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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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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Job interview: how to avoid 10 pitfalls

You got an interview! How do you do your best so they choose you for that elusive position on the faculty of a college or university? Actually most of this advice applies to any kind of in-person job interview. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you are never out of scrutiny and they are likely to know each other and to talk. Most of these pitfalls are easily avoided if you take some time to absorb both them and the reasons behind them. The actual talks are worthy of their own posts. You may get to give a research lecture, a sample class, or a chalk talk.

Pitfall 1. Inadequate preparation. More than anything, you want no surprises on the job interview. You want your answers to questions to fit in the context of the place you are interviewing. Some of this is obvious. You won’t want to say you love straight research at a primarily teaching college, for example. But you should really dig into the structure of the place, who is there, what collaborations exist, and what people do inside and outside academia as much as possible. You should then be able to ask strategic questions, or find bonds with people whose research interests are different, for example if you both knit, or are both hikers. If this were advice for the hiring side, I would point out that those extraneous connections should not be part of hiring decisions, but on your side, I say whatever it takes. It is human to look for connections and feel good when they are found, so the more you can help with this the better.

Pitfall 2. Inappropriate dress. You do not want your clothes, your hair, or any part of your body to come into the hiring decision. Of course all of this is illegal, but it doesn’t stop people even inadvertently bringing it in. A rule of thumb is to dress a step up from what is normal for the place and to show as little skin as possible. This is easier for men. They can wear a suit and tie, or a sports coat and tie, taking the tie off if necessary. Remember male deans often wear ties, though. Women should not show their collarbones or anything below. Did you get that? Collarbones. Do what you want after you get the job. Pants are safer than dresses, but dresses and skirts can work with dark tights, not transparent hose. For a job on the East Coast, I would go with black. And wear comfortable shoes you can walk miles in. I went on one job interview about 15 years ago where the shoes I thought were comfortable turned out not to be. I only hoped no one saw the blood seeping out from broken blisters. When I interviewed for my first job at Rice University, Mary Ann Rankin took me shopping for clothes. I had a yellow dress in particular that my grandmother and her cousin happily hemmed with long French needles. The outfit was perfect for the occasion, though the grad students suspiciously thought I had never done any field work. A job interview is not the place to express yourself with your clothes, your hair, your jewelry, or your tattoos.

Pitfall 3. Failing to keep to the schedule. You will be given a schedule of meetings with little time for breaks. You might be shuffled from one person to another in a very organized fashion or you may not. You may be stuck with professor long-winded who has no idea of time and get late to your next appointment. You will be blamed even if it is not your fault. So treat your schedule as your bible. Make sure it is up to date. You could even set a phone timer if you are not being well-minded so that it will ding, and you can have a reason to bring up the time. It will also help if you learn the buildings, but accept any offer made to take you to your next appointment. Remember, if you are late, it reflects poorly on you.

Pitfall 4. Thinking any interactions are not important. In some ways, we learn the most about people when we see how they treat staff, janitors, and servers. Be unfailingly polite to everyone, even if someone has totally screwed up. Assume everyone knows everyone and the staff member you hope never to need could be the husband of the powerful professor. You are on show. I’ve heard of candidates who complained that the grad student who picked them up from the airport got lost. Not a good idea. I’ve seen candidates treat servers with impatience. The most off-hand interactions can be the most telling, so be sure they tell only good things about you, that you are kind, considerate, and patient.

Pitfall 5. Meal complications. Perhaps nowhere is more of a minefield than the simple meal. We take people to meals both because everyone has to eat and because of what it tells us about them. You do not want to be seen as a difficult person. This does not mean you should eat things you are allergic to or that go against your principles, but do not let this become a matter for conversation. Get away from it by asking something about the department, for example. I was once with a blind woman who was being interviewed for a job in another department. We went casually out to lunch apart from the interview. She was so easy going, she didn’t ask to have the whole menu read to her, but just asked for 3 or 4 suggestions and picked from those. If I had been interviewing her, I would have been very positively impressed. Along these lines, don’t ask for anything on the side, or any alterations to the menu. Try to not be the first person to order, so you aren’t the only one getting or not getting an appetizer for example. Don’t get the spinach salad. I did that at lunch with the dean on the interview for my current job, and later discovered a huge leaf stuck to my teeth. Treat the servers with respect. If they bring you the wrong thing, just eat it, if it doesn’t make you sick. Alcohol: A job interview is not the place to drink. But you don’t want to seem to not fit in if everyone else is drinking. So, have one drink if you drink, no more. Have a soda water with lime if you don’t drink. If wine is going to be served with dinner, don’t have a cocktail before. If it is a US state university, all alcohol might be personally paid for by the faculty inviting. If they don’t get wine, you shouldn’t. I have to say I’m baffled at the number of job candidates I’ve seen get tipsy on the interview. It is not the place for drinking. Remember, they are watching you.

