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Reviewers say the darndest things June 11, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, research, work.
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I’m not sure what happened this year, but as the feedback from this past fall’s proposals have come in, I’ve been a bit flabbergasted.  It seemed like last year, the feedback was a lot better.  There were a lot of suggestions for improvement.

This year’s comments were…stupid.  There was nothing constructive about it.  There was nothing that could be used as suggestions for improvement.

Aside from the commentary I mentioned yesterday about my marital status, there were lots of other fun oddities to pick on.

I think the first thing that was frustrating were the contradictory comments.  Reviews like “excellent detail” coming alongside “too technical.”  Some of that is to be expected.

What I wasn’t expecting was a resubmission from the previous year having stellar reviews in comparison with the first year (totally nailed the broader outcomes, which were cited as rather weak the previous year)…yet the ratings didn’t change at all. Huh?

Next there was the reviewer who obviously pasted some of his/her review from another proposal into our review.  Ironically, I think this reviewer also commented on formatting issues in the proposal.  (I apparently didn’t notice that Word puked on a reference.)

Then there was the reviewer who cited some ‘scientifically based’ concerns about a chemical that we were using.  There were supposedly health issues associated with use of this chemical…which had nothing to do with what we were doing.  Worse yet, he was completely wrong.  One only need to look at the CDC website to find toxicity info saying that the claims the reviewer were saying had been “well established for a decade” had never been proven and were probably related to something else.

Finally, I’m really beginning to wonder how many reviewers actually read the proposal at all.  When you’re inundated with questions that were clearly addressed in the proposal (including the above mentioned toxicity issue), you gotta wonder how effective the skimming really is.

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Maybe divorce is the answer… June 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, feminism, research, science, societal commentary, work.
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I think I am going to change my name.  It’s very annoying.

My last name, anyway.

If I had it to do over again, the one thing I would’ve done when getting married is to keep my maiden name.  Hyphenation was not the best idea by a long shot.

This has been an issue (a lot) because I worked with my husband for so long.  I suspect it will die off as we are no longer coworkers.  However, one of the most bizarre things that has come up is that I recently received some reviews of a proposal that we wrote before he changed jobs.  One of the reviewers noted that as a co-PI, I had the same last name as the PI and so a conflict of interest was a possibility.

Huh?

My university has a clear and very detailed conflict of interest policy, and I’m not clear how this applies.  As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with conflict of interest as these policies are almost exclusively focused on outside financial obligations.  I checked with the funding agency, and that was all they had listed for conflict of interest, as well.

If he were supervising me or vice-versa (that is, one of us was a subordinate), such a scenario would violate internal policies to the university.  However, even if he is PI and I’m a co-PI, we both reported to someone else.  Further, a PI isn’t necessarily a supervisory role.  Do faculty members who collaborate on research supervise each other or collaborate?  (My experience says there are very few faculty who view their role as co-PI is that of being supervised by the PI.)

In any case, it’s a completely ridiculous comment to make on a proposal review because we could have been two completely unrelated colleagues who happen to have the same last name.  I can think about some of the areas of research I do, and I know of several groups of researchers, particularly in Asia, where many members of the team do have the same last name.  I never once jumped to the conclusion that there was a problem with this.

Of course, it’s obviously my fault for the name, so I should probably fix it.  Do you suppose it’s cheaper to go through the legal name-change process or to just divorce and quickly get remarried?

Because you’re worth it December 16, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, research, writing.
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I’ve gotten behind on blog reading, but I found a post by FSP from a couple weeks ago asking if grad students know what they’re worth.

I have a reasonably good idea of how much I cost as a grad student.  I knew, at a minimum, I could throw my paycheck and tuition together.  Also, after writing several proposals of my own, this has come to my attention once or twice.  On one of my most recent proposals, I had a collaborator from a completely different field, and he needed a grad student to complete his research.  I was rather stunned that this non-STEM grad student would make nearly half what a grad student in my field (well, either of them) typically makes.  I’m glad I didn’t go into that particular field.

