Saturday, February 18, 2017

What is work/life balance in science?

There was a very lively discussion on Twitter today started by this tweet by Terry McGlynn @hormiga who has been a wonderful advocate for diversity in academia.
This opened up a discussion on how much academics work in different continents, but also whether a 40hr/week is actually feasible in US academia. I have never worked a 40hr/week in my life, as a grad student or a postdoc or a faculty member. Now that I have to manage people I have to take a very hard look at my productivity and my people's productivity, and I'm always wondering if I am being unfair in my expectations. The rub here is "How do you decide how much you are supposed to work?" This is not a trivial question and it is really critical at the faculty level.

I know students and postdocs think they work a lot. I thought I worked a lot then, but I had not idea of A LOT was until I started my faculty job. The work never ends. It's no longer "I have to finish this set of experiments" "I have to write this paper". There are mountains of work and deadlines and obligations that pile up. There are things I have to do now, things I can postpone to next month and things I can postpone to two months from now. As deadlines approach, tasks get reshuffled as necessary, so that there are things in my to-do list from 2015...not a priority, but still in the to-do list because at some point I would like to get to it, maybe next year. So everyone has to decide when to stop working and when to start again, how to set internal deadlines and when to press the pause button.

I have never fully understood the concept of work/life balance. My science is my life. I define myself as a scientist and everything I have ever done in my life has been for my science. I have moved countries and cities for my science and I will go wherever my scientific interests are nurtured, so work and life are not two separate things. I believe that a single handed focus, the ability to learn from one's mistakes and move forward, to never-ever give up are the keys to success. But what does success mean? Who sets the parameters of success?  My therapist as I was dealing with depression in graduate school used to say "You are too grandiose. Your expectations for yourself are too high and you are never going to be happy, if you don't revise them". Yet, aren't all scientists grandiose? Isn't one of the primary reasons that we do what we do the fact that we thing we are uniquely suited to solve our scientific problem of interest? And that this passion, this bottomless curiosity cannot be sated? This megalomaniac streak has pushed me to achieve things, I would not have otherwise achieved, and I have taken it as companion, but I have also learnt to tame it. Mostly gone are the days of emotional cutting on Pubmed...you know, when you Pubmed the people in your cohort and see how much better they are publishing than you? It's a really good alternative to looking up old boyfriends on Facebook!

At any given time there will always be someone doing better than you, even if you are Bill Gates. So, the million dollar question is "What does success mean FOR ME?" I finally realized that this is a much more important question to ask than "What do people expect for me?" "What do I have to do to graduate? Get a job? Get tenure?" As a student and postdoc there was a sense that I had to measure up to others in my class/lab, but assistant professor is a very lonely job...unless you're in one of those places where they hire 3 people for 1 tenured-spot and you have to worry about besting the other 2.

So, what does success mean for me? I want my research to have an impact on people's lives in two domains: I want to significantly advance biomedical research and I want to train the next generation of scientists. This is why I stay in academic science. All I care about is my research program and my people. If you mess with my research program or my people, you will hear me roar. Tenure doesn't mean much to me because if I cannot pursue my research and I have to fire my people, I don't care about a stable job.

It took me a long time to divorce my thinking from the societal/academic expectations. Does this mean I do not play the game the way it's supposed to be played? No. Does this mean that I do not have a list of things to check off? Of course, I do. But the focus has shifted. The issue is not getting a glam paper at all costs, but actually continuing to do good science that impacts people's lives. When I veer off course and fall back into old mental tricks, I have to come back to what I really want.

What does this mean for you, or for my trainees? It means that you have to find what you want and they have to find what they want. Then it's not the issue of 40 or 60 or even 30hrs/week. But how we can coordinate what I want and what they want so that we move forward together. It is possible that individual wants may not fit with each other, but isn't that the issue in any job?

PS: Just to stress that my favored approach is an unstructured schedule which allows for lots of flexibility here is an old post on my philosophy and an even older one on running a Results Only Work Environment. Also I never advocate for ANYONE spending all their time in the lab. You have to spend however much time you want in the lab and however much time you want doing everything else that is important to YOU. While I was working this entire holiday weekend, I also went to the symphony, the movies, our for dinner with friends, shopping and out on a run...

