Archive for: August, 2010

Don't panic!

Aug 23 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Originally posted on Monday August 23, 2010 at LabSpaces (here).

So yesterday Gerty-Z had this little panic attack. She's concerned about making tenure. One could make fun of the fact that she's only two months into tenure-track (TT), but that wouldn't be fair. You see, she's not alone. I, and I suspect many others, have gone through the exact same thing.


Generally some time in the first year of TT. And again later in the process. Maybe more than once.

G-Z has a list of things she's anxious about in her post - "The Gerty-Z list of tenure clueless-ness-es.*"

I was going to write about some of these in a comment, but quickly realized this would make for a very, very long comment. So I wrote this post instead.

The Gerty-Z list of tenure clueless-ness-es.

1. I am sitting here, writing a grant and paper. It is not going well. If I can't even do this, how am I not screwed? I feel like I'm not a very good writer in the best of times. These are NOT the best of times.

Say what?!?!? You have stuff to write a grant AND a paper on? And you're only two months in? That puts you well, well ahead of the curve. Even if it's all based on work done as a postdoc. That's something to celebrate!

And writer's block happens. Everyone has their ways of tackling this. I set aside certain blocks of time to write. And that's all I do in that time. Just get something down - forget about silly things like correct grammar or complete sentences. Get your thoughts down. It'll all come together. Outside those blocks of writing time I do things that are unrelated to the writing. Putz in the lab. Terrorize my trainees. Play with my kids.**

2. In a desperate fit of procrastination, I have been reading drdrA's most excellent advice about the tenure track and Odyssey's repost about how many papers you need to get tenure. These seem like great nuggets of useful advice. But I just feel more like I have no idea what is going on. Why are tenure requirements so fucking vague????

Don't believe everything you read on the internet.***

Tenure requirements are deliberately vague in order to give promotion and tenure (P&T) committees flexibility. If you're unsure about the requirements, start asking. Ask your chair. As you get to know them, ask your senior colleagues. Do some research. Apparently your department hasn't tenured many people recently, so look up what people in related departments at your institution had when they went up.

Also pay attention to the feedback you get from annual reviews. If they say you're doing fine, great. Try to do better. If they say you need more of something, make sure you get it. Don't have annual reviews? Ask your chair if you can. You want as much feedback as you can reasonably get.

3. How do I know if I am talking to my Chair enough? or too much?

Does she look happy to see you? Or does she look like she's constipated when she catches sight of you?

Don't sweat it. Your chair will let you know if you've become a pain.

4. I'm still trying to figure out how you actually meet people in this place. How does a nOOb Asst. Prof get "advocates" that are senior faculty in other departments? Am I supposed to just start stopping by and sticking my head into people's offices? I assume that other people are busy, and I don't even know what I would say. I don't want to piss anyone off or make them think I am stupid! How do I meet other Jr. faculty? There are none in my dept. I assume there must be others in different departments, but how would I know?

Dr. Becca's comment on this one hit the nail on the head. Attend seminars. Volunteering to give lectures is also an option, but be careful - you don't want to end up with a whole bunch of teaching that won't count in your department. Volunteer to give a seminar in your department - you never know who'll attend.

And yes, cold-calling faculty in other departments is something you might want to do. Identify faculty who are working in the same general area as you and drop them an email saying "hi, I'm new on campus, do stuff related to what you do and would like to chat about your work sometime." Putting the emphasis on you being interested in what they do is never a bad approach. We all like having our egos stroked.

5. I have a rotation student starting in a month!?!?! What the fuck am I supposed to do about that? I barely remember my rotations. Postdoc PI had a way of just throwing people into the lab without a project or even pairing them up with anyone-this never seemed to work all that well. But I have no idea what students expect for a rotation. I really don't want to start off on a bad foot with the students.

Postdoc PI's approach SUCKS!

Think about what a rotation student needs to get out of the experience. They are trying out your lab for fit. They need to interact with you. Choosing the right dissertation mentor is potentially more important than the actual project they end up working on. They will also benefit from learning a new technique or two. And they need a well-defined project to work on. One where they can easily see how it fits within, and contributes to, your research program. Whether or not they actually get the project done is almost immaterial. But don't assign a dissertation's worth of work to a rotation student!

6. Am I spending my money too fast? or too slow??

Gotta spend money to bring in the money. You need to spend your money to get the work done. If you project that at your current rate of spending, plus what you hope to spend on new grad students, you'll have money left in five years, you're spending too little. If it's going to run out in less than two years, slow down.

