PS from Molly

(by potnia theron) May 10 2017

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

(by potnia theron) May 10 2017

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.

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Difficult chairs and difficult faculty redeux

(by potnia theron) May 10 2017

I've written about Molly before: see here and here and here. TL,DR: Molly is a junior faculty, older and struggling with her chair, in specific, and with being in academics/an asst. prof, in general.

We meet every couple of weeks, but regularly- it's on my calendar. The regular part is important, as is the on-my-calendar part.

Today, we went back to the first question: do you want to stay in academia and do you want tenure?  When I posted those original bits about Molly, it elicited a lot of responses, many of which are worth reading. I do think that knowing what you want in life is one of the hardest things there is. Knowing how to balance short-term frustrations vs. long term goals is tough. Letting your executive function/forebrain make the decisions (no, I don't want to eat that chocolate, no, I don't want to slug or curse the woman at the Department of Motor Vehicles who says "no, I have no record of your existence") is not always easy. Some of the more problematic responses to What Should Molly Do posts are people imposing their wants on Molly.

Molly has decided she wants to be here, and she wants to do what it will take. She then started talking about a problem that her chair wanted her to not write so many grants of a particular type. These grants required matching funds for money to be awarded. I am sure the chair wasn't great about conveying this  to Molly, who just saw any money coming as a good thing. "He's got scads of discretionary funds" Molly said. "The matching amounts aren't that much". Well, except that they are. And they have not been budgeted for by the chair, and they have to come out of some other project he's got in line. I said that she has to, in her head, as loathsome as it may seem, be the chair and understand his perspective.

Then she brought up the next problem, which was something about department meetings. And I said: Molly, we can go through each of these problems, and I'm happy to do that with you. But here's an idea that might save you the grief of identifying and living with this list of issues. I quoted my next-door-office neighbor, a former college-football player who decided he wanted to do Something Else, and who, btw, is pretty good and pretty impressive at knowing what he wants): "Is this the hill you want to die on?". Molly got it immediately (she is smart, and quick, and very very good). She laughed and laughed and said: "I'm going to print that one out".




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Research for credit, adjuncts and abuses in academia

(by potnia theron) May 04 2017

A comment to a previous post said:

I did lots of research for credit, and always found it ironic that I was paying tuition to essentially volunteer. In some ways, research for credit is MORE problematic. Welcome to academia, where we vastly underpay people for their work (think adjuncts).

I responded that I think there are situations in which credit/no pay is appropriate: When there is teaching going on, when the student is doing a project that teaches how to do research, when it is not just washing bottles or cleaning animal cages. I think one diagnostic feature is that the teacher/prof is putting significant (more?) energy into teaching the student, than end product that comes out.

But the issue with adjuncts is more complex than this.

So to start:  I do not think that academics are particularly underpaid. I was just speaking with a physician friend, who view on academic physicians was quite nuanced. When I was in a clinical dept at MRU, there was quite schizoid views on the "job" of physicians. Many wanted to make significant amounts of money, which is by and large not compatible with doing  research. My friend said that she thought physicians needed to make a choice: to be academics, take the salary offered, and teach and do research and basically accept that you're not going to get all the perks of a private practice. And that if you did want to get "rich" you should eschew the academic route and just devote yourself to those private patients. The problem of course, is that people, physician people, wanted both.

The punch line from my friend was apt: I get paid plenty, and have what I need, as an academic physician. It is the psychological need or compulsion to have "More" that creates problems. Relative to private practice peers, academic physicians can/sometimes perceive they are not paid enough. I hear my readers laughing at "not enough" for people making > $100K/yr.

Which brings me to one of my favorite (attribution unknown) quotes: who is rich, and should be taxed more? Anyone who makes more money than I do.

Are adjuncts underpaid? If you asked my grandmother, who worked for pennies a day, less than minimum wage in today's dollars, she'd say you're crazy. You ask an adjunct who looks at tenure track people doing similar, if not the same, work for lots more, they would be adamant that yes, they are underpaid. It's relative.

