Word Limits, Page Limits, and my secret super power

(by potnia theron) May 18 2018

My secret super power is making things short. It is enhanced by my second-in-line-power which is to write short in the first place. When I finished my thesis, it held the record for the shortest approved thesis in my department. It may still be, but I don't have lots of data to support that statement.

I have often said, here, in the tweets, to all my trainees till their eyes roll back in their heads and they fall out of their chairs in boredom:

Page limits are your friends. They tell how much the reviewer/grant-giver/journal/whatever wants to read. If you are having trouble "fitting it in", it is not the fault of the limits. You are saying too much. They don't want that much.

If you are a full page over, you don't need to go back and edit out single words. You need to go back and figure out which paragraphs can be reduced to a single sentence. If you are multiple pages too long, then you need to figure out what sections can be reduced to a single sentence, or even are totally necessary.

The ability to know what to put in a proposal, and not make type I errors (leaving out stuff that should be there) or type II errors (putting in stuff that isn't necessary), is a skill worth honing.


5 responses so far

Repost: A few thoughts on abstracts for NIH grants

(by potnia theron) May 18 2018

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.



No responses yet

Repost: Grant writing advice

(by potnia theron) May 16 2018

At the old blog (which is still kinda around), I posted a bunch of grant writing advice. Some of it is still useful. I shall repost some here. Now.

As I have said before one of my favorite quotes, from one of my favorite movies is:

There’s nothing further here for a warrior. We drive bargains. Old men’s work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men. Courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men. Mistrust and caution. It must be so. —Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia

One of the other vices of old men, implicit in the advice, is compromise. The non-black and white nature of life is something with which I wrestle . Less now than when I was young. But as I was struggling with my last grant proposal, I was reminded of how grey the world of grant writing can get. And how difficult that grey can be.

There is an axis of risk that runs through life, but I don’t think about it much till it comes to writing a proposal.

high risk <————————— funded —————————> tried & true

This is not an issue of right or wrong, good science or bad science. This is an issue of what gets funded. And please, spare me your pure-boy tantrums about you do science for science, and not what gets funded. That attitude falls into the bucket of the virtues of war. Study sections and program officers and reviewers want to know that you can do the work (not too high risk). And, they want the work to be interesting and exciting, also known as significant and innovative (not too tried and true).

Here is another way to frame it in your head. Rather than black and white (which also has religious overtones, etc), think about blue and yellow. You want green. It bluish yellow or yellowish blue. Now, that doesn’t seem so bad.

Where one can run into trouble of course, is when one considers problems that are reddish-green


Our brains (hard-wired color processing) don’t do well with “reddish green”. Or “bluish-orange” for that matter. What is a reddish-green grant problem? Something you want to do that NIH isn’t interested in (right now): evolution of almost anything, physiology of obscure animals with no human relevance, almost anything to do with abortion, contraception or other hot button topics. Invasive research on children. A study that doesn’t include ethnic diversity and gender balance, when it is a health issue that impacts all. Something for which compromise doesn’t really exist. Stay away. There be dragons and monsters and triage.

aside: my favorite hot button issue is still:




No responses yet

Community Colleges and how easy it is to make fun of someone else

(by potnia theron) May 15 2018

So there was a quote on the Tweets:

Just learned that not only do community colleges hold graduation ceremonies, they also shell out honorary Associate of Humane Letters degrees. This is the funniest shit I’ve read all day. And I’ve been grading fucking final exams, too.

Really? You think giving degrees is the funniest shit you've read all day?

I have a former-sib-in-law who teaches at a local CC. We got to be close, for a bunch of reasons (she's cool, I'm cool), but also because she's not from an academic family, didn't marry into one, and I understood what she was trying to do. She had been a high school teacher, a great high school teacher, but had done an adjunct stint at the CC, and found she loved it. It was work to get a full time job, get on the tenure track there (yes, they have a tenure track) and eventually get tenure. In doing this, she developed some really incredible programs.

What did she love?

