Monday, September 28, 2009

Balancing ambition and family

Great article in the Chronicle today about balancing ambition and family:
Superprofessor meets supermom.

Chávez-García articulates some of the thoughts that sometimes run through my head.  Do I want a third kid?  I've always said two would be great, but now that the little one is leaving babyhood behind (and heading into terrible toddler-hood tantrums) I look at newborns longingly.  I think the third one would send me over the cliff personally, but I do so love little babies.  I don't worry as much about it being career suicide (although maybe I should), but more just a logistical nightmare.

I also love the discussion in this article about why do we have children.  And why do we stop at whatever number we do choose?  Husband and I joke that is is so we'll have someone to put us in the nursing home one day.  But, is it also key to impart our values to future generations?  Which leads me to wonder, how well I'm doing in that category?  Am I imparting the values I want to share?  Please discuss...

Friday, September 25, 2009

NIH and engineers

So I will preface this post by saying that I am not an expert at the NIH system, but I have received funding from NIH and am currently in the process of renewing my grant.  Here is some advice for new comers to the NIH system that I wish I had known before starting the process.

1. Find a mentor that has NIH funding and is close enough to your field that they can read proposals and give you pointers.  Don't be afraid to ask someone you don't know too well at your institution or another.  Most people will say no if they don't feel up to it, but many people will be generous with their time.  I find that activities for women faculty is a great way to meet women in other departments/schools who might be willing to serve this role.  Keep searching until you find a careful and ruthless reader.  You don't want someone who will just correct your grammar you want someone who will tell you what you are doing wrong structurally and how you are shooting yourself down.

2. Learn the NIH funding mechanisms(and lingo) and look for smaller starter grants.  R03 (small research grant) and R15 (for institutions with little NIH funding) can be great mechanisms for getting started.  There are relatively few of these grants at study section and they are reviewed together, so it is easier to stand out. R21s are OK, but they are high risk/high reward proposals so they need to be a little more innovative than just the first Aim of your future R01.  Also the transitional K99/R00 grants are great if you are still a post-doc (and have a year or more to go).  These make you very attractive to future employers since you walk in the door with 3 years of funding for your research.  I have a friend who used this to leverage a faculty job with reduced teaching.

3. Get a copy of a funded proposal that is close enough to your field you can understand it.  Read it and note the structure, what are the key parts, and what strikes you as you read it.  Important points need to be reiterated clearly so that they are hammered home.

4. Start writing early.  Try to have a complete draft a month before the deadline so you can get critiques from others and have time to modify.  I find my best grants get put to rest for a week or so and then picked up and cleaned up before they are submitted.   Spend a lot of time on your Specific Aims page.  If you haven't sold the reviewer by the end of the first page, you are wasting your time.

5. You need preliminary data.  Even when it says you don't, you do.  So get to work on those experiments.  And, for R01s, that data needs to be published (or at least some of it does).  You need at least one publication on the project.  And if you have collaborators you are going to put on the grant, you need a publication with them.  You need proof that you can work as a team and get research data together that is publishable.  NIH is risk averse.  You are asking them for a lot of money (> than $1 million for an R01) and they want to know that you will be able to do what you say you will do.   Would a VC firm give you a million dollars for that project?  No then get more data.  (This is some of the tough love one of my mentors gave me and she was right!).  Don't waste your time submitting R01s until you have these publications no matter what others may tell you.

6.  You should probably be about 1/3 of the way through the research when you submit.  That's when you know you have enough data.

7.  Make good friends with a business manager/grant administrator who know NIH grants and have them guide you through the forms (it's not fun the first time).  Bring them coffee or whatever they like and treat them nicely.  People are always yelling about their grants and those who are nice often get the most help.

8.  Make sure that your work is hypothesis driven (even thought that's not what the guidelines say).  Reviewers like hypothesis drive research and be very clear about how you will measure outcomes.  E.g.:We will assess skin healing by x stain at 12 days and expect treatment x to show more skin cells in the wound than in untreated control.