7. Am I doing too little benchwork? or should I be doing MORE benchwork?

You have more time now to do benchwork than you will next year. The year after that you will have even less. And so on. If you can work at the bench yourself, do as much as you can. But, training the people in your lab to do the work takes precedence. Always. They are at the bench far more than you can be and have the potential to get far more done. Yes, the time needed to get them up to speed can be incredibly frustrating, but it is absolutely essential you get them up and running. You cannot make tenure without them.

8. How do I "pick mentors"? I think that I am supposed to have an official mentoring committee, but I have no idea how to get folks to be on it. This is more terrifying than picking a grad committee by like a million-fold. At least then I had someone (my PI) that helped me choose people who would be looking out for me. What if I step in a steaming pile of department politics inadvertently?

Talk to your chair. Be candid about it.

9. I don't know how to collaborate. I really like talking about science with people, and collaborating sounds like lots of fun. But I have never been involved in collaborations. Almost all of my pubs are 2-person affairs. Neither my grad school or postdoc PIs were very collaborative. Should I be collaborating with people? I assume so - but how does that work?

Collaborations will happen. As you get to know more people at your institution and in your field (you are attending meetings, aren't you?), collaborations will form. You'll have something someone else needs, or they'll have something you need. It'll happen. Don't try to force it.

As an example, I was recently at a meeting where another PI was presenting a poster. Turns out he's developing a technique that would be incredibly useful for probing the systems I'm studying. While chatting with him he made the off-hand comment that he needed more systems to show the usefulness of his methodology. Ding! Ding! Ding! Pick me!!!! And there you have it. New collaboration. And the data coming out of it IS. SO. COOL!

10. There are no other jr. faculty in my dept. The last person (and the ONLY person in the last 7 years) that went up for tenure was a fucking rock-star. There is no way in hell that I will not look shitty by comparison.

Forget the rock star. As I said in number 2 above, look up what people in related departments at your institution had when they went up. Ask your chair and senior colleagues. A single blip from seven years ago makes not the standard.

I am SO FUCKED. *sigh*

No. No, you're not.

Welcome to TT.

*This is a word 'cos G-Z says so.

** There's nothing like playing with kids to put the whole TT thing into perspective. Another option is drinking. Just don't combine the two. 🙂

*** Unless DrDrA wrote it.

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The NSF review panel process

Aug 19 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Originally posted on Thursday August 19, 2010 at LabSpaces (here).

I will be sitting on an NSF review panel a few weeks from now. I thought I would use this as an opportunity to describe how the NSF review panels I sit on tend to run.

Let me start by pointing out that this is all based on my experience with panels in the BIO Directorate, that NSF Program Officers (PO's) have a lot of leeway in terms of how these things work, and that I am aware that other panels have different modus operandi.

Pre-Panel Selection

The panels held this Fall, including the one I'm on, will be dealing with proposals that were submitted for the July deadlines/target dates. Between then and now the PO's have been busy sorting those proposals into the right areas and finding reviewers. These are distinct from panel members. An NSF proposal is typically sent out to anywhere from two to six (maybe more) reviewers prior to panel formation. These will submit their reviews via the FastLane system before the panel meets.

Panel Selection

To the best of my knowledge there are no "standing members" on NSF BIO review panels. Regulars, yes. Permanent members, no. The PO contacts prospective panel members based on the portfolio of proposals under review. The goal is to have a panel of ~15 people whose collective expertise covers the entire portfolio. PO's, IME, most often succeed at meeting this goal. The panel size is limited to about 15. In my opinion this is a good size. It's large enough for their to be a broad range of expertise in the room, yet small enough that everyone can be involved in the discussion without needing to shout to be heard.

Post-Panel Selection

Once the PO has assembled their panel they will send out a list of the proposals that will be up for discussion. On the panels I've sat on that's typically 60-90. Each panelist will be required to review ~10 proposals. The panelists sort through the list and indicate which they would feel comfortable reviewing and which, if any, they have a conflict of interest (COI) with. The PO then takes that information and assigns proposals for each panelist to review. Generally each proposal will have at least two, usually three and sometimes more, panelists as reviewers. If you're keeping count, that's a total of four to nine+ reviewers when you add in the outside (non-panel) reviewers. Panelists will be assigned as primary reviewer, secondary reviewer, or scribe (more about that below). Any panelist can review any proposal, even if they're not assigned to it, if they so desire. I haven't seen that happen (on a NSF panel - AHA panel I have, but that's a story for another day), but in principle it could.

