Search Results for "letter"

Oct 31 2016

Making writing letters of recommendation easier

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A few last thoughts on writing letters of recommendation.

I keep a set of templates in my letters folder. I've got essentially three levels for students:

1) Students I don't know you but you took a class with me. The class had >40 students (often 150+). I usually ask for a CV. If I and the student have time, we meet, so at least I can remember the face, if they spoke in class, or anything else memorable. This letter tends to be one paragraph. It mentions the rank or grade of the student, and usually 1-2 facts that are specific to the student.

2) Students who took more than one class with me. You came to talk to me. I've got more than 1-2 facts I can say about you. These are usually two paragraphs. One with the facts about the class or classes and the objective facts about the grades the student got, and one with specifics that give more info on the student.

3) Students who worked with me. These are usually two-three paragraph jobbers. The first paragraph still tends to have the objective facts (Mark worked 10 hours a week for two terms, a total of 36 weeks, and received credit/or was paid). If there are two sets of interesting specifics (ie class vs work) then they are in two paragraphs.

General points that make writing easier for the more complex or lengthy letters:

I almost always ask the person for whom I am writing to give me a list of what they've done in my lab. I tell them to include any specific incidents they remember as being important. I don't ever include anything I don't explicitly remember, but often they jog my memory about something that is good for a letter that I've forgotten. I find their bullet points are very useful for me, yet in list form easy enough for me to read.

I try and tell the student what kind of letter I'm writing. So if its going to be 1-2 paragraphs, I say that I don't know them that well, and that this is all I can say about them. Sometimes they go ask someone else, sometimes they say that's fine. But I do not worry if I can't say more. In the beginning, I used to ask the students to come see me, and interviewed them, got more information took notes, and crafted tremendous letters. That strategy didn't last for very long. It just took too much time, and I found that I was not giving the most help to the students who I thought were the best, who may have deserved the help. When I taught large pre-med, undergraduate classes, I would be asked for 5-20 letters in a short period of time. I also don't worry tremendously about making each letter a work of literary art. That's not a good use of my time.

I also try to be honest about the quality of the letter to the student. "I'm happy to write this letter for you, Susie, but you only got a C in my class, and we really never spoke during the term." I don't mind showing students the letter, but they don't get to decide if I send it or not based on what I say.

Writing letters is an important job, and important to the students. However, in the panoply of things I do, and the importance to my career, its not so great. Balance, balance, balance.

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Oct 28 2016

Writing (difficult) Letters of Recommendation

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Here is part 1 on general writing of letters. Understanding what goes into a good letter, irrespective of the a particulars of the person you are recommending, is the first step for any letter. But what else do or can you say when there is a problem? What kind of problems? Different kinds of problems, suggest the need for different responses. Some of the problems are when the person you recommend:

  1. is trying to change jobs for a difficult, personal reason that is nobody's business.
  2. took the job that they could, which involved a 4-4 (four classes in each of two terms) load, but now wants to try and move.
  3.  is applying for a job that's not quite a match, but again, has personal reasons for wanting that location
  4. didn't quite achieve all they thought, you thought, they wanted to achieve

The first, and sometimes easiest situation is when the person still has a good to stellar record, but is moving or changing for reasons that may not be transparent to the people reading and evaluating the application. The applicant needs to at least address the issue, and sometimes you, the recommender can or might want to in your letter. This can be difficult. First off, I do not believe that anyone has to or must disclose personal information, even if its the main reason for applying for a job. Yet, still, there is a committee evaluating the application, and if the goal is to at least get invited for an interview, one needs to address problems the committee (or whoever is doing the hiring) will perceive. It's far easier for the search committee to throw an application into the "hold for later in case we don't find anyone in the first group we invite in" pile.

When you do write a letter for someone in this situation, it's really good to check with them as to what their story is going to be. In fact, its always good to check what the person is going to say before you write a letter. Nothing will reduce the impact of your letter if it is at odds with what the candidate says.

Honesty is important. You cannot say "this person is an excellent fit for your position" when you and the person applying and the search committee know damn well that it isn't true. It is possible to address this directly, if you can:

Dr. Hopping may not seem like an immediate fit for a position in your department, but her expertise in biomechanics, in particular the effects of scale on leaping and jumping, has the potential, to broaden and enhance the insect locomotion group's research interests.

That is, find something in Dr. Hopping's work that speaks to what is important to the place where she is applying for a job. Be careful not to tell them how to do their work: "you would be fools not to include the scaling of locomotion in your studies". Tell them, show them, how Dr. Hopping would be of value to them.

