Archive for: April, 2015

Why I'm at a not-quite-MRU

Apr 30 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Someone asked me why I left a full-prof, tenured senior (comfy) position at one the top med schools in the country. Obviously they didn't know me or the MRU well, because if they did they wouldn't have called it comfy.

I'm still in a medical school, albeit not-quite-MRU status. I'm also on the other side of the hall now- in a basic science department instead of clinical, a department with a different mission and set of goals. That, it turns out is important to me.

I do not give a damn about the Name of The Place where I work. No, you've probably never heard of my new school (somebody has to be in the bottom quintile). I don't need to borrow that status from anyone or anywhere else, though it has turned up on my reviews, in critiques of environment. WTF? Shouldn't it just be my lab? My department (which is very strong)?

What is increasingly clear to me, in these discussions, is that the hardest thing in the world is not getting funded, although its up there. The hardest thing in the world is figuring out what you want. Figuring out what is important to you. Not acting on emotions. Not acting on thoughts in your attic that have been put there, by you, over the years, because of someone else.

Sometimes I wish that how I thought/felt/acted was as clear and amenable to analysis as my data. Which is an incredibly low standard, since my data tend to be a mess, with multiple levels of variation, and signals obscured by many extraneous, and often uncontrollable other variables.

When I said I want to try and live a more advertent life I didn't realize at the time that thinking about where I work would be part of advertency.  I hope I have made the last (academic) move of my life. But I've done that every time I've moved (n>2).

Advertency. Its a good word.

One response so far

What does your school require from you? Salary Support Edition

Apr 29 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Beatrix Kiddo (@tehbride) asked me whether job depends upon grants. "Do you have hard $ salary, or soft all around?"

This becomes a tricky question and is something that you can negotiate before taking a job (I did).

At my old MRU, I was in a clinical department. In the beginning, every penny of salary was accounted for: research (external grant), teaching (central funds for classes or residents), service (it pained the chair from hell to pay for this out of his precious clinical income), clinical (the gold standard for everything). Then NIH objected to people being 100% research, on grants, and still writing grants. This was considered "lobbying" and one was not permitted to use gov't money to request more gov't money. Things changed, and the department (reluctantly) funded 2-4% of time to write grant proposals.

Ha. I wish I only spent 2-4% of my time writing grant proposals.

In those days I was a vice-chair, and that accounted for a chunk of time. It irritated my chair, although I would have thought that he would have been relieved to have a cheap vice-chair (I made less than asst profs who were MDs). I sometimes did some teaching, and that would bring in another chunk. As vice-chair I knew that everybody was on this scheme in one form or another.

Part of this byzantine scheme was how the junior faculty were treated. This differed between clinical PhDs and MDs. Non-clinical PhDs, pure research folks, were only hired if they already covered that almost-100% of their salary. This, by the way, meant that no young research people were hired.

The MD's were by and large hired to do clinical work and clinical research. The hope was there would be sufficient overlap so that they would generate huge enormous buckets of clinical income, and yet, in their copious free time (20%) write papers and proposals and establish themselves as young giants in the field. Of course, they had little to no training and this didn't work well. Their salary was dependent on clinical income, "salary at risk" was the terminology, in a simple formula (though reality was more complex, this serves for understanding):

salary = some constant  * income brought in/hours worked per week

Thus, if you had 20% protected  time, your denominator was smaller, and your salary larger. Some, very few, had the opposite scheme - 75-80% research, 20-30% clinical. These were folks who had done some kind of research fellowship. Often they showed up with a K-award, or significant promise of one. These people often succeeded, but tended to, shall we say, blur the %s, so that they were closer to 60/40, to generate more clinical income, which turned into bonuses for them. We can argue about people who value money more than research, and who's willing to be poor. But I think that's another argument for another day.

Things were different for the clinical PhDs (psychologists, Phys Therapists, Audiologists, SLPs, OTs). Their salaries were much less than physicians (40-60%, depending on seniority and specialty). They did clinical work for one or more of several reasons. The department needed their services, and they were cheap. The department gave lip service to having these folks do research, and covering their salary was the cost of having them on the roster. From their perspective, clinical service was a pathway to generating data, finding subjects, or keeping their hand in clinical matters should academia not work out. Many more of these people were the 75-80% research to 20-30% clinical, with the department promising 2-3 years of research support. Those people often hit the  ground running, writing K-award proposals at an impressive frequency (every cycle or every other cycle). They got funded or not, and stayed or not. But by the time such a person was up for promotion to assoc prof, they had to cover their whole salary in a mix of research grants and clinical income. Period. If you didn't have the research dollars, you were in the clinic. Very hard, and many left.

