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10 mo in the life of Gerty-Z (The one-year meme)
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The joy of the interview
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muddling in mentoring
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Lost in translation?
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How NOT to work in my lab
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If I wasn't doing this...
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I *heart* conferences!
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Should you pay undergrads that work in your lab?
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The scientist-in-training
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It's not a pissing contest
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What I wish I knew...
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Beery Bladder-not necessarily from a Beery Friday
Friday, September 3, 2010

Ambition, in the world of grant-writing
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
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A quick note.
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Moving on up...
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Advice for the new grad student
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The purpose of the K99/R00
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Am I ruining your marriage?
Friday, August 13, 2010

All about ME!
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Gerty-Z

I am starting my lab as an Assistant Professor at a Big Research University (summer 2010). I have a super partner and an adorable kiddo, Mini-G. I tend to rush into things and then figure them out as I muddle along. I'm sure that will be true here, too. I hope to use this space to maintain my sanity and share my perspectives on science and academia. These perspectives may sometimes qualify as rants. There will undoubtedly be some crazy times on the tenure track. Gmail me [at] primaryinvestigator

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010


When I was writing my first postdoc fellowship, Dr. Advisor told me that there were 2 rules of grant-writing*:
1. use a lot of if-then statements
2. don't be too ambitious.

I took this to mean that I should not propose to do more in the grant than could happen in the 3 years of the award. So I made sure that my proposed experiments were totally reasonable**. But then I get my summary statements and I see the phrase "overly ambitious". Dr. Advisor immediately translated this to "you are fucked". But my score was pretty good and I was funded. Whew! Fast forward to my K99, I also saw the scary "overly ambitious" phrase in my summary statements. In fact, this is held up as the major flaw of my application. Again, I was told that I was screwed***. But, my score was really good and I got funded. Yippeeee!

This is the problem: In both of those applications I thought I was being conservative. I actively tried to avoid being plainly "ambitious" feeling sure that this would prevent me from the "overly" in that phrase. I was actually a little concerned that I was not ambitious enough. My final K99 application ended up being only 1 Aim from the original outline, fer crissake. In both cases, FAIL!

I clearly do not understand what makes an ambitious project.

Fast forward again to this summer when I start setting up my own lab. I write a small application for a pilot grant. The amount of cash is enough for a ~70% of a person-year and a few supplies. I feel like it is a nice little project, sure to generate some prelim data for a bigger grant. I write a project that I think 1 person (me) could do in a year. I'm a little concerned about being "overly ambitious" but it is ridiculous to trim the project any more. I get the reviews back (NIH format). And the verdict is:

(wait for it...)

I could be more ambitious.

WTF?!?? This sort of blows my mind. But, they decide to give me the cash so I'm OK with it.

The moral of the story (for me) is that I desperately need to learn about ambition. What is it? How do I know if I have it? When do I have too much?

I feel like this will be an important lesson, for my own grant-writing, and also my future students. If I can't advise them on what is a normal, reasonable project they will get screwed. And I *heart* my future students and don't want to see them screwed.





*Dr. Advisor was NOT an excellent example for grantsmanship, but that didn't stop the advice!
**My idea of reasonable is never even close. I routinely spend 3x longer to get shit done than I anticipate. Everything is always more involved than I feel it should be. Why won't the universe just stop fucking with me? I have no idea.
***Why did Dr. Advisor always toy with my emotions? Was it a game, or an attempt to moderate my expectations?



NOTE ADDED IN PROOF: I realize now that this post makes it look like I am batting 1.000 when it comes to grant-writing. Not True! I did not mention the many (and there were MANY) fellowship and grant applications I wrote that were not funded.

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Blog Comments

Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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My question is, why are you posting stuff at 2 in the morning :P Hopefully you're on Pacific time!

Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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2 am is when I do my best work!

Gerty, you seem to have the midas touch! Whatever your secret is, please bottle. Kthxbye!

Evie
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Great post. I've never had to deal with any of this, but it would seem from what you say that the 'Ambition-o-meter' hasn't been calibrated properly and therefore everyone seems to get different readings. That's my official engineering perspective on the matter.

As far as your ambition goes, it's clearly through the roof. Which is GREAT! I find it silly that you have to tone it down to get money.. I mean, having ambition vs. spending your time/money wisely, I don't at all see those as opposites. I propose a total re-do on the grant assessment side.

Anywho, regardless of understanding the scale or not, I'm glad you keep getting the grants. I mean, that's def one indication that you're doing something right!

Gerty-Z
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I don't know if I'm doing something right or I just get lucky. I'm hoping that by writing more and getting feedback from colleagues that I will learn more about how the ambition-o-meter is calibrated (I love that, Evie!). @Brian, it was not 2 am in my neighborhood, but it is pretty early in the morning right now! Now I'm off for a run!