She teaches remedial math, lots of algebra. She teaches calculus to the folks who want it the least but need it, perhaps the most. Some of her student go on to 4 yr degrees in various science disciplines. Some are getting credits for something work related, or continuing education, or hoping to move in their field. Lots are in 2-year programs that require some math to get going: all those other folks working at hospitals and SNFs (Skilled Nursing Facilities), IT programs. Vet Techs. Various criminal justice jobs. Media and visual communication. Work that falls between blue collar manual labor and engineering. Things that are solid jobs.

What did she love? She loved the students. They were older. They were committed. They appreciated the opportunity. Many had another job. Some had two other jobs. Lots were supporting a family. Some had made mistakes in their youth, or at least done things that in retrospect they recognized as compromising future choices. Some were younger, with priorities in partying, friends and minor substance abuse.

What did she love? She knew, deep down and without qualification, that she was making a difference to many people every term. Sometimes they said thanks, and sometimes they didn't. But it was like watching rabbit ears grow: you could actually see the change from day to day.

So, when these people finish, you think they don't deserve a ceremony? They don't deserve to be recognized? That somehow pompous ceremonies are reserved for four year schools? That honorary degrees, the goal of which is to bring somewhat/perhaps distinguished people with possibly something interesting to say, to honor the graduates, is worthwhile? that it's funny?

Crap. The older I get the more I want to honor not the glam stars who discover DNA, but the folks who figured out a way, through hard work, to do something more.


10 responses so far

Mother's Day Thoughts

(by potnia theron) May 13 2018

You cannot get to be this age without having had great love and also great loss.

To my mothers, and their mothers, and their mother's mothers, stretching back through time: Thank you for the joy. Thank you for your gifts. I love you. No matter what.

To my children, all my children, here and gone. Thank you for the joy. Thank you for your gifts. I will always love you, come what may.

Sometimes, I used to have a ritual, like Havdallah, to end Mother's day. To celebrate the separation, and the start of the week and month and year. Not today. I will just be glad when this beastly day is done and gone.


No responses yet

Medical Schools That Get It Right

(by potnia theron) Mar 06 2018

From the President of my University:

Dear Near-MRU Community:

 The recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the others that have preceded it, have given pause to many, particularly our students.

 As you may know, students and others around the country are planning walkouts, teach-ins and other protests in the coming weeks to push for solutions to prevent future school shootings.

 A nationally organized walkout―#ENOUGH National School Walkout―for students, teachers, school administrators, parents and allies has been planned for Wednesday, March 14, 2018 at 10 a.m. The walkout, which will last for 17 minutes (10 - 10:17 a.m.), is designed to engage Congress to pass legislation to keep communities safe from gun violence.

 Several our student groups have asked for Near-MRU’s support of their participation in the National School Walk Out. They invite all faculty, staff and students to walk out of class at that time in solidarity.

 As a result of this request, we want Near-MRU students, staff, faculty, and others to know that the University supports their engagement in matters of importance to them, particularly those things that are of public health and wellness concern, provided that such engagement does not disrupt the University’s ability to educate and operate safely.

 Specifically, we support anyone who wants to participate in the #ENOUGH National School Walkout and assure all that grades or any other academic or business decisions will not be impacted in any way, as a result of participation in this peaceful protest.






3 responses so far

Jumping off into the unknown

(by potnia theron) Feb 14 2018

I have a good friend who is a much better human being than I am. She is generous, with her time and her affection, her intellect and her street smarts about life. Let’s call her Susan.

Susan did a PhD in a prestigious place, and a postdoc even more so. But not in a particular sexy and shiny subfield. It involved Live Animals that were not mice or rats, but answered questions that crossed fields. She managed to get the respect of both places, and was funded by both subdiscplines, but much more NSF than NIH. She is respected and has done good work. She got married to another scientist, had kids, and made a bunch of compromises. She’s in her mid 50s now and what’s important, was a woman at a time and in a place where there weren’t many. She was an adjunct before the word and concept had evolved.

In fact, she’s been an adjunct for 20-ish years. And she’s just tired of it. She’s retiring, which as she tells it, is a bit fiscally risky. But she’s tired. She has had 5 year contracts, which while more than many of the current adjuncts in social sciences or humanities get, but its taken a toll. She’s been funded, which has been life and death for her.

