Archive for the 'Uncategorized' category

What does it mean to write "by the sentence"

May 24 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Writing by the sentence is kinda like buying by the piece. You may need a whole lot of something, but you pick each individual one that you want.

Writing by the sentence means crafting each sentence. It means making sure it comes from the one before and leads to the one after. It means, for a grant proposal that each sentence works, does what it needs to, and not much more. It means there are No. Wasted. Words. If anything irritates me its having 2-3 sentences in a row that say the same thing.

This doesn't mean that the same information shouldn't show up in multiple places. When I had the consultant who got me funded on a proposal (here's the post based on his letter of support for me), I mentioned his collaboration in several places (the significance, at least two places in Research Design, and certainly in Vert Animals, as that was his expertise).

Writing by the sentence is one way to achieve making every sentence work hard for you. In fact, making every word work for you. The subject and the predicate need to convey information and not be place holders.

One of the problems of writing by the sentence is that you get bogged down. You get lost. You lose track of the forest, let alone the ecosystem. That's why Darwin discovered outlines. Do the outline first, and then fill in the sentences.

There is much more to say on this, especially examples. But! too many things happening this morning.

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Sometimes the words just find you: Advice edition

May 23 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

From this morning's tweets:

except for the typo:

"its ass" not "it's ass"

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What Trump doesn't know: Yad Vashem edition

May 23 2017 Published by under Uncategorized


President Donald Trump [was scheduled] briefly visit Yad Vashem

Image result for yad vashem children's memorial jerusalem

Children's memorial

For those who don't know,Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It is a very powerful place.

Thematic and Chronological Narrative

Remembering the lost


I noticed this report from the Forward. Like is not the right word, but :

The Jerusalem Post took an uncharacteristic snarky approach and produced a video demonstrating what Trump will be able to cover in 15 minutes at the 45-acre complex. The paper quoted Israeli officials saying that an hour and a half is the “bare minimum” needed for a visit to the museum.

I visited in Yad Vashem. Recently. It shook me to my core. I could write about Auschwitz  and about my thoughts about Jews in Eastern Europe during the Shoah (search my blog for the tag "holocaust").

I could not write about Yad Vashem. Even now, one of things I remember is that my cousin came up to me and said something, and I thought or said "but we've only been here for an hour" and she said "we've been here for over four hours".

Yad Vashem was a place I did not, where one does not, know time. Evidently Trump is immune to not knowing time, no matter what pious and sanctimonious words he mouths.

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Moving lab

May 22 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There are lots of issues with moving one's lab. I've done more than once, and each time I have sworn it will be The Last Time for This Kind of Nonsense.

I was reminded of one of the Big Issues by this post from ragamuffinphd about the problems she's had and is having as the postdoc in a moving lab. Her situation has been ugly, although she has found some support and help from other women at her current institution.

PI's move. Ambitious PI's often move a lot. I've moved more than most, it seems. I started to write a long discussion of the moves, which included to Australia, for a year's sabbatical. Then I realized it would be excruciatingly boring to anyone but me. And besides, its not the point of this post. What I do want to talk about is what happened to my trainees, and how I tried to work on that.

I tried to time each move so students were graduating, postdocs were ready to move on, or projects were coming to a close. Usually it was ok, but sometimes it just didn't work that well. Everyone is the hero of their own story. And I suspect there are trainees who paint me as very evil indeed for when I moved. I did my best, and there were times it just wasn't good enough in the eyes of some people. That is going to happen. But I did learn a few things, things that perhaps might be useful to others.

For PI's moving: do not underestimate the time you will lose due to the move. Even with the best of intentions, a superb team moving with you and great support at the other end, it will impact the flow of data collection, analysis, publication and grant submission. Factor this into your life. But, also, pay attention to the trainees. Talk to them as soon as you can, be honest, and give them as many options as you can. And understand that they may not do what you want. This is called life. Remember this will be true of your children, too. Your goal is not to be liked by your trainees, but to do the best you can by them and their professional growth.

For Trainees: understand that your PI has concerns besides you. Good PI's will do their best for you, but what motivates them, what pushes them may have very little to do with you. They may care about you, but their spouse, their children and most likely their career are all going to come before you in the world. This does not necessarily make them a bad PI or mentor. It might, but, it might not. Just recognize that this is the way of the world. This is akin to realizing that your parents have a life outside of you, and sometimes their priorities will not coincide with yours.

