Do what it takes
This blog post was inspired by a recent conversation I had with two pre-tenure WomenOfScience. We grabbed a beer after a late night movie night to see the feminist action film, “Mad Max Fury Road.” Don’t believe me that a Mad Max movie is feminist? Check out these articles (guardian, jezebel) and this funny tumblr site (hey girl). My take on Mad Max: the movie was a tad violent and quite hilarious. Every other sentence or wry look screamed, “This apocalypse was caused by men!”
OK, so afterwards, we were discussing tenure, getting tenure, and crappy mentoring. See, these women are scared. There were 4 people who didn’t get tenure last year – an all-time high record for their university. Their departments are trying to figure out how to mentor them, but they keep giving them platitudes like, “write grants and get them,” or “have more papers,” which are not helpful. Other mentors say things to them like, “don’t be so stressed out,” and “why are you worried?” which are somewhat demeaning and ridiculous. I was worried. We are all worried. If you aren’t worried, you might be fooling yourself. As I have gotten further away from tenure, I can see that I am losing perspective myself. That makes me less and less helpful to people as an advice blogger on this topic. But, as we were talking, I realized that there were some concrete things I could add. I am going to try to summarize them for you, and please, others add more information and send questions and suggestions.
1. Write grants that are fundable. So, you got this job because you had a great, new idea and everyone thinks it is amazing and super smart. That is great. You have sent a few young investigator award applications out and perhaps 1 or 2 federal grants on this idea, and maybe it isn’t playing as well as it did when you could describe it in person. OK, there are two things that you need to do here:
A. You need to write grants on things that are less flashy, but solid and doable. When I first got to my job, I wanted to work on a really cool thing, but I couldn’t get funded for it. When I would talk about it, people thought it was cool and exciting, but I couldn’t articulate it well on paper. Further, I didn’t really have a lot of background in this thing, and I didn’t really have track record. So, instead, I sent out proposals on incremental stuff that was doable and, frankly, easier experiments. I got enough preliminary data on the doable work to show I could do what I proposed. I proposed 3 objectives. I got a theory collaborator. These things I got funded to do at first were not what I wanted to do with my career, but they built a foundation for what I wanted to do later. I could build a story that they were related and they got me money, papers, and (let’s face it) tenure. Maybe this is why I was so obsessed with tenure = freedom (post).
B. You need to practice writing about the big thing you are interested in doing and get preliminary data on it. As I said above, the really cool thing I wanted to do was not getting funding. What to do? I scammed it. Once I got a grant from the National Science Foundation, I made sure to write for supplemental funding for undergraduates almost every summer (they are called REU supplements). I used these funds and my undergrads to work on the projects that were a bit more risky. Undergraduates can work on high-risk projects because they don’t need to get a paper to graduate like a grad student does. Using this method, I got two papers on the really cool stuff. Those two papers fueled my applications for really cool stuff and I ended up getting two grants to work on it, just as I came up for tenure. Also, I never stopped thinking and refining my writing and speaking about really cool stuff. It helped that really cool stuff also gained traction in a particular subfield and became popular. I am not exactly known as a big shot in really cool stuff, but with our new grants, we are now working to get papers out and we are starting to get noticed.
2. Write grants to everywhere. The current funding situation is unprecedented. The older you are, the more out of touch you are with what you have to do to get funded because our older colleagues got tenure in a time of 30% funding rates. Now, our older colleagues are venerable and established, so they don’t have as high a bar to prove that they are fundable and doing good work as a new person might be. Despite my grousing about being a mid-career faculty, in my opinion, I have found it easier to get funding now that I have tenure and an established track record of many publications behind me. Even when I was applying to young investigator awards, I was told that I didn’t have enough of anything. I actually had one reviewer say that it (paraphrasing here) remained to be seen if I could even start a research program… