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ROI on NSF proposals October 23, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research.
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I had a conversation with my supervisor the other morning.  I am currently writing a proposal to NSF, and I said I may have enough to get a second one together, too.  His response was, “Go ahead, if you think it’s worth the effort.”

I decided to go forward with the second one, but it’s been bothering me because, when you look at it, it’s really NOT worth the effort.  If you get it, it’ll seem like all the time in the world was worth it.  But in reality, not so much.

Not that I have any economic savvy, but my sense is that going after more than one NSF proposal isn’t worth it at all.  Going after one is only worth it if you think you have a spectacular chance.

A big part of the problem is that one can get, at most, 2 months salary from NSF.  That means that if I get one proposal funded, I get 2 months of salary.  If I get more than one funded, I still only get 2 months…not for each project, this is total.

Being on soft money, it seems like NSF is definitely not the way to go.

However, there are intangible benefits in the highly unlikely chance (probably <10%) that I were to get a proposal funded.  Specifically, having some funding under one’s belt makes one far more attractive in terms of hiring into a spot that pays more than two months salary.  If that’s the only criteria, then it appears it’s worth it to go after as many as possible.

Realistically, though, there’s probably more important factors involved, like my desire to sleep and eat.  It’s an optimization problem, and two proposals is my limit.  I simply can’t focus on more than that (and I tried last year).  By focusing on more than one, I’m probably decreasing my odds of getting either because of the need to divide my time.  Of course, I’m already dividing my time between getting other work done, getting my thesis done, teaching, and having a family (and currently not doing the best job of that).  What’s another proposal when you’re already overwhelmed, right?

I know I’m a flake September 9, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I’m currently grading the essays I have my students write at the beginning of the semester.  The essay is just to give me some background on each student and communicate to me what they’re hoping to get out of the class.

One thing I’m noticing this semester is that there seems to be a large number of students who have mentioned that their study skills and time management may be lacking.  Several students have talked about how they coasted through high school.

In the past, I’ve had a few students make this comment.  This year, it seems very frequent.  I’m not sure why there’s this change, but it makes me hopeful.  If I’m talking to students about their study habits and time management, I think it’ll go much better when they’re actually interested in learning about it.  Otherwise, I suspect they think I’m just like their mom, lecturing them about how they need to get their act together so they can make something out of their life.  I don’t like it when they look at me like that…I get more than enough from my own kids.

The key to success: careful delegation of brain cells June 7, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, societal commentary, work.
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I’ve been reading with great interest the discussion on work/life balance and all the various issues people have to juggle.  In particular, GMP talked about people working ‘regular hours’ versus those who work more erratically.  The funny thing is, not only am I dealing with this myself, I’m trying to convince my teenager of this.

When I started college, pre-kids, I had never really learned any study skills.  Even though I was taking AP classes in high school, I’d worked in ‘crisis management’ mode through most of it.  (Probably the one exception was AP biology…)  I’d basically see what was due the next day and do that.  I very seldom (if ever) had much difficulty with my homework and studying was pretty much a waste of time because I got everything I needed in class.

You can pretty much see where this is going…  (And this is a BIG reason why I’m not crazy about traditional schooling methods.)

Of course, nothing stays as easy as high school, and college was a lot harder.  The problem was, no one ever told me how I was supposed to study.  More than one of my classmates used the same methods I did (and were equally unsuccessful).  I took a year off, working at a job.  When I went back, I wasn’t entirely disciplined, but it seemed like I had worked myself into a schedule by having a regular job. This carried over when I went back to school.

Then I had kids…and the need for a schedule was reinforced.  You only have kids in daycare during certain hours.  And if you’re lucky enough to have a spouse, maybe they aren’t going to be willing to bail you out when you’ve got unmet deadlines.  Or maybe they have deadlines of their own.

The question I kept asking is how I could do it all.

At some point, I realized I was chasing my tail and making no forward progress.  I could sit and work for 24 hours and still not make “sufficient” progress.  I think that view came from high school, too.  I used to be able to sit down and finish something.  But as you get older, the problems get bigger and more complicated.  There are very few things I can sit down and complete in just a couple hours, and most of those are usually brainless tasks.

So there’s another thing I had to come to terms with: I can’t do everything, certainly not in one sitting, and even everything I’m already doing may be too much.  Sometimes I have to let things go by quitting them or maybe I just have to put less time into them than I like (which is pretty much everything these days).  The important thing I need to ask myself at the end of the day is whether or not I made progress.  (I also don’t bother asking if I am happy with my progress because that inevitably leads to me feeling like my efforts were inadequate, which is only counter-productive.)

I try to maximize my potential by doing the most thinking intensive stuff in the mornings.  I try to make chunks of time to work on those things as large as possible.  (I have a tough time getting focused on a task, and once I do, I need to try to keep that as long as physically possible.  Interruptions (aka meetings) are a death-blow to my productivity.)  In the evenings, I try to spend time with my kids.  After they’re in bed, I try to get a few more things done.  When I’m teaching, the night activity is almost always grading.  There is absolutely no reason to waste perfectly alert morning brain cells on grading.  If I have a choice between getting an assignment graded in the morning so I can hand it back in the afternoon or waiting until the following class session so I can do it at night, I almost always choose to wait and do it at night.  Maybe the students aren’t as happy, but my productivity is a lot more important.

I have tried to do other work at night, but that’s more benign stuff like putting together presentations or even planning out my next day (one of the best evening activities).  I am far better off getting to bed early than sitting up trying to work on something important and making virtually NO progress.  Usually I sit there and work far past the point I’m exhausted, don’t get enough sleep, function less effectively the next day, feel like I didn’t get enough done, stay up late to compensate…and it just becomes a horrible downward spiral.  Now that doesn’t mean I can always do things on a schedule, but it usually comes out better when I do.

No, as much as I don’t like it, it’s better just to leave stuff undone and make sure I’m getting enough rest and exercise.  The funny thing is, most people don’t really seem to mind.  It drives me nuts not having things done, but when I talk to my supervisor (as an example), I’ve just gotten the general feeling that I was making sufficient progress to keep him happy.  (Maybe I’m wrong?  I hope not…)  In fact, both in my own experience and what I’ve heard of others, those who wield deadlines like bludgeons and expect people to work far beyond where they are effective (especially in the face of extenuating circumstances) are generally viewed as bullies.  That seems to be the case both in industry and academia.

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