Dr. Hopping's work on the evolution of scaling in biomechanics of saltatory locomotion is broader than just one group of animals. She has looked at the impact of small scale (allometry) but also the major changes in design over orders of magnitude in body size.

A second situation is someone who you know is good has not quite lived up to their potential. The power of a letter is that the problem can be discussed, and strengths brought forward in ways that may be awkward for the candidate themselves.

I would like to discuss Dr. Slithering's publication record. When she was a graduate student, she published two papers (first author) that showed great promise as part of her thesis. These papers were excellent because... blah blah blah. Yet, for family reasons, she took a job at Lower-Lame-Deer State College, where she had a 4-4-2 teaching load right out of graduate school. Her work at LLDSC was excellent, including teaching reviews that demonstrate the same enthusiasm and intelligence she brought to her PhD work. During the 3 years at LLDSC, she published two papers, despite being in a job that was 80% teaching. She has continued to maintain a research career in the face of difficulty. Dr. Slithering has decided to try and return to a more research/teaching balanced position. I support this transition, as despite her publication record, she has maintained her research. Further, she will be able to walk into any teaching position without difficulty.

This is the old "turn weaknesses into strengths". Do not lie, or even bend the truth about what happened. You do not even necessarily have to justify why Dr. Slithering went to LLDSC in the first place. "Family issues" or "personal concerns", if true, are always acceptable. But, emphasize and talk about what the person is good at. If there is an objective reason, offer explanation for what happened, in this case the teaching load. Try to point out what the person will bring, given who they are and what they have done, to the new position.

Now, what about the person who just hasn't produced, despite having everything going for them? They haven't done a postdoc (in a field where almost everyone does), they have one middle-authored paper from their PhD. They TA's one class, but didn't like the teaching part. Now, they want a shiny job to which everyone and their second cousin is applying. The first question I have for you, the letter writer, is why are you writing this letter? Yes, Dr. Crawlsaround is a good friend. Maybe they saved your bacon in grad school. If you are good friends, have a chat, and ask them why they are applying. It gets harder when there is a significant back story. Maybe it includes bullying or hostility or out and out sexism/racism/genderism something that kept them from producing. If this is a person you care about, and you really believe that they aren't even going to get asked for letters for this position (but they've come to you for one "just in case"), maybe its time to talk to them about other options: A postdoc, a 2nd postdoc, things they can do to enhance their CV. Why are they applying for this job? Keep in mind that every letter you write also reflects back on you. Its often a small pond in which we swim. If you write too many letters for friends who aren't great, you will be known as someone who writes letters for friends who aren't great.

But Dr. Crawlsaround insists, and you feel obligated (this time). Ask yourself: why do you think she's so good? And put that in your letter. Don't spend lots of time justifying the weaknesses and holes. It's usually not a good idea to say "Dr. Crawlsaround's mentor, Dr. Underthearth, was a firstorder jackass who bulled her, and that's why she didn't publish". You never know if Dr. Underthearth has a good buddy on the search committee, and that you have just screwed your next grant submission. Beyond this, it doesn't make for a strong letter to be whinging about why Dr. Crawlsaround didn't achieve, when the reasons are fuzzy or political or subjective issues. Stick to what is positive, and why you think she's good for the job.

When writing these letters, its a always a good writing strategy to put yourself in the position of the search committee. You wouldn't want to hire someone who is going to come in and fail. And you're not going to hire Dr. Hopping if you are building a group of fish/aquatic ecology and locomotion types. Don't include negative stuff, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth of the search committee reading the letters. If you want to recommend someone, try to put forward why you would want to hire this person. In fact, I often include that line in my letters:

If I had a position available in my department, that required both teaching and research, I would hire Dr. Slithering in a heartbeat. She is hardworking, and shown that she can rise to the challenge and be a success even in a less than optimal situation.

 

 

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Oct 26 2016

Writing Letters of Recommendation

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Now that we understand what you own, and why its important, we can talk about what makes a letter a good letter. Here is something that I wrote about letters of support for a grant application. And something about supporting a junior colleague's grant proposal.

But how to write a job letter under difficult circumstances? For example, the person is trying to change jobs for a difficult, personal reason that is nobody's business. Or the person took the job that they could, which involved a 4-4 (four classes in each of two terms) load, but now wants to try and move. I think that first one must master writing a letter for someone without such issues. At that point the the changes that one needs to make become obvious.

