Thursday, October 23, 2008

Self preservation or paranoia? You decide...

(Long Post Warning).

Here's the text of an email I sent to a brand new (and very bright) graduate student recently. The student had asked me to "have a quick look at" a one page proposal for a small internal stipend competition.
"Hi [name]

The bulk of the application is fine – I’ve attached an edited version with track changes on so you can see what I’ve done.

In addition to these small changes, I think the first paragraph needs some more detailed work. The major problem is that the hypothesis is extremely broad and doesn’t reflect what your experiments are actually going to address. [Using Method A] isn’t going to determine whether [very broad hypothesis, worthy of at least one Nobel if eventually proven] is actually true, so you will need to tighten up the hypothesis. Instead I would frame it in terms of your sentence on [description of what you are actually doing] – so something like this:

Hypothesis: that [Outcome B] can be derived by [using Method A], and that this [outcome]reflects the heterogeneity of [Behaviour C] in response to [Condition D].

Feel free to rewrite that sentence! But this is a better reflection of what your experiments will actually be testing.

The hypothesis is currently hidden in the middle of the first introductory paragraph. You need to make it stand out more: put it in bold type, at the end of that first paragraph. I also think it would be better to change the emphasis and order of the sentences leading up to the hypothesis – this very short introduction needs to be intensely focused on the content of the hypothesis and research proposal, with each concept leading logically to the next. At the moment it is a bit choppy, with no obvious connection between adjacent sentences. You need to lead your reader through this section since they might not have the background to make these leaps without guidance.

This order might work, but again please do play around with it until you’re completely satisfied!

1) [Very basic, established fact] (introduce the idea of [Outcome B])
2) This leads to heterogeneity in [Behaviour C]
3) Possible connection between the [heterogeneity of Behaviour C] and response to [Condition D]
4) The problems caused by using [current] approaches that [suck are outdated]
5) Therefore the superiority of [Method A].

Then the hypothesis.

I’d be happy to take another look at this proposal, and especially the first paragraph, once you’ve had the chance to make these edits.

Good luck!



In contrast, my work on the actual proposal sections of the last three reworked / resubmitted grants we put in, with a combined budget well into 7 figures, mostly involved the following:

- Correcting typos
- Standardising the use of alternative spellings (not yet automated, alas)
- Correcting verb/subject disagreements (including "the data is", a pet peeve)
- Correcting preposition use by ESL writers (things like "we will respond from situation X by...")

As I mentioned before, this last round of submissions was not typical in that there were no new grants. But even when I do get involved with new grant applications, the same Catch 22 situation arises:

  • I am at my most useful when helping the people who have the least experience in preparing grant applications, and less useful when helping the experienced senior PIs.
  • The Big Decision (whether to try and find the money to keep me when my contract runs out) will be made by several of the most senior PIs.

What to do?

My strategy is in part adapted from my time in industry, where no job is ever truly safe, and has since evolved to better suit my current job. It is all very different from being a postdoc, when productivity is much more obvious, there are no scary formal reviews, and you know you are SOL after three years anyway!

1) Record keeping.

As I've mentioned before, I have retained the "lab book" habit from my time in the lab. I write all my activities, grouped by project, into a notebook at the end of each day. It's quick and relatively painless; unfortunately the quality of my record keeping tends to suffer in the frenzy of deadline week.

Every month or so I transfer all of my scribbles into an Excel spreadsheet, which contains all of my grants, manuscripts and other projects (for there are many). I have columns for dates, agency/journal, PI, title, funding/acceptance status, and - most importantly - my contribution. This is currently just a string of activities in an unformatted list; I once tried to develop an easy check list system, but with every grant and every PI being different I found it impossible to define consistent categories. Regardless, I should be able to pull out these data (please note correct verb/subject agreement) and insert them into a written progress report or PowerPoint presentation within an hour or two, although I have not actually had to do this yet.

I also archive all received and sent emails, sorted by project, and file hard copies of, for example, the PI's original draft of the grant proposal with my red pen corrections on it.

2) Blowing my own trumpet.

This is the tricky part for me! I mean, I'm English. I would rather keep my trumpet blowing to formal reviews (and blog posts, heh), but I do make myself drop my most significant achievements into conversation (e.g. "Oh by the way, Dr X got her grant" to my immediate supervisor at the end of an unrelated conversation). I hate to contribute to the flood of emails we all get, but I will CC people if appropriate; I copied the student's supervisor (a senior PI who was out of town in the week leading up to the deadline) when I sent the email above, for example.

I've also commandeered the large whiteboard by my desk, which is seen by everyone who visits me and/or my immediate supervisor. As well as a list of everyone's vacation dates and upcoming grant deadlines (its original purpose), it now has a list of "Grants Under Review", with agency and PI listed. Rather than erasing them once the decision is made, I keep them up for as long as I can, complete with an indication of whether they were funded. I just had to erase the older grants at the top of the list to make way for the latest batch of submissions, but there were a good number of successful applications listed up there for the last few months.

Sometimes someone will help me out, for example by copying one of the senior PIs on an email in which they thank me for helping them with their project. This is a rarity though and I can't rely on it.

3) Covering my ass.

This is where my industry experience comes in!

I email a copy of my Excel spreadsheet (see #1) to my Gmail address after every major update. You know, just in case I am terminated without notice and can't access my work files...