All panelists are required to complete their reviews on the FastLane system prior to the meeting.* Once a review is submitted, but not before, the panelist will be able to view all other reviews for that proposal. Most panelists I know, including myself, try to get their reviews completed at least a few days before the meeting so they have time to read and digest the contents of the other reviews. It is important to be well-prepared for the actual meeting.

The Panel Meeting

The review panel meetings I've sat on are scheduled to last for almost three days. Meetings are usually scheduled to end at about 3pm on the last day, but often finish by about noon. It's an intense two-and-a-half days. They start at 8am and go until some goal is met (usually half of the proposals are discussed each of the first two days), with just the one break for lunch. The first two days are devoted to discussing proposals, and the last day to ranking them. All proposals are discussed - there is no triage.

All panelists have a laptop logged in to the FastLane system. This allows everyone to read the various reviews of each proposal, look at the proposal itself, etc. It's a pretty cool way of doing business.

Proposal discussions tend to go as follows: Anyone with a COI leaves the room. Then the primary reviewer gives a short synopsis of the proposal, and describes the salient points of their review. The secondary reviewer will then chime in with any additional points and/or points of disagreement. Then it's the scribes turn. The secondary reviewer or the scribe also gives a description of the reviews submitted by outside reviewers. There is then general discussion to which all panel members can (and often do) contribute. For a panelist this is the fun part. Once some consensus is obtained, the proposal is given some kind of preliminary ranking. There's a big whiteboard in the room on which this ranking is done.

Why is the scribe called a scribe? They write the panel summary. This is done after the discussion and preliminary ranking of the proposal, while the next proposals are being discussed. The scribe writes up a summary and this is submitted to the panel via the FastLane system. All panel members (except those with a COI) can then suggests changes. Eventually the final version is submitted for approval. All panel members (except COI's) must approve the final version.

The final half-day is spent finishing up panel summaries and then re-ranking, where appropriate, the proposals. When the panel is done, the PO's have a rank ordering of the proposals they can then use to decide on funding. Note that this ordering is a recommendation - NSF PO's have a lot of latitude in determining who gets funded. Of course if they deviated too far from panel recommendations panel members would refuse to serve again.

There will be one, sometimes two, PO's who run the meeting. Others will drift in and out depending on whether a proposal in their personal portfolio is being discussed. The PO's, who are always present, keep panels on a tight leash. They will quickly curb discussions that wander off-topic. They will squelch any inappropriate comments. They will defend proposers (and outside reviewers) whom they feel are not receiving appropriate treatment. They will (try to) diffuse arguments between panelists. They will ensure the panel summary reflects the actual discussion.

Final Thoughts

I have heard some people complain about the behavior of some review panels they've served on. Panelist's not paying attention. Making uncalled for derisive comments about proposers. Unfairly trashing competitors proposals. PO's not doing their jobs. Etc. This has not been my experience. Every panelist, with one exception*, and PO that I've served with has been very professional. It's always been a fun and educational experience for me. I'm looking forward to attending the meeting in a few weeks.

* I once sat on a panel where one panelist turned up without having submitted a single review. His excuse was that he wanted to hear what the other panelists thought first. I was sitting next to him - it was clear from his laptop screen and his lack of participation in the proposal discussions that he hadn't done any of the reviews prior to the meeting. To say the PO was not amused would be an understatement. This happened about a decade ago - I strongly suspect that panelist is still on a list at the NSF. Not the kind of list you want to be on.

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Peer review, schmeer review

Aug 13 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Originally posted Friday August 13, 2010 at LabSpaces (here).

There is a recent piece in the The Scientist titled "I Hate Your Paper" that outlines the problems with the current peer review system and describes some of the alternatives that have been suggested. This has been discussed byOrac, which was followed up on by DrugMonkey.

There is no doubt that the current peer review system has some major problems. I won't defend that. However, some of the so-called "alternatives" seem to me to be prone to the same, if not worse, issues. Let us not forget,

Peer review in any shape or form is done by people.

Yes, reviewers can be snarky, unreasonable, stupid, vindictive and/or lazy. And editors can be snarky, unreasonable, stupid, vindictive and/or lazy.

So can authors.

I've certainly been on the receiving end of what I consider to be completely unreasonable reviews.

As a reviewer I've probably written reviews that the authors have considered completely unreasonable.*

And as an editor I've probably made decisions that authors have considered completely unreasonable.*

Peer review in any shape or form is done by people.

So let's consider some of the suggested alternatives (not all, just some).