The zero-th guideline in my view, is to determine: can you write the letter? Do you really believe in the person and their abilities? If you, yourself, are an overwhelmed junior faculty, or an overwhelmed senior faculty, it is important to make the decision about how you spend your precious time & energy. Are you writing this letter for a friend, out of friendship, yet in the end you can't say anything beyond this person was a good friend? Ask yourself the hard questions, and answer honestly. It is ok to say no to a friend.

Given that you do decide to write a letter, there are some parts that are good to have in all letters. You can't just say "this person is marvelous". I've read too many letters like that, and what they say to me is "the person writing doesn't have a clue as to who they are writing about".

A first paragraph that contains [note: the examples here are from real letters I've written, but for a number of different people, at different levels]

1. the Name of the Person, usually in bold & italic so that people know who this letter is about. They may be reading lots. They may gets sorted into the wrong place.

2. A (brief) sentence about who you are. How long you've known the person. In what capacity. You can also sneak in something good about the person here.

It is my great pleasure to recommend Dr. Bunny J. Hopping for a position in your college. I have known Dr. Hopping since 2008, when I was responsible for hiring into the Department of Animal Locomotion at the MRU School of Vet Medicine. She started there as an Assistant Professor, but has recently been promoted to Associate Professor, but without tenure as MRU does not give tenure. Despite leaving MRU two years ago, Dr. Hopping and I have maintained our professional relationship. She is someone who’s scientific and professional opinion I value greatly.

A set of paragraphs outlining the greatness of the person you are recommending. Organizing them by type (research, teaching, mentoring) is helpful to the reader. I often break research and funding into separate para's.

3. This para talks about the specifics of science. I describe the science, and mention some metrics. I try to include specifics, in this case that its both clinical and basic science. That's important for this particular job, which was described as a mix of training researchers and clinicians.

Dr. Hopping is one of the finest young/mid-career scientists in the field of locomotion research. Her research and publication record are both deep and broad. Her work spans the basic science of the biomechanics of movement,  through to the clinical implications of that work for recovery from hunting wounds. Her 16 publications are in both strong basic science journals (example) and clinical journals (another example). She has won many major awards in our field, from the X, Y, Z.

If you have room you can include specifics of the research. If its a younger person, with fewer pubs, talking about the importance of a particular pub can strengthen the letter. I worked in (this is for a first job letter) that I believe, and why I believe, she has the capacity to be a faculty person, an independent scientist.

Dr. Hopping and I worked on a joint project, and I was impressed with her independence, intellectual maturity and insight. During this project, she not only measured the films of bunny hopping, but she developed new hypotheses about vertebral structure as she explored the data beyond the original hypotheses. While working hard on data collection or extraction, she is always thinking of what the next step will be, blending hypothesis generation with the data collection to test it together. Our collaboration involved using films that I had collected over 10 years ago. She knew of these films and came up with this project on her own, because it was something in which she was interested. I did not feel I was helping a student get a publication, but that I was working with a colleague who challenged my ideas and brought new ones to the table.  In my view, this paper is strong evidence of her ability to function as an independent scientist.

4. The para on funding also includes detail. I've gone back to show that Dr Hopping's funding also covers multiple fields. I know this is a long paragraph to put in as an example, but what is important is that I say more than she has funding from X,Y,Z. I say why that funding is important, what she's done with it, what she can do with it in the future. I want my readers to see more of the real person, not what someone would get from their CV.

Dr. Hopping is also very well-funded by NIH, NSF and the DOD. She received a XX on aging and hopping funded by NINDS. I was a mentor on that grant, and followed her progress closely. She made excellent use of the support from the K23, and was very productive during that time, producing Q,R,P. Currently she holds an R01 “name of proposal”. In my view, this is ground-breaking work, with the potential to transform our treatment of individuals with movement disorders. This work is based on a thorough understanding and comprehension of the basic science of neurophysiology. In this project she continues to combine her ability to perform research the relies on basic science, that expands our understanding of the neural basis of hopping with a goal of clinical outcomes that have direct patient benefit.

If it is a new person, without funding, say something about why you think this person will be able to get funding. Any experience in helping to write grants.

5. Finally a para on teaching needs to include more than "she's doing it":

As a teacher and mentor, Bunny is one of the most generous and intelligent scientists I know. Her commitment to the larger field is reflected in her teaching work, both through online courses, personal teaching and her contributions to an award winning textbook. Her lab is filled with young trainees who, after working with her, are both ready and energized to contribute as scientists and health care providers. [And then some more examples, or quotes from students or reviews].

