Cath raised an interesting point:

There have been some unbloggably hilarious emails pinging around between the various PIs, including much discussion about country- and funding agency-specific conventions regarding the tone of such responses (a PI who trained overseas feels that Canadians are far too polite and passive in the face of bad reviews, and may well be correct).

This was partially in response to my post and, presumably, my advice not to be combative in your response to criticism of your NIH grant.

I am now imagining that the British funding agencies are more tolerant of a Prime Minister’s questions type of response to criticism.

“Would the study section agree, Madam SRO, that the previous review was riddled with errors of FACT? and furthermore that the assigned reviewers were incompetent by reason of poor preparation? and that the bias inherent in the cozy relationship of Reviewer #3 with my primary scientific competitor renders the prior set of critiques invalid?”

[hear, hear…mutter, mutter, stomp, stomp booo!]

Don't tense up

September 25, 2011

If you’ve been going through a run of disappointing grant reviews punctuated by nasty Third Reviewer comments, you tend to tense up.

Your next proposals are stiff…and jam packed with what is supposed to be ammunition to ward off the criticisms you’ve been receiving lately. Excessive citation of the lit to defend your hypotheses…and buffer concentrations. Review paper level exposition of your logical chain. Kitchen sink of preliminary data. Exhaustive detail of your alternate approaches.

The trouble is, then your grant is wall to wall text and nearly unreadable.

Also, all that nitpicky stuff? Sometimes it is just post hoc justification by reviewers who don’t like the whole thing for reasons only tangentially related to the nits they are picking.

So your defensive crouch isn’t actually helping. If you hook the reviewer hard with your big picture stuff they will often put up with a lot of seeming StockCritique bait.

Ponder

September 25, 2011

My grant writing episodes are always punctuated by days in which nothing gets accomplished and days of nearly obscene productivity and progress.

It is never clear to me why I cannot have all of the latter.

Blogrolling: zwitterionique

September 22, 2011

Mostly because these cracked me up:

Happy New Year:

A while ago I decided that I wasn’t going to let my status of post-doc keep me from amassing a dark army of minions to do my scientific bidding, so I started advising UROP students.

Training Environment:

Some people are jealous, some wonder aloud if our PI realizes that I’m running my own lab out of my bay and accuse me of taking on PI-like traits (not knowing where things are on my own bench or not remembering whether I’ve told a student to do something or clearly remembering a result from eight months ago, but not what they showed me yesterday or sending cryptic experimental ideas at odd hours of the night).

UROP Students are not Stupid:

They are inexperienced – and you are providing training and experience – but they are not dumb and will not stay to assist you in taking over the world if they don’t see what they are going to get out of the deal. Even though the benefits of working for me are blindingly obvious, I make sure that I remind my minions often of how their servitude is beneficial to them.

On the one hand I’m delighted. Someone at writedit’s complains that s/he got a grant reviewed in a section that doesn’t get many grants funded at a given IC. I’m happy because it shows that this applicant is thinking strategically about the appropriate study section.

I have concerns, though. The rest of the comment seems to be blaming the IC for not being interested in the topic focus of the study section.

Hold on.

Without knowledge of the number of apps with assignment to the IC that are being reviewed in a given section, we know little. Maybe there were only five apps and three of them got funded. Maybe that other study section passed along six funded apps….but is nearly captive to the IC and reviewed 70 applications assigned to them. Better grant numbers but worse *odds* for the applicant.

I just looked at new grants for two certain ICs that arrived there through three roughly similar study sections. Two of the sections had reviewed the same number of recently funded grants for one IC1, the third was 0. Considering the other IC2, the latter reviewed about the same number of funded apps as the other two sections had funded at IC1. One of those batted zero and one sent perhaps a sixth as many to this second IC2.

So. We know we have two relatively captive sections that hand out fundable scores to IC1 and IC2 respectively. And we have a third section which reviews for both and hands out fundable scores for both.

But this is slim evidence….because of the base rate. Now I happen to know that the assignment of apps to two of the sections is also highly IC dependent….but not exclusively so. The remaining section gets mixed application assignment to IC1, IC2 and even an IC3 (substantial) and ICs4,5,6 (a handful each). (This is a very general and longitudinal/historical knowledge, btw.)

