Archive for: January, 2017

quote of the day

Jan 31 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

“Some people insist that 'mediocre' is better than 'best.' They delight in clipping wings because they themselves can't fly. They despise brains because they have none.” -Robert A. Heinlein, Have Space Suit—Will Travel    

Or sometimes they just pretend that brains don't exist.

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the value and cost of doing a postdoc

Jan 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There has been lots of talk on the intertubes about this topic. Much of it has been from folks near the decision points. At my end of the age spectrum, I'm seeing it a bit differently. My perception isn't more right or wrong. It's just different.

So to start, it is import to remember there are choices being made here. As my father used to say to me: no one's holding a gun to your head and saying "be a postdoc or I'll blow your brains out" (or something like that, his exact words fade with time). But, as a good economist would say, The more information you have, the better decision you can make. Be informed about the future. Real numbers about who makes it and who doesn't. PI's let your trainees see what is involved in making sausage. Trainees, get beyond your views (good and bad) about what PI's actually do. And get beyond both your imposter syndrome and your special snowflake syndrome. Neither serves you well as this point.

Arguing that it's not fair to work that hard and not get paid like people industry is fatuous. That's like arguing that gravity isn't fair as you fall out of the tree. The world is. There are parameters, and guidelines and rules and a couple of laws. Anyone making a decision about what to do with their postdoc is (relative to the rest of the world) in a fairly privileged position.

I'm not saying it's an easy choice. Or in fact one that everyone can make in their own best interest... Family, commitment, children, all of these compromise that decision. Let alone fair. Somebody will have more money, brains or good looks and be making a different decision or have the option of a different decision. Being a scientist is  bloody hard work. Hard. Work. I'm not saying you don't work hard. I am sure you do. But its hard work in a Red Queen Context.

My concern here and now is that we (the people picking postdocs) are selecting for wealthy individuals who can "afford" to do this, and keep their lifestyle. We who have some control over the "fairness" may be, could be, aiding and abetting an unfair situation. When all the FLSA stuff was happening and people were looking at raising postdoc salaries, I heard junior colleagues agonizing. If I raise the salary of this NSF postdoc, I will have to cut my experiments. (Remember that NSF grants are an order of magnitude smaller than NIH). Those junior faculty are just trying to survive, too. What angered me, too, were the senior colleagues with five postdocs who decided to let one go to cover the raises of the others. That's a hard decision, keep five at a lesser wage, or drop one, and raise four up? The answer, to those of us who believe that the problem may be too many mouths at the trough, is that you don't hire five postdocs in the first place.

So young padawan, here is the world. You can make a lot more money doing something else. I know lots of people who did. Or you can make less money doing science. It's a hard road. There are no guarantees for those walking it.

 Note after writing: Ola had a comment on the managing people post that says similar things, in a different way. It's worth adding here:

As others have said, as a junior prof you need your ass at the bench and then every other waking hour is writing grants. If you're not submitting 5-6 grants a year for the first few years, you're not doing it right. Yes it sucks! You have to teach, run a lab, manage people, do department politics crap, mentor people, manage money, write papers, and have a life outside the lab possibly including young children. In short, you have to be all of the things to all of the people. This is not new, this is part of the job and has been for as long as anyone can remember.


19 responses so far

Managing People

Jan 23 2017 Published by under professionalism in science, Uncategorized

I saw a tweet about how illness shouldn't impact on PhD funding. It shouldn't.

But here's the conundrum. Let's look at Asst. Prof Young Scientst. Prof Young is about 3-4 years into her first job at some MRU. The joy and exuberance of Having A Job has receded into a haze of teaching and committee assignments and unsuccessful grant applications.

Prof Young has had a couple of meetings with her mentoring committee and the tenure advising committee. They think she's doing just great, for now. But, they remind her that 1) she needs to increase her publications and 2) she needs funding. She knows, and it's tough but feasible. She's on the right track, and it seems in her grasp.

Prof Young is nearing the end of her seed money, but she's been pretty wise and has enough to run the experiments she needs. The last proposal review was enthusiastic, but required more data to support the premise of the proposal. What Prof Young doesn't have money for is bodies. She's had a tech, and has enough money to support the Tech for maybe another 6 months to a year. She had a grad student, but the student left her lab for another lab. So it's her and the Tech. Maybe another grad student will come her way, maybe an undergrad. But she can't count on that.

Prof Young is a right-thinking person, of good intent and action. She had a discussion, several, with the Tech about what's ahead. She's explained the experiments that need to be done for the next grant deadline. So, when trouble comes, it is hard. Very hard. The Tech has an issue. Maybe a seriously ill child. Maybe he's ill, or maybe she's pregnant. Independent of gender, the Tech is asking for time off. Maybe it's only exactly what the Tech has earned. Maybe it's for more than that ("can I borrow against the future?"). Certainly, the Tech can't stay late to finish a running-over experiment. Or come in on weekends. In fact, the Tech now needs to leave early. Often.

