Tuesday, March 26, 2013


So no surprise, I just got another NSF proposal rejected. I don't mind not getting proposals funded. Given the current funding climate, I am at peace with reviewers saying this is good or even great stuff, but someone else's idea was better. My reviews this time though, for the first time, are irritating as hell. These are for a resubmission that scored very well the first time I submitted it to this section and the program officer told me I should fix it up and try again. This time it came back not recommended for funding, also a first.

One of the reviewers listed in the weaknesses: the PI has limited teaching and research experience.

Are you kidding me? What does my teaching experience have to with anything?

Another reviewer explicitly stated that proposing a combination of three different technically challenging techniques, which has significant merit and potential is incremental.

I thought April fools wasn't for a few more days.

I'm seriously wondering if these retarded reviews are the result of a collaborator that I added to the proposal as part of beefing up the expertise needed for these experiments.

If NSF reviewers aren't going to bother to take the time to write an even somewhat coherent review, what is the point of this exercise? I had a similar half-assed review on my last grant. One reviewer lists 2 or 3 bullet points for strengths and 1 or 2 for weaknesses, the second paraphrases the points of the first reviewer and the third reviewer barely wrote anything and it didn't even make sense. I didn't mind as much because at least it scored well. Foundations and DoD proposals at least explicitly state that you won't get feedback. This leaves the NIH as the sole remaining source of constructive criticism for TT faculty trying to get their proposals funded.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Professor knows best, usually

At conferences and on the internetz I often come across people saying that their PI has no clue about the research or that their PI asks them to try things that have absolutely no chance of working. Yes, there are faculty out there that propose crazy half-assed ideas that will never work in a million years. I've met a few over the years, but the vast majority know exactly what they are doing. The question should be, do the PIs know the odds of an idea panning out and if they told you that there is only a one in a million chance, would you still do it?

A lot of my research involves trying things that may or may not work. Of course in an ideal world, the experiment would work, but often it involves steps that tend to fail or that don't have high yields. However, if my students were to start lying to me and just telling me that it simply didn't work, because no one can really predict if these high risk experiments will work, eventually the research would come to a complete hault and the group would fall apart. It's good to have an idea of the likelihood that an experiment will work, but just because it is unlikely doesn't mean you don't try as hard as you can.

I think a big part of the reason for this feeling is because trainees don't get enough of the story of why or how something should work. When this happens, they become technicians. Trainees are shy, and international ones are often afraid that they will lose their position and will have to leave the country. Hence no one asks questions and everyone is suspicious.

This is part of a disconnect that is in academia. I don't know if it's always been like this or if this is a new trend. A student should never feel that what they are doing will not work and not tell their advisor. There is a good chance that this negative atitude increases the likelihood that the experiment fails.

I try to have as equal of a relationship with my trainees as possible. If they think something won't work, they need to tell me so and feel comfortable doing so. Of course they also need to explain to me exactly why it won't work. This is the cornerstone of what someone with a Ph.D. should be able to do. You need to trust your knowledge enough to stand up and say this is wrong and why. PIs, for their part, need to have the time to explain to their students why it will work and potentially correct misconceptions.

Way too many trainees feel they can't tell their advisors things without reprecusions. Other PIs out there, what would you do if a student told you that your idea has a flaw in it?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Half way point (a reflection)

So I'm at the half way point in my TT position. Submitted my third year review material and am waiting for feedback from the higher ups. I'm curious to see what they say, I've heard this is the only time you really get to see what your colleagues think of you and your work and see if you have any enemies in the department before going up for tenure. Annual reviews evaluate productivity and don't really provide feedback at my place. Also, we don't go external for third year reviews, so I don't have any knowledge of what people in my field think of me, which will count for a lot when I go up for tenure.

Unofficially, I've done things right so far and am "on the right track," but that means very little to me. Similar to stocks, past performance is not indicative of future results. Yeah, I got some funding and some papers published, that doesn't mean that I'll ever do either again. The papers will probably happen, but I have less confidence in funding, especially now with this sequestration crap.

I'm not sure if I'm happy with my career choice. I've pulled multiple all nighters last month. I'm annoyed that I get paid less than I would in industry, have to work ridiculous amounts of hours, and have undergrads tell me that I only covered the material that was in their textbook. I can work on whatever I want, but really I can only work on things that have trending buzzwords in the engineering communittee, since those are the only things that have a chance of getting funded. That isn't too bad, I'm pretty good at repackaging research, but I'm constantly worried that my trainees can't do what I'm proposing. They are not me and I can't predict what they are capable of accomplishing. They definitely won't do whatever it takes. I'm at a place where the students will simply walk away if you start to push them hard. I'm debating about jumping ship. The funny part is that my colleagues are telling me that I'm doing well. There's no one I can really talk with about options and potential exit strategies. My mentor works like crazy and I've never heard them say that they enjoy what they are doing. I also don't feel like I can have a really heart to heart discussion with anyone in my college without hurting my prospects at getting tenure. Even outside the university, everyone I know is academic and can't imagine doing anything else. I also equate leaving with failure and can't really see myself leaving before I get tenure, since that is the prize in my mind right now.

The mix of teaching, research, and service is frustrating and exhausting. I only have a small sample size, but the TT folks at tier 1 places I talk to seam to be allowed to focus almost all of their time on research. My place says they want to be a top tier research university, but they put equal emphasis on all three. I'm chairing committees and picking up the slack for tenured faculty in other committees that I'm on. Not because they're lazy, our tenured folks are spread thin with even more committee assignments. I think individual faculty should be allowed to focus on one or two of these pillars and to have a department with professors that have strengths in each of these three areas. Why can't someone that likes teaching undergrads be valued for doing that and letting the people that like research work mostly on that? Anyway, that's where I'm at.