Thursday, September 30, 2010

Overlap in proposal writing

I've got proposals on my mind (polishing #3 for Sept, then on to 3 more white papers by the first week in Nov). One thing I am wrestling with in my mind is on how much overlap is OK between proposals. I've been writing proposals for a while now, so I have a nice library of introductions, methods, and motivations I can copy and paste from, which really helps in the writing efficiency. I have no issues at all with this type of self-plagiarism. But I was talking to a colleague, and this person mentioned using the same project in two proposals. I was a bit taken aback--I never do this, considering it to be unethical to propose the same exact project to two agencies. It certainly was not allowed at National Lab, where we had to promise that our internally funded projects had no external funding (since part of the point of internal funding was to get preliminary data for external funding).

I can certainly understand the temptation. With funding rates so low, odds are that both projects won't be funded at the same time anyway. But this seems like crossing a line to me. If both projects were to be funded, my colleague would either be setting up trainees in direct competition with each other, or else using money earmarked for one thing for something else entirely. It is one thing to use some of a project's budget on interesting side avenues--after all if we knew the outcome already, it wouldn't be research. I've heard that in some fields, it is the norm to have most of the data already (not just preliminary stuff) before submitting proposals, but not in mine. Maybe this is how they do it? It is not like anyone really checks up to make sure that no double dipping is going on.

I do propose strongly related projects that emphasize different aspects of an overall theme, since this is the only sensible way to get enough money to do longterm projects and/or projects that require a lot of resources, especially at my career stage. I also want my students to have clearly delineated and separable projects so there are no issues when it comes to writing up their PhDs. But I try to avoid the temptation to allow the degree of overlap to get too large--if the NSF is paying for something it hardly seems right to charge the DOE for the same thing!

Am I hopelessly naive?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

2 down, 1 to go

Still grant writing like a crazy person. I've finished 2 of my targeted 3 for the month, and the last one is a 4-page white paper I already outlined and did the background lit search for. Phew!

At least I am not alone: GMP and PiT are slogging through grantwriting hell with me. It's times like these that I really appreciate the blogosphere--it's not like I can complain to my colleagues about all this and not sound like a total whiner.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Prodigal U does its part to help out TT wannabes

We're hiring! My department at Prodigal U is searching for not one, but two TT positions (one is a failed search from last year, one is a retirement replacement)! This means a lot more work for me, though thankfully I am not on either committee this year.

In honor of TT job postings, I sum up my short list (ha ha) of academic job hunting advice:

1. Thoughts on the academic job market.
2. Looking for a TT job from outside academia.
3. How search committees go from 200+ applications to a short list.

Just a quick re-post, since I am still drowning in work. Personal update: one Sept proposal is done, one was sent to my co-PI for comments, and I am starting the last one today (it is a short 4-pager). Three more for October, but one just requires minor revisions before resubmitting, and the other two are short white papers. One is now due the first week in Nov (not sure if I just want to be done or not), and one is already outlined.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How much is too much?

I am in a proposal writing frenzy right now. I have 3 I intend to submit by the end of the month, and another 3 I am working on for October. One is a dramatic revamp of an older proposal, and one is pretty much a revise and resubmit, but that still leaves 4 fresh proposals to do. Granted there is some degree of overlap between them (for the introduction and methods, anyway), but I am feeling overwhelmed. Working on these is consuming a large fraction of my not already spoken for time, so I feel like I am neglecting my students a bit.

And now I have 4 more to integrate! This recruitment season, I added two more grad students (woot!), so now I have 4. I will also have 2 undergrads working in my lab this year for credit instead of cash. My success in recruiting, while exciting, is also stressing me out, since now I have to feed all of these mouths. In a way, I am feeling more freaked out and lost right now than in my first few months here. I feel like I am being drained of my ideas, but maybe that is the recent overwork period talking. I am also trying to find the line between too much overlap to be ethical, and too little overlap to be practical in my proposals. I am finding that making a research plan in theory is very different from the practically of getting it paid for!