9. Always write a cover letter.  Look at the institute within NIH that you think should fund your work and make sure your research falls in their area of interest.  Request this institute in your cover letter.  Look at the list of study sections that review research in your area (available online).   Ask a mentor for pointers here if they have study section recommendations.  Look at the members of the study sections.  Pick the one you think is most qualified to review your work.  When you look at the members you should recognize some names of people whose work you know.  If not this is a red flag that you are in the wrong place.  Find the right study section for your work.  REQUEST THIS STUDY SECTION IN YOUR COVER LETTER.  You don't want someone who knows little about your work guessing where it should be reviewed.  Guide it to the right place.  (PS If you don't like where your grant is assigned, you can appeal your study section if you do it right away!)

10.  Remember that almost no one is getting funded the first go around (especially these days).  Remember to check that new investigator box and hope for the best.  You get one revision (now) so you can use those comments to rewrite and you get an additional section (Introduction) to respond to the comments.  If you do a good job of addressing the comments your score generally goes up.  Be nice in your response, the same reviewers usually review your grant so offending them will not help your score.  Patience is key!

Please leave additional questions in the comments and I hope this was helpful.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The family timing question

One comment I received asked about timing and managing a family as a new professor.  I'm going to be a bit vague about details in an attempt to conceal my identity.  I have to say that there is no perfect time to have a family and if you wait for that perfect time, you will never have children.  There are times when it is easier and times when it is harder, but have friends that have had children in almost any of those situations and you can make it work, and it will never be easy.  I had the advantage of being on the younger side when I started my faculty position and thus I had the luxury of waiting a few years to get my lab up and running with a few graduate students trained before I got pregnant.  Thus, there was not a total leadership void in the lab when I was gone.  I also am fortunate to be at an institution that has a maternity leave policy for tenure track faculty that allows one semester's leave from teaching at full pay and a one semester extension of the tenure clock (this turns into one year in my department because cases are only reviewed in the fall).   So I had my first kiddo pre-tenure and the second post tenure.  My dream world goals were to get tenure and then have kids, but sometimes plans change in the real world.

As for timing in a theoretical world, I would say that is easier to either have your baby during your post-doc or after your first year on the job in a faculty position.  The first year for me was really hard because I had all these new demands on my time and I had a hard time prioritizing them.   After a few years I learned which things need to be done really well (grant applications) and the things that don't really matter so much.  Now, when I'm strapped for time I know what things to let slide or do the absolute minimum acceptable effort to get by.  Also, many things took me by surprise, advising weeks with 10+ hours of meetings, etc.  Now I know when to expect them and I can plan accordingly.  I also was busy trying to build my fake-it-till-you make-it image, meaning that I didn't feel like a professor so I had to think about how to act in a given situation very carefully and being pregnant/having a newborn during this time would have made it harder.  For me personally, being pregnant really made me realize that I am biologically different from all the men in my department (duh!).  As nice and understanding as many of them were (especially those who had young children) they still didn't know exactly what I was experiencing and my stomach was a glaring reminder of how different I was.  That being said, sometime biology works in mysterious ways and I have had plenty of friends who started their faculty positions pregnant or with a newborn in tow and they have lived to tell about it.

When you are a post-doc you are younger (read can handle those sleepless night better?) and you have few responsibilities (meetings, funding deadline, etc.) which are pros for starting your family early.  On the downside, you have less money for childcare expenses and you may have a more rigid experimental schedule that can easily be thrown out of whack by bed rest or a sick newborn.  Your partner may have a more flexible job during this time and I know some people who work in shifts during grad school/post-doc to avoid childcare expenses. This is easier to do in grad school/post-doc when there are fewer meetings/classes during the day, however this may be very detrimental to your relationship with your partner.

During your faculty years, you will have better financial resources to pay for childcare and you will be the boss (sort of), so you may feel less guilty about time away.  On the other hand, you will have more commitments - teaching, research, service, etc. that make it harder to juggle more limited time.  You may feel more stressed depending on what point you are at on the tenure track and you may or may not get relief from teaching and other duties (depending on your university).  If you are several years into starting your lab, you may be doing less hands on research, which could be good from a safety point of view and also allow research to continue (through your students) during your time on leave.

