How many hours a week can you work on research?

img_1516What are my colleagues around the world doing on this Sunday, a brilliantly sunny February day too warm for a jacket in St. Louis? Are they out hiking, bird watching, or cooking a delicious meal? Are they playing with their kids, or kayaking? Are they skiing? Or are they working inside? The work could be grading papers, preparing for class on Monday, polishing a grant proposal or paper, or reading proposals of grad students. It might even be time in the lab, doing a little experiment, or running a complex model.

If ever a day is our own, it is Sunday, so we can view the way we spend it as a choice. So why are so many of us spending at least part of it working? I think the answer comes from the varied nature of our work. If we did one thing, I could well imagine being sick of it and spending the weekend doing something entirely different. But the job of a professor is a varied one. The big categories are teaching, research, and service, but each of these can be broken down into sub-categories. Teaching includes class time, preparing for class, evaluating student work, and consulting with co-teachers and others. It might also cover curriculum decisions and student advising. Research includes writing grant proposals, doing experiments, analyzing data, reading, planning, and teaching your team to do all these things and mentoring their efforts. Service can be to the department, the community, or the academic community. It includes writing letters of recommendation, coordinating different activities in the department, reviewing papers, outreach, and many other things. Really, you could fill your time with any one of these, or even one thing under any of these headings. But you cannot. Who decides how you spend your time? Mostly, you do. That is important to remember. Let no one take this away from you.

A particular challenge is that a beginning assistant professor has most likely come from a position of research. She is likely to have had to balance her time between planning experiments, reading, doing experiments, writing them up, maybe mentoring an undergraduate or two and applying for jobs. This is challenging, but there is so much more.

It is easy to feel the only real work you do is individual research. You won’t get much of that done during the week if you are a faculty member, new or old. There is too much, if you are at all responsible, so what to do? An easy answer is to work all weekend, balancing weekend time more toward what you want to do. But is that sustainable for long? Do you want them to put on your tombstone: “She got her work done?”

I don’t have any easy answers. I think everyone’s answer is different. Before you go crazy, remember that the things you didn’t used to count as work are work now. So if you spent the week teaching and mentoring, it was not a no work week. But also remember you will be judged at tenure time at most institutions on research output, funding, collegiality, and teaching only if it is terrible.

I started using a little app called Productive with which I can swipe right when I get something done. You can plan for 5 things for free, I think. No doubt there are other apps that do similar things. These things could drive you crazy if you put your whole life on there, but I use it for something specific: fun stuff that I don’t want to skip. It is a kind of mentality like pay yourself first. So I have several kinds of exercises I like to do, some nature stuff, and the languages I’m working on. I do not use it for work. That has its own urgencies.

I am vulnerable to completing tasks on time, so this little app gives the fun stuff a fighting chance. I don’t know what will work for you. Find a trick that does, but remember, as a professor the kinds of things you used to count as work, research, mostly, will seldom get more than 10 hours a week.

Posted in Daily routines, Follow a scientist, Life in a biology department, Managing an academic career | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Have you figured out how to make a graphical abstract?


Debbie Brock teaching graphical abstracts as Rory looks on

Figures make papers easier to understand. I love it when a paper has a flow diagram of what exactly they did, especially when they also say why. I don’t know why, but figures stick in ways that pure words do not, at least for some kinds of information.

So Debbie Brock had the great idea of teaching our undergraduates how to make graphical abstracts. She did this in a class we are co-teaching called Undergraduate Research Perspectives. In it we try to teach all the extra stuff that goes with a research and teaching career. The undergrads in our lab take it every semester so we have plenty of time to cover posters, statistics, experimental design, letters of recommendation, resumes and all the rest. This semester we are doing four things, graphical abstracts, writing for Wikipedia, how to tell opinion from fact in popular editorials, and posters.


Rory Mather’s graphical abstract on the same topic as Richard’s, Debbie Brock’s 2011 Nature paper

Debbie gave a great talk on putting together graphical abstracts. She even found a site that showed good and bad ones on the same material. Basically, the drawings should be clear and simple and illustrate the main points. They should flow in a linear fashion from top to bottom, and should be complemented by the color scheme.


