the (single) paragraph on the justification for the work. This is too much. I want to know less about the problem, and more about what you are doing for the problem. A good strategy (for SA’s too), with each of these points being 1-2 sentences, max:

  1. What is the overall problem:  Bunny hopping is critical for a happy life.
  2. What is known: The disease XYZ is responsible for all deaths due to bad bunny hopping.
  3. What is not known: XYZ has two routes in which it has the potential to impact bunny hopping, but it is unknown which, or both, are responsible for the failures.
  4. What you are going to do: We propose to test these two models of XYZ and measure their impact on bunny hopping.

3. This issue exists independently, but also as a function of 2. No information on what you propose to do. No hint of what kind of methodology (whole animal physiology, genotyping) you are proposing. What kinds of things will you measure? This again can be 1-2 sentences, but needs to tell me what I am going to find in the approach you propose.

4.Jargon in the abstract that is not defined. This one (or two, or in this case three) word(s)  may be a common word in your sub-specialty, but I don’t know what they mean. Yes, I can look it up, but I’m actually reading your abstract during a boring meeting, prior to reading the whole thing later on, so I can’t. I stop reading yours, and move on to the next one. Of course, when I go back and write my review, I’ll look it up. But in my time-deprived, sleep-deprived world, it means you get one less reading than the others. And I’m irritated. One does not want irritated reviewers.

5. No kick-ass final sentence. Please give me something to work with in my review: The successful completion of this project will make bunny hopping possible for patients who can’t get off the ground. In general, if you can include, in the abstract, sentences like (and no, you don’t have to bold or underline these), you make life easy for the reviewer:

  • The significance of this work is:
  • The innovation of this work is:
  • The results from this project (NOT “if this project succeeds”) will change the world in the following ways…

As I keep emphasizing in the debates about font, white space, etc, that it doesn’t matter what you like, it matters what the reviewers like. This is part of grantsmanship. Do it right and you don’t just pass go and collect $200, you get hotels on Park Place and Broadway and get to get out of the game, and do the science.



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Aug 28 2017

The realities of academic jobs in this less than perfect world (part2)


Part 2.

Part 1 is here. Probably reading part 1 first will help you understand the cast of characters.


One of Cathy & postdoc’s complaints is that Dr. Ifix lectures them on what they know and do best: how to write a paper (each of them has many more pubs than he does), how to test a hypothesis, how to organize a lab notebook, how to do a bibliographic search. I’m not saying that we all don’t have stuff to learn and improve on. But this is every lab meeting, every interaction.

Their meta-complaint was that he wastes huge amounts of their time, when they’d rather be getting either different input or be able to just get back to work.

So I asked them both a couple of questions at this point: How much time? Hours a day? Two hours a week? How much of a burden to plaster a smile on your face and sit through it? Is this the difference between a 20 min a day commute and a 40 min a day commute?

Then, why is he doing this? It is likely part of his insecurity. This is His Lab! He is a BigDog! He may be fixing <insert deity of choice here>'s mistakes, but he still doesn’t have that R01. He knows this. He wants an R01. He needs to be not just a triple threat, but an externally validated, successful triple threat. There are other Big Dogs in the hospital with whom he must cope. There are the ultra-big dogs who have a lab of more than 3-5 people. And that’s who he wants to be. And the idea that someone who works FOR him knows more than he does is not something with which (I am guessing) he can easily cope.

So what can you change? What can’t you change? What can you live with? I think a one hour lab meeting and a one hour personal meeting each week is not a lot. Just about everyone has at least that much burden. As a tech/postdoc/res asst prof, there is a place between antagonizing him and being a boot-licking sycophantic toady. The former will, in the short run, make him angry and unpleasant, and in the long run get one fired. The latter will in the sort make one irritable and unhappy, and in the long run get one fired.

So where from here?

But you can’t change his insecurity. You can’t make him respect what you know by insisting, in those meetings: I know this! I AM GOOD at this! and worst of all: I know this better than you. In fact, insisting like that will only make things worse, make him more defensive. No matter what you say about what you can do, he is not going to hear it. You have to speak the language he will hear.

Again: you must speak the language he will hear.