After this fall, I do plan to take a proposing break, but I wonder how wise that is given the current funding climate.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Orienting new faculty

In honor of all those new faculty currently drowning now that the school year has started, I've been thinking about new faculty orientation, and how inadequate it is. For Prodigal U's new faculty orientation, we were bombarded with information about teaching resources, University governance, research VPs given speeches, dealing with students, policies on cheating and the like. All of this is important, and I will admit that few would actually read the details if they weren't given in a required day of lectures.

But that doesn't get to what new faculty REALLY need to know (some of which can't or shouldn't be written). So I am making a list of things to tell the next newbie to join my department at Prodigal U. FWIW, I can't even imagine how overwhelming all of this would be if I didn't already have some clue about proposal writing, research planning, and budgeting from my years at National Lab!

1. The research/grants office (first--is there one?)
How does it work? At Prodigal U, each funding agency has an assigned person. That person knows (or is supposed to know) the ins and outs of the rules and regulations for applying. Some funding mechanisms require a filled out checklist to be submitted to this office with the Department chair's and/or Dean's signature on them. It is a good idea to check the office website for a list of these.
What can they provide? This depends on the person and the agency. The frequently applied for mechanisms have someone who can proof your proposal for obvious formatting or rules errors, make sure your budget isn't unrealistically out of line with what everyone else at Prodigal U is asking for, and in general look over things to make sure you aren't making a newbie mistake. Very valuable! Of course, this requires that you finish before the submission deadline, which won't happen too often if you are like me.
What is the deal with the office deadline so far before the submission deadline? For most things, this is just if you want your proposal reviewed. If you submit at the last minute, they just send it on without looking (if it is something they send) or you submit it without them seeing it.
Who are the useful people over there? Obviously can't be written, but I wish someone had told me this!

2. The admin office
Who is responsible for what in the office? In my department the admins all have different spheres they are in charge of. I was apparently expected to learn this by osmosis, since no one told me, and I often asked the wrong person for different information and/or services.
What is the procedure for getting funds reimbursed? Super important! Find out what you need receipts to have on them BEFORE spending big bucks out of pocket.
Who is responsible for the departmental website? Important, because you want your information up ASAP so you can start attracting students!

3. Teaching
How are exams scheduled? This is important--if you need a room for a big class, you need to know this ASAP so you can make sure you have one for your exams!
When do textbook orders need to be in? I found out by luck--a good thing for my students.
How long do you need to keep student work? If your department or U has a rule, best to find out BEFORE recycling those old exams. Also best to find out if you need to shred the exams before disposal (we do for student privacy).

4. Serving on students' supervising committees
How often/how much supervision? Unlike me, try to find out before you agree to do lots of this. You can say no!
What happens at PhD defenses? Go see one in your department before you are on an examining committee. Really--do it. You never know when you will be asked to join someone's committee for whatever reason. I've already been an examiner twice. The first time could have been highly embarrassing without seeing how the examinations usually go in my department.
What courses do students in your group need to take? This may be non-obvious! At Prodigal U, professors have much more latitude in selecting courses for their trainees at than at my PhD U. I was surprised when I was recruiting and students asked about it--you shouldn't be.

5. Misc stuff
Who can you ask budget questions? You need to know how much you should charge a budget for postdoc benefits. You need to know what the overhead tax is (at Prodigal U, it varies by funding source sometimes). You need to know how much to charge for a student. Is there a difference between residents and non-residents? Citizens and non-citizens? Find out who to ask.
Where are the good/fast/cheap places for coffee/lunch/beer? You need this info ASAP!
How do the projectors work in classrooms? At Prodigal U we have a standard system with a non-obvious user interface. A nice colleague offered to show me how it works before classes started. I had no idea I needed to know this.

A partial list of things I plan to tell my next new colleague so they aren't completely lost while learning the ropes of a new place. My department is full of nice, helpful people, so I didn't have too much trouble once I knew I needed to know this stuff. I asked a lot of questions, and got a lot of help. But it seems to me I had a better orientation to my postdoc at National Lab (in terms of the practicalities) than at Prodigal U, so I know it doesn't have to be this way!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

True parent confession

This weekend, I have a nasty head cold. I will admit what I suspect most parents feel at this time--I was wishing that the children fairy would come and take mine away for a day or two so I could nap on the couch, drink tea, and read trashy novels until I feel better.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Was I ever this clueless?