Richard Li’s poster after making it linear

In class we had the students pair up and evaluate papers that had graphical abstracts as to whether they were any good or not. Then on their own they each had to draw a graphical abstract for one of Debbie’s published papers.

Here are some other graphical abstracts. It is really interesting to see how the students treat the same material differently.

So learn how to put your ideas into drawings and it can serve you well for papers, grant proposals and any other way you have of communicating your science. Here is what Clarissa Dzikunu and Stacy Uhm did with Brock’s Proc B sentinel cell paper:

Daniela Jimenez and Xianye Qian had this to say about one of Debbie’s papers:

Anthony Bartley and Erica Ryu had different interpretations of the Stallforth et al. PNAS paper.

Odion Asikhia and Ashley D’Costa read the same paper and had different takes


Posted in Communication, Writing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Thinking of starting your paper with a quote? Be careful!

It is a wonderful feeling to start a piece with a quote that means something to you. You can connect to someone famous who has said something much more clearly than you might. From there you can move on to your ideas. But there is unfortunately a big trap in starting with quotes. It is that so many people choose the same ones.

What is wrong with choosing the same quote as other people, you might ask. It is that they are not fresh. The reader does not read them and think about the topic. The reader reads it and thinks, oh, not this again, or thinks about where she last saw that particular quote. The point is, the quote does not do what you want it to do.

This is a particular problem for younger writers, because things that are new to them are not new to the rest of us. So if you like to use quotes, how do you find fresh ones? There is only one way. That is from reading original texts and choosing quotes you have not ever already seen quoted. Those texts should be original literature of any kind, and probably over 20 years old.


My best quotes come from my parents and their love of literature.

What is a for sure example of a poor quote source? It is anything you have heard quoted already, anything you have in your mind, anything you have read as a quote in someone else’s work. So just read and keep lists  of possible quotes. I like quotes, but not ones I’ve seen before. Surprise me.

Here are a few quotes that illustrate what I would avoid.

Darwin’s famous one on social insects: “…special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my whole theory. I allude to the neuters or sterile females in insect-communities.”

Darwin’s tangled bank quote with which he ended the Origin.

Dobzhansky’s Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

And there are others you should avoid. So put a good book of poetry or a classic in your field and find you own fresh quotes. Keep a list and we’ll marvel at how erudite you are.



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Is Wikipedia anti-intellectual? Compare athletes to academics and the answer is yes.


Is he worthy of a Wikipedia page?

Recently some of my students have been writing biographies of scientists for Wikipedia. They wrote one for a research scientist who made a discovery so major she was on the phone with reporters for a week. The discovery was that amoebas can carry bacteria around inside them and farm them later for food, something that also ties to the way harmful bacteria can hide in amoebas and infect us later. It is not her only major work, but I digress. My students also wrote a couple of entries for professors at other universities also. I had planned to ask for more articles on scientists because they are useful and writing them is a good teaching tool. But this is an area particularly fraught, so I may not. Indeed, I wonder if I should abandon Wikipedia writing for students entirely. I spend so much of my time unteaching stuff others put on my student’s work.

I have encouraged my students to write biographies for several reasons. First, Wikipedia is where people turn for a clear introduction to a person when they are looking for something to say when introducing a person. I have been introduced more than once with my Wikipedia entry read verbatim to the audience. That was before someone else deleted nearly all of it. Such is the fate of pieces on Wikipedia. Biographies are particularly tough because neither me nor anyone close to me can touch that entry. I would be so tempted to just say forget Wikipedia. But it is all we have. So why are the trolls destroying useful articles on academics? I do not know the answer to this.

Besides being useful for people looking up visiting speakers, potential mentors, and the like, Wikipedia biographies are useful to the students that write them. It lets them look carefully at a person and see what they have discovered, how the different discoveries link together, and how the person’s education contributed to their future work. It lets them also see what societies the person belongs to, what Wikipedia groups include that person, and generally get insight into the human fabric of scholarship. I hope it makes them think that they too can follow the academic path.

But, the critic would argue, Wikipedia must have standards. Are these people truly worthy? Yes, it must have standards and who can say what or who is worthy? The standards should be about accuracy and about a neutral tone. Like Islam, Wikipedia has five pillars. It is an encyclopedia, written from a neutral point of view, free content that can be redistributed, with editors that are respectful and civil, and it has no firm rules.