One of the things I was frequently told (by people who had some minor investment or affection for me) when I was working with the chair from hell, was “manage up” and “manage from below”. I had lots of trouble with this, as it felt like I was giving in to his problems. It felt like I was making all the compromise, and it wasn’t meeting half way, but me moving 99% of the way. My thoughts were: I wasn’t wrong, why did I have to do the things that this idiot wanted? It took a while to see that it was again, a case of: do you want this job? If you do, here are the things you must do to keep it, even if it feels like you are going 99%.

And that was a lot of what was going on for Cathy. She was angry and frustrated and not a little contemptuous of this jerk who had the power, but didn’t know the stuff.

Step one was to repeat I want this job. This is not as bad as the alternatives as I see them, as I have chosen them.

So we talked a lot about specific, small things to actually do. Concrete steps.

First, start with papers and weekly meetings. Dr I was not, and is not, going to be in the lab hands on collecting data. Not gonna happen. But he can’t give up enough control to even ask “what was done”, it has to be as if he did it.

My advice: each week, the meetings that happen with Cathy, or various small lab groups (Cathy & postdoc, techs, etc): never show up without a written agenda. Have a piece of paper with 2-4 bullet points. Fewer and it won't be the meeting, more and it will be overwhelming, and he will stray. Write them down, keeping people out of them, and stick to the science/logistics. That is don't assign people to tasks, or stray into areas he considers PI Prerogative. For example:

  • talk about intro for Paper B
  • discuss problem with bunny husbandry (impact on data collection).
  • Hours that the med student is working
  • Results for Paper A

One page, 2-4 lines. Hard copy.

Then, for each bullet point, an additional page (this is knowing that Dr. I likes paper copies of things, if not, this could be electronic). A list of sub-points that pertain to paper B. The premise of paper B, then results, graphs, or maybe a table. If you can work in the NIH words (premise, justification, innovation) do so. He'll see this. He'll get it. Not more than a page, laid out with sufficient white space and color coding and the works. At least 12 pt, if not 14. A copy for Dr I, and for every person in the room. Let him mark it up, and you add what he says to your copy.

For the husbandry problem it could look like:

  • Baby rabbits are being born dead
  • We got vet to autopsy, there is X problem (include picture of lung tissue?)
  • Solutions for this are:
    • increase humidity (upside: easy, downside: least likely to help)
    • change food (upside: easy, downside: expensive)
    • drug YYY (upside: most likely to work, downside: very very expensive for this many bunnies)

In short, manage the meeting to be about content. You can determine the content. Unlike the chair from hell, Dr Ifix didn’t need to talk about himself, he could stay on topic. And if he did wander, and did start lecturing on the difference between the materials section and the methods section, then let him do it. And do not let your body language say otherwise. Do not, as I mistakenly did, abruptly bring the discussion back to content. If you can ask a genuine question that redirects, do so. Dr. Ifix is not stupid, if you act or speak as if you think he is an ass, he will know that. And then you lose.   

If Dr. Ifix becomes angry or irritated or caustic or any of his other responses, you've lost. Period. Repeat after me: you are not going to win a fight with this man. If that feels like too much compromise, or too much giving-in, then maybe you don't want this job that much. I am not saying you have to sit on your pride, that you have to be subservient, that you have to be submissive. But confrontational will not work with this person.

This reminds of something from one of those leadership classes I once took, where they classified people (which is another set of objectionables, but here, it's a bit useful). One kind of person was "military". Military minded people have superior officers, to whom one listens and obeys, and grunts, whose job it is to listen to and obey you. While academic/hospital medicine is changing, there are still lots of people with this mindset. Such people are not interested in discussions. They are interested in having their orders carried out.

And as you work towards managing the meetings, start managing the manuscripts. Yes, Dr Ifix thinks he can write better than the postdoc. Develop a calendar for writing. Outline by this date, Intro by that one. Ask him to assign people to schedule. You can ask “may I do this part?” or even “I’ll do this part”. Focus on the writing, the paper, the content.  Make it clear that you are interested in the job. It may be clear to you, but you need to make it clear to him.

Now, in Cathy’s experience, this presented another problem. Dr Ifix  wouldn’t let anyone else do a first draft. And this became an issue because he wouldn’t get it done either.

On to part 3....

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Sep 27 2016

More advice to junior faculty (grant writing edition)

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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.


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