I also keep an email folder in my work account labeled "Feedback". Any time I get any significant positive OR negative feedback, it goes in here, and is forwarded to my Gmail account every month or so. I can use the positive feedback to make a case for keeping / reinstating me, and the negative feedback to help me avoid making the same mistake twice. I know I wasn't the only one at my former company who did this!


I recently described this system to someone with a similar job to mine, and she thought that most of it was a good idea - although I didn't tell her about some of my more paranoid ass covering! Of course she then told me that her reviews to date have been incredibly informal... but then she's on a permanent contract.

Hopefully my system will help me to convince the senior PIs that I'm worth keeping... I'll keep you posted!


  1. wow. I mean, wow.

    I guess I have some things to do now... files and store the data "what I have done today" etc.

    I know that it is good for me to keep track of what I do, bu I rarely do it. Why? I am not really sure. But every once in awhile I look back in my labbook and write a little summary in a word file and save it so i can tell my PI where we went on one or two things. But overall, I guess I need to shape up.

    Impressive though. And good advice for people who don't do things like this, i.e. me.

  2. ..oh and I wanted to say, the "self promoting part". Try and say every once in awhile in an off hand manner "you know I thought aobut that when I recently reviewed grant application for X" and then you can easily connect back to it "X got thier grant,you know that one I helpt review we talked about it a few months ago".

    then again, asking me on how to self promote makes as much sense as asking the stone in the forest... ;)

  3. Wow! That's a lot of stuff. I'm really impressed. I think some of this stuff is a good idea for everyone. Personally, I keep a word document where I write positive verbal feedback and date it. (Although, I do this mostly because I need to remind myself that I can do this rather than a CYA measure.)

  4. I'm glad you're all saying "good idea" and not "FREAK"!

    Chall, the self-promotion is pretty painful!

    Amanda, great idea! I would be so tempted to make stuff up though. "Today, Ultimate Boss said 'Cath rocks, she is completely awesome, we should give her a 200% pay increase'".

    HGgirl, I like it too! Especially because the first few grants were successful... if they'd all been rejected I might have started erasing them immediately!

  5. Cath> i was tempted to say 'you crazy girl' with very small letters... then I figured it was all because I am envious that you really do all that.

    shame on me. Jealous. Lousy jealousy.

  6. I've got a lot to learn from you! I just recently started discovering that sometimes people forget what all I have done even if I sent a report, and it is good to summarize and remind every now and then.

    I think you've got what you need to convince your PI!

  7. lol. my boss regularly says I am being far too English about things. A natural reticence we have. I know no other way, trumpet blowing just seems unseemly, besides I don't believe it!

  8. Cath,

    You are incredible. Really. I've got a lot to learn from you =)

    I'm currently working with a postdoc on a manuscript that is incredibly painful. It's not the language problems (although there's the usual grammar issues with someone who is not a native speaker of English). It's the *data.* Apparently, the PI in this lab doesn't even bother to review the postdocs' figures before giving them the go ahead to write and sometimes even submit papers. (Seriously. He doesn't. Several people in the lab have now confirmed this to me). And while this would not be a problem for most(?) postdocs, uh, it's a big problem for this person. We're talking inconsistent, contradictory,unconvincing figures, figures that do NOT show what she claims that they show, Western blots that nearly make me weep with their badness... Um, where am I going with all this? Oh, right--keeping score on how much work I'm doing! My PI is out of town as usual, and I'm writing a detailed list of all the many many structural changes and figure revisions that the postdoc and I are making. I suppose I'll make such a list for every project I do.

    No cool blots and data for me to show off these days, so I guess we have to find other ways to document the sometimes "invisible" work we do!

  9. Chall, thanks for holding back!

    ScienceGirl, yeah it's in one ear and out the other sometimes! It's up to us to make it stick!

    Dr J, it's just not cricket, is it, old chap?

    Bean Mom, invisible work sounds exactly right. There's no way my PIs realised exactly how much effort went into getting the institutional signatures or coapplicant CVs on their last grants!

    Your boss's policy sounds pretty irresponsible. You would hope that a post-doc would know better, but obviously this one at the very least needs way more guidance than she is getting. It's not fair to ask someone hired into your position to have to triage the actual data. At least here I am 100% confident in the results!

    Maybe I'll cross-post this to the Alternative Scientist blog, it sounds like parts of my system might be useful to a wider audience than I'd anticipated.

  10. Cath> It would if nothing else be very good for many to know how to think _if theyever_ get into industry.... and it doesn't hurt to think like that in Academia either.

    I have already taked up the "write down compliments" and started to keep some kind of file on what I have done this week. (I will start with weekly things since that might be easier for me to remember?!)

  11. Yup, I think this post could be useful to a wider audience.

    And yup, my boss's policies *are* irresponsible. You would think a PI would have an interest in actually looking at the data coming out (and possibly being published) by his own lab! Well, I guess I know now why I was hired... Our institute actually has an official science editor, who is a stickler for grammer and edits the English but will not look at the data or make major structural changes to a paper. When I interviewed, I wondered why my PI did not find this editor's services to be sufficient for him. Now I know!

  12. Now cross-posted at the Alt-Sci blog.

    Bean-Mom, I am still shaking my head in disbelief... I hope he will take proper responsibility for any paper retractions!

  13. Tag...


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