But this comes to the question of why do positions  called "adjunct" exist? From the Administrator's perspective, adjuncts are cheap, very cheap, easy to justify to the bean counters  and make a difference to over all productivity. From an adjunct's point of view, it's a way to stay in the system and hope things get better. From an economist's point of view: adjuncts exist because there is a job offered at a particular wage, and there are people willing to do this work for this wage.

And so once again we return to the mouths at the trough problem. If there were a shortage of professors/teachers / people who could and would teach college courses (supply) relative to the number that need to be taught (demand), then wages would rise. But there is an oversupply of teachers. There is a supply of people who will do this job at this wage. They may get used up and quit, but right now there is a near endless supply of such people. Universities are churning out of PhDs who are willing to do that teaching at that price, so from the administrator's point of view why offer more money? (yes, there are arguments about quality, about commitment, about long term development, but they can be countered,  we are not trying to persuade administrators at this point, and this post is already too long). There is similar logic for postdoc salaries, but see previous parenthetical comment.

The solution seems obvious: stop training so many PhD students. Or be honest with the ones you do take in. Actually, it's more than being honest: think about exponential growth. If jobs for professors are in a "replacement" mode at best (ie no growth in positions), then within a lifetime, a prof should produce ONE replacement for themselves. If a prof produces even two, and those two produce two each, in 10 generations there will be a thousand (2 ^10 = 1024). And if all those people are writing one NIH grant a year, let alone one every cycle, then of course the number of submissions is going to go up exponentially.

So to come back to the beginning: are academics underpaid. If you want to make lots of money, academics is probably not for you. But everyone in the system now has a responsibility to understand the implications, the long term implications, of their actions.

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quote of the day(2): but see also...

(by potnia theron) May 03 2017

The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness, but idolatry -- Jonathan Sacks

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quote of the day: corruption of power

(by potnia theron) May 03 2017

Power often corrupts and absolute power often corrupts absolutely, but the greatest corruption of all comes from withholding power, which grants victory to tyrants. -- Shlomo Riskin

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Is this Russia?

(by potnia theron) Apr 28 2017

Following comment appeared to yesterday's post (my emphasis):

 Misha Koksharov

"Some PI's go nuclear: I can't do the work with only this money. That runs the risk of "ok, we'll take it all back and give it to someone who can". " Welcome to Russia.


**NOTE ADDED**: Misha tells me "That's just how scientists have to work in Russia for like the last 27 years (to do some science on very scarce resources)". It wasn't a political statement at all.


The first bit is mine, a tongue in cheek NIH response to the PI nuclear option. Welcome to Russia is Ser Koksharov's response. I disagree. In fact, I think it misses the point, so I'm going to take a moment to clarify.

Lots of people go through all the stages of grief when their funding gets cut.

denial: this must be a mistake, no one would cut my grant this much

anger: those fuckers

bargaining: please, please don't cut my grant this much

depression: I shall never win the Nobel prize without more money 

acceptance: who the heck am I kidding? I am FUNDED.

My comment was about the NIH response is people stuck in anger or bargaining or both. My comment was to the snowflakes who think that they deserve the money that the rest of don't.

My channeling of my inner NIH PO is the response I wrote. It was meant to be (a little bit) humorous. Or not. It's meant to help one get to the acceptance stage. I don't see that as "Russian" or being run by oligarchs. I see it as what a beleaguered NIH staff person, who has 100 PI's calling up and crying and moaning, gnashing their teeth and rending their sackcloth, because they've had a significant cut to funding, does on the 20th such call. Let me say, in all my years, including many on a study section, I have never seen an NIH staff say something as bad as that. Mostly their badness lies in not returning phone calls, or perhaps being short and curt on the phone. In fact, the other day, someone tweeted something an NIH staff said about the worst part or the hardest part of their job being talking to upset PI's (if you've got the original tweet, please add to comments ). See tweet below!

Please keep in mind, the poor soul talking to you about your cuts did not make the decision. They may have had a small say in it, but balancing a budget is something that clearly lots of people can't do. And if NIH has some issues in getting it right, they are still way ahead of Congress.