I am also aware that most STEM grad students are also cheap if you look at how much they could make going into industry rather than grad school.  Let’s face it: tuition and a paycheck typically still doesn’t add up to a full-time paycheck + benefits + taxes…at least in one of my fields.  (I’ll add that I’m not counting expenses for equipment use because, unless the student wrote the grant and is running the project, that’s the cost of running a project and not with having a student.  The PI would still have that expense if s/he were performing the research him- or herself.)  If money is the only thing you’re concerned about, how much you cost in grad school can be a bit disheartening when compared to your worth.  On the other hand, knowing how much a PI typically gets for grants, the student is likely one of the more expensive items on the budget.

It surprises me, however, that this isn’t something most PIs discuss up front with their grad students.  I understand that most people don’t get the opportunity to put together a proposal in grad school.  It took me a while to get that because my husband, upon getting approval for his PhD project from his grad committee, sat down with his advisor and wrote it up for NSF.  That was something he did even before he got deeply into his research.  I had the erroneous impression that this was something pretty much everyone did on their way to getting a PhD.  I have found out since then that this scenario may have been a somewhat unique case.

In reading the blogosphere over the past few years, I have frequently seen comments by professors about their students not understanding how expensive they are.  It makes me wonder if some of that irritation is due to a lack of communication and would be alleviated by sitting down with the student and walking them through the process of writing a proposal and budget.  Perhaps it’s naive, but I’m inclined to think it would help the student better understand the constraints, particularly financial, that their advisor may have.

Just what I needed November 3, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research.
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Just a few more days until my NSF proposals are due. The past couple weeks have been grueling because I’m trying to get those done on top of the normal day to day stuff.

One of my collaborators emailed me today with info for one of the proposals. At one point, he made a comment along the lines of our project being cool.

It’s funny how something so small can cause a shift in perspective. Yeah, it’s a lot of work, and getting funding is a harrowing, stressful process. But the project IS cool…and hopefully that will make it worthwhile.

ROI on NSF proposals October 23, 2013

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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?

Between a rock and a soft (money) place May 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I’ve been cogitating on another comment that showed up on a proposal review.  The general complaint was that we were funding too many staff and not enough students.

I could see this…except for the fact that all but one of the people involved is on soft money.  This proposal was already being trimmed left and right to make it fit into budget constraints, and our choice was to fund 1 or 2 months for each of these five staff (including myself), all of whom are in different disciplines and contributed to the development of the project concept and writing of the proposal…or I can fund another grad student for a year.  Of course, if I had no facilities costs to worry about…

I suspect this is a drawback of doing interdisciplinary research: you need expertise in a variety of fields, and so it may look like a situation of “too many managers, not enough peons.”  On future proposals of this nature, I’ll have to make the point that each of those people is essential and none can be replaced by a grad student.

It’s also leaving me wondering if there is something that explicitly needs to be said about funding arrangements.  For most professors in engineering or science, I imagine they have 9 mos of salary paid, so they often only take a couple weeks to a couple months of summer salary under their grants.  Also, most of them have teaching duties and therefore need to have grad students to do most of the work.  I imagine the reviewers may assume that people applying for funds are probably working under a similar arrangement where they have a base salary and anything coming from the proposal is ‘extra’.

But what about people who are in a situation like I am?  I’m in a soft-money position and I have no teaching obligations (unless I choose to).  Given the choice, I’d rather have a couple months more salary than hire more grad students (assuming there are any available, which is not always true).  If I only get one month salary from a winning proposal and my funding rate is 10% (and I don’t know if it is yet as I’ve only written about half a dozen proposals), then I have to write about 120 proposals to fund myself for a year.  Even if I was physically capable of doing that (I’d like to meet someone who is), I doubt the proposals would be of the quality that would get funded, anyway.

Admittedly, different funding agencies will have different expectations…but not radically so.  Maybe my readers are more knowledgeable about I am on these points. If so, I’d appreciate it if someone would enlighten me.

And I wah-wah-wonder why… May 16, 2013

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I’ve been getting comments back on proposals I wrote last fall.  Most of them are really helpful, but there are a couple major head scratchers.

There was one comment, however, that was just plain funny and managed to make it into the project summary. One of the reviewers simply asked, “Why?!”

As our group was going over the reviews, we came to that one, and the response was, “Obviously, he (or she) must be from a city.”

