Bullshit paperwork, … or is it?

It wasn’t really a secret anyway, so I’m just going to come right out and admit it. I’ve got a problem with authority. I dislike feeling like I have a boss, and that is probably partly why I like having an academic position. I am fortunate to have a direct superior that does not act like ‘the boss’ in any way that is bothersome, however- there are parts of my job that sometimes feel like I have to report to the authorities, and that includes paperwork that sometimes feels like bullshit paperwork. Or is it?

You know what I’m talking about- it is those Annual Faculty Activity Reports. I suppose we all have to do them. For those of you not in the know- these are those pesky and lengthy reports that we faculty fill out every year and hand over to the authorities (chairpeople… I adore you).  These documents are a long reporting of everything we have done, accomplished, and taken part in during the previous year. This report typically includes some standard categories:

1.  Research/Scholarly activity:

  • Grants current, pending and planned.
  • Papers in prep, submitted, and published, collaborations etc., Book chapters, and sometimes
  • Meeting and poster abstracts.
  • Active Collaborations
  • (SADLY, there is no category for blogging YET!)

2.  Teaching-

  • Graduate students trained,
  • Undergraduates mentored,
  • Graduate/undergraduate/medical school courses taught (of course this varies with dept.)
  • Thesis committees that you are serving on.

3.  Service-

  • Committee service- departmental, college, and in my case university and system, as well as state, national etc.
  • Editorial Boards, Advisory Committees, Ad hoc reviewer
  • Programs and Symposia organized

4.  Professional Development

  • Meetings, Workshops attended
  • CE done/attended

5.  Major Accomplishments

6. Explanation of problems or circumstances that prevented you from reaching your stated goals for that year.

7. Goals and Objectives for the next academic year.

Now, I hate bullshit paperwork as much as the next person, in fact when I started I really disliked doing these reports, and I did a crappy job on them. I felt, you know, as though I was being micromanaged by the authorities. But I’m going to suggest that these annual reports do not fall into the category of BS paperwork. In fact, it is very, very important to make this document as complete, detailed, and correct as possible.

Why,… I hear you cry! Because next year- or more importantly in 7 years, no one- including your chairperson.. or anyone on the promotion and tenure committee will remember what you did UNLESS YOU WRITE IT ALL DOWN. Writing it all down in what will feel like nauseating, tooting-your-own-horn detail-, (and perhaps a little like  bitching and complaining around the edges in a nice way – see category 6.)  is the only thing that will protect you, and the only way you can advocate for yourself when you are not in the room and those people making decisions about you are otherwise left to go on their memories alone. Help them to have an accurate memory of what all you did in each year. And make sure you fill out those last three sections- esp. #6!

I’ve done a few of these now, and I learned very quickly to make them as detailed as possible. In fact, I’m thinking of some more creative ways to fit things in that I do, that I have to do if I want things to proceed in a timely way- but that aren’t really my job. Let’s take the X zillion hours I have spent dealing with facilities issues that should be totally and completely under my radar, just for starters. Dealing with these issues takes quite a bit of my time, but I don’t get credit for them anywhere unless I make a place. Let’s say under SERVICE. and let’s say under ‘explanation of problems/circumstances that prevented you from reaching your stated goals’.

Another reason why it is important to pay close attention to what you write in these reports- is that you will probably have a sit-down annual meeting with your chairperson, to discuss your performance, … based largely… you guessed it… on WHAT IS IN YOUR ANNUAL REPORT. I’ve seen this go awry- when junior faculty don’t carefully elaborate exactly what they have done in these reports- then the little report that the chairperson writes back in response to your report/meeting… called an annual evaluation- can be off, way off. And you do not want this to happen to you because it becomes a permanent part of your record! Fortunately, in many places you get to see that annual evaluation, and you may get to comment on it, point out any inaccuracies,… before you sign it to acknowledge that you have seen it and that what is in it is correct.

These reports are not bullshit paperwork, and it is so, SO important to get them right… can anyone say PROMOTION AND TENURE?!