Each person's situation is different and it will be a big change for everyone.  I never thought that I could leave work before 6 pm everyday without feeling guilty, but that's what time my daycare closes, so it isn't even a choice.  One thing you need no matter when you have kids is a supportive partner.  Starting thinking and talking now about ways you can share the load and what you can outsource (house cleaning or yard work?). In our house we divide the pick-up/drop off duty for daycare, the meals, grocery shopping, laundry, sick kid coverage (think about alternating days with key commitments - e.g. classes) pet care, etc.  Somethings are hard to divide (being pregnant and lactating), so think about ways the other person can help pick up the slack.  And finally, remember that we become much more efficient when forced to be, so you will eliminate many non-essential activities when you need to.

For me, I knew that I wanted kids and a faculty position so it was just question of when.  Is it hard and chaotic? Yes!  Would I trade it for a calmer life without kiddos?  No way.  They are glad to see you no matter what kind of day you had, no matter whether your grant was funded or your manuscript was rejected.  And, they will always bring you back to earth by reminding you that they don't care if you are a professor or not, you still make the best human kleenex available (which might explain why I now wear very few non-machine washable items of clothing) and you can alway make the boo-boo better with a hug and a kiss (if only research problems were so easily solved).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

School year blues

Every fall it always hits me by surprise. How much busier it is with school in session! I'm lucky to have my summers free from teaching and focused on research. It's a busy time with more full time people in the lab. But then the freshmen arrive full of excitement and the new graduate students are all out pounding the pavement to find fall rotations. There are qualifying exams committees to participate in and all the orientaiton activities, all the meetings that were put off until everyone is back in town and those things that were supposed to be finished by the end of summer that I'm frantically trying to complete. This year was even busier due to a personal trip taken right before orientation started, and a toddler who managed to get sick twice in the first two weeks of classes resulting in 5 days of missed daycare and 1 trip to the ER for weekend care. Things are starting to settle into the fall routine (still crazy but the initial flurry has past). I'm going to try to post a little more often now and also hit some points from comments.

I'll just say that balancing a family and working is always a delicate act that is always near a tipping point. The 5 days of missed daycare in 2 weeks nearly sent me over the edge, even with a suportive spouse who splits the days with me. I think this is a challenge for women in academia and in the professional world in general. In academia, we move around more than many professions and often end up far from family support networks, which is fine when we are young, but more challenging when we have families with small children. Without backup care we are alway hit hard by sick kids. I'm very thankful that although I have a large amount of work to do, much of it can be done on my schedule (at home or at work) during the day or the night. Other than class and a few essential meetings, I can reschedule meetings or say no (something I'm trying to practice). I don't have a waiting room full of patients or court date that can't be changed. I can move things around if needed. Now, I won't kid you, when I'm home with a sick toddler I get little to no work done except during nap time but I can usually make up some of this at night after bedtime and it always helps me realize what absolutely has to be done. I've also learned that if you have a deadline that you are working on right until the last minute, someone will get sick, so plan ahead and try to leave yourself a little room for error. Always bring some work home with you (even if you have no intention of working), bring whatever you really need to get done tomorrow in case you don't make it in to work. And finally, have the number of a good baby sitting service that does emergency sick child backup care. It may be outrageously expensive, but if you have a PhD student defending or a grant deadline looming, it may be worth the cost to your pocket book to preserve your sanity. Just say to yourself, "this too shall pass" and the kiddos will get sick less frequently as they get older, less orally fixated and develop a stronger immune system.

I used to feel bad about canceling meetings for sick kids, but now I've realized it's just part of life. And rather than hide it (and the fact that I'm a mother in engineering) I've decided that being more open helps others have more realistic ideas of the challenges working moms face. I still get the important stuff done and it can be good sensitivity training for those who have stay-at-home spouses to take care of all those details.