Obviously, this is not a piece written on the Wikipedia platform, because I do not have a neutral tone on this. I feel passionately that in the best world, Wikipedia would cover all scientists, whether they be women who for family reasons to not make it to higher degrees, or the very most illustrious. If my students add people who do not have Wikipedia pages, that is something good if they do it in the right way.

Many of the comments on the pages editors want to delete are about how many citations a paper has, or what the H factor of a scientist is. These editors are counting papers, not celebrating ideas.

I am proud to say that a rather illustrious and important organization of which I am a member, the National Academy of Sciences, strongly criticizes the use of H for anything. Let us instead talk about ideas, new techniques, and the power of science in discovery. But, you might say, I don’t understand those papers or those ideas and all I can do is figure out an H and this is easy, so you must have an H of what? 8? 16? 50? to make it in my opinion. OK, if you don’t understand the ideas, what makes you think you can decide what is worth deleting? Why? What do you gain? I am baffled.

Maybe by now you are considering this to be a rant, and it is somewhat. So let’s turn to something else, sports. Apparently just about anyone is deemed worthy in this area. Just choosing the surname of Debra A. Brock, what athletes do we get? I’ll just talk about living ones and only a sampling of them. You get Bryan Brock who was a football quarterback for three seasons in the Arena Football League. Not deleted. You get Calvin Brock who was a boxer forced to retire after an injury at age 32. Not deleted. You get Dave Brock who was a coach for University of Delaware. Not deleted.  You get  Lou Brock, baseball, and his son Lou Brock Jr, a football player. Neither deleted. You get two Pete Brocks, and a Peter Brock and it goes on. None deleted, though for some the editors beg for more information.

So all these athletes are just fine, but when it comes to academics, suddenly there is a lot of soul searching as to who really makes the grade. I don’t get it. You might say my student should not have written about Brock because he was too close to her. However this criticism does not stand with the other academics I suggested that they have no ties to.

I suppose I will be told I should get on the forums of Wikipedia and argue my case with all these judges of H factors. I really don’t have time for this, but I am very disappointed to see this anti-intellectualism in Wikipedia. It clearly is not the electrons or the hard drive space that these entries take up. What is it? Pure American anti-intellectualism rearing its head in yet another arena?

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Interviewing students the Oxford way


Magdalen College, University of Oxford

You made it! You have an interview at the top university in the world! You will meet in person with several professors or other academic staff from two or three of the colleges. One of them might be the cloistered Magdalen College at University of Oxford. How do you prepare? What will happen? Is their interviewing technique useful for the rest of us?

University of Oxford gets top place in world rankings. It is a quaint collection of different colleges, from medieval to modern, collected under a university umbrella. This means most faculty and undergraduates have two homes: their department and their college. For me from October through December 2016, Michaelmas, this meant the Zoology Department and Magdalen College, separated by a twelve minute walk along Longwall to South Parks, or a twenty minute walk through the Magdalen Gardens and University Parks. For now I want to talk about interviewing.

Interviewing is important. It is a time when we are judging others by their actions and speech in a compressed time. It is a time when biases can rear up, no matter how we fight them. So it is important to be prepared, whichever side of the interaction you take. Because this is so important, I have written about interviewing before. There are pitfalls of job interviews. There are best practices in hiring a technician. I have prior advice on interviewing prospective graduate students. You might start with a phone interview.

So, what is that Oxford interview all about? First, to get to this point, you must meet certain criteria. Often these have to do with how well you did on your A levels, or other exams. Of those they interview, actual admission varies with subject and with college. They try to balance this with various pools and matches in ways that sound really complicated. The most straightforward way to get into Oxford is to have an interview with a tutor of a given college and make that person want to teach you in weekly tutorial meetings. It is an understatement to say it is highly personalized.

The interviewing is packed in a week or so right after classes end. It is really tough on the faculty. One professor described the feeling after interviewing as “broken.” Why should it be so tough? It is because you are not judging people you will never see again. You are judging people that will become part of your life. A failure to choose well will visit you every week as ghosts of those not admitted hover in your mind.