So what to do when your mentor or PI comes and says: "hey, I'm leaving".  Firstly, determine if they want you to go with them. Secondly determine if you want to go with them. The answers to these are not obvious. I suspect the most important piece of advice is DO NOT express an opinion in the immediate aftermath of the news. Sit down and think about what it means. Mentally follow the steps through the implications of the changes:  what does moving mean to you, to your family, to your expenses? One's first reaction may be emotional, but emotion is not going to serve you well in this situation.

Nextly, do not panic. It may feel like the end of the world, but it's not. As one of my oldest friends is fond of saying: it's an opportunity for growth, but it's time for someone else to have the opportunities. Seriously, figure out what do you want. What is important to you. And those are considerations that are really independent of what your mentor is doing. You will recover. You will find your path. Make a list of the important q's to ask your mentor. As with other interactions, going in to a meeting prepared, with a list, as opposed to going in emotionally charged, can make a huge difference to the ultimate outcome. Things to ask: when will this happen? if I move, does my (salary, position, title, responsibilities) change? Are there any resources ($$) to help me move? Will my lab/office stuff get moved with the larger lab/office stuff? If I don't go with you, what happens? How long can you support me? I am sure there are more, but this is off the top of my head.

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Reply to Ola: what does an ethical person do about the number of trainees?

May 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Ola had a good comment, worthy of a good reply:

Personally I've worked with and come through labs that churned out 30, 40, 50 trainees in the career arc of the PI. I know for sure I don't want that - it's unsustainable, not to mention ethically problematic. However, at the other end of the scale, since becoming a PI 13 years ago I've trained 3 PhDs so far and have 2 more graduating in the next year. Should I stop at "replacing myself" those 5 times, and just not take any more students until I retire in 15 years? The question: what IS a good (ethical, sustainable) number of PhD trainees that a bioscience PI can reasonably expect to have in their lab' during a typical career? Is 5 too many? How about 25?

To Ola, I say: I don't have a good answer for you.

It's really a tragedy of the commons problem. You and I can limit who we train, but if the Big Labs keep churning them out, will our trainees get lost in the shuffle? Or can we argue that we are K-strategists (as opposed to r-) and that we give more to fewer trainees? (and if you know r/K theory, and want a good chortle, google it and "evolutionary psychology" and read some... well... bizarro interpretations)

For years, I've only taken clinical/PhD students, MDs/DMDs/PTs for whom there is more employment flexibility. But mostly I take only postdocs, with the idea that I can add some value to those people: not just marking time till the get job, but give them additional skills/background/credentials. But if a really good basic science type came along, interested in what I do? That would be a hard call.

People in the comments have complained that postdocs are too expensive. This is true if grad students are subsidized by your department, as many are. And if you have to pay your postdoc a reasonable wage, it will be more so. If students aren't subsidized or postdocs are subsidized, then it comes out closer to the same, throwing tuition in with salary for students.

It is worth remembering that training grants can support postdocs (I was the co-PI on one for years). Many also support residents to do a year of research or a fellowship in the middle of residency. This may align in clinical departments, and people working at the edge of basic/clinical research. If institutions realize that grad student stipend + tuition is in the same ballpark as a PD, then that might begin to change. This is part of the education of the "carpet-people" that needs to happen.

So the answer in part is: you need to do what that with which you are comfortable. You need to remember that your trainees are people, who require that you provide them with not just scientific training, but the professionalism necessary to succeed. You need to be able to sleep at night, knowing that you did what is right even when those around you have no trouble justifying dreadful behavior. And, you need to survive. Just be careful of justifying behavior on the basis of survival. On that path lies madness.


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More on not enough faculty positions

May 16 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Let's do a little math, before I start preaching.

Firstly, let's think about new jobs. These are back of the envelope calculations. Order of magnitude of the problem. For the purposes of discussion.

There are ~180 medical schools in the US. As for biology departments, according to Wikipedia:

As of 2012, the latest figures available in 2015, the US has a total of 4,726 Title IV-eligible, degree-granting institutions: 3,026 4-year institutions and 1,700 2-year institutions.

Now some of these schools have more than one "biology" department. Certainly medical schools have multiple departments that hire PhD's. But let's just say 5000 departments? 10000?

How many PhDs in "life sciences"? Over 8000 a year. Other sources (NSF) have other, even higher numbers: ~12,000.

So the number of PhDs each year, in life sciences, is about equal or greater than the number of departments. This makes sense: most of those (non-SLAC, non-CC) departments have multiple faculty, churning out PhDs. Even if every single department hired one more faculty person, that would still have an excess of many, many  PhDs.

Let's say that again, there are, roughly, each year, as many PhDs generated as there are departments that could hire these faculty.