Anonymous Authors

This system would work just the way current peer review does, except that the names and affiliations of the authors are not revealed to the reviewers. The idea is that the biases of the reviewers against competitors, old enemies, humanity in general, will be minimized. Nice idea, but it won't work. Most publications are chapters in an ongoing story being told by a lab (or labs). The authors cite the work done leading up to the current chapter, usually with emphasis on the preceding work done in the lab(s) of the authors. It is just too easy to figure out who the senior authors are.

Non-Anonymous Reviewers

In this model, apparently already adopted by some publications, the names of the reviewers are revealed at the time of publication. The thought here is that reviewers will take their jobs much more seriously if they know their name will be associated with the final product.


Do proponents of this system have any idea just how hard it is to find reviewers under the current system? Any reviewers, not just good ones? Working in an editorial capacity I routinely have to ask 6-8 people before I can get two to agree to review (and here we're assuming those two will actually complete their reviews and in a timely manner).** And those lists of potential reviewers authors have to provide when submitting a manuscript? Often useless. Once I cull out cronies, former (and sometimes present!) collaborators and people with absolutely no expertise in the field, there's often no one left.

If I now have to tell potential reviewers their names will be revealed to the authors, what do you think is going to happen? If I ask someone to review a manuscript by Professor Standing-Member-Of-The-Study-Section-Your-Grant-Goes-To, what do you think they're going to do? What about a manuscript by Professor Senior-Dood-Who-Has-The-Most-Influence-In-Your-Field? Or Professor I-Have-A-Nobel-Prize? Most will find some excuse not to accept the invitation to review (especially young faculty if they have any sense). Those that do may not be as unbiased as one would hope. Are they really going to trash a manuscript (that deserves it) by someone who has some direct control over their future, given that, should the manuscript actually be published the names of the reviewers will be revealed? Maybe, maybe not. At least reviewer anonymity provides some semblance of protection against retribution.***

Under this system people will be very, very circumspect about which manuscripts they agree to review. Making it harder to find reviewers and making the whole process even longer than the current one.

Post-Publication Review

The idea here is that authors can go ahead and publish without review, likely on a web site somewhere, and the scientific community can decide whether or not the work holds up. There would be some sort of ranking system, perhaps comments associated with the manuscript in the same manner comments are linked to blog posts, or enumeration of how many times a manuscript is incorporated into someone's personal on-line library. This is kind of like a mega-peer review system.

I like this idea in principle. But...

Reviewing via comments? Despite valiant efforts by organizations such as PLoS, this just hasn't worked. I'm not sure why.

Ranking by counting how often an unreviewed manuscript is included in someone's personal on-line library? Seriously? Who has time to read all the relevant papers in their field that have been through the current peer-review system? Not me. And at least 50% (I suspect more like 70%) of all manuscripts never make it into print. So we're going to critically read twice as many, if not three times as many, manuscripts in order to figure out which are reasonable? No. What I suspect will happen is the known authors in a given field will have their manuscripts included in libraries, and the rest will be largely ignored...

I don't know what the answer is. As stated above, there is no doubt that the current peer review system has some major problems. But when trying to come up with an alternative, let's all keep in mind that

Peer review in any shape or form is done by people.

* The authors may or may not be right.

** I'm not talking just about over the summer when it's notoriously difficult to find people to review. I'm talking about year round, over at least the last 4-5 years.

*** And before you say "But I can always figure out who reviewed my manuscript!", let me tell you no, you can't. A very senior editor once told me that he often gets people coming up to him to tell him they know exactly who reviewed their manuscript. According to him, in 99% of cases they're wrong.

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Hypotheses: The most disposable of lab supplies

Aug 12 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Originally posted Thursday August 12, 2010 at LabSpaces (here).

We put so much effort into crafting our hypotheses. Carefully collecting our data. Collating. Analyzing.

Considering. Pondering. Thinking.

For hours. Days. Weeks. Months.

Even years.

Finally sculpting.

Behold you unwashed masses! We present to you a thing of great beauty and wonder-

A new hypothesis!

Bow down and worship it's awesomeness!!!

Is it any wonder that some scientists have such a hard time discarding their pet hypotheses? Or refuse to discard them at all, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong?

I'd be willing to bet we all know someone like that.


But not excusable.

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How Much Do You Need To Want It?

Aug 09 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Originally posted on Monday August 9, 2010 at LabSpaces (here).

The recent thematic posts here at on the work-life balance, plus a timely series of posts on obtaining tenure just started by DrDrA over at Blue Lab Coats prompted me to write this. It's something I've been thinking about on and off for a while.

How much do you need to want tenure in order to get it?

The answer is obvious, right? A lot.

But how much is "a lot"?