In Christ Church meadow after the interview.

The Oxford interview does not involve asking you about your interests, about what you hope to get out of college, or what you might contribute that it is special. There are no essays about important people in your life, or about academic challenges you surmounted. Instead you get straight to work. It is like an exam in a way, but the goals are different. I know what some of the questions my colleagues asked their prospective students, but I don’t think it would be helpful to reveal them here, so I’ll formulate a question I might ask.

Here it is. I work on a social amoeba called Dictyostelium discoideum. It is a eukaryote that has two interesting life stages. For much of its life it eats bacteria and divides by binary fission. It can crawl around the forest floor in the way amoebas do. But when it starves, it forms an aggregate which first moves as a coordinated multicellular slug, then ultimately forms a fruiting body. In the fruiting body, about 20% of cells die to form a stalk which the remaining cells flow up and form spores at the top. That is the background. The question is why might this life style have evolved and what challenges might it present the organism. What kinds of data would you like to see?

I hope the student can give some kind of an answer to this question. But what I would be most interested in seeing if I were interviewing the Oxford way, is what they do when I say something they propose is actually incorrect and say why. Do they keep going on their line of thinking or do they pause to think and come up with something different? Do they show intellectual receptivity and plasticity? Are they creative? Do they listen? This is one of the things you can learn from a more fact-based interview. I know this rewards the unafraid who can think on their feet. The rest of us should practice.

Others at Oxford were more interested in what students actually already knew in addition to how well they could think about new problems. I guess both are important. What I heard less of was questions about how motivated they were, why they wanted to go to college, or this college, though those might have happened. My sense was also that the interviews were conducted by two or three people at a time, perhaps one taking notes, and that there was little effort to watch them interact with their peers.

I just want to end by saying that where you go to college matters, but not nearly as much as you think it does. You are still you. Work hard, find what you love, and make a difference to this troubled world of ours.

Posted in Graduate school, Interviewing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Ten tips for writing successful NSF full proposals from a recent panelist


Contemplating a January preproposal submission

Right now a lot of us are waiting to hear if we won the NSF lottery. Someone recently on a panel who did not want to be identified shared some thoughts about what makes a good proposal. Some of these suggestions may seem obvious and yet many make these mistakes.  The funding rate might be as low as 7%, so even if you make no mistakes, you may not get funded. But I like to think that a careful proposal, even not funded will strengthen your research and your writing.

To my confederate’s list I would add a couple of things, which I’ll just put here up front. First, be sure you read and cite the literature. The person you did not cite is likely to be a reviewer. Also this puts your research in context. Second, make it really clear what your big goals are and why your research is important.

Advice for all Proposals

1.Write very clearly. So many people are submitting proposals, which makes them ineligible for panels. This means your proposal is likely to be judged by someone distant from your immediate field. These people will have 10-12 proposals to review and they will probably be trying to do those reviews in just a few days, one after the other. In particular, do not use abbreviations except for things everyone really knows like DNA and RNA. You will just make the reviewers feel cross and confused if you try to teach them your secret code.

2. Make your proposal beautiful. Have white space, figures, and the legal fonts. Some older panelists might actually print your proposal and these are the very ones whose eyes are more likely to be failing. Make sure fonts and resolution on figures are readable – somewhere between 33 and 50% of the proposals my correspondent reviewed failed to do this.  The figure must be readable if someone prints the proposal out and it also needs to be of good enough resolution that if people are reading it on screen and blow the proposal up to fill the whole screen, they can read your figure. Be sure that it does not turn into Monet’s rendition of your figure.

3. Remember you are fallible. Have a section on limitations, pitfalls and alternative hypotheses for each goal. You need to have shown that you have thought about these things and how you will deal with problems that may arise.  This is really important.  The strong proposals did this, the weak ones did not.

4. Show your preliminary data.  Try not to leave the reviewers with any gaps in knowing you can do what you propose to do. So few proposals are funded, reviewers can grasp at details to deny you. This is an easy way to do so, no matter how amazing your ideas are. Yes of course this is frustrating, especially when your techniques are nothing special or very different from things you have done before.