I am the advisor for majors joining our department for the first time as part of my departmental service. I will follow this group for the next 3 years. These are college sophomores, supposedly "digital natives", and a TON of work to deal with.

I am setting up some ground rules given that I will be working with these students for 3 years (and yes, these are responses to things people have already tried since August):

1. Never, ever call me at home or on my cellphone, even if you somehow figure out the numbers.
2. No drop ins. Appointments MUST be scheduled in advance.
3. No phone calls. Email only for questions.
4. Email is greatly preferred to face to face appointments, but appointments will be granted upon request.
5. I will not talk to your parents unless you are having an extreme medical emergency.

So far, the rules are working pretty well. Most of my questions are of the hand holding sort (i.e. Am I taking the right classes? What classes are required for X?) Even after all of the ink spilled on how much better these "digital natives" are at electronic communications, many students still can't find the departmental website. Most of my student advisees are fairly independent, but at least 25% were unable to find the "Typical schedules", "Program requirements", and "Course listings" found right there on our Information for Majors page (linked from the home page). Some of it is certainly scars from helicopter parenting, and some of it is laziness. But the number of people who tell me "Thanks for the link--I didn't see it!" is shocking.

I am also very, very surprised by how the students address me. I expected all the "Miss Academic" after teaching last year (although it really pisses me off). I even expected some "Hey Prof!". I didn't expect undergrads to address me by my first name, nor did I expect then to give me an unsolicited nickname. As part of my advising duties, I am gently informing them of our university norm (which is to call professors Dr. Academic or Prof. Academic unless invited to use something else).

Although it is fun to help the clueful students figure out their science electives, and interesting to see how our major works, it is killing me to have to do all this extra work right when classes start and before the fall proposal deadlines!

Friday, September 3, 2010

"Alternate" careers

Inspired by Februa's awesome post on "alternative" careers for PhDs in the life sciences, I present my post on "alternate" careers in science that require a PhD that I am familiar with (through my own experience and through my grad school classmates). Februa laments that no one ever discusses actual jobs that actual people do at informational seminars in grad school. So this is my list of some actual jobs. For reference, I am in a physical science field where at least 50% of incoming grad students have no plans for the TT, and probably 75%+ have no plans for the TT after grad school. Many of them have vague plans for "industry", which get firmed out (or not) based on their experiences in grad school. My advisor came from industry, so I knew more about it as a student than most PhDs I suspect.

Off the top of my head, I can think of 16 different types of non-academic science jobs I have friends doing with their PhDs.

1. Staff scientist at a National Lab (i.e. my former life). See posts here, here, and here. This type of position is very much like a professor at a research intensive university.

2. Research scientist in industry. Very, very hard to find now that most of the really big corporate labs have shut down. Companies that I know that still have them are in the semiconductor, chemical, pharmaceutical, computer, defense, consumer product, and materials industries though. In startup companies, it is not uncommon for people to be hired to do some research and some other stuff "on the side".

3. Translation engineer (called lots of different things at different companies): A cross-discipline team of scientists and engineers who take discoveries made by more basic researchers and bring them to pilot plants and/or production plants for use in actual products. This one sounds like a really fun job to me. A friend of mine has been doing it for 8+ years and loves it.

4. Application scientist/engineer: I am mostly familiar with this for scientific instrumentation companies. I know 3 or 4 people who do this, and really like it. They spend some fraction of their time supporting researchers (mostly troubleshooting and installing top end systems, but some figuring out how to get their instruments to do specific new tricks requested by customers) and some fraction of their time developing new methods on their instruments and/or improving the instrumentation for the next product iteration. A great job for someone who loves tinkering with equipment. Applications scientists/engineers are the people you talk to when you call a company for technical assistance.