6. If the person has done something else, some service beyond, like setting up a school for underprivileged children on your university campus, but something that is NOT necessarily being looked for in the job ad, here is the place to put it. If it is important for the job, put it up higher in the letter.

7. I always try to close with a para about the person as a person. Why I'd want them as a colleague:

In summary, Dr. Hopping is one of the best young scientists working in locomotion disorders today. Everybody who interacts with her, comes away stronger and better for the experience. Our collaborations have challenged me, made me grow, and improved my science. Her impact on the field is large; her potential to transform this discipline  is larger. I recommend her to you without reservation.

or for a younger colleague:

I think that Bunny is already a good scientist, with the potential to become an outstanding one. She is an excellent teacher, who is committed to education. I would hire her immediately, if I had an open position. She will be an excellent addition to your department.

Now what if the person is difficult, and doesn't have such a sterling record as our Dr. Hopping? This has gotten very long and I'll put that in the next post. Stayed tuned....

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Oct 22 2015

Letters of Support

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DM has a good post up on What I Did at SfN This Year. In he mentions someone asking him for a letter of support. This produced some badinage about letters of support attached to grants.

The dialog:

"In case it isn't clear, these letters are of the "happy to help you with your awesome project" variety, and not of the "I would like to tell the panel that this person is awesome" type of talk that is similar to the recommendation letter." --DM

Letters along the line of "this person is awesome" are ignored. Letters of support from a collaborator along the lines of "Dear Person X: I am so glad to participate in your project and do QRP for you" are not only critical but necessary. --Potnia

Here is what I wrote about this a while ago.

Here is a letter that some(marvelous)one wrote for me, about a project for which I require his support (he can do stuff I can't do). In this example, I've done bunny hopping, but not in infant bunnies. He is a Big Dog, working on infant bunnies, but not hopping. I've added interpretation between the lines:

Dear Potnia,

The letter is from my colleague to me. Not to the NIH. This suggests and supports the idea that we have a working relationship.

This letter is to document my willingness and in fact eagerness to collaborate with you on your proposal titled "The Effect of prenatal nutritional supplements on bunny hopping in neonatal rabbits”.

First, bluntly state the purpose of the letter. Do not waste words on euphemisms or betting around the bush.  Prof. Big Dog is supporting, nay he is eager, to help me. Also, get the title of the proposal right. Getting it wrong could imply that we’re not quite so close as I would like the committee to believe.

The concepts and hypotheses you have developed are very timely because of the increasing number bunnies born that have trouble hopping and are surviving birth only to meet untimely death in the jaws of vicious foxes.

This is a statement of what the proposal is about. Again, this shows that we’ve actually talked about things. Given that Prof Big Dog is over extended and doing too much, it’s important that the study section perceive that he (Prof. Big Dog) knows what he is supporting and that it’s not just a reflexive, rote letter.

As you know, I have been using pregnant and newborn rabbits for almost 20 years and 7 of those here at Massive Agricultural and Ecological University as a model to study the consequences of preterm nutrition and to understand and improve the protocols for baby bunnies.

This is a statement about what Prof. Big Dog does, and how long he’s been doing it, and that he knows something about the field (for those unaware of his reputation as a Big Dog).

We know from our numerous studies of such bunnies often have problems with hopping, although we have not addressed that issue. By focusing on the issues of hopping, you addressing a critical issue and hole in our understanding of the survival of infant bunnies.

Prof Big Dog is tying our two programs together. What he does and what’s missing, which is what I am proposing to do.

My program works with 100 pregnant rabbits each year which has provided us with valuable experience and insights into the harvest and post-delivery care of baby bunnies. By this letter I confirm my willingness to participate in your study and provide you with assistance in performing the various things necessary to get the infants you need to study hopping. This will include providing you with our protocols and training members of your research team.

Specifics on what Prof. Big Dog does. It also contains explicit statements of what he will do for me. Make sure this matches up with the text in the proposal. If it is critical to the success of the project, make sure you mention Prof. Big Dog in the places where those particular skills/methods/interpretations are important.

From a selfish perspective, I am eager to learn more about the development of hopping. It is important to emphasize how the relevance the bunny model to understanding infant human disease, and that our results have made it possible for us to translate our findings into my practice as a pediatrician.

Prof. Big Dog uses the magic word du jour of “translation” (which, mind you, may not always be the magic word. “optogenetics” or “CRISPR” is also good here, if appropriate). It also emphasizes that Prof. Big Dog understands what is important about doing this work, from the perspective of meeting the NIH mission.