So if the mixed-assignment and the nearly-captive sections are getting the same number of apps funded at IC1…it is the *mixed* section that looks like the better bet to me. Because I assume they have fewer IC1 apps on their docket.

Let’s look at this another, bigoted way. Suppose one IC was legit, perhaps NIMH, and one was NCCAM. Would you rather your NIMH app was up against 89 other NIMH apps or up against 44 NIMH apps and 45 NCCAM apps?

OTOH what if yours was the NCCAM app? Would you rather be in a section that was practically guaranteed to hand out fundable scores to *some* applications for that IC? Or in one that could, in theory, blank that IC entirely if the apps were all worse than the top ones for a different IC?

To get back to the original comment, the point here is that you need a lot more information before you conclude a given study section is a deadend for your favorite IC. Also to realize that it may not reflect IC disinterest in the topic domain of the section that you favor.

brooksphd is pondering a letter of recommendation

“X just applied and she listed you as a reference!”

But this feels nice! And scary – is there an added layer of responsibility on both sides of this equation now?

There is, and I observed that one should avoid overselling the candidate in making one’s comments. To this brooksphd replied:

that’s the issue I’m thinking about. Did I, could I, would I maybe oversell (or undersell) someone? Really, would it be bad to now ‘oversell’ someone? to really emphasize their fit because you can write a better letter. Is it common practice? Same as under selling someone is an easy, “I certainly consider this candidate above average. Hir fit in your lab is good. S/he reads the literature and makes solutions at the correct concentration accurately…”

Now, I recognize it is common practice to oversell and I seek ways to include a lot of confidence in the letters that I write for people. I put the best possible spin on my estimation of their talents and I may occasionally neglect to mention the odd deficit that I have observed.

But you have to keep it within reason.

I’ve had at least one experience in the past where I took someone into the lab at least partially on the strength of a recommendation letter…and this turned out to be an unreasonable oversell.

I will remind you that this is in full recognition of the type of excessive enthusiasm that we mentor types often think we need to include in the letter. Also with what I happen to think is a reasonable sympathy for the exigencies of life that can cause people’s work to be somewhat below the stellar, even for extended intervals of time.

This particular trainee sucked.

And it wasn’t just me, either. We’re talking all around failure to perform in the context of multiple obligations of this particular training dealio. It happens, and this is not the main point.

The main point is the original letter writer who testified to the skills of this particular individual in a scientific/laboratory context. There is no way in hell the letter could have been an accurate reflection. No way this person performed well in the past…or even performed at average. No way.

So my opinion of this letter writer is now and forever somewhere less than dirt. For certain sure I would never trust any other recommendations that this person might make.

I learned a lesson, my friends, a very powerful one.

You need to keep your recommendations within bounds. Do NOT ever give a glowing recommendation for someone if you know that they are going to turn out to perform significantly below average.

Because if you get burned, that mud comes back on you.

This comes up not infrequently in laboratories. Suppose one person, a trainee or postdoc, leaves the lab with his or her manuscript not completed*. Sure, this dearly departed individual may have started the project and/or done the bulk of the work on it.

But still, it isn’t a manuscript.

And it therefore isn’t going to be a paper, ever, until someone else steps up and does the work. Finishes the draft at the very least. Polishes off the figures. Submits the damn thing. Fields the original criticisms. Marshals the response to review. Creates the revision.

If one other remaining/subsequent person in the laboratory does all this, the dearly departed loses the first author slot. Arguments about the scientific importance of the original idea or the key data pale at this point.

Because if it isn’t published it didn’t happen.

There is an important practical concern for mentors and you will want to think very closely about this. It opens the door for any subsequent trainee to leave unfinished (as in unsubmitted) projects behind and then later insist that they have the right to be first author when someone else finishes it up. The motivational impact on your trainees’ behavior is somewhere damn close to disastrous.

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*Yes, there will be some wiggle here about “Oh, I submitted a complete draft to the PI and all it needed was a little editing” when it wasn’t even close to being submittable.