Thursday, May 5, 2011

New beginnings

Summer stands just on the horizon with all it's promise and potential.   Uninterrupted research time, which for me these days means time to read the literature, write papers and grants.  Time to think about larger things than just how to make it through the next week.  Fewer meetings and crises? (in my dreams...) A time to reflect back on the past year and plan for the next.  I'm mentally gathering my list of goals personal and professional for the summer as well as all the little items that have fallen through the cracks (especially personal).  Sure I still have one last stack of papers to grade but beyond that looms the future with great open expanses of time.

People keep asking me what are you doing this summer.  It seems like a funny question to me really, as though teaching was the only part of my job.  In reality teaching is about 1/3 of my job although it can grow to hold a larger share at some time during the semester.  It's constant urgency of class 2x/week, tests, assignments, etc. alway brings it near the top of the to-do list.  But it is really only part of what I do.  There are parts of it I love and parts I don't but the reality is at R1 universities, it's not what makes or breaks my career.  What makes or breaks me is research - publications, grants, recognition.  So the joy of summer is that I can really focus on research.  Unlike the colleague that do field work, I don't leave town to do research, I hunker down in the office/lab.  It used to mean trips to the library, but now I can access almost anything I need online.

So my summer will be filled with research or at least it's planning and supervision. My lab will be filled with extra students both undergraduate and graduate.  It's not really time off, it's just different.  But I'm so ready for the change of pace.  I also treasure the lull weeks between finals and when the summer students arrive.  I used to find this a little depressing in graduate school when all the undergrads left, but now I find it refreshing. Perhaps that means I'm getting old....

Happy summer everyone!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Small victories

It's the middle of crazy season.  Snow days, sick kids and recruiting (faculty and grad students) they make for a crazy mix.  There aren't enough hours in the day, add in vacation planning (summer already), summer camp scouting (again already?), and birthday party planning.  Sometimes I wonder if I'm going to make it through the week.  But then again, there are the small victories....

I like to scout out people that would make great colleagues (awesome science and nice personalities) at conferences and hope that I can build consensus to find a home for them in my department.  I did this 3 years ago and got to the offer phase, then my RU lost out to another school due to reasons well beyond my control.  Last year's attempt did not get off the ground.  But this year, I found a great candidate, hosted the seminar and navigated the awkward stealth candidate politics.  The faculty all like this candidate and they can't agree on liking much, so this is no small task.  Out of a large number of candidates interviewed, mine was the only one to get a clear nod of support.  I was flying sky high after the meeting.  Now to get the candidate to come... Again, largely beyond my control.  But, I hopeful that some other efforts in this regard will pay off.

Oh, and took part of the afternoon the same day to attend a school event for kiddo #1.  He was sooo glad I was there as opposed to sometimes, when he seems not to care either way.  Hooray for the good days every now and again.  We need them (and massive amounts of caffeine) to make it through.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Grant cycle woes

A close friend is in the down side of the grant cycle.  NIH R01 renewal just got scores that are not fundable and may or may not even be fundable in the revised version.  He went out on a limb by doing some really innovative work for the renewal and has preliminary data to back it up.  Still waiting for the reviews, so not sure why it wasn't loved yet, but likely too far from the original work.  It has me thinking about the downsides of being a PI.  If you are too conservative, it's incremental work that isn't worthy of another 3-5 years of funding.  If you are too innovative, it's too risky to be worthy of another million.

My observation of a year on study section is that it is so important to get the right reviewers but you have no control over this.  If you get the newbie ad-hoc who doesn't really know the field as your primary you could be in big trouble unless one of the other reviewers is willing to stick their neck out to correct this injustice.  It's a rough funding climate out there, especially with the current year's budget still not approved. I hate that I even know what CR (continuing resolution - when congress limps along approving a provisional budget for a few months).

The other part that is hard and in this case harder for this friend, is that to take this risk of innovation, he has put his eggs pretty much all in this basket.  Now without the renewal, he has to cobble together funding for students in the lab and his tech, well I'd rather not say what will happen, but soft money positions are the most vulnerable in tough time.  The friend will take a hit too, no summer salary.  You might think that doesn't sound so bad, but a 25% pay cut hurts no matter how much you make.  His spouse works too, so it won't be as bad but still not easy.  That's the ugly side of academia.  You might have tenure, so you can't be fired, but if you lose your grants your soft money salary disappears and you may have to up your teaching load if you can't pay for buyout of classes.  I guess he is lucky to be on 9 month appointment (75% hard money) for teaching.  Someone on 50-100% soft money would be out of a job.