I am confident it will be possible to apply your findings about hopping to the larger concerns about baby bunnies. I look forward to welcoming you to the group of labs that use bunnies as a relevant and translational model for human infants. I wish you success with this exciting and much needed research.

More nice things from Prof. Big Dog, reiterating the important points for NIH, his confidence in the importance of my proposal, but also that I am joining a community of people doing something NIH wants done.

NOW: the money point. I didn't write a draft for Prof. Big Dog. He did this, and he knows what he is doing. BUT! This is not always true. It is always acceptable/fair to write something like this to a person who has offered to help and support your proposal:

Dear Prof Big Dog,

Thank you for your willingness to support my proposal, and for writing a letter of support, on the development of hopping in baby bunnies. Your expertise on baby bunnies will be critical to the success of my project.   I am happy to provide you with bullet points for this letter, or even draft some text if that would be useful to you. The proposal is due in my grants office on Sept 20, so if you could get me the letter by Sept 17 or 18 that would be great. I look forward to a collaboration that will improve the field of baby bunny care. Sincerely, Potnia

 

 

 

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Jun 11 2015

How to write a letter of support for a junior colleague

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This goes back to the poor sailor caught between Scylla & Charybdis.

To support another proposal, for which I need only write a letter, I have written:

I am tremendously excited about the potential for us to develop our collaboration on the neurophysiology of bunny hopping. We have discussed this project at length, and I am impressed with the design in your proposal. 

 To facilitate our collaboration, I invite you to visit my laboratory in the next year. Your proposal to collect the pilot data necessary for our collaborative project is strong.

Let me dissect a few things I think important:

 the potential for us to develop our collaboration

The point here is to make it clear this is a joint project. I see this as an "us, rather than "me help you with your project". The funding agency needs to hear that I am committed to this.

We have discussed this project at length, ....

Again, a bunch of "we"s in the opening para.

But, moving on

impressed with the design in your proposal. 

and, in the second paragraph:

Your proposal here to collect the pilot data necessary for our collaborative project is strong.

It is now time and important to show that the collaborator is doing the heavy lifting.  They are the PI, not me. I did not write this document, the colleague did. Make that clear.

Later on in the letter I wrote:

I am excited at the potential of expanding my studies in bunny hopping to include your expertise in defining more anatomically correct feet.

Actually, I didn't write this, my colleague did in a draft. But its important to say "I am getting something out of this", which emphasizes my commitment to the project.

The rest of the letter is the usual "I have all the facilities necessary to study bunny hopping in situ". All paired appendages crossed....

 

ps - the grant we wrote was superb and is at my grants office, and on track for an early submission to NIH. Besides that I had fun writing together. Its wonderful to be pulled up a bit by someone who is clearly gonna be better than me.

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Nov 28 2017

Thoughts on phd-postdoc-faculty transition.

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I was looking through the "unpublished draft bin" of this blog, and found something interesting. Its a good story, with a good outcome/update. The original title was: (one of) The real tragedy(s) of the phd-postdoc transition. But that doesn't work any more.

Here's the first part, written Sept 2014

This is directed to be who are doing more "little" science. This is not about the people finding postdocs in Honking Big Labs. This is more about people who are not on the NIH track. People who look to NSF for funding. Ecologists (in the scientific sense, not the public perception of pollution sense), systematic biologists, evolutionary biologists, organismal scientists, botanists, comparative systems biologists, paleontologists.

In the Olden Days, people like this got jobs right after their PhDs. They taught their way through grad school, so they knew how. They wrote NSF DIGs, or Leaky Foundation grants, and had already done the PI-thing. And the rejection-thing, too. Their theses were multiple single-authored papers. By and large there were no postdocs for these people. There wasn't money to pay them. And, yes, jobs were very competitive. There were no adjuncts in those days, and a significant portion of my PhD cohort left the field.

Now, that's just not possible - to get a tenure-track job right out a PhD program for most folks like this. Some scramble and come over to the dark side (NIH-funded work). Some places have set up post-doc programs, with some teaching, and some research, and some space to grow for people in these areas.

Here is the tragedy. Let's put it in terms of Emily. Emily is defending her PhD in the next few weeks. Her mentor is an old friend of mine, but a very old-fashioned field biologist. A very old-fashioned descriptive field biologist. He has trained hordes of incredibly successful students. Emily was marginally interested in something I did years ago, and I had some old (raw) data that had never been published. We worked it up, and got a good paper (she's first on it) in a solid organismal journal. She's got about 5 first authored papers.