I know people are waiting for "Boomers to retire", but I want to remind you that, again, that the youngest boomers are only 52. People do not retire at 52. Or 55. Or even 60. I'm mid-boomer, 62. When I talked to my chair about being on a 4-6 year retirement trajectory, he was shocked. I was surprised he was shocked. (but for me, damn there are other things I want to do).

I know people argue all the time about "alternative careers". I wrote about this years ago, when I started blogging with Mama Isis (and can't find the post). But no one starts a PhD program thinking "Oh, this is a good path to an alternative career".

Back to the problem. There are many reasons we, the mentors of academia, train people. Some of them are what economists would call "market pressures". We need trainees to survive. We need trainees to generate data to finish projects, write papers, get grants, and, well, survive. Some of us (yes, we all know these dudes, although they are not always dudes) who need trainees because their egos can't stand a small lab. They are competing for new students.

So what to do?

I think senior people need to make a commitment to finding trainees/support/help that does not involve bringing more mouths to the trough. I think senior people need to make a commitment to supporting the existing junior faculty in ways that do not require them to have enormous labs to succeed. This, in fact, will require education at the decanal level and above. NIH is the cash cow of many schools. Everyone needs to commit to education about NIH and the need to support research in the US, let alone elsewhere in the world.

Yet, expanding NIH is only kicking the can down the road. Supporting more trainees now, giving jobs to all the PhDs now will just mean this crisis will come back either come back in 10 years, if money is jolted into the system now, and current PhDs get funded, get jobs,  and start training an even larger next generation. Or if money is dribbled in, there will just be the continual pain that we see now.

It is not the scheme is unsustainable: it's just a matter of where the selection and sorting (in the evolutionary sense) occur in the life history of a scientist. Although my GenX friends (and yes, I have one or two who do not perceive me as the devil incarnate) will be skeptical, this was an issue debated as I was finishing my PhD in the early-80s. There weren't a lot of jobs to go around then, even to people (and yes, you may laugh heartily here), who perceived themselves as the cream of the crop (I didn't, but that had more to do with my identity at the time). Academia had undergone an expansion in the 60s, and those people were the Boomers of the time. They were hanging on to jobs (in our view) and didn't care that they were training more people than there were jobs. Places weren't hiring (imagine that). I remember long discussion about whether it was better to restrict entry into grad school, and let selection occur earlier, or to expand postdocs (in ecology/evolution/organismic science PD's were relatively rare at the time) and push selection down the road.  In those days (and to some extent now), in those fields, grad students were PI's, and lab or mentor affiliation was a weak tie, and certainly not necessary for the faculty, except as ego-props. The numbers of grad student admissions was more fluid, and often based on teaching assistant needs. I don't remember what I thought, except that I was tremendously relieved to get a postdoc.

But back to what to do? Please do not think that retiring the boomers will change the situation. Do you not think that the GenXers who do get jobs will see their survival as justification for doing what they need to do to survive? Do you not think the millennials who make it will turn into the boomers of 30 years hence? The boomers I knew back then were good people who would never ever ever abuse trainees, or promise things, or even inadvertently be part of the problem. We are all destined to become our parents, our mentors, and partly what we despised when we were young.

The solution? For me, right now, is to be aware, and work towards a change. Commit yourself to things be different, better. Reach out that hand, dammit.


19 responses so far

Foolishness about NIH funding

May 12 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

In the comments on Mike Lauer's the discussion about limitations on NIH funding, was this one:

Jessicaon May 4, 2017 at 10:37 am said:

I agree. I’d love to see the Ks done away with and R01s for new PIs require a 10% senior investigator mentor who can guide them on things like handling a budget, hiring staff, overseeing staff and time management; along with actual scientific mentoring. It would seem to me that it would offer a graceful and dignified transition for senior investigators nearing the end of their careers. And it would serve new investigators better than 5 years of being mentored on a project that they can’t afford to do on a K budget.

DM had a comment:

I think there is something more problematic here. I'm guessing Jessica is a basic scientist. I am guessing Jessica has a (relatively) new TT job, and is struggling to get funding to keep her lab afloat and do What Needs To Be Done to get tenure. Which, needless to say, involves R-level funding. I feel for the Jessica's of this world, as I mentor a passel of them here, and elsewhere. T

The first result or consequence of doing away with K's will likely be more Olde Fartes getting R-awards. I do not think putting more money into R's, even with an explicit commitment to NI/ESI folks, will result in more of those people being funded. It hasn't worked so well thus far, right? Even limiting PI's to 3 awards, I'm not sure additional funding will end up going to younger folks. We need to work towards ways of making that happen.