ASM does Twitter…

He He He… looks like the American Society for Microbiology is coming into the digital age. I heard it directly from no less than the former president of ASM, they will be tweeting at the ASM General Meeting in Philadelphia… Which starts this coming Sunday, May 17… and ends on Thursday, May 21. I’ll be there…

You can follow the goings on at this meeting here:




Maybe they could twitter about microbiology and infectious diseases in the news year round???

Go bold or go boring?

In my adventures on twitter-  the following question was posed…..

Go bold or go boring?….R01 question of the day.

Although deceptively simple- this is really such a tough choice. Why? Because extremes in either direction, or applications perceived as extreme in either direction, are gonna get killed by reviewers. At least in my not-so-limited-anymore experience.

Personally, I favor the bold. I can’t help it, the red-head in me is just like that. I like to try to think ahead of (or in a different way than) the mainstream in my field. I like the challenge of an important problem off the major direction of the field is, and/or applying new tools if they are really better or offer a way to successfully approach a problem that was previously intractable. Besides seeing the actual progress that can be made- the intellectual satisfaction that I get from doing things this way- is part of what drives me to do basic science.  I know that you all are probably saying DrDrA- NO DUH… this is how … and why… we all do science…

But hold on to your enthusiasm for a moment- because I respectfully suggest that this is all very nice day-to-day in the lab, and when writing papers… being on the cutting edge in a grant proposal, is a very tricky place to be. You can get burned by boldness, especially as a new investigator. You will end up hearing the criticisms- ‘cutting edge but too ambitious’, either this way or disguised in various other language. Reviewers may doubt your ability to carry out the proposed experiments- so it works in your favor to provide preliminary data for every cutting edge (indeed every technique regardless of how cutting edge) technique you propose. If you are going to bold- it is key to make sure your rationale is ironclad- and that you write the grant so that the reviewers can’t find any holes in it (come to think of it, you should write every grant like this).  Another problem with bold is that you might find that reviewers don’t understand your proposal- which, of course, may be partly (or totally) a reflection of the clarity and simplicity with which you explained (or didn’t) your ideas. Now for the confessional portion of this post- I’ve been burned by ‘too bold’ and I’ve been stubborn about learning to tone it down.

You can err way too far on the side of boring- and that is one giant pitfall. Self-explanatory. No reviewer wants to read flat out boring from start to finish- and when they think it is dull- they will tell you so in no uncertain terms… ‘does not generate excitement for this reviewer’… . Hmmm. That’s the kiss of death, I think.

Boring- can be a matter of opinion though. I have written one grant proposal that I thought was the most boring thing I had ever either written or read. And while the reviewers grumbled just a little about their limp enthusiasm on the subject matter- they unanimously agreed that they couldn’t find any holes in it- and it got the best score I’ve gotten so far. My idea of hugely boring and their idea of hugely boring- were clearly different. Or maybe I gave them a hugely boring proposal supported by so much preliminary data that they couldn’t find the escape hatch to a bad score, who knows.

My grant applications have contained some mixture of bold and boring, and it has been tricky for me to get the balance quite right. I have favored the bold in terms of subject area and part of the approach, and other parts of the approach have been on the more boring side. I dislike the endless re-writing of proposals, but it has allowed me to tweek this balance in one direction or another as suggested/implied in the reviews and to round out the application as a whole. I find that the amount of bold or boring that is passable during peer review also depends on the granting agency that I’m applying to- just because the review panels can sometimes be made of individuals with vastly different expertise. I try to adjust content and explanation, as well as bold/boring balance for one audience or another- so far I’ve been successful with one audience and not the other- so obviously I’m still working that out.

How did I start out figuring out what the bold/boring ratio should be in early grants? Great question, … I think just by endlessly watching people who were highly successful grant writers, by not having any pride when it came to having colleagues critique my own grant drafts, and by trial and error. Grant writing is a learned skill (sales, really.), it is totally different from paper and book chapter writing. Get the best advice you can from people who are really good at it, and watch how they balance bold vs. boring.