Emily hasn't had time to write her own postdoc grant, because she's been finishing her PhD. She got a 6 month teaching appointment, but things are looking grim. Not sure what will happen. If a postdoc is not in a big lab, with lots of projects and funding, you have to scramble to find your own money, and its damn hard to do that while you are writing up your thesis. There are not lots of positions, either as postdocs or as profs, for the Emilys of this world. I don't know the numbers: whether the percentages are different for the organismic biologists vs. the NIH-funded/health relevance postdocs coming out of the big-mega-labs.

========================================

OK: back to 2017:

What happened to Emily? As her teaching money was running out, she was contacted by a very new, very good, very scientifically glamorous young faculty who had seed money for about a year of postdoc. I suppose this is the professional equivalent of a hailmary pass. Emily jumped on it. We talked about it as being risky but high potential reward. It was a chance to learn new things, and do a postdoc in a Major Department with the brightest young up&coming in the field.

This was just avoiding the problem of writing a postdoc proposal at the same time one is writing a PhD thesis. It is not common in organismic/non-medical types of research. Emily was both good and lucky.

The position proved to be a good intellectual match. She did lots of good work, got more publications out, and thrived. While there, she developed an idea that was the brilliant offspring of her thesis work and one part of the program of Dr. BrightYoungFaculty. It was funded by NSF first time through, and paid for another 2 years of PD for Emily. Of course, since she was a postdoc Dr. BYF is the PI, and Emily doesn't really get credit for it, despite writing. It's not so much someone stealing your best beloved baby, as not getting credit. This is a touchy area, and worthy of more consideration, but not today. In this case, Dr. BYF is good, and supportive, but still neurotic obsessed focused on concerned about her own tenure issues as much as she is about Emily's future. I imagine that Dr. BYF is thinking that Emily got a job and some pubs and that is appropriate. Sufficient?

Emily applied for jobs last year, and got one job offer, but it had some issues (like expectations that all seed money would be paid back in 3 years through grant overhead), and she turned it down to finish up the postdoc. She's applying again, and I've got all paired appendages crossed for her. She's philosophical about the ups and downs of the postdoc, and perceives the advantages. It is a very mature response, and one that lets her move on, do good work and not get stuck in recriminations and self-recriminations. I'm writing letters for her again, so I'm going to find out what happens in the next chapter.

 

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Nov 27 2017

A few thoughts on elderly parents (part 3): Dali Lama edition

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The Dali Lama said to live one's life without regrets. I've always loved that, because it has multiple meanings. Firstly, don't do the things you are going to regret later. Try to live, right now, in the way you wont regret. Think before you act. But also, once you have done thel iving, stop regretting. Move forward. Can't change the past and all that.

And that is fine advice for interactions with aging parents or other rellies.

I was in New York for TG, to visit family, with, alas, no time for friends. But I did make time to visit my aging aunt, one of my father's two surviving sisters. She is in her early 90s, and frail. She wants to do things for me (make lunch, give me ice cream) and it is painful to watch, both because it is so hard for her, and she wants so much to give me things. I finally did reach out, take her hand, and say "Aunt Bas, I love you, just sit down and talk to me. Tell me stories about your mother, my grandmother, and all the family I never knew".

I started visiting her a while ago, when another cousin Amy, with whom I have stayed in touch, urged me to do this when I visit NY. I hadn't seen this aunt in over 50 years, as she and my father were not close. But I try and go regularly and send her letters (phone calls are hard given her deafness, and Skype is out of the question). For my part, I want to help her. Her apartment is a disaster. Not hoarder status, but piles of boxes and old NYTimes everywhere. She said her bills are a mess. I want to sit down and sort them out for her. But she has an adult daughter, Evie, my age, who comes and helps her. My aunt complains about what her daughter doesn't have time for. But, I suspect this is a case of everyone being the hero of their own story. If I was that daughter, and some other relative wanted to step in and help, I'd tell them to get lost. I want to help, but I do not know what I can do, other than visit when I can, and even when its difficult for me to do. I will call my cousin Evie, who I don't really know and I haven't seen since we were kids (which is that same 50 years ago).