Pitfall 6. Not mentioning your partner, or mentioning them too much.
There are a lot of opinions on how and when you should mention your partner, or even your lack of partner. Some think you will be less likely to get the job if you have a partner who also needs a position. But at all the places I have been, we are not surprised you have an academic partner. We want to do what it takes to get you, if you are our choice, so information is good and the sooner the better. We have turned one position into two with strong partners. For that, both of you should apply for the position right from the start. That is actually what Dave and I did for the Wash U jobs. If your partner is junior, it is quite standard at places I have been to simply offer them a three year position with some funding to get to the stage they are competitive for a tenure track job. If you have a partner at your same stage or more senior who is markedly weaker and you think your strength will make us offer them a position, be ready for a disappointment. We won’t. Your partner might not be in academia. Tell us. The sooner we know, the sooner we can start dealing with the dean about what we need to hire you, should you be our choice. But don’t talk alot about them. The interview is about you. If you mention your partner to anyone, you should also mention them to the chair. They will talk and soon everyone will know.

Pitfall 7. Thinking the interview is about you. You will talk to a lot of people on an interview. Each person will have their own way of interacting. Some may launch right into their own research. You should be aware of what they do and ask meaningful questions. If you get stuck and have no idea, ask something about what excites them the most about their work now. If conversation is not working at all – after all, these are academics – you can ask to see the lab or something like that. But you must talk about them. You might get asked to tell them something you won’t be covering in your formal talks. Have two or three things prepared for this and mention the one closest to their work. But then bring the conversation back to them. Ask about their research, about the strengths of the place. If they are negative, try to move the conversation on to something else. Don’t commiserate over particular problems. The more you let them talk, the more brilliant they will think you are. If the meeting is with grad students, postdocs, or post-docs, listen to their concerns. Ask them about the place. Answer their questions. Treat this as a very important part of the interview.

Pitfall 8. Taking the wrong tone with the chair, dean or search committee head. These administrators are busy, but hiring good faculty is one of the most important things they do. They will want an idea of your big ideas, your collegiality, and your interest in the whole job. They may also want an up front idea of your research needs. The chair may show you some space. The chair may ask you how much start up money you might need. I recommend that you never say space is inadequate at this stage. I also recommend that you do not name a dollar amount for start up. Instead, ask questions that show you are evaluating the space carefully. For start up, ask about available equipment, or support for students. Keep the conversation on capabilities, things, and people, not square feet or dollars. Indicate you are enthusiastic about sharing. The chair or dean may also try to determine if you will take this job. Exhibit maximal enthusiasm for it, unless you already have an offer you like better.

Pitfall 9. Department politics. Remember, you do not know how this department works. You do not know how the decision will be made. It could be mostly the head, the whole department, or just the search committee. There may be factions. There may be difficult people, or people with a lot of power that you never would realize from their title. Keep your mouth shut about anyone in the department. Do not gossip. Take in information but do not release it. Even if you have a good friend in the department, you do not understand how it works.

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My daughter, Anna Mueller, has succeeded twice in the tricky business of succeeding at academic interviews

Pitfall 10. If you don’t get the offer, it doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong. This one is about you. You may have done everything right. Some elements of the interview are beyond your control. There may be areas of research they simply like better. There may be someone they already met that they think is amazing. Grow from the interview. Contact people afterwards if there were people you were especially drawn to and ask if there was a problem. I have mentored people we did not hire about exactly what might have gone differently. But just because you got an interview does not mean you are on equal footing. So never forget to enjoy the process and keep in touch with your almost-colleagues.

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Chalk talks: how to avoid 10 pitfalls

You got an interview for a job, a faculty or a postdoctoral position! But they want you to do a chalk talk. What do you do? What is a chalk talk anyway?