The silly part is that in a year or two this PI will likely have funding again.  In the meantime the students will have been rushed to finish and the other lab personnel will have moved on to other jobs.  Now the PI is ready to roll again, but all the expertise he built up is gone and he has to start building it again.  It's really a huge waste of time. money and research that could be done instead of reinventing the wheel.  It happens all the time in academia today with funding for science and engineering being so tight.  There isn't any backstop (except maybe for students) for those rough times.  I watch the cycle happen in repetition this last year.  It hits the small to medium labs hardest.  They often operate off of 1-2 grants so they don't have any backup and these can often all end at the same time.  I was near the point about 18 months ago, but was lucky enough to get bridge funding and then a renewal.  It was scary and I worried most about the people.  What would happen to them and how would I rebuild?

We have to think about these issues both from the stand point of the people (students, post-docs, techs, PIs) but also the larger picture.  This is why so many people (especially women) don't want to go into science right now.  It feels so unstable.  Also, how does this affect us nationally and harm our scientific progress.  We lose so much expertise, time and money by operating in a short sighted boom and bust model.  We could make so much more progress if we had even funding.  I'm not suggesting funding for life (what would motivate us to work like dogs then?) but some backstop funds would be great.  NIH bridge funding is really helpful (thanks to my awesome Program Officer for helping secure this) but it doesn't fit every situation, and there are many who don't have NIH funding.   Not sure how to approach this from a structural standpoint, but it is an issue that seems to be getting worse in the last 4-5 years.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sometimes it pays to be nice

This should be obvious, but in the world of academia where it seems like the self centered, selfish faculty members are the ones at the top of pile when it comes to research grant money and lab size, sometimes I wonder if all the service is really worth it.  There was a great article recently from the AAUP on the ivory ceiling and burden of service on female associate professors.  It reaffirmed what I already knew, I get asked to do more stuff because I'm a woman and I feel like I can't say no.  Don't get me wrong, I care about other women in the system (undergrads, graduate students, faculty, etc.) but what is the cost of all this service to my research productivity and my future.  It's something I ponder as I watch some faculty members who say no with reckless abandon and only do things that will clearly benefit them in the near future.

I've been a largely radio silent here due to the increased burdens of a new administrative role I have taken on in my department.  I could do the minimum and spend much less time on it, but that is not in my nature, and I see a lot of positive changes that can be made (if I put in the time).  It's still greatly a work in progress, but I think after 1-2 years it will get easier.  It's a difficult because this is a new role in the department so part of my work is to define the role and it's responsibilities/limitations.  I have several interesting observations based on my 6 months on the job: (1) senior faculty that would have walked all over me before are now more respectful because in some sense I control something that is important to them, and I could make it harder for them to get access to this resource (at least in some sense), (2) I need to shift my approach from trying to inspire respect from students (which I now largely have from this role) to conveying a sense of community and inspiration (trying to move beyond the rules and regulations to the higher educational goals of the program), (3) treating others with respect and being pro-active can be good for everyone.

I generally try to be a team player (sometimes to the detriment of my productivity) and helpful to others.  I feel like I'm finally reaping the benefits of this from getting favors when needed to just general kind words and support.  The synergies that can benefit both my department and others are starting to kick in and it is fun to see these things come to fruition.  I am also am realizing because role that the lack of contribution of some of the self-centered faculty does not go unnoticed.  They will get by on their research reputation, but the way they treat people does have consequences in subtle ways.  It does make me feel a little better in some ways.  I'm also using this opportunity as a training ground to see whether I'm interested in bigger roles.  The jury is still out on that accord, but I'm learning a great deal about the best ways to herd cats and how to you need to make sure the key players are on board before the meeting.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Saying no to something