I ask myself, now, what would I regret here? I would regret causing any pain to my cousin, Evie, my Aunt's daughter. Her road is plenty challenging as is. I would regret not learning more from my Aunt Bas. She is really the last link I have to their generation. My parents lived in New York when they were young. My mother went to Hunter College. She lived at the 92nd St Y. I do not know much more about their life their, other then a few apocryphal stories about how they met. And that my father introduced Aunt Bas to her future husband. But, my parents, what did they do? Where did they go? What was their New York? I will never know, and I try not to regret not knowing.

So, I will be respectful of my cousin, who is probably in the horrible place I've talked about so many times. And I will visit my aunt, and love her, and see my father in her face and her words and her mannerisms. And I will not regret.

 

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Aug 14 2017

Finding Joy in Life

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I am sitting here in my apartment, with morning sun falling in through the large east windows. I am joyful, and remembering just how damn good it is to be alive. Yes, there are problems in my life right now, though, no, I don't feel like sharing them here. One reason is that they seem so distant in the sun. I feel like I can do anything.

I saw the movie Moana, and finally, a disney princess in which I can believe. It's important to have hero/role models that look like one, but its also important to see heroes in people who do not look like one This latter is true for me, as I am not Polynesian/Maori/Hawaiian. No, the movie is not deep, and it wears its message on its sleeve. But I cried during the scenes where she stamps her foot and says her name.

I have known terrible depressions, externally generated or internally opaque to me. But I have always managed to find my way back to joy and the beauty of the world. I know there are others who do not, cannot, will not.

Then there are the friends and colleagues who rejoice in dwelling in dark places. Some of these folks fancy themselves witty and erudite for seeing the world through grey or brown or dull blue glasses. Some of these wear not just skepticism, but negativity like a cloak to protect themselves from something they fear, but cannot name. There are reasons: problems in the past, abuse, emotional neglect, the list is as long as the Canon. Some of these friends, people I know well, and love, and embrace, can no more change this outlook then I can stop being inappropriately goofy with the happiness inside of me.

But one of the things that makes me sad is the inability to shed that drab blue and faded brown outlook. I've had students and techs and collaborators who are cynical and ironic and see disaster at every turn. Hell, I've had partners I lived with like that. They are people who cannot look at a piece of work, something they did, and see the beauty in it. "Here's another stupid thing I finished".

There are many kinds of lack of support and encouragement. You can be critical and a perfectionist and see people as failing to meet your standards. But there is the one where it all seems pointless. This isn't mentor failing to support mentee. This is friend not seeing the beauty in friend. This is reading a paper and nit-picking your way through it, and not being able to say to the first author: Wow, I took a step back and you've done something really, really good here.

I was talking to my summer medical students who have another week or so in my lab. This year's batch was one of the best ever, if not the best ever. When they interviewed with me, and then again when they started I promised them that they would work harder than any of their peers in the same program. That the hours, because of the experiments, would be longer, and that they would be more challenged. I said this is because they would be partners in the work, and the work is hard. Yesterday, I asked them if they though it was true, and they all said yes, but, ... but.... what they got out of it was worth it. We talked about how to write the first draft of their letter of recommendation (from me, for their future projects). And they started listing what they learned: surgery, electrophysiology, and then they went beyond techniques and talked about working together and compassion for the animals and their co-workers. Their faces held joy.

Life is short. Being happy is better than being miserable. Making the world happy and better for someone else is one of the greatest accomplishments we can have. We can choose. I do not believe I can make those ironic and unhappy friends better. I can't. You can't. But I can set the space, create the place where it CAN happen.

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Aug 04 2017

Writing paper reviews

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I think the best advice I've ever given a trainee about writing reviews of other people's scientific papers is: don't take too much time on it. I know that will seem like heresy around here, and worse, feeding into reviewer 3 syndrome. BUT! if you start from the assumption of good-heart, open mind and commitment to helping others, then this advice makes sense.

My tendency and that of my bestest trainees is to spend too much time, to give too much, to bleed oneself dry. Indeed, we are more than committed, we are dedicated to helping others. And writing a good review, full of suggestions, showing where a paper works and where it doesn't is one of the best and most important ways of helping. I do not doubt that.

Nor am I suggesting that anyone should whip through a paper and pull from the folder of stock critiques ("methods are too detailed" "can't follow the discussion"). One needs to provide useful and thoughtful advice to the authors.

But one can piss one's life away helping others, writing out the details of what one would have done or said to make this better. As in all too many things there is a balance.

I just got back a paper to review for the third time. The first time I did not follow my advice. The topic and data were Important. The potential To Make A Difference was there. But, the paper was so opaque, so obscure, I could not follow what was going on. There writer was a relatively senior person and a physician and actually knows what research is. Although the reviews for this journal are double-blind, it was glaringly clear who wrote this (heck the acknowledgement of IRB approval had initials of PI attached to it).