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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I am still a student and do not have any experience of grant writing. However regarding "Ambition", I have an opinion. The so called "Ambition bar" may change with time and merit of the funding agency you are applying to or may be entirely different in the eyes of different reviewers.
Anywayzz, the greatest part is you are a kick ass grant writer. You are being funded, no matter what. Great going.

Genomic Repairman
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There is some happy ground between ambitious and bewilder jackass who is planning too much. I have this issue too when I write for fellowships and its hard to find that middle ground.

Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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I'm writing my first postdoc grant and I'm struggling with this too. Unfortunately, everyone I talk to has a completely different opinion of what should be in it.

Prodigal Academic
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I've been writing proposals for 9 years, and I still have problems judging whether I am being overly ambitious or not ambitious enough. It is a little easier, now that I have run a few projects (and seen how the "easy" or "literature recipe" techniques take many, many times longer than initially planned to get right), but I don't know that anyone ever can properly "milestone" basic research. After all, if we knew the outcome, it wouldn't be research. It is more important (in my opinion) to learn the style of the funding agency you are applying to. Some places like more grandiose plans, while others prefer for you to actually get to everything you propose.
LePhysiologiste

Guest Comment
I am working on my first major grant proposal as a PI and I have the same problem...maybe this "overly ambitious" is influenced by how experienced we are?

Maybe reviewers think that we have miles to go before planning this kind of research? The same proposition may not be considered overly ambitious with some years of experience ? I am just guessing...

GMP
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Prodigal's comment is right on. You have to know your agency, and it takes a little while to get to know them. It is a good idea to overpropose a little bit, but not by an order of magnitude. I am talking from the NSF perspective here: if you propose what you are 100% sure you will do, it's not enough, so in that sense don't be too conservative. If you are asking for money for 2 students for 3 years, propose enough for 2 students if they were the best fuckin' (senior!) students in the history of science and you had no set backs, and you actually had 4 years.

Another important criterion (for NSF panels, and I presume other panels as well): does your proposal have a good sound bite? Can the main thing you are after -- one novel, exciting, important contribution -- be summarized in one sentence, or two tops? Go for THAT.
Comrade PhysioProf

Guest Comment
This "too ambitious"/"not ambitious enough" shitte is a red herring. One of the most important lessons of grantsmanship is that the criticism and praise in the written critiques and resume of discussion often has little to do with the real underlying reasons--often just "gut instinct"--for the reviewers giving the scores that they did. "Too ambitious/not ambitious enough" is one of those things that a reviewer can say about *any* grant, since it is so grossly subjective, and never be challenged for being full of shit. Thus, reviewers frequently fall back on this kind of criticism if they just don't feel like making the effort to come up with a more analytical criticism.

Odyssey
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What CPP said. Not that I'd ever do that...

Dr. Glitterbear
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I have applied for 5 NIH grants (2 pre- & 3 post-doctoral) with 4 funded. Each one said that I was "overly ambitious" but I was still funded, 3 of them on the first pass. Disregard the any and all ambitious statements as noisy filler.

Dr. O
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My one funded grant was stamped as overly ambitious, but it almost felt like they had nothing else negative to say. After reading your post, I'm starting to think "overly ambitious" is a stamp of approval. But who ever knows...grant-writing feels more like a crapshoot to me.

Gerty-Z
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I have suspected what CPP mentioned was true. A (particularly jaded) colleague of mine once told me that reviewers basically decide what your score should be, then figure out how to justify it. "Ambition" is one of those things that is hard to define and easy to throw into a statement. I took this with a grain of salt and never could figure out how close to the truth it was. But based on the comments of CPP and Odyssey I'm thinking that I may have underestimated my jaded friend.
qaz

Guest Comment
Where I have seen the "overambitious" term used (usually to score detriment) is in training (NRSA) and in early grants (at both NSF and NIH, so it may be a field thing, but is not an institution thing). In the NRSA cases, overambitious was clearly used out of concern that the advisor would hold the student to the proposed R01 (or more - once a grad student proposed what was at least 15 years worth of work for multiple students in an NRSA proposal to finish out his/her thesis) what should be a 2-3 year postdoctoral or graduate project. It also spoke to a lack of advisor supervision checking the reasonableness of the proposed work timeline. In the NIH/NSF faculty-level examples I've seen, they have always been first proposals where the person proposes his/her next 20 year career in a 3-5 year grant. There was concern in the panel/study section that the person would not be able to stick to one project in time to finish it and would spend too much time starting ten projects. So the grant was labeled "overambitious".

I have to say I have not seen "overambitious" mess with scoring unless it really is a problem with the proposal. Remember, these ARE supposed to be proposals, so how likely the committee thinks the proposal is to be doable within the time allotted is part of the evaluation process.

Also, while I do think that people tend to score first and write second (I know I do), that doesn't imply a lack of accuracy of the scoring. It just means that it's hard to write text to the institution's review rules. What I usually do is give myself some preliminary scores to work with, which move a bit as I write the text.
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