A second consequence of doing away with K's would be to seriously change the make-up of who does research. One goal of the many K's (and yes, there are about a dozen different K mechanisms, see below) is to help clinical researchers. There are K mechanisms explicitly for clinicians and explicitly for clinical research. These are different things, and while the overlap, they do not completely overlap. Such awards are marvelously successful at helping clinicians. This is part of the reason I suspect Jessica is a basic scientist/non-clinician. I cannot imagine any clinical person, independent of clinical degree making that statement.

I have mentored (and been The Mentor on many K23's, etc) clinicians. They have a different set of problems and imperatives governing their lives, which present them with issues different from basic scientists, or even basic-science (ie non-practicing) PhDs who do clinical research.  I'm not just thinking Physicians/MDs, but also PTs, OTs, SLPs,  PhD's in Psych, etc. There are clinical programs that give you a PhD at the end (SLP, Psych). There are folks who have a Masters-level clinical degree, or even the relatively new DPT degree, but went back and got a basic science PhD, and do research that falls in the middle of the spectrum. Frequently, the debt load of clinicians is higher than science-PhDs. There are not tuition waivers and TA's for these people. The logic is that they are going to make a lot of money when they are done. And, thus, the pressure (internal and external) to have a clinical practice (in whatever form they practice) is much higher. Whereas basic scientists often teach as well as research, these guys see patients, run clinics, make rounds, do surgery, whatever, and so at a much higher time commitment than most PhDs in anatomy or neuroscience or physiology or cell biology departments.

Stay with me. I know the reflexive impulse of basic-science PhD's/researchers is to despise such people. To hate on the medical students (if you teach medical students). I anticipate the various objections: they chose a clinical career and get paid for it. Yes, true. But does that mean they shouldn't do research? I am betting there are lots of you who say no. I do believe that there are lots of clinicians doing good, valuable and otherwise unapproachable research (and yes, there is a huge amount of garbage, turned out by people who think the letters after their name mean they Know Something). But, to be brutal, what basic scientists think is nearly irrelevant here. The NIH thinks differently, and the NIH wants clinicians doing clinical research. Which, as an aside, often doesn't require the same financial support as basic science bench work.

K-awards are a critical life saver to young clinical people. Yes, there is not much money for research in these awards. But if you are 70-80% clinical that means you have ONE DAY each week to do your research. One day each week, in 48-50 weeks in a year. Its not just teaching a course in the fall, and then having all spring/summer full time for research. Its not even teaching two courses in the fall and one in the spring and doing summer school. The 20% "protected" time that clinicians get is a much more honest estimate of effort spent than lots of the estimates I've see of teaching effort at MRU. The K-award is the difference between a successful research-clinician career and a pure clinical career, which at BSD/MRU institutions is like not getting tenure.

So here is a list of most of the K-awards. Go through the kiosk and look at the K-awards. Some are for "scientists" but most are for clinicians. Keep in mind not all IC's sponsor/accept/give out awards for all of these mechanisms. The K-awards that exist for experienced post-docs, but not TT, don't have a lot of money. But they are a damn good alternative to being an adjunct.

K01 Mentored Research Scientist Career Development Award

For support of a postdoctoral or early career research scientists committed to research, in need of both advanced research training and additional experience.

K02Independent Research Scientist Development Award

For support of an early to mid-career scientists with research funding, in need of additional protected time committed to research.

K07Academic Career Development Award

To support either a mentored or independent investigator to develop or enhance curricula, foster academic career development of promising young teacher-investigators, and to strengthen existing teaching programs.

K08Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award

To provide the opportunity for promising clinician scientists with demonstrated aptitude to develop into independent investigators, or for faculty members to pursue research, and aid in filling the academic faculty gap in health profession's institutions.

K12Clinical Scientist Institutional Career Development Program Award

To provide support for newly trained clinicians appointed by an institution for development of independent research skills and experience in a fundamental science within the framework of an interdisciplinary research and development program.

K22Career Transition Award

To provide support to outstanding newly trained basic or clinical investigators to develop their independent research skills through a two phase program; an initial mentored research experience, followed by a period of independent research.

K23Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award

To provide support for the career development of clinically trained professionals who have made a commitment to patient-oriented research, and who have the potential to develop into productive, clinical investigators.

K24Midcareer Investigator Award in Patient-Oriented Research

To provide support for mid-career clinicians with research support, to allow for protected time to devote to patient-oriented research and to serve as mentors for beginning clinical investigators.