What was wrong? New acronyms for existing things. Complex, convoluted statistics when simple ones would be appropriate. New meta-variables, for example calculating a measure of heart function based on rate and intensity and what you ate for breakfast when just testing heart-rate would have sufficed. Writing that read like it was originally in English, translated to German with Google and then back to English, so that the verbs at the end of sentences all piled up were. Figures that I coldn't see the points or determine what the variation intervals were, let alone whether the were SD, SE, IQR or something entierely different. I couldn't really tell what the conclusions were because all the other stuff got in the way. I also had problems with the scientific justification and context and, in NIH-speak, I could not figure out the premise of the work. It wasn't even that they only cited their own stuff, it was that there was no acknowledgement of other perspectives, other work that might impact on how they thought about these results.

The first review pointed out each thing, explaining why it kept me from understanding the paper. The review was too long and took too much of my time. But the letter that went out from the editor suggested that the comments were valid and that the authors needed to address them.

I got a revision back that was the height of absurdity. It said "thank you to reviewer #2 for the insightful comments. We have made the changes requested". Then it went through every comment and argued with me about it. Some of their replies made sense and some of them did not. But they changed nothing that I suggested, except redrafting the figures. That made my second review easier. I went through and pointed out the same problems. And said that since I had now read the paper several times, and was still unsure about what their specific results were, and what they thought it meant, that I had to respectfully suggest that reconsider my comments rather than just arguing with them.

The third version came back changed, with nearly everything much much better. One thing they did not do, though. My last review:

I appreciate the authors' continued engagement in my comments. The change in terminology facilitates the reading of the manuscript. The changes in analysis and presentation of results are acceptable and make the manuscript much easier to follow.

My only remaining concern concerns citations & interaction with the literature. The response to the review contains 12 citations all of which are from one group. There are MANY more perspectives as to what is a ____ and these authors seem reluctant to acknowledge the work of people outside of this one group, including the work in the [related] literature which is highly relevant to this paper, since the discussion claims implications to that field. This is not just a citation problem, it is an understanding of what other work is being done. Again, the problem is NOT so much the lack of other citations, it is the lack of understanding the literature outside a very small circle. The two groups cited here are not the only workers of ______ function.

However, this disagreement falls into the realm of scientific discourse, should not prevent publication.

I do not want to ever read this paper again.

 

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Aug 02 2017

Some days people are just nice to you

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I got a paper submitted yesterday. It felt good, like the relief right after you throw up. I've always felt that nausea is a great metaphor for many many things in life. You feel bad. You feel worse. You feel like you're going to die. You worry that you might not die. And then, behold: it is gone.

This paper had a new  co-author, involved in one part of the work. Here's what he wrote to me when I sent him the draft that was somewhere between "you feel worse" and "you feel like you're going to die":

                I have attached the manuscript with some very minor suggestions.  Very nice and I am honored to be a part.  You have a gift for writing. Be thankful.  That is something I lack, which was made even more apparent in a talk with a previous reviewer of our fluid flow paper.  She is a good friend for my sister at U Chicago and certainly helped to have her open up.  Her comments indicated her issues were not with the methods or data, or even the interpretations.  Instead, I/we had not adequately crafted a compelling story.  Creative writing (not to be confused with fiction) is not my forte. 

Ho ho ho. It did not feel like gift whilst I was in process. What I remember is the step between feeling like dying and feeling like you might not die.

This comment was from the person who wrote this letter. (note if you want to know about writing letters, I've got lots of posts, and you can go down this rabbit hole here and here). He writes beautifully, but can't see it. My job is to remind that he does. He is every bit as wonderful as a collaborator as his initial letter for my proposal suggested he might be.

New Co-Author's point is good. One crafts a compelling story. Writing creatively is one path to telling that story. If you write a paper, or give a talk, and overtly or implicitly say "this is another silly/stupid/trivial thing I did", no one will care. If your work is fun to you, exciting to you, something you love, let that come out. One needs the basics: a question or hypothesis or point, a solid design, data that answer the question/hypothesis/point in a paper or talk or grant proposal. But getting someone to care, getting someone to be the advocate for you, means getting their enthusiasm up and out of bed. Enthusiasm doesn't have to be loud, it can be quiet and strong. But its what will get you published, funded and invited to the fun parties.

So how does one get good at writing like this? The same way one gets to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

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