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

In the belly of the beast. NIH Early Career Reviewer Part 2: meeting

In a recent post I went through some of the benefits of the NIH Early Career Reviewer program, which was developed by the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) to train scientist with no previous NIH experience in the NIH review process. I was accepted into the program last year and just participated in my first study section meeting.

Detail from Raffaello's The School of Athens with the artist (in white)
eavesdropping on reviewers...
To preserve full confidentiality the NIH doesn't allow reviewers to speak of the proposals or the discussion outside of the grant discussion itself, even among each other, so there will be not details divulged or even specific references. The CSR has some excellent videos and tutorials in their applicant resource page and the discussion process is pretty much as shown in this video. Briefly, each application is assigned to three reviewers. Reviewers state their initial scores, then reviewer 1, the primary reviewer, sets the tone by summarizing the application and stating their critiques, then reviewers 2 and 3 can add their comments. If there is variation in the scores, as shown in the video, the discussion can focus on specific points and all members of the study section can chime in and ask questions or add comments. At the end of the discussion the chair summarizes the comments and the primary reviewers can confirm or change their scores. Their scores set the range for all other reviewers to vote, but anyone can choose to vote outside the range (above or below) as long as their declare their intention to do so. And that's how an NIH score is born.

It was a fascinating and eye-opening process and what I can say will reiterate what has been said to me. But these concepts were really driven home by the experience.

1) Study sections can be VERY DIFFERENT from each other: they have a specific focus and specific expertise, which fluctuates depending on the members and whether there are power groups. Part of the SROs job is to balance things out since study sections change or merge depending on how research progresses, but it may not always work. Knowing your study sections can go a long way for finding the right fit. I spoke to several people about their experience in different study sections and they knew that there were places where they wouldn't get funded.
- Look up the standing members. Do you know who they are? Are they people in your field?
- Go to NIH Reporter and look up the grants they funded in the past few cycles. READ the summaries. Do not just assume that because there was one grant that kind of sounds like yours, it would be a good fit.

2) If you truly think you are in the wrong place, move heaven and earth to MOVE YOUR GRANT. Make a request and justify it. Ask for advice from senior people. You can literally be Not Discussed from one group and funded from another. It is again a question of fit because the right people will have the expertise to understanding why your work in important and how it fits in the field. Excitement about the problem can go a long way to rescue a proposal with grantsmanship issues.
- Call the SRO, call the CSR. Get out.

3) Take a STEP BACK and look at your grant from the prospective of an educated tax payer or a science journalist. Why is this exciting? How will giving you money make the world better? Why should people be reading your work? Your reviewers will be good scientists, but may not have direct expertise in your specific project. You need to make them see the relevance (Significance), the novelty (Innovation), the sound hypothesis (Premise) and the feasibility (Rigor) of your work. If you hit all the right notes your impact will be high (or in reality as close to 1 as possible). In a funding climate where only 10-15% make it, it's not the question of whether your project is worth it, but rather whether you can make multiple people believe it is WORTHIER than others.
- It's a mantra I wrote down multiple times in my weekly planner for the month "Go big picture! Be clear! Be specific!". Counterintuitive, I know.

4) BE CLEAR! I'll double down on this. By "Be clear" I mean...If it's 5pm, people have been discussing grants for several hours and your Specific aim page is 30% acronyms, therefore not readable, you are at the mercy of the lowest scoring reviewer.  If it's 11pm and your reviewer cannot understand how the different molecules in your proposal are connected and how your experiments flow, your impact score may be lower.
- Leave the acronyms and abbreviations for the Approach and even there use them in moderation. Also, don't make new acronyms up.
- Generate as many diagrams and visual aids as possible to drive the message home.
- BE CLEAR! Be so clear that the undergrad in your lab gets it.

5) BE RESPONSIVE, DON'T BE A JERK. This seems like a given, but I think people have gotten used to pushing back to editors and reviewers on paper submissions. Suddenly, they'll believe that if you say "I know you told be X, but I don't want to do it and I'll do Y". Unless Y is groundbreaking new work, it's not going to fly. Be responsive to reviewers' comments, you only have one shot at resubmission. As part of the discussion of resubmissions the assigned reviewers have to comment on the steps taken to improve the application. Do not behave like you're too cool for school, because people will not buy it, if the grant does not hold up to scrutiny.
- Do as much as you can to satisfy reviewers' comments and justify things that you couldn't do in the Introduction. It will not necessarily work, but at least your review will not start with people who are annoyed.