Now: I have moved to a basic science department. I teach a major medical school class, and that covers a large part of my salary. It is assumed that I will bring in some percentage of my remaining salary in grant money. That number was part of my negotiation when I came here. There is still a gap between teaching/research funding and my salary. I am aware of this. So I do some significant service here (mentoring, running promotions committee, organizing the women & URM of the medical school).

I also keep an eye out for opportunities to do things that Interest Me and that I would find Good To Do. My criteria for such things are 1) I really want to do it (because its fun, because it will make a difference, because it means something to me) and 2) Someone in administration will see what I do as a big plus and preferably will think "wow, only Potnia could pull that off". Thus, writing blogs and tweeting fails #2. Most admin/service things fail #1. I've found something recently that I'm following up on. Its a local hospital that has more money than brains, and no research and the Head of Something Or Other mentioned to me that they really would like to get their fellows / jr faculty involved in research. It has the potential to support the junior faculty in my department. I am exploring, which makes the research admin in my Uni very very happy.

The most important thing to consider as you move from postdoc to faculty, or one faculty place to another, or from research faculty to tenure-track, is to get as much information as you can. Get information about: the field, the discipline, the school, the department, anything you can. Lots is hidden, so talk to other junior faculty. Ask them about it. Public uni's often have databases with salaries in them.

But salary number is not the single most important thing. In fact, its usually down the list. Important (and go back to DocBecca's page as well as this page from a chem blogger, Ken Hanson) are: what are you expected to do about this salary, how much research support are you getting? I have always thought that seed money and research space (is it ready, available?) is more important than salary, even though when you are starting out that's hard to see.

So to answer Beatrix: now, I've got some squish. Its partly why I left MRU. But if I don't get funded, I will be in trouble. So I'm off to write another proposal.


5 responses so far

People Leaving My Old-MRU

Apr 28 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Many of my colleagues, former colleagues, people I recruited (as head of something-or-other) have recently left, or made plans to leave (accepted offers) my former department at my former MRU. Many are junior. Some as tenured as you get in a medical school. But there is a consistent story.

These are Good Folks. They are good scientists and good people. They work hard and treat others fairly. blah blah blah. They were also Ph.Ds in a clinical department. Some were clinical PhDs (for example, Psychologists or Physical Therapists). Some were doing clinical research, but from a PhD background. All got paid less, for research than MD's, because baseline salary is a function of degree and billing rates, even if you are 70 or 90 or 100% research. Some didn't care about salary, but about reduced respect.  Some were concerned about leadership opportunities and others about access to trainees (a sub-function of the respect issue).

The folks I'm talking about above are all, in their view, "taking a step down". They are not so much changing their allometry of fish:pond size, as they are saying I just can't take the attitude. And attitude describes a lot of it. It's about being treated as a second class citizen because of your degree and your income generating power. It’s about the age-old hierarchy in medical schools, and the jousting for position, fame and glory. It’s about the need for position, fame and glory. And ultimately, it’s about the translation of that need into how you treat people around you.

I know this may be a first world problem to people who can't get jobs. There is something else going on here, though. People leaving good, nay, great jobs. Even in a tight field. Even with funding and jobs and all hard to get. Even within our social microcosm of biomedical research, how you treat people still matters. For some people it is a cost/benefit decision, in that being treated like a human being outweighs the advantages of BSD MRU affiliation.

I did a lot of blogging about my old chair. I put the links in because they are some of my favorite posts. Also, because I am gone and I can laugh about him, now. In particular, this post about people leaving really sums up the problem. People who need to be at a top ranked MRU denigrate the ones who don't want to be there. It may make them feel better. It may make them feel they are defending or preserving the excellence of their MRU. It may be small genitalia size.

I don't think the departure of these folks, good as they are, will be some Very Big Change for my old MRU. People will leave. They will hire new people. No one is irreplaceable. This may not be the kind of thing we (you my beloved readers, me) can change. In fact, it’s quite likely the kind of thing about which we have no impact. What is important is to recognize what you or I want out of life, and where we can get it. This often gets called work/life balance, but that sounds, quite frankly, dangerous and exhausting, the very reasons we want to leave MRU. I think it’s just called being alive, and remembering we get only one life (and if there is more, we surely don't know  about it, various myths to the contrary).

6 responses so far

Potty as she rewrites her grant

Apr 27 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

There is a quote from GI Jane for every situation.

No responses yet

Responding to Grant Critiques (without becoming apoplectic)

Apr 27 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I love the word apoplectic. Probably because it describes my mindset much of the time these days.