When I was a postdoc and while on the tenure-track (TT) I met several senior faculty who wore the divorces they went through while on TT as badges of honor. Their answer to the above question was clearly "more than anything else". To which I had (and have) one response:


Thankfully such senior faculty are going the way of the dinosaurs (although some do still exist).

I have never believed this. And neither should anyone. One shouldn't sacrifice family, relationships and/or having a life on the altar of tenure. It's simply not worth that much.

Okay, so that's easy for me to say, I have tenure. And obviously everyone's situation is going to be different. But it is important to evaluate just how much tenure is worth to you.

Let's look at the general pros and cons of tenure:


A "guaranteed" job. I put that in quotes because it isn't really. Sure, my position is far more secure than it would be if I were working in Big Pharma, but academic institutions do have ways of getting rid of you if they really want to. Or at least of making your life so miserable that you'd rather be anywhere else. They don't necessarily apply these "ways", but they can. Note that with the recent economic downturn some universities have closed down entire departments, sloughing off many of the faculty.

Intellectual freedom. This is the big one for me. I get to work on what I want to. Within the limitation that I have to get it funded of course... That's kind of a big limitation.

You can make your own hours. I have a family so this is important for me. There are things that get in the way though. Teaching. Committees. Seminars. Experiments. I have an unavoidable 8am meeting the morning my kids go back to school this year. That sucks, but such is the job.


Lower salary. I could be making much, much more money in Big Pharma or an established biotech company...

It isn't, and never will be, a 9-to-5 job. Okay, so I can make my own hours, but they aren't 40 hours/week. Can't be. Not if I want to be good at what I do. This is simply not a real choice.*

I've probably missed some pros and cons. If you think of any, let me know in the comments.

Anyway, for me the pros and cons tend to balance. It's the love of my job that really provided the driving force to get tenure and continue on from there. I love what I do. I wanted tenure so I could continue doing what I do in the way I want to do it.

At no point was I willing to sacrifice my family or having some semblance of a life for tenure. I didn't go into the lab most weekends. I took vacations. I took time off for my kid's dance recitals, school events, etc. I have tried to be there for my wife and kids.**

And I didn't (and don't) make my lab personnel sacrifice their lives either.

Despite that I sailed through the tenure process.

How did that work? I believe having a family to go home to - having a life - kept me sane. Focussed on what was important. And what wasn't. That's the real key to surviving TT. Knowing what you must do and what can be ignored. Having something outside of academia to keep you grounded makes it so much easier to distinguish between the two.

Of course I had a back-up plan in case I didn't make it. My wife and I were going to open an ice-cream shop at a beach somewhere. Maybe we will when I retire.

* Yes, we all know deadwood faculty who "work" 40 hours or less a week. But is that really what you want post-tenure?

** And I'm not the only one here at Big State U who's made family and a life outside work a priority. They made tenure too. The only contemporary of mine I know who sacrificed all on the altar of tenure didn't make it.

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REPOST: How Many Papers for Tenure?

Aug 05 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

This was posted Thursday August 5, 2010 over at LabSpaces (here).

While I get my stuff organized, here's a post from my old digs (originally posted Jan. 22, 2009). The title comes from a Google search that led someone to my blog. "How many papers for tenure?" and variations on the question are the number one Google search terms that lead people to my old blog. "Sweet Loretta Fat thought she was a cleaner" is number two...


How Many Papers for Tenure?

The title of this entry comes from a Google search a recent visitor to my blog used. Good question. I can't answer it. The only people who can give you some kind of answer to this are senior faculty in your department (and possibly college), and yourself. But you absolutely must know the answer very early in the tenure-track process. Preferably before you officially start your position. At the very latest six months in. So how do you find out how many papers you need? You need to do two things: 1) Ask. Ask early and often. Ask the senior faculty in your department. If you've met some, ask senior faculty in related departments within your college (e.g. within medicine, or within arts and sciences). You may not get a straight answer. You may get several different answers. Hopefully you will get some kind of answer. 2) Look it up. Find out how many publications the last few people who made tenure in your department had. No one tenured in the last few years? Look up the publication totals of recently tenured people in related departments within your college. Once you've done both of the above, take the largest of the answers you've found (they may not match up). That's the absolute minimum number of publications you are aiming for. Absolute minimum. You want more. You may need more. The answer to the question "how many papers needed for tenure?" is not set in stone. [UPDATE] Do apply some common sense to the above. Let's say your senior colleagues provide you with a consensus estimate of X publications, and the last three people to get tenure in your department had (X+1), (X+2), and (X+10) publications. Take (X+2) as your minimum goal.

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