Figuring Startup $$, Part II

Well, it’s just a comment really- and not an entire post. I received an email, from an avid reader of the blog, on my post from yesterday regarding startup $$. This commenter writes:

‘Frankly, we are not seeing the startup numbers you are talking about (>500K). We were not even offered this to begin with, despite our equipment lists etc. being close to this number. State schools especially are financially strapped this year and are not able, at least from what we have seen, to make the big offers that they have been in the past. I hope that your university is still able to provide large startup, but I don’t know that this is the norm across the board, particularly this year. As you say the process is a negotiation, but I would caution the ATBTT letter writer that this year is different.’

Yes, this is something to consider, and 500K will not be the starting offer across the board, for sure. Anyone who has been hiring this year knows that this year IS different, and in more ways than just this one.  Some state schools may be having financial difficulty- some have just frozen their searches all together. But there may also be special circumstances that surround particular hires- for example- a single department attempting to hire multiple faculty in a single search. .. in this difficult financial climate…

And thanks to you all for so many insightful comments on yesterdays post- I hope ATBTT faculty is reading and soaking it all in.

Figuring Startup $$

I received the following question in my email in box earlier today:

Hi DrDrA,
I recently discovered your blog, and have found it extremely useful. So now I’m contacting you directly for some help.
I had an extremely successful interview at my dream university for my dream TT job. In a couple weeks I go back for a second visit, and I’m preparing for negotiations. It’s a large state school, so I have a ball-park idea of what kind of salary to expect, but nowhere can I find information on what a reasonable start-up package is. I have a list of equipment I need, plan on requesting salary for a tech and a student or two, etc., but I have no idea whether this total dollar amount is reasonable. I can’t find hard, cold $$ amounts anywhere. I’ve asked around at my current department, and to other postdocs that have recently started TT jobs (n=2), but these figures vary widely and aren’t at institutions that are comparable to where I (hope) will be going.
If you have any thoughts, or can point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate it!


About to be TT faculty (ATBTT faculty)

How awesome is that!? I think it is really excellent timing because I’m imagining this scenario going on all over the country- it is prime time for second visits and offers for academic faculty positions in the US right now… so I offer to you my reply to the question, and solicit your opinions and helpful suggestions for this intrepid junior faculty to be:

Dear ATBTT faculty:

Thanks for your question. I’m glad you find the blog useful, and congratulations on your second visit!

There are really two parts to your question, I’ll take them one at a time.

1.  Salary- you should be able to get a good idea of the salary range if this is a state university.  State universities have operating budgets, and these are usually public information. You will have to do some asking around as to how to obtain information from the operating budget- sometimes this can be found online, sometimes not. At my large state institution, one just walks into the library on campus and asks to see a copy of the operating budget- the library reference desk has a copy you can look at, ours is broken down by system component, then colleges within the system component, then by department- and it is very, very detailed. You can see the salaries of everyone- and if you know who the most recent hires were and what their training was- you should be able to hit salary spot on. Do not feel badly about seeking out these numbers- this information is very important for your ability to negotiate for a reasonable salary.  Probably the most important reason to do this (as I think I’ve discussed on this blog before) is that every raise you will ever receive is a percentage of your base salary- negotiating a higher base salary can add up to earnings of hundreds of thousands of dollars more over your lifetime of working.

2.  Startup. This is A LOT trickier, as you have realized- and good numbers are hard to come by.  This is because the amount of startup really depends on what you do, how much – i.e. do you need a FACS machine with all the bells and whistles to the tune of 500K, or are you a field biologist that goes out into the field with your eyes, a shovel and a notebook… you get my point, I think.  But with that said- and because we do similar things (I think)- I started the status quo was to ask for the $$ you would need to set up and run your lab for 3 years.  With the current funding climate, you may want to extend this time a little bit. Figuring this number will be based on figuring out what kind of stuff you need to buy to set up your lab, and how much you will need for salaries. Several years ago when I myself was looking for a job, the opening salvo at a large state university  was 500K- and this was the beginning of the negotiation. I know that this is currently the opening offer from places I am familiar with that might employ someone like you.

For equipment- you’ve probably got a list already, figure supplies for 2-3 employees for 3-4 years. A rule of thumb is $1000/month per employee (sounds like a lot, but look at the price of kits these days)- if you want a guestimate. If you use any particularly expensive reagents (Cy3 costs can kill ya,… or research animals and per diem etc.), you will need to figure that in. For personnel- you should be able to find out what is the starting salary for technical help in the department where you are going for the second visit, through casual conversation during that visit. You probably already know how grad students are supported there, and what the cost in stipend, fringe, and tuition if applicable- and if you don’t know this already- the second visit is the time to ask. I think it is reasonable to ask for the equipment you need, supplies/animals/etc costs for 3-4 years, and then personnel – including a tech or postdoc, and a student- then include this all in the number that you ask for.

I know that’s probably not very helpful in terms of specific numbers for your particular case- but this should at least get you in the ballpark. Remember going in -that this is a negotiation. So, going in you know you probably won’t get everything that you ask for- but the goal is to get what you need to be successful and get tenure!

If you are game, we can ask the BLC readers what they think as well- they always have bundles of useful advice!

Good luck and feel free to contact me with any additional questions you may have,


So there you go, followers of the blog- got opinions on this topic?

Trying out Twitter…

Ok, so it only took me a couple of months to get used to Facebook- and now I’m in technology update mode again. I’ve got two basic tasks:

1.  Figure out Twitter... you can follow my stumbling around there at drdrAatBLC . I also put a widget on the side there- I don’t know if I like that though – I’ll probably fool with it some more…

2.  Figure out the technology in my new car. Boy- have things changed since I last bought a car! I’ve got to learn a whole new set of software!

Grant-writing mania

‘member that back at the beginning of the year I wrote that I was planning to submit 6 grants by June 5?  There was some discussion that this was a CRAZY plan (whimple).  Well, I’m happy to report that there will only be 5 after all, and the very last of these will leave my hot little hands this week. I am the PI on 3 of them that were due in rapid succession – one in March, one in April and one this coming week…. and Co-PI on two others. Oh- I forgot to mention that ARRA stimulus grant for equipment that I was a last minute addition to- but that was really only a commitment of a couple of pages of my time- so I’m not counting that as #6. This last grant can’t be done a minute too soon, I am TIRED of grant writing – and want to move on to the gratification of paper writing, building the lab, training people, and looking at data hot off the presses with my full attention.

A recent post over at FSP that she wrote about an article in Slate about the grant-writing mania for stimulus dollars made me laugh (or cry!).  FSP quotes this particular passage from slate:

The grant-writing mania is palpable across academic and medical institutions. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, for instance, faculty members normally spend about 50 percent of their time working on grants, according to Glen Gaulton, the school’s Chief Scientific Officer. (This number rose substantially during the Bush years, he said, as NIH funding flattened out.) He estimates that in March and April, however, faculty members have spent more like 75 percent to 90 percent of their time going after stimulus dollars. (bold is mine)

FSP seems surprised that faculty in the biological sciences spend even 50% time these days writing grants:

The amount of time I spend working on proposals varies a lot from month to month, and in some cases from year to year, but it is definitely not 50%. If I spent 50% of my time writing proposals, I wouldn’t have time to do the research that was funded by the grant. Yes, much of the research is done by graduate students and postdocs, but not all of it.

I like writing proposals, but I would not want to spend so much time attempting to acquire grants, leaving little or no time for doing science. For me, a reasonable % proposal planning and writing time that can potentially provide me with enough funding for research, not take over my life, and still let me enjoy both proposal-writing and science-doing is probably somewhere around 25% (±5).

I guess I’d say that for the last 5 months- I’ve spent more than 75% of my time grant writing- but this wasn’t stimulus $ related. My own grant mania has been about being junior faculty in the biological sciences in a time of flat NIH budgets and 10th percentile funding. And this is a huge problem- I don’t have enough hours to do the research, to teach people as thoroughly as I would like, to do the science- and in many cases even to think fully and clearly (and read), and have those conversations about data that are so valuable. This is very frustrating- and I am ready for a change of focus and pace.