Let's be clear the Tech is good. Responsible. Prof Young has watched techs be taken for granted, or even abused, and vowed not to ever be that person. Maybe there isn't enough money or time to hire and train a new tech. Maybe its just the leave to which the tech is entitled, with no extra problems attached.

But Prof Young is looking hard at a grant deadline in three months. Experiments that the reviews were explicit were needed. Skip a cycle? What if its NSF and once a year (some NSF directorates are, now)? What if Prof Young is looking at a mechanism that has an age deadline, and she's coming hard on that limit? Without a grant she will be out of funds for the tech, whose salary she is going to have to keep paying with what little is left of seed money.

What does Prof Young do? I think there are some creative solutions, but, dear gentle readers, please weigh in. I'm curious as to what you think.


31 responses so far

Sometimes my almost-MRU gets it right

Jan 20 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

My almost-MRU is in a very rural area. I knew this when I came here. I figured I could cope. Last week I had an somewhat less than pleasant interaction with a member of staff who supported Trump, wanted to make sure I knew this, and had many racist/etc-ist things to say. I kept a smile plastered on my face.  Tried to reason, present other views, and, yes, proved I could cope.

But today this message just came from the President's office:

  I am pleased to announce the opening of our all-gender restrooms. Located in XXX (near printing services) and in YYY (near The Very Rich Dead White Man Who Gave Lots of Money Hall), the all-gender restrooms are available to any member of the NEOMED community regardless of the gender with which they identity. Studies have shown that transgender people are highly likely to face harassment and assault when using a restroom that conflicts with their gender identity. NEOMED not only has zero tolerance for harassing or discriminatory behavior, but we are also proactive in embracing inclusion. These all-gender restrooms, which are also handicap accessible, allow NEOMED to be more responsive to transgender or transitioning students, faculty and staff.

Also in the email was:

We also want to remind you that we have several lactation rooms  around the campus. Lactation rooms can be found in ZZZ (not named after anyone); YYY (also an all-gender restroom, which is quite likely causing the very rich dead white man who gave lots of money to be rolling in his grave ); and the first floor of  QQQ building.

I am sure there are lots of unhappy staff here.

6 responses so far

Deciding what really matters to you

Jan 20 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There was an interesting article in the NYTimes the other day. It was the usual story about turning off your devices. It had a hook from Lin-Manuel Miranda about where his ideas come from (not the interwebz). It had the usual dire stories about people walking into walls, traffic accidents and kids who don't get outside and off their butts. My favorite quote?

One in three people admitted they’d rather give up sex than their smartphones.

Maybe sex is overrated. But I digress. There are pros and cons.

What caught my eye was advice that has nothing to do with digital devices. And everything to do with how to live:

Become very conscious of what is important to you, what really nourishes you, and devote more time and attention to it.

This is not just living your life, but doing your science. On a small scale this is choosing what to do each day, what projects to work on, who to mentor and from whom to seek out mentoring. On a larger scale, this is academic science, an industry career, a family, a life. We've only got one. Choose wisely. Live your life without regrets.

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Reviewing for Journals

Jan 19 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

The question of "should I (Prof. Jr. Prof) review for journals? And how much?" is something that comes up all the time. It has, it does, and I suspect always will, come up in my meetings with jr faculty (as chair of promo/tenure/advising committees at various uni's). It comes up in casual discussions with jr and even sr faculty. It got asked of me by one of the tweeps in my online community.

I've edited & organized some of the answers I gave said tweep:


There are advantage:

First and foremost you are going to learn about what else is going on, in stuff close to you, on the ground floor. Yes, yes, of course you could read it after its published, but would you? At the same level that you review?

Secondly, you make friends (sorta kinda) with an AE. AE's always have trouble finding reviewers and when you do this, they like you. They REALLY, really like you.

Thirdly, you may learn something about writing by seeing stuff before publication. What needs to be changed. What you see as mistakes in others that you might have been blind to yourself.

BUT... There are many downsides, and almost all of them have to do with time.

Time, my friend, is your most precious commodity. It is more valuable than summer salary (if possible, but that's another post). You have much to do. We all have too much to do.

The advantages and benefits of reviewing are not linear with the number of reviews. These level out.

Do some, but a few a year. Protect your time. You don't get tenure or promoted for reviewing papers but for writing them.


11 responses so far

quote of the day: Bluehair edition

Jan 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

For age is opportunity no less than youth itself, though in another dress, And as the evening twilight fades away The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day. --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
And those stars shine brightly.

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The most important thing to know in life

Jan 09 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Well, maybe one of the most important.

Know what is important to you, and what is not important. Know what matters and what doesn't.

A corollary to this is:

Choose what you do to be on the path of what is important. Do not get sucked into doing things that are not. This is not necessarily easy, as determining importance and the path to it are not always obvious.