Taking on a new leadership role in my department and working to balance both the work and the politics.  The work is largely me not letting the small urgent get in the way of the big important items.  I did some work over the summer evaluating what is important to my career (long term) and what gives me pleasure/satisfaction on the job.  These items were somewhat different so I rank them both in my evaluation.  Then I sorted my list of items and highlighted those that not rank highly on either list.  These are my items I need to work on saying no to (at least sometimes).  It has been helpful for me (and my need to please) to remember that these are not the things I want/need to be doing for success or happiness.  Also along with this I looked at how much time was being spent on tasks and I was astonished to realize how many papers, grants, etc. I was reviewing.  Obviously I can't avoid all of this, but when I am a regular NIH study section member, I don't need to review for every other agency/country that asks.  Also, I need to focus on only accepting reviews that are beneficial for me from a time/reward/knowledge tradeoff.  I realized I was reviewing on average at least 36 papers/year.  So now I try to accept no more than 2 per month.  I also learned that when you say no quickly, people are less mad.  Probably because they at least have more time to find someone, where as when you say no 1-2 weeks later, they are in a bad place for their timelines.  They might not be happy but at least they have more time.  Also suggesting alternates is greatly appreciated (sorry to all those colleagues who are on my suggestion list).

Also I'm resisting getting too involved in the kiddos new school.  There are lots of moms there who don't work outside the home and I don't really feel bad about them doing the lions share of room parties, field trips, etc.  I learned you can spot them very quickly on the playground at drop-off time.  They are the ones in their workout clothes who are headed to the gym after drop off.  (Sorry I'm a little envious of the time to work out.)  But, I've found the working mom's who power walk back to their homes to jump in the car and make it to work at an almost reasonable hour.

I'd love to hear about others tips/things that they are saying no to!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Back to school

It's that time of year.  The new freshmen arrive on campus so full of excitement and hope.  Their parents are so nervous hoping that they will thrive away from home (and that the big tuition bill is worth it).   The parking lot that was only half full all summer is now packed.  The building is humming with students and events.

I longingly look at my to-do list once manageable and now filling with items.  The manuscripts unfinished fall by the wayside.  The papers to-read are buried in the pile.  The emails requesting meeting from everyone under the sun are rolling in.  My happy calendar with big blocks of time to work is no more.

Farewell summer, I will miss you.  Not the hot, humid days and boiling car at night, but expanse of time to think and work on scholarship.

Don't get me wrong, I like teaching and students, with their excitement and enthusiasm.  But I will miss the carefree days of summer that always go by too fast.  And, my list of summer items that never gets done before fall rolls around again.

Now on to my new departmental leadership role and the extra items it entails....

Friday, June 25, 2010

Treating others as we wish to be treated

I sometimes find it frustrating that people justify a history or traditional method of doing things as a reason for why it is best.  There are many historical events that we now find repulsive, Japanese internment, slavery, etc.  Yet some PI's choose to run their labs as though it were the 18th century.  If they are famous and well established, they may still be able to recruit a cohort of students that is willing to put up with harsh conditions in exchange for working in Dr. X's lab.  However, there is a growing subset of the student population that will no longer tolerate these conditions.  It is Dr. X's prerogative to choose how he runs his lab, by and large.  However, it does become an issue when Dr. X want to eliminate major part of the graduate program to fit his methods.  As many graduate programs in engineering and the sciences incorporate research rotations prior thesis mentor selection (as is common in the life sciences) this starts to become an issue, when students get to see first hand what life is like in Dr. X's lab before they officially join the lab.  I can't argue with Dr. X's success, which is undisputed, but I wonder in 10 years if there will be anyone left willing to work in the sweat shop.

I take a different approach.  I focus on results and progress.  I want students who are self motivated and work toward a goal.  I don't like to micromanage and everyone is happier when I don't.  (I get a little high strung when I am in micro mode, just as my first grad student.)  As long as you are making progress and communicating problems, I'm happy to let you run loose.  I don't worry about your hours (my students often are using equipment on other parts of campus).  I try to lay out deadlines ahead of time (reasonably) and then let you figure out when to get it done.  If you choose to go on vacation for 1 week during the 2 week period, you might be working some late nights to finish.  But that is your choice, as an adult.  I also encourage students to plan their own calendars for thesis writing and determine a reasonable defense date.  It generally works.  My lab is more laid back, but the students still publish a 3-5 papers from their thesis work.  It's not for everyone and there have been students that switched labs or quit graduate school.  But all in all I works, and it fosters the type of people I would like to have as future faculty colleagues.  In general, it may be less efficient than micromanaging, but in the end getting a PhD is about learning to be an independent researcher, not a work horse for the PI.  I used to think I lived in a department of people who agreed with this statement, but after some recent discussions, I'm not so sure any more.  Your thoughts on lab cultures and mentoring styles and how to shape those with positive departmental policies?