Sadly enough, the problems with funding, with significant cuts to awards, with low pay lines, predates this administration. There have been cuts due to continuing budget resolutions before, while congress acting like a bunch of spoiled babies (see: they've got high level health care they would deny to others, and can justify it). Yes, funding is worse now. Yes, if the "compromise" with Trump means only a 10% cut to NIH budget, things will get much much worse. Yes, the impact of that worseness will fall disproportionately on the young.

But that doesn't make this Russia.




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Financial Realities and Mentorship:Summer Fellows edition

(by potnia theron) Apr 28 2017

I started this post a while ago, and it got lost in the long list of  Drafts.

But it's come up, because it's time at my almost-MRU for picking summer fellows for research.

Firstly, a word about my almost-MRU. Where I was before at a real high-flying MRU, everyone had money, the students not excepted. The students at that medical school were being trained to be leaders in medicine. They were cosseted and supported and nurtured. They also tended to be rich, by virtue of the inescapable logic that med schools want people who have Done Things, including shadowing of physicians. As one of the students I interviewed here said "I didn't know any doctors to shadow, I didn't have time, working two minimum wage jobs, to shadow anyone".

Fast forward: Potty leaves MRU, goes to almost-MRU in the middle of rural lower-kukamundaville, where someone, really and truly said to me: "You're an XYZ (minority)? I've never met one of those before."

So, back to almost  MRU. It is a medical school in the lower quintile or quartile or something. Someone has to be there, so the upper third or quintile or quartile can sleep easy at night, knowing how good they are.

Almost-MRU fills a niche. They train primary care/family medicine/ people who are committed (mostly) to returning to rural and underserved urban communities. They  try to help financially to help first generation types get medical degrees. The heart is in the right place, the follow-through, not always.

We have a program to bring first year med students into our labs for the summer. They pay these summer fellows $3000. But, as one person who I taught in the fall, and thought would be great in my lab,  said to me: "I'm going back home, because I've got a job that will pay me more. It won't look as good on my record, but I need the money." First generation kids from blue-collar families are acutely aware of the interest clock ticking away on their educational loans.

I have, and will try this year (though almost-MRU doesn't make it easy) to push a little extra money to the kids who work in my lab. And yes, at my age, 22 year olds look like kids to me. They have set levels for these fellowships, and I'm perceived as rocking the boat when I try to do something different.

But I have colleagues who take "fellows"as "volunteers". I have a lot of trouble with this. To me, this is perpetuating all the class distinctions that we try so hard, or at least give lip service to eradicating. On the o ther hand, some of these are junior faculty struggling towards tenure. They don't have a lot of money. They may not yet have a major grant. Some years almost-MRU gave them a fellow, and subsidized this. But sometimes not. Some people have NSF grants, and 3K is not easy to squeak out of that level of funding.

This problem sets up tremendous cognitive dissoncence in my head and in my heart. I just don't know. Everyone is making free choices, but, but, but. I don't say anything, but I  have lost sleep worrying about how I could make this better.

If we are serious about giving everyone a chance, we can't just "hire the best candidate". The best candidate may not have the best record. The person who can do the most good, to my lab, to science, to medicine, to humanity, may be hidden behind a CV of minimum wage service jobs.

I have always found that people who worked what I consider real jobs, McDonalds, cleaning bed pans in the hospital, bathing folks in a rehab SNF, waitressing, fixing cars, selling stuff at Walmart, are actually far better in my lab. I can teach anyone how to do  surgery, how to make an electrode, how to collect data. I cannot, in a summer, teach a work ethic, teach a commitment to honesty and truth and Finding  Out Things.

So I've found three fellows for my lab this summer. We shall see.


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The realities of modern politics and NIH funding: lone PI edition

(by potnia theron) Apr 27 2017

Let's start by defining what I am not: I am not at a MRU. I do not run a flash lab. I do not have multiple grants, multiple grad students, multiple postdocs. Right now, I've got one of each. When I started developing a second project, working with a wonderful young PI who came to me with a great idea, my current postdoc joked that I was going to become a BSD. My response: I would love to be a BSD.

But where I am in terms of running my lab, I don't have a lot of  financial flexibility.