First of all, be sure you find out what this place means by a chalk talk. Some are chalk or white board. Others allow the use of a few powerpoint slides. Some are essentially like a regular talk but about what you will do instead of what you have done. So figure out what kind they want. I would say, if Powerpoint is an option, take it, but use the slides carefully. Otherwise you might seem less substantive than another candidate. If you are lucky, you will get 10 minutes before the interruptions start (we do this explicitly in my department).

There are some things all chalk talks have in common. They should be about a topic for your future research, often three big topics for your first three grant proposals, each with three aims, though you may well not get to all this. Typically we will have brought in 3 to 5 people to interview. We want to pick the person with both the vision to ask big, new questions and the sense to make them feasible. We want someone who can think on the spot, because this shows intelligence. We want someone who interacts in a respectful yet vibrant way. We want someone who understands they will be managing a group, so thinks of projects for group members. We want someone who is not just repeating her Ph.D. or postdoctoral work. I have seen many more chalk talks make the difference between whom we hire and whom we don’t than regular talks, so it is important to work hard to get this right. Since chalk talks are inherently interactive, they are harder to plan for, but remembering these possible pitfalls can help.

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Katie Geist giving a chalk talk to undergraduates.

Pitfall 1: Problems with your science. One of the commonest problems with new professors is that they are still obsessed with whatever they last worked on. They want to do the exact same project only better. Don’t do this. Think of something new, but similar enough to what you have done before that you are likely to be successful. I think you should have three projects ready to discuss and they should be as carefully thought through as you would do for an NSF preproposal. If your approach will not answer the big question you pose, your audience is likely to figure it out. If your methods are impossible, they will figure it out. The different projects ideally should be related, but they don’t have to be. You could have some safer and some more risky projects.

All the other pitfalls have to do with the particular interactive format of the chalk talk.

Pitfall 2: You never get to the most important project. In a chalk talk, your time is not your own. You do not get to build carefully to the star jewel of your research. I have seen people put a list on the board, mention the third thing is the most important, then never get to discussing it because of all the questions on the first project. A good audience member might try to help with this if you make it clear you want to move on, but that might not happen. So start with the best. You could leave something unsaid so you can also wrap back to it at the end if you have time.

Pitfall 3: You run out of things to say. The flexible nature of the chalk talk means you might not have enough to say if there are fewer questions than you anticipate. Do not let this happen. But don’t just ad lib about projects not carefully planned. Go back to the ones you have presented and give more detail. A chalk talk does not have to be as linear as a regular seminar.

Pitfall 4: You have horrible handwriting. You can bet you are being judged on everything at a chalk talk. Even handwriting and how you use the board can enter in. I have terrible handwriting and a poor sense of space on the board, so I am always glad when slides, even just one or a few is an option. If you don’t have that choice, practice writing on a board. Think carefully about how you use the space. Use fewer words. Don’t cram everything together. Get a friend who does these things well to put some stuff on the board that you give her and then study it.

Pitfall 5: The discussion gets hung up on one point. Sometimes in a chalk talk the discussion founders on one point that may be important or trivial. It does not matter but the group has decided to dig in. It could be a method or a concept. It is unpredictable. Remember, your audience knows each other and they are playing out all the dynamics that have built up over years. If there is a jerk, all the other people know this and you do not need to be the one to deal with that person. Remember, your collegiality is being judged. I recommend that you have a stock phrase memorized, or even several, to move on. Something like “That is an interesting and possibly important point that we can return to if there is time, but I would like to tell you something more about x…”

Pitfall 6: You are no longer part of the discussion. I have seen it happen that the person up front gets ignored as the group argues about something. Few things are as uncomfortable. Remember, this is not your fault. You may or may not be able to fix this. You could try to interrupt with a smile but a firm, loud voice. You could start writing something new on the board that might attract their attention. You could make eye contract with someone you view as sympathetic, hoping they will do something. Wait. If it gets really ugly, you may not want to join this department.

Pitfall 7: You or your science is attacked. In some ways this is the point of the chalk talk. But it should be done nicely. Whether it is or not, the key thing here is not to get defensive. I think a calm smile can help defuse attacks. Remember you don’t have to be right all the time. It is OK to say you hadn’t thought of something and maybe you could talk with that person later. It is OK to ask for more detail, as in “Go on.” It is OK to say those are important issues and to move on to the next topic.