Here is the example from this week that smacked me between the eyes, or actually in the eyes, halfway through listening to the seminar.

Some of my work has not only clinical but clinical-commercial implications and potential. On one hand it is something that really, truly might make a difference to a set of people with a problem. On the other, it might makes some money. Both of these interest me. But how much? And much must I stray from that path of importance to me to get there?

That's the problem with following the path to what is important to you. I can identify things that are. But I am not always sure which of the many paths opening before me will get me there, which are dead-ends, but worthy of trying, and which will drive me nuts.

I was at a seminar about a program that trains scientists & engineers in the development of commercial viability for things that they can translate from bench to bedside, to use the buzz words. The program is a teaching/learning one, sponsored by my state (as in United States) to help local (in the state) universities "realize their entrepreneurial potential". It has about $20K in funds, mostly to travel to the state capital and visit "potential clients". The presentation was by a PI from my school, who with a postdoc and grad student, had done this, and now have a company, have potential, and in fact, are Going To Make A Difference, as well possibly make some money.

What smacked me between the eyes was that this was an extremely efficient way for both The State (of confusion, truth be told) and my almost-MRU to sort through projects that might be useful and make money and bring jobs and whatever pots of gold they see in this process, from those that are not and will not. It doesn't cost them much in time and energy, and at the end the 10 or 5 or 2% that are going to pan out are much more obvious.

What and who does it cost? Well, the PI for starts. No one is paying their salary whilst doing this (if you are in soft money position and one of the reasons to this is to generate support for your work), no one is paying your postdoc or grad student (if you have to carry their salaries), and in fact if you have NIH/NSF money for their salaries, they technically have to do this on their own (hahah) time. It turns out both this postdoc and grad student were industry bound before starting this project, and they were quite keen to get the experience. The PI is a full prof, who had a patent on a molecule that has high promise. This group was one of the winners, that's clear. But they worked very very hard at the program for about 6 months. During this time, however, I am pretty sure that other work on their NIH project, thesis and etc did not get done. I am pretty sure that no new proposals went in during this time frame.

So back to the question at the beginning. Did the program seem interesting to me? Yes, the guys who did it emphasized that the connections they made, let alone what they learned was valuable. But, is it on the path to what I want to do? I just don't know. If my almost-MRU anted up more of the energy to do this, perhaps. If there was salary support for the trainees (and its clear, you need a team that includes trainees) it might be more feasible. But that's not what they want. They want the money makers sorted out from the not-quites. And by even asking these questions, I've entered into the not-quites.


6 responses so far

Advice from a Brilliant Young Colleague of Mine

Jan 04 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

This post is my attempt to reduce my grumpiness index. I am *so* damn tired of both self-improvement and how to be a better mentor advice. So, look on the bright side, me and Monty Python. I value my colleagues. Young and old. For what I can learn. I may be beyond self-improvement, but not learning.

One untenured colleague, someone who I mentor professionally, came back from a meeting. She was joyful and charged up and filled with both science and professionalism.

She had had some time talking with a slightly older friend who gave her three good bits of advice. While this advice was intended for a someone 2-years pre-tenure, its easy to morph to fit other stages of academic life.

Thus, at a scientific meeting:

1. Are you going up to talk to the people who will likely be writing letters for you? The ones you suggest and ones you know someone else will suggest to the tenure/promotions committee?

This is also true of people on study sections, the people who will be reviewing your paper. In general, it applies to people who will be in a position to render judgment. Yeah, yeah, we are all totally fair and review everything objectively. But unconscious bias also works towards our friends. The people we know. Having a face on a name is generally a good thing.

2. Have you thought about organizing a symposium for this meeting?

I particularly recommend this for mid-career folks. One of the things that promotion to Full Prof  usually entails is demonstration of "national or international reputation" or "national leadership". Organizing a symposium at a national meeting is one way to do this. Furthermore, you get to invite some folks who might, in the future, write letters for you. Let alone there are scientific benefits from talking with people you think are really good and really smart. Who knows where your science will go.

3. Have you talked to your (other junior faculty) friends about getting invited out to give a talk?

This is also good along the lines of putting a face to your name. Other benefits? Meeting big dogs. If there is someone in the department you're going to that you would like to meet, email them in advance and say "hey, I'm coming to town, and I'd really like to meet you". I often don't feel like I have time to talk to speakers, but if someone takes the trouble to email me, of course, I am going to meet with them. Also, these talks, in judicious numbers (not too many) are good at tenure or promotion time.

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Well, here's another nice mess...

Jan 04 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Sigh, but I have know Laurel to blame for this one.


Damn.... I started this post sometime last year. I have *NO* idea to what mess I was referring. Aging is taking its toll.

So... welcome back, happy new year, blah blah blah. It's good to see you all again.


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