I am trying to rewrite a proposal that (quite likely) did not get funded on the resubmission. It will go in as a new submission, so I don't get to write the "You lowly, insecure, idiotic reviewers have once again totally failed to appreciate not only the genius, but the significance, innovation and my ability to craft the most exquisite hypotheses" response to reviewers, called "an introduction". I do, by the way, recognize it's the significance, innovation, etc of the proposal, not me. But it does get hard to separate these out, sometimes.

So what is making me apoplectic right now? The review that says "the proposal does not present clear criteria for addressing the hypothesis of XYZ in SA 2". Well, as a matter of fact you ferkakte schlemiel, I did. It is in the section titled "Testing the hypotheses".  As in, "if variable X is greater than 1 then yes the hypothesis holds". Hard to get more explicit than that. But even if I could write a response, I wouldn't shoot myself in my tender little tootsies by even implying that this was the case. I would say (for those who are writing responses), with a heading of "concerns about hypothesis testing", the exact data tests of specific hypotheses are emphasized on pX. And then make sure there was a little grey box around the text on page X. There are lots of ways of doing this. The important idea here is to direct the reviewers attention to what you have done to address their concern.

So what to do when I can't even mention that this was a concern (this is going in as a new submission)? I need to move this text to a more forward place in the proposal. I need to move the text that was in the lovely section called testing the hypotheses, make it more general (to suit its more forward position) so that when the reviewers don't read the whole thing (as they won't) that they find this.

There are lots of books that tell you how to write a grant proposal. I've been to lots of courses that give you templates, often down to specific sentences. I've also seen people get so contorted to fit their work into the template du jour that the meaning gets twisted. I'm pretty sure there isn't a single way to do this. But if the organization isn't clear in your head, it sure as hell won't be for the reviewers, either. What I'm working on are ways to move things around so that the things the reviewers didn't see, the things I KNOW are in the proposal, are more evident, and easily noticed by the reviewers. I need to do this without upsetting what I thought was a pretty good organization (but obviously not, since they missed that fucking point).

And, reviewer fucking three, who thinks that a project on brainstem function is incomplete without cerebral imaging, the hell with you and your respiratory system.

3 responses so far

Music to explore data

Apr 15 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Richard Arnest

3 responses so far

Sometimes little things can make a big difference

Apr 14 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I love this cartoon from Josh Hara @yoyoha:


Sometimes when I get something little, something small right, its like I've given my brain a big hug.

I have spent time wrestling with IRS audit of my taxes from 2013. Yesterday I finally got documents from bank that let me, yes me calculate something non-trivial that the IRS needs that will likely reduce what is owed to them. But I did it. The number looks reasonable (effect size).  I am unreasonably proud of myself.

Which makes me happy, one more time, to go back into the data that don't make sense. There is something causing this behavior /performance failure. But in all the data that describe what is happening, there is no consistent pattern across animals/trials. But, now, having conquered, albeit briefly in a small arena, the IRS, I can do data.



No responses yet

Nebraska and Geographical Snobbery

Apr 13 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

None of us have a say in where we are born. Nor a vote as to the circumstances into which we are born. Life is not fair. It is often and for many, it is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. [Aside - go back and read those books from college, and see the world in a different light. Hobbes. The Leviathian].

There was a brief twitter exchange about Nebraska the other day. It was snobby and condescending and from people are Good and do their damnest to understand prejudice and bias and fight it.

There are all sorts of things worth getting pissy about in this world. But there is very little about which it is worth being a snob.


6 responses so far

Hypocrisy in the name of what *I* believe

Apr 13 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

At Penn State there is the usual and expected outrage, outrage I tell you, that a former radical comes to speak. In an article about campus speakers titled "Free speech, much of it angry, flies at budget hearings over Vietnam-era radical’s speech at Penn State":

“The one thing we know for certain is I can’t step in and say: ‘No, you can’t spend your student fees in that manner,'” [Penn State President Eric] Barron told Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair County, at one point.

But several lawmakers persisted in asking Barron to do more.

Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Indiana County, asked if students – or their parents – can ask for refunds for a portion of student activity fees used to support programs they want nothing to do with.

To me this is saying " I won't pay for birth control or abortion or euthanasia because it is wrong". The equivalent, of course, is "I don't want to pay for your children's education because you are so frickin' stupid that there can be no hope for them".

This is the politically-right-leaning version of safe space. People on the left who think everyone should be protected from hearing hurtful things. (Why did they not tell Ricky Diamond, in 7th grade, not to make fun of me, call me a  non-girl and spit gum in my hair? I would have loved to have been protected then.)