Pitfall 8: You forget to mention collaborators or projects for lab members. A chalk talk for a faculty position assumes you will have others in the lab, undergrads, grad students, or postdocs. Talk about them in outlining your projects. Mention things that could be done in undergraduate etc. time frames. Make these things have some independence. Mention other collaborators at other universities, but not your previous mentors. The ideal collaborator has very different skills from you and combined you can do things neither can do alone.

Pitfall 9: You don’t look like you are having fun. We are picking a colleague for the next several decades for a faculty job, or for several years for a postdoc. We want someone who loves science and ideally has a sense of humor. This is what keeps people going, after all. Show some enthusiasm. Watch some of the Alan Alda videos on science communication. Even though this is more about communicating science to the public, it can help all of us.

Pitfall 10: You are too narrow for the audience. Consider the group hiring you. Are they all scientists? A general biology department? Ecology and evolution? Even if they seem very close, they will not know jargon or even accepted approaches. Use no acronyms. Explain carefully so anyone can follow at some level but experts in your field are not unsatisfied.

Preparing for a chalk talk has some of the same elements as preparing a regular talk, but it differs profoundly in presentation. Prepare, then relax and enjoy. After all, whatever the outcome, you have a room of smart people thinking about your most favorite questions.

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Are rotations really worth it?

I think a rotation is kind of like a trial marriage, without the most fun bits. Or maybe because of that, and the power relationships, a trial adoption is more like it. Some students start graduate school really certain of what they want to work on. But what if they change their mind? Are there not other cool projects at their university? Where is the sweet spot between lab culture and what you are interested in? In some universities, particularly in ecology and evolution, grad students are so independent that it doesn’t much matter whose student they are. But this is increasingly rare.

I used to think that rotations were for learning techniques and picking a lab. More recently I see professors protect themselves and their permanent people by not opening up the hard stuff to rotators. So if a rotation is just for picking a lab, then you should only rotate in labs with openings, where you might be interested. And perhaps just long enough to see if the fit is good. But better is the perspective of a rotating first year grad student, Trey Scott. He clearly saw more value than I would have guessed in his rotation with us. Read on in his words:a23b0302-7

Reflection on Rotation

A new rotation student is often inundated with new ideas, expectations, and responsibilities soon after entering the lab. In these circumstances, it is easy to become overly entangled with a project. Once this has happened, a rotation student can lose track of the purpose of a rotation. After a rotation has ended, the purposes of a rotation should be reexamined to assess fit, new knowledge, and methods to become a better scientist.

The primary purpose of a rotation is to examine fit, both with the other people in a lab and with the questions and science that the people engage in. Identifying the social fit of a lab should be easy after even a short rotation. A new student needs to know whether they get along with the other lab members, whether they can get work done, and whether they will receive adequate guidance.

The question of intellectual fit is harder to answer, especially when a rotation student is new to research. Based on my limited experience with gauging intellectual fit, I can offer two suggestions for assessing intellectual fit. The first is to think about what you want to learn more about. Do the questions that you find yourself asking mirror those that are being asked in the lab? As an example, I find myself asking questions about why and how organisms interact. In the case of Burkholderia and Dictyostelium, how are costs and benefits being distributed that allow the interaction to persist? The second is to identify what you enjoy thinking about. For example, I spend much of my time thinking about factors that influence social behavior. According to inclusive fitness theory, relatedness plays an important role in the evolution of social behavior. I am comfortable in an environment where this theoretical framework is operating in the background. This fact would be evidence for intellectual fit with a lab that also works with these theoretical underpinnings. Identifying fit with interests and questions of a lab should be the primary emphasis of a rotation.

Fit should ultimately determine where a rotation student ends up. However, rotations can also serve as an opportunity to learn techniques and background knowledge. Before my first rotation, I had experience with basic microbiology and genetic techniques. However, through my rotation, I was able to improve my old skills by learning new ways to extract DNA and run larger gels. Additionally, I learned new skills like aligning DNA sequences with BLAST, isolating Dictyostelids from soil samples, and analyzing ecological diversity. While being involved with a lab group, you are exposed to the research that others in the lab are doing and the background research that current research is based on. Exposure to this information can help assess fit and augment a new student’s intellectual growth. While not necessarily the primary purpose for a rotation, the new knowledge gained while rotating is important to reflect on and assess.