What do I have: great colleagues. A chair, who by and large, appreciates me. This department, my  (relatively new) department is filled with people like me: one grant, small lab. Everybody gears up in the summer, and takes medical students (very serious, hard working, wonderful medical students) on as summer fellows. These are people who are  largely in the same boat as I am.

Last year, after much struggle (and submitting 2-4 proposals a year) I got refunded. Yes, I'm a boomer, and it's allegedly easier for me than thee. I acknowledge the issues that my younger colleagues have, but again, that's another post. I am glad to have this grant, I am doing something that Might Make A Difference for Babies, and certainly is chock full of basic neurophysiology goodness.

There was some initial weirdness from my IC, for which I am now very grateful. The grant started in August, but my IC didn't want me to have an August anniversary date. There are too many grants with August anniversaries, I was told. So, I started August, but they made my renewal May 1. But they did give me the first "full" (after the mandatory 18% cut to all grants in this IC) year, albeit for the reduced time period.

Now if I was a paranoid type, I might think they did that on purpose to make life miserable for me. Or because they didn't Care About Me. Why? Because one of the Rites of Spring is the Annual Congress Screws with the Federal Budget Follies.  In the past, this happened, and I don't remember it impacting me, and somehow NIH muddled through. It may have been that my non-competitive renewals (annual renewals on a 3 or 5 year grant) came at a Good Time relative to the Federal Budget.

But, now, I've got issues. Some major. Some minor.

Minor first: my 2nd year of funding did not come in when it should have. And the idiots in University Accounting sent emails to the postdoc, the grad student and the tech that "because your Grant is over, your personnel form has been terminated". I had some very anxious people inquiring. Sigh. Lab meeting: yes there is enough carryover to pay everyone's salary for at least 6 months. This is just an administrative thing. No, I have redone everyone's personnel form. And no, I'm not, the Chair is not, the Dean is not going to let you go because NIH has not sent next year's money. You are valued.

Major next: well, yesterday the 2nd year came. It has been cut 30% from requested. I looked at the number in disbelief. It was a tight budget to  start with. 30% is more than someone's salary.  More than two sets of experiments. And all the travel.

Pro response: Thank you very much sir. Please may I have another?

2nd Pro Response: write to the guy listed on ERA  Commons as the "financial contact". I have found the people in this role to be helpful and polite, as long as I stay polite. I asked about this and apologized for bothering. "No, it's what we are here for". I got lots of explanation, and only a little reference to the unintelligible rules.

Basically, because the federal government does not have a budget, and we (the people) are operating under a continuing resolution, all NIH awards  (right now) in this IC are being cut. Some IC's are cutting more than others. The cuts, if NIH budget is cut, are likely to be permanent.

I know people who go back and argue for more money. Some PI's go nuclear: I can't do the work with only this money. That runs the risk of "ok, we'll take it all back and give it to someone who can". Maybe there are some really big, really really big BSD's who can do this. Maybe they count on sheeple like me acquiescing, so they can have more money.

Because of the short first year, I've got some carryover to ease through this year. Because I figured out a major experimental cost saving, I will be OK this year and next. But by year 4, I will be having trouble figuring out where to cut. There won't be any fat left.

For my part, I am glad to have my one r01. I am glad to have my small lab and to keep pushing on the frontiers in my small way. I would love to have that 30% back. My department chair would love for me to have the 30% back, as most of it is going to come out of my salary support. It's sure as hell not coming out of trainee salaries, or experimental supplies, or animal per diems. We just keep going.


5 responses so far

Quote of the Day: Power Edition

(by potnia theron) Apr 26 2017

Those in possession of absolute power can not only prophesy and make their prophecies come true, but they can also lie and make their lies come true. --Eric Hoffer
When I was in high school, we had to read The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. It's as relevant today as it was in the 1950's when first published. I suspect school age kids don't read anything so incendiary today: Hoffer was not a great supporter of religion and compared Paul in Christianity to Hitler. The main thesis of his book (this taken from Wikipedia) was, for a true believer, "that substance of any particular group is less important than being part of an energized movement."

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