If everybody only paid for the things they wanted to hear, there would be no student programs at all. And while that might be a defensible position on what college is for, its probably not in the best interest of students.

The long article in the NYTimes on safe space had the words "hiding from scary ideas" in its title. I do not doubt that being exposed to some painful things do have the potential to trigger horrible and painful responses.

I don't think we should go looking for painful experiences. But sure as the Cubs have already blown their chance to win the World Series this year, they are going to happen. If you want to be protected from everything, go join a nunnery.

Back before you were born, I belonged to a women's group that decided to work on things that scared us. Negotiating for anything with a man in a suit. Letting our kids go somewhere. anywhere. Somedays just getting out of bed. It scared us to admit we were scared. Hell, its still hard to admit I'm scared of stuff. We started small: jumping off  10M board, into a pool. We walked or crawled out onto the end of the board. Someone could, if you liked, go with you, and hold your hand and talk to you till you were ready to jump. But jump we did. Glorious. Since then, I've tried to do things: figure out what that is important scares me and then go do something else (less important) that petrifies me. The hardest part, now, is that little stuff doesn't scare me much any more: high dives, roller coasters, deans, men in suits, talking at meetings.

Life is full of scary things you don't want to confront. Life is full of unpleasant things to which you object politically.  Life is not going to be exactly what you want. Get a grip.

5 responses so far

The downside of EB: Why we do the science we do

Apr 10 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the reasons I go to meetings is to see people. To talk with people. To do all that non-structured learning that happens when you talk science with very smart people. One never knows where one's next great idea, or better yet, one's next great kick-in-the-butt will come from.

But I also go to talk with people I care about. With the advent of the intertubz, that group has expanded. Some of those people are folks you all know better than me: Doc_becca and my BlogMom, Isis the unsinkable. Some I didn't get to talk with this year, Whizbang (you should absolutely read her posts about EB) and Drugmonkey. Some are not so well known, and don't even blog or tweet. At the Old MRU, I taught a number of grad seminars in another department, and ended up sitting on committees and even collaborating (a great great paper) with one of the students. Several of these guys are now in postdocs or even have real jobs.

Some of these people don't mind if I use their names when I tell their stories. But others do. So what follows is a pastiche of people. The individual things I describe are true, but I've changed some of the identifying facts.

The downside of the meeting was nothing we haven't heard before. It just was poignant and in my face. The junior faculty member who had some funding, but its over. She has had some bridge funding, may have to close her lab. She's done enough to be in the Right Place for Tenure, but what will she look like in 18-20 months when her documents go in, and she doesn't have an active lab, because she can't afford a tech and the supplies?

Then there's the recent PhD who took a postdoc with a (very young) new Ast Prof. Its a major MRU, but there is only funding for 18 months. What should this person do? Start applying for jobs or a 2nd postdoc, or through herself into the work and try and get more papers out and hope that the PI will bring in more funds to extend the position?

There is the young faculty, who is 3 years into the job, and just can't get funded. Very close. Over and over. This is an NSF person, in a part of NSF that has one deadline per year. He is doing what all of do: expanding where he can send grants, modifying his research to be able to be funded. But he's clearly chasing money, and not doing the science he chose.

There is an axis here, with extremes: at one end is doing the science you like and saying "screw the funding world". There is honor to this position, and of course, there is no reason to expect NSF, let alone NIH to fund what you want to do. If you can craft a career this way, a career with which you are happy, by all means, knock yourself out. Do not underestimate the importance of being happy in what you do. The other extreme is crafting a research program based on what is hot and what is fundable and what is sexy right fucking now. I know lots of Big Dogs who do this, consciously or unconsciously. There is (some) honor to this position: "I want to be a scientist and if NIH says this is an important problem to solve, I'm right there with them".  NIH (and The Congress, by law) have the right to determine what the NIH mission is. We may think their priorities suck. We may think they should be studying the evolution of calcification in conodonts (which is an interesting, if obscure question), but our input to the mission comes as citizens.

Between the extremes are most of us. When I get a review that says that insufficient attention has been paid to the impact of rosebush thorns on bunny hopping, I will include a section on testing the material properties of thorns. I modify what I do based on RFA's, reviews, and chats with NIH staff (when I can get them). I have a job that requires me to be funded. Yes, its in my contract at new almost-MRU.

But I am not going to start doing genomics or optogenetics or a kind of biology for which I was not trained and is not relevant to the questions I have been asking. But, I am a bluehair (really). What about the young turks? How much should you, can you, change what you  do to chase funding? That is a very tough question, and one I think that needs to be considered on a case by case basis.


7 responses so far

Older posts »