Finally, an often-overlooked purpose of rotations is to become a better scientist. The purpose of graduate school is to become a competent scientist. This process can begin with the first rotation. While doing a rotation and after a rotation has been completed, it is important to reflect on ways to improve your science. I know that I tend to keep a lot of my thoughts to myself under the false assumption that I will remember the thoughts later. This behavior has manifested itself in a lab notebook that is less detailed than it should ideally be. However, I have identified that this is an area that I need to improve. Because the next rotation is similar to a do-over, I can brainstorm ways to improve my lab notebook and implement them. In this way, rotation students can improve their science by carefully thinking through your skillset after a rotation has been completed.

Rotations can be a tumultuous time for new graduate students. However, they can serve important purposes. The primary purpose of a rotation should be to identify a lab that fits you intellectual interests. But rotations can also serve to expose students to new ways of doing science and be a source for self-reflectively improving their current way of doing science. By assessing more than fit, graduate students can get the most out of their rotations.

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What if the undergrads ran their own class with no faculty present?

Earlier this fall we had an excellent presentation about how to make physics classes more interactive. The legendary speaker, Carl Wieman, see this, talked about how students should think first, then get feedback, discuss, then perhaps the lecturer could move on to a discussion of the ideas. It was an excellent talk.

But this is not the only way to teach. What if the undergrads discussed papers and research with no more senior people present? Might this not let them explore unafraid into the significance of the papers they read or the projects they do? Is it really so dangerous that they might sometimes convince themselves of something incorrect? There are tradeoffs in everything, so I think sometimes it is a good idea to have the undergrads alone run the class, with no one present who is not a student.

We have been doing this for some years in the summer. The summer group meets weekly and discusses papers. They often also read Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, for which I wrote study questions years ago (see earlier blog). An undergrad is in charge to keep things on task. Usually there is also a scribe that keeps track of anything they want more information on.

Before the summer began this past year, Erica Ryu came to me and pointed out that she would be the most senior undergrad for the summer and she volunteered to run the summer journal club. I had not even begun to think about it, so I was particularly grateful to Erica for helping. But after all, besides her studies, and research, she is a Korean drummer of talent, Samul nori. She wanted us to choose about 10 papers that would exemplify work in the lab and concepts the group should be sure about. We chose them together. Then she decided to get the conversation with the undergrads going by writing her own study questions for the papers. It was a very effective class, but let Erica tell it in her own words:img_0869-1

“What was the last Youtube video that you watched?” was the best icebreaker question I found online. As with any first meeting, I knew we would go around the circle and introduce ourselves and I was hoping that an interesting icebreaker would potentially initiate conversation and lessen the awkward silence. Frankly, looking back now, whether we even had an icebreaker question wouldn’t have made a difference given that everyone was too sleepy and still too unfamiliar with each other. However, with anything new, all the little details seem to matter, so the night before the first summer undergraduate journal club meeting, I spent too much time Googling possible icebreakers.

During the past summer, I had the fortuitous opportunity to lead the Strassmann-Queller’s Summer Undergraduate Journal Club. Being the only undergraduate who had researched the previous summer and was staying for the current summer, I felt that it was my responsibility to lead this journal club. And while I had leadership positions at extracurricular activities, I was more anxious for this journal club. To be an effective leader, you have to be able to design what you want do, and then distribute and complete tasks to accomplish a goal. Leadership positions for an extracurricular activity tend to better develop your management skills, because the structure is usually already in place – you simply have to decide what you want to do with the structure and oversee the project as you direct members to carry out particular tasks. As a result, there’s already significant amount of guidance and limitations to what you do. Leading this journal club, however, meant that I had to establish the structure myself, which turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. Building the structure means that you have to consider many small details in order to prevent the group from crumbling; in my case I had to consider what to read, how much to read, what sorts of discussion questions, and so on. Even small details like location and times were important too. I had much more freedom to lead the club how I wanted and do what I wanted, at least to a degree – I had guidance from my mentor and from Professor Strassmann. It was a different sort of leadership role, one that many undergraduates don’t get to experience, but is tantamount to work outside of college. What I learned as a leader of the journal club is unique to my experience and also makes it that much more invaluable.