5. Pay attention to methods. Tie them to cool ideas. Panelists often sink proposals not on the ideas, but on the methods.  My confederate says this panel was better than another one served on, but sometimes you get people serving on a panel who hone in on the details of the methods, the sampling, the analysis and sink an awesome proposal because of it.  It is really hard (essentially impossible) as a sympathetic panelist to rescue a proposal that has been sunk by details about the methods, because you have to ask someone to trust the PI/team know what they are doing, which of course is the thing that is under question by the panelist who is focused on the methods!  Trying to rescue a proposal in this trap doesn’t go so well. Do not say that you will use an alternative that is harder and less likely to succeed than the approach you propose to use.

6. Report on prior funding. Report on BOTH the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the proposal and that you include the grant number as it asks you to do in the RFA. In general follow the instructions very carefully. Ideally, get a recent successful proposal as a model.

7. Make sure you include a project timeline, says my friend. I personally don’t set much store by timelines, but if they want it, better do it.

8. Think carefully about data management. Data management plans are looked at and depending on who reviews the proposal, may be evaluated.  There are no official guidelines right now, but there may be.  Right now, it really seemed that it was just a matter of the data management plan being there or not being there.

9. Have a good postdoc mentoring plan. Postdoc mentoring plans are more important, they were discussed with respect to some proposals and some critique may have been given on them for some proposals.  Make sure you have one if you are proposing to hire a postdoc, and that it is thoughtful. Make sure you plan to pay your postdoc a salary that is consistent with the new federal guidelines.

10. Make your broader impacts strong. Without strong broader impacts, your proposal will probably not be funded.  They don’t have to be insane, but they have to be strong.  They also don’t have to be novel, if you have some good stuff established, you can keep going with that, maybe seeking to strengthen it in some way.

Extra advice for CAREER proposals

11. Read the instructions.  Follow the instructions.  CAREER proposals are not just another opportunity for junior investigators to submit a regular proposal.  CAREER proposals are different.  The panel my confederate was on reviewed a bunch and where in the past these have been some of the most outstanding proposals, this time, they were some of the worst – maybe the pre proposal system has contributed to this change.

12. Write an integrated education plan. CAREER proposals also need an INTEGRATED education plan – make sure you have one and one that is INTEGRATED

13. Write an integrated career plan. CAREER proposals also require a CAREER plan, but only one of the CAREER proposals my friend reviewed had one – again, read the instructions carefully.

14. Get a strong letter of support from the department chair. The letter of support from the chair of the department is really important and is evaluated and discussed by the panel.  It is helpful if the chair indicates strong support by, for example, offering teaching relief should the proposal be funded. Chairs are busy people, so you might volunteer to write a draft for her, or at least a few paragraphs highlighting the importance of your proposal, scientifically, educationally, and broader impactly.

That is it! If this time didn’t work, check back for next year!

Posted in Grant proposals | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Job interview: does timing matter?

You got an interview! It is so exciting! There are so many decisions to make. You need to prepare for as many as three talks, research, chalk talk, and sample teaching. You also need to carefully research the department and its members, as I have explained here. But then the dilemma rears up. They want you to come talk in a week, they say.


Anne Danielson-François taught me a lot about how to interview.

You are torn. After all, shouldn’t you be ready? Why not drop everything and get it over with in a week? Don’t do it. It is unreasonable to expect someone to come in a week. I’m not sure what I think an appropriate minimum time between invitation and interview is, but it is at least two weeks and maybe even a month.

Will asking for a delay of two weeks to a month hurt you? I would say not. The thing is, usually just one person is doing the inviting and scheduling. It might be the head of the search committee, however, so you want to be nice. The real issue is these committees are not professionals at hiring. They do it seldom and are inexperienced at the organizing side of things, no matter how exceptional they are in their field. They may change around what they offer you. Try to be accommodating, but only if it works for you.


Kevin Foster did great at interviews!

You gain no points by showing up early and less prepared than you might be. But don’t waffle too much. This is your first interaction with potential future colleagues and you want to seem easy to get along with.

Some people think you should try to play the interview order. Some say early is best because they fall in love with their first and never get over it. Others say last is best because you are the new and shiny person. I bet there have been studies on this, but I have not seen them. In my experience order does not matter. Congratulations on your interview!

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