5. Software developer or designer: We use a lot of instrumentation and computation in my research sub-field, so I know a few people who moved into this full time after completing their PhDs. One friend works for a general software development place after doing a computational dissertation on software optimization. Another works for a scientific instrumentation company on their analysis software.

6. Science writer: One of my former classmates is a freelance technical writer/science journalist. The journalism pay sucks, but he finds it more fun. The technical writing pays really, really well (and requires an advanced degree).

7. Program officer at a funding agency: I know 2 people doing this--one left National Lab to become an officer because he wanted to move away from doing research himself. The other started at Booz-Allen as a consultant supporting DARPA after her postdoc, and then liked it so much that she became a program manager herself. Both had extensive research experience prior to becoming a PO. Postdocs are DEFINITELY required for this type of position, and more experience is a big plus so that the POs are familiar with lots of different research environments (where their programs will be carried out).

8. Patent officer: You don't need a PhD for this (a MS is enough I think), but the pay is much better if you have one. You evaluate patents for the US patent office. Sounds really boring to me, but the pay and benefits are excellent.

9. Patent attorney: I know two well--one from my grad school and one from my postdoc. Both got hired by law firms, who then sent them to law school while they worked. A grueling schedule, but they have no law school debt. Again, not something I am really into, but they seem to like the excitement of seeing so much technology on the cutting edge.

10. Contract scientist: The US government hires lots of these. There were quite a few at National Lab. It is a pretty nice job--you get security and benefits from the company, and you get to change projects fairly often so you don't get bored. The most famous of these is SAIC.

11. Science/technology consulting: Booz-Allen is the one I am most familiar with, but there must be others. DARPA uses them to support their POs. My friend who worked there said it was a good job--interesting work, good pay, and interesting opportunities. She organized meetings for her PO (and not just program reviews--she also set up and ran mini-symposia with the leading researchers in the relevant field), went to tons of conferences to keep her PO abreast of new developments in his area, helped screen proposals, helped design calls for proposals, and basically provided technical expertise for her PO to draw on. Required a lot of travel, though.

12. Sales: Scientific equipment sales often requires a PhD. I know one person doing this, and he likes it, because he LOVES talking to people and meeting new people. Requires extensive knowledge of the techniques possible with the equipment to be sold. If you've ever seen a PI buying instrumentation (particularly the stuff worth $75k+), the sales people probably had PhDs so they can actually talk about the experiments with future customers.

13. Formulations scientist/engineer: many products (like medicines, food, coatings, and personal care products) are a mix of active and inactive ingredients. The formulations team designs the final formula to get the best activity profile for the active ingredients while also obtaining desirable color, feel, taste, texture, etc. They also aim for the best cost/most environmentally friendly/best processibility possible. Lots of physical science and characterization is involved (outside of the synthetic parts).

14. Quality control: In lots of industries, PhD level positions set up and modify the procedures that will be used for quality monitoring. A friend does this for a particular industry using the instrument we used as a workhorse in our PhD research. He selects the brand, type, and models for the instrumentation to be used worldwide by his company, establishes what tests will be done at what points in the manufacturing process, establishes the pass/fail criteria, and develops training protocols so that the same tests can be carried out of different facilities worldwide with the same results. To do this, he must keep up with the latest and greatest in technology changes (which is really fun), and occasionally gets patents and/or papers (depending on which departments he is working with).

15. Defense contract work: The big ones hire scientists and engineers with lots of different backgrounds to make sure they can develop their huge programs from start to finish. I only know two people who do this type of work. One is a designer who works on a tiny piece of a huge project (think designing the landing gear on a new plane). The other specializes in coatings, and helps decide what coatings will be used for various products and how they will put the coating on the final object.

16. Entrepreneur: I know a guy who licensed IP from his PhD research on very favorable terms from his University. He set up a small company selling a niche scientific products for research labs that is now doing quite well. Requires access to some capital, and massive risk tolerance (so I would never have done this), but he seems happy. Before starting his company, he worked for a year as a PhD-level sales person in a company selling related products to learn more about how it all worked.

UPDATED: Fixed grammatical and spelling errors that annoyed me.