Due to the nature of the position, I can see that it pushed me to be both a better scientist. Each week, we read a chapter of the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and a paper relevant to the lab. I distributed discussion questions to each person, and asked them to come prepared to answer their assigned discussion questions. I personally wrote all of the discussion questions for the paper, so having to do this forced me to read each paper carefully and thoroughly in order to gauge what I wanted everyone to gain from the reading. As a result, I gained a much better understanding of our lab’s model organism and the big concepts that our lab is studying, and I was able to apply this knowledge to my own research and conduct better experiments.

However, not only did it improve leadership skills and enhance my knowledge of the lab’s research, but I also observed that it also significantly benefited the undergraduates participating in the lab. I probably speak for the all of undergraduate students when I say that it’s very difficult to speak up and ask questions at lab meeting in front of the postdocs and graduate students – it’s really intimidating! It’s hard to know whether you’re confused because you lack the prior knowledge or because it’s legitimately confusing. The undergraduate lab meetings eliminate that intimidating feeling because you feel like you’re with your equals – sure, the senior might have taken a few more classes than the freshman, but it still feels like you’re equals. As a result, everyone is more likely to ask questions and everyone is in fact better able to understand the concepts. If I compare myself during my very first semester in lab to the undergraduates who started this past summer, it definitely seems as if they were able to sooner develop a strong understanding of the lab’s goals and how their personal research fits into the general concepts.

The journal club ultimately benefited all those participating, and is absolutely an experience that I recommend. It sped up the adjustment process for the new undergraduate students, so they now have a strong foundation for their projects, something that is important but isn’t easy to develop. However, not only are we all better scientists, but we are also great friends. The undergraduates from this summer have closer bonds compared to last summer’s, which means that we are more comfortable asking each other questions and talking through concepts. The journal club also rapidly pushed my personal development: it only took me less than two months to morph my leadership abilities from clumsy and slightly scatterbrained to efficient and effective. And while there’s always more to learn, I am proud to say that I learned skills and knowledge that are applicable to my future endeavors. I am unbelievably grateful to have had this opportunity and although I don’t think that I’ll be able to think of a more creative icebreaker question, I hope that my summer experience will help me approach future journal clubs with a little less anxiety and a little more confidence.

Posted in Teaching, Undergraduates | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Secret tricks: Never ever pay for access to a scientific article!

It is a cold shock to see a request for money for a scientific article. I just saw one for $35.95 for a paper I actually wrote! Now why would I pay for a paper I published in 2014? I subscribe to the journal, as does my institution. It isn’t new. It isn’t going to lead to any patents or anything, though I’m happy to see it has been cited 11 times already. I could have found it on my own computer, but searching Google Scholar can be more convenient.

I am strongly for open source everything. Second to that, why can’t every journal follow what PNAS does, make everything available after 6 months, and immediately from many countries? I publish often, but not always, in open journals, but this is not the topic for this entry. What do I do when I hit one of those infuriating pay walls? First, remember never to pay!

I’m at a university that subscribes to a lot, so I have a way to just proxy the request and get the article. This nearly always works for me, but it may not for you. What should you do if you are not at a university that subscribes to the journal?

  1. Email the author. They will nearly always quickly send you a PDF of the paper.
  2. Email a friend who can get the paper for free because they are at a university.
  3. Go to a university and work in their library or elsewhere if you can then log on as a guest and get behind the paywalls.
  4. If you are willing to move on the edge, go to Sci-Hub. I’m not posting a URL because this a cite that breaks copyright, which is illegal in many places, so I’m guessing the host changes often. I might have entered the URL of my own paper into Google, gone to the first site, which might have been in Cyrillic alphabet, and I might have entered the DOI of my paper and bingo, it might have downloaded just like it looked in the journal.

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    Vulture publishers put up paywalls

So, yes, this blog is really a place to tell you about Sci-Hub. Here is the Wikipedia article about it. I have heard some people with the same ability to get behind the pay wall with proxies, use Sci-Hub because it is fast and convenient. It may not be easy to email all the authors of papers you want.

My research is paid for by two sources: the National Science Foundation, which is a USA federal agency supported by our tax dollars, and my university, a non-profit which means it is also supported by tax dollars since it doesn’t pay taxes. Why should some other party be allowed to block my work from ready access? I know this is in my hands and I can publish only in open places, but for my students that is a decision that could hurt them. Also, my actions are not going to change the whole system very soon.

The publishing climate is changing quickly. Until everything is free, there are options. Use them and read!

Posted in Public Communication, Research | 6 Comments