K25 Mentored Quantitative Research Career Development Award

To support the career development of investigators with quantitative scientific and engineering backgrounds outside of biology or medicine who have made a commitment to focus their research endeavors on basic or clinical biomedical research.

K43Emerging Global Leader Award

To provide research support and protected time to a junior scientist with a faculty position at an LMIC institution leading to an independently funded research career.

K76Emerging Leaders Career Development Award

To advance the development of physician-scientists prepared to take an active role in addressing present and future challenges of a global biomedical research enterprise.

K99/​R00Pathway to Independence Award

To support both an initial mentored research experience (K99) followed by independent research (R00) for highly qualified, postdoctoral researchers, to secure an independent research position. Award recipients are expected to compete successfully for independent R01 support during the R00 phase.



3 responses so far

Why do people become adjuncts?

May 11 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I don't know all the reasons, because I don't know all the adjuncts. But I know some.

Let's be clear about whom we are speaking. We are not talking about practicing professionals: doctors, dentists, lawyers, businessmen who come back and do some teaching, of various time commitments. Such folk have a variety of reasons for doing this, some reasons are even altruistic. But none of the reasons is money. These are the folks who make real money at their day jobs.

What we're talking about the ABD's, the recent grads, the young people who work for something like $3-4K per class, and given their hours, they make less than minimum wage.Indeed, most of the these folks would jump at a TT job. Most of these folks have been trying to get a TT job, and send out reams of applications, while trying to publish just one or two more papers. And, yes, an adjunct position is definitely a second-best option for the people I know.

So. A comment said that adjuncts are paid in a false coin: the promise of it being a stepping stone to a "real" job.

I disagree. There may be hand-waving and vague comments in that direction, but nothing substantial. Nothing that smacks of "promise".

Many of the people in adjunct positions that I knew/know, both IRL and in the blogosphere, have other considerations that prompted them to take an adjunct position: family issues (spouse, children, parents) that keep them from being able to take a job in the hinterland, a commitment to living in a Certain Place. Some I've known are married, with kids, and struggling to finish a PhD with no support, and need/think they need a job. Of course, people who can afford to stay in a postdoc position, often do. It certainly pays better than adjuncting.  And I have seem a few, by and large single, white, male, footloose and fancy-free, who can't find anything else, and are willing to try to stick it out in the system for a bit longer to see if they can get a job.

I know I sound like a broken record, but I think there are two things operating here, the first of which is choice. No one is holding a gun to anyone's head and saying "I will blow your brains out if you do not take this adjunct job". There is lots of information around about alternatives, columns in SCIENCE, and internet resources that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago. There is more than one choice being made here.  Choices that say: I don't want to move, I've commitments to this geographic area. Choices that say: I do want a SLAC, I don't want a SLAC, I want Ivy League, MRU, or I want to be in A Big City.

Some of these considerations are not frivolous, and they are valid life choices to make. We each decide what is important to us, and frequently our decisions look irrational or stupid to someone else who has made different decisions.  I'm not saying that its right, let alone a good thing, to make people balance two careers, to make people choose to be near family or take a job somewhere else or to ask a person of color, a LBGT person to move to place that is blatantly hostile to who they are, just because that is the only job there is for them. I also know that a choice to stay where one's spouse has a good job is a very different thing than the dilemma of a  POC or LBGT have to make. My point is only that there is some choice operating here, and no one takes an adjunct position without being aware of those choices.

The other operational consideration here, one more time, is too many mouths at the trough. If you are a faculty member, and over your lifetime, let alone right now in your lab, you've trained more than 1-2 PhD's who go into research, you are not part of the solution. This is true even if you are the Most Important BSD doing research to cure cancer, make disable children walk, or solve Global Climate Change. The reason there are not enough jobs, not enough grants, is because more people want these things than are available. Even if grant money flowed more easily, more frequently, and in higher aliquots, the positions available would be soft-money ones, that depended on continual funding, and not tenure track. It would be a marginal improvement, in terms of salary, but not in terms of security and future. Universities are not about the expand the number of TT positions.

So we've got adjuncts. Make sure your trainees know the score. Make sure the trainees in your department know the score.

19 responses so far

PS from Molly

May 10 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Sometimes, just a little thing will make your day. Molly sent me the following text this morning, about our talk yesterday:

Hey I want to thank you for yesterday. I'm taking a couple days off and writing. You made me really happy!


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quote of the day: Dragons edition

May 10 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. --Neil Gaiman, in his 2002 novel, Coraline.

Time to go slay some dragons.

Related image

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