I can’t say that I think much of her husband, but then no one has asked me to think much of him, let alone my opinion. She’s a better scientist. Her kids are more or less launched in life. She can point to a body of work that is good, and important, and made a difference. He’s still a jerk, in my book. He has set down some rules about where they might go. I am pretty sure these are not consistent with what Susan might want. But again, no one is asking me my opinion.

What amazes me is that she doesn’t know what comes next for her. I’m actively thinking about retirement, but one of the things that keeps pulling at me is that there is nothing I love as much as I love doing science. She and I had a long skype the other day, and I wish I had taken notes. We are different, but she still had much insight for me. There was lots of wisdom floating in the air. And I, alas, did not capture it.

Susan is leaping off into space. Yes, it is a leap that has a good safety net. She’s not going to starve. She’s not going to be on the street, sleeping in a sleeping bag under the underpass. But she doesn't know what else comes next. And maybe you could fault her for "running from" as opposed to "running to". Yet, I admire her. To know what you want, and what you don't want, really know, is a high achievement.


One response so far

Thoughts on reviewing NIH proposals: What is the difference between a 2.0 and 3.0 in initial score?

(by potnia theron) Feb 10 2018

There are lots of posts (some mine, some from others, more worthy correspondents) about the current state of NIH scoring and its relationship to funding.

The general and consistent message is that, yes, funding is hard to get. You need to put in the best possible proposal you can. You need to pay attention to grantsmanship issues, because that can help. But I want to move beyond that.

I've often commented that sometimes the difference between a discussed but not funded and a funded proposal is almost random. That this is one of the times grantsmanship matters, and what I consider one of the most important meta-rules: make the reviewer your advocate.

So study section time is coming up. I got a set of proposals to review, and I'm done. My reviews are posted, and many of colleagues have posted too. This produced a lot of reviews for me to look at, and I was seeing them in the light of recent twitter discussion.

I haven't seen a score better than 2. But I also haven't seen any 9's, or even anything >8.1. This is, in part, because we are explicitly told to balance our distribution, and make 5 the mean/median. Start with a 5, and go up or down from there.

Looking at the 2-4 range might be helpful. These are proposals that will be discussed. The difference between a 2 and a 4 is now the difference in getting funded. What are the words used that distinguish between the 2s and the 3s and 4s?

Here is something I saw more than once:

"Overall, while hopping disorders in elderly rabbits is a topic of importance, the work is viewed as incremental in nature and not that particularly innovative"

I did not review this proposal. This was a study that received a "2" in approach, but a "6" in innovation. A good reviewer may have more detail on why it is "not particularly innovative". I've seen things like:

These results have been established for adult bunnies, and the only difference in this proposal is that the study population is elderly bunnies.

The significance could be very high: we may want or need to know this for elderly bunnies. But the innovation is not. Here is another critique I've seen concerning innovation:

The proposed techniques and approaches have been used by this PI and study team for many years, thus not particularly new or innovative, other than being used for this project in elderly bunnies.

I am not sure this is particularly helpful, as most PI's use the same basic techniques. This critique produces the cry: "what am I supposed to do? this is what I do". There is the sentiment expressed that "reviewers are just looking  for problems". I do not think this is true. Instructions to reviewers are to  start with a "5" in every category and move up or down. I have read the complaints of people who say "I got a 3 or a 4 but there were no weaknesses."   A 3 or 4 may have no weaknesses, just not enough strength to boost it to a 2. So how then you ask, "am I supposed to improve this and get funded?".

To answer that, let's start with the NIH wording on innovation for R01s:

Does the application challenge and seek to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms by utilizing novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions? Are the concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions novel to one field of research or novel in a broad sense? Is a refinement, improvement, or new application of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions proposed?

And we are back to the discussion of last month, and last year, and honestly, last decade. NIH reviewers are not in the business of making suggestions on how to improve your proposal. You may want that. You may feel you are owed that. You may think that it is unfair not to give you that kind of help. And of course, you may have any feelings you might want to have. But those feelings will not change reality. The job, the role, the assignment to reviewers, from NIH, is to evaluate proposals and provide justification for the scores that they give.