The project involves developing a product to help with precision agricultural practices.  It’s very funny that I’ve discussed this project with several people who have no technical background whatsoever and, because most of the people I’ve discussed this with outside of work have had some ties to farming (it’s pretty easy when you grow up in North Dakota), they immediately understand the implications of the project.  If we can make it work, they say, that would be really incredible and help save money for farmers, etc.  Given that it’s clear to most people I know without getting into technical details, it should be obvious to everyone, right?

Nope.  I suppose the flip side of this is that our group took it for granted that the benefits of this project were obvious and so we didn’t spend as much time justifying it as we could have.  I suppose the folks shelling out government funding for projects are pretty likely to be city dwellers…probably in big cities, at that.  How many have ever even stepped foot on a farm?  I suppose they have a rather simplified view of the whole growing food process.  And we obviously didn’t take our audience into account.

I can easily see, though, why some academics get the reputation of being stuck in an ivory tower.

Writing about writing February 16, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, writing.
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I won’t apologize for not updating regularly.  I will, however, say I miss it.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing again, and I’m finding that it leaves me with very little to say.  I can’t really write about what I’m writing about in any sort of entertaining fashion.  Well, I suppose I could complain, but who wants to read that?

In the past month, I’ve had to write a short proposal and put together a presentation, significantly edit a previously written long proposal to submit someplace else, and then write a conference paper.  I’m hoping I get at least one of these so I can tell you about it, but for now, I’m still waiting.  Heck, I’m still waiting on the proposals I wrote last October.

I suppose I could write about how much I hate waiting, but it would be a very short post.  Even shorter than this one.

So much for that… December 20, 2012

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I was so glad the semester was over.  I can sit and relax, I thought.  Of course, my idea of relaxing is relative and tends to be significantly more intense than other people’s.  But still…

This morning involved me sitting down and looking at all the deadlines I have over the next couple months.  Papers, more proposals, and even a couple white papers…all due before the end of February.

I am going to count my lucky stars that I have a job that keeps me busy and that I enjoy.  I’m also glad I decided to turn down teaching another class next semester.  On the other hand, there’s no rest for the weary…and I’m feeling awfully weary.  I guess I’ll make a point to relax a bit extra between Christmas and New Year’s.  Maybe the puppies will even let me sleep in one or two days.

I proposed November 4, 2012

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I’ve been a vegetable this weekend.  I had intended to fill out my ballot yesterday, but it had to wait until this morning.  I managed to get myself out the door for a 4 mi. run yesterday.  And then Mike and I went to dinner without kids.

But I have all this grading to catch up on, so it’s still going to be a long day.  (But did I mention that I voted?)

I’m a vegetable because I was involved in submitting a couple proposals last week, and I was seriously lacking sleep.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one going through this as there was something on twitter about advice for those writing their first proposals.  (Anyone remember the hashtag?  There was lots of good info there.)

This was quite the learning experience.  One of the proposals was for a very interdiscplinary project, and I learned one important thing: no one will get you their part of the proposal until the last minute.  I will say, however, that those I was working with did a great job on their parts…but it’s stressful and a lot of effort stitching things together at the last minute at 2 a.m.  I learned it’s also best if you can get a good head start writing stuff and letting people augment and/or correct their portions rather than just waiting for them to do it.  I will say that this is exceedingly difficult when you’re trying to write on an area of science or engineering that is completely outside of your realm.

The more important lesson was that I learned I enjoy writing proposals, despite all the stress.  It’s akin to blog writing:  “Hey, I have this great idea I want to tell you about.  If I do it well enough, you might even give me money.”  I suppose this is the same thing people think when they get into blogging: “If I become a famous blogger, I can retire off my advertisement revenues…”  Or something like that.

But seriously, I enjoyed sitting down and fleshing out the ideas, explaining how to best implement them.  I liked being able to convey why an idea is really cool.  And, well, I just really liked talking about my ideas.

Or maybe I just like the idea of a captive audience.  🙂

I also learned how useful it is to have multiple sets of eyes looking over your writing.  I do a good enough job of conveying meaning in my writing, but sometimes there’s a way to do it more convincingly and/or more elegantly.  I really liked some of the changes my co-authors made.  Sometimes they could do a much better job at capturing the essence of the message.

The best part of the whole experience, however, was that I was too busy to pay much heed to all the political ads that are now inundating me.  While I was really glad to have the proposals in and the deadline behind me, I’ll be even more glad when I can say the same about election day.

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