As I wrote in the last post, I knew all these things, but for some reason I feel like I didn't. I rushed home to take a long hard look at my grant and make sure that everything was properly framed and explained. At the end you never know. My own grant was reviewed at the same time at a different study section and while I'm usually a basket-case on "study section day", I was much calmer. There was a definite sense of control because I could tell myself "This is what is happening right now to my grant." "This is how people are looking at things." There was also a sense of resignation because of the callousness of the whole process. Not that the reviewers were mean or dismissive, it was a great group and I felt review was deep and fair. It's just that the paylines are so low that you cannot get attached...even if it feels deeply personal for the applicant, whose academic survival may depend on it. If your goal as a reviewer is to be fair and make sure the best grants get funded, it cannot be personal. And that is the topic for a whole new post...

Saturday, February 4, 2017

In the belly of the beast. NIH Early Career Reviewer Part 1: review

Last year I applied to the NIH Early Career Reviewer program, which was developed by the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) to train scientist with no previous NIH experience to review grants. It was brought up in a CSR seminar on grant writing and I thought "Why not? It may be a good experience." I was told it helps to identify study sections of interest and reach out to the Scientific Review Officer (SRO) in charge a few months before. I was debating which study sections I could go to, when an SRO emailed me. I was completely confused because I thought the group had hated my grant and that this particular study section was not a good fit for me, but of all the SROs I dealt with this one was the most communicative and helpful, so again "Why not? It may be a good experience."

I have only two words for you: DO IT!! I cannot speak of any of the specifics of the review process, because everyone signs a confidentiality agreement and review secrecy must be respected, but I can speak of things that are available to the public and tell you how this was helpful to me in general terms.

1) First of all, you get to see a lot of grants. It had not dawned on me that you get to see ALL the grants in that study section in that cycle and ALL the critiques as you have to participate in voting on all of them (unless you have a conflict of course). I don't know why it had not clicked that I would get a folder with dozens and dozens of grants, but it was better then Christmas Day.

2) You really understand what that specific study section is about. My application was wrong for them, but now I know exactly what kind of stuff they get. And it isn't a bad fit at all. The grants I received were a good fit for my expertise. I could give useful and cogent critiques. I can totally see sending a grant there in the future, but it will have to be very different from the one I sent them first.

3) You figure out how agonizing it is to judge "impact". How you have to balance all the review criteria and figure out "Is this going to work?" "And if it works, is it going to move the field forward?" It is literally like judging a pointillist painting: you step in to see the brushstrokes, you take five steps back to see how it all comes together. Sometimes you're willing to let go of minor errors for a truly lovely picture, but if it doesn't come together, you don't buy it.

4) You figure out how to judge everything else. You are constantly reminded which criteria are critical. The NIH was not joking when they introduced premise and rigor and sex as a biological variable criteria. Also, your senior colleagues were serious when they told you "You are only allowed to fight for one grant". As special snowflakes, we all think that our grants are brilliant and the reviewers may see beyond minor flaws...they won't. They can't. You can only champion one. 10-15% get funded...so you're looking for the best one and hope other reviewers will like it too. A good average grant gets a 5, a bad grant an 8. Do not take it personally. It's the Hunger Games out there.

5) You get coaching in writing your critiques. As an ECR, you are the official reviewer in training, so you do a bit of extra work and get help from the SRO on what you need to focus on to give effective feedback (not science-wise, but more regarding NIH criteria).

6) Oh right...you get an extension on your grant submission, so that you get to submit your own grant AFTER the regular deadline and likely after you have served on study section. As an ECR you only receive half a grant load, but it is still substantial, so the extension is really needed.

It is truly a great program! If like me you have been struggling to figure out what reviewers want to the point that you can't write any more, this will jolt you out of your paralysis with tons of new ideas. I can't promise it will work, because nowadays there is an element of luck in grant funding that is outside of our control, but it will definitely get you to understand what steps you could take to be in the best possible position. I'll see how the actual meeting goes and whether I can do a Part 2...