The view that something isn't innovative because it does nothing beyond change the population is sufficient for NIH standards, but tremendously frustrating to the PI applicant. The reviewers are not supposed to tell you how to make it innovative, only judge whether it is or not.

Back in the olden dayes, when grants were 25 pages long, reviews unstructured and everyone wore suits to study section, there were unlimited resubmissions. One (but there were others) of the reasons NIH decided to go to first 2 resubs (3 total) and eventually 1 resubmission was the view that "reviewers were writing the proposals" and telling PI's what they needed to do.

In fact, I think not telling a  PI how to make a project innovative is A Good Thing. It opens up room for creativity and insight and change. If reviewers and study sections said "do this", well of course you would. And then the reviewers would not so much be evaluating your ideas and projects, but proposing their own.

The best place to go to figure out how to change your proposal are those questions and guidelines that NIH gives the reviewers (here!). Make it possible for the reviewers to answer yes! yes! yes! to those questions. The proposals that have turned me into their advocate are proposals that I want to make sure my reasoning about why this is A Damn Fine Proposal is clear, and upfront and persuasive as possible to my fellow reviewers.


No responses yet

Professionalism and Integrity on Study Section

(by potnia theron) Feb 05 2018

There was some discussion on the tweets lately about What Happens At Study Section. Given that NIH triages 50% of the proposals, that is does not discuss, making that cut is important. Part of the discussion concerned whether one of three reviewers could "sink" a proposal.


A procedural note (which was cleared up on the tweets, but I can't find it and it's worth repeating here): if a proposal is triaged, there is no "voting outside the range". Voting outside the range is something that happens after a discussion and after final scores are given by the reviewer. If a proposal is triaged, no one votes and there is no range to be outside of.

In the study sections on which I have sat, since triage has become a thing, there is a list of triaged proposals that is circulated prior to review. ANYONE, not just the reviewers of a particular proposal, can call for review of a proposal (before the meeting) and move it to the discuss group. Moreover, there is another chance to do this during study section meeting.  I've seen moving from triage to discussion at nearly every study section, even from the non-reviewers. If someone feels strongly about a proposal, they can force the discussion.

Discussions tend to be complex things. If someone feels very strongly about a proposal, they can try and drive the discussion. This tends not to happen. I have seldom seen anyone be irrationally negative about a proposal. And almost always, everyone who says something negative, tries and balance it with what they do perceive as positive about the proposal. I have seen more strong very positive reviews.

"Voting out of range", for those who don't know, happens at the end of the discussion. The three (or sometimes four) reviewers each give a final score, and indicate how they have changed from their initial score, based on the discussion. Then the chair asks if anyone is voting out of the range of the reviewers. This is for the non-reviewers, as the reviewers set the range.   It happens. As DM indicated, it's often more than one person, and more often towards a worse score. My sense is that it frequently occurs when non-reviewers think that a problem raised in review is more serious than the reviewer thinks it is. They often explicitly indicate this verbally (which is how I have come to think this).

In general, IME, preliminary scores tend to have a wider range than final scores before voting. Most reviewers are not only listening, but actively engaged in discussing the proposals. Although I have heard the words "I am excited by this proposal" and "I am disappointed in this proposal", by and large, reviewers are not irrational or overly emotional about proposals. They tend to base their reviews on points of substance, and follow the NIH guidelines on reviews.

If you haven't seen the (very extensive) guidelines for reviewers, it is well worth looking at before you submit.  This link is a real rabbit hole, but one worth pursuing. For example, the guidelines for an R01 include:

How will successful completion of the aims change the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field?

And I have read proposals that include the text:

Successful completion of these aims will change the treatments available for dysfunctional bunny hopping.

There is absolutely nothing wrong, and quite a lot right, with telling the reviewers what they are looking for in your proposal.

It is easy and often emotionally satisfying to be angry at Study Section and especially, IME, Reviewer #2. They Don't Get It. They are prejudiced against bunny hopping studies. There was one Reviewer who sank my study.  These things are not impossible. They are just not likely.


3 responses so far

QOTD: Julia Child Edition

(by potnia theron) Jan 30 2018

A party without cake is just a meeting -- Julia Child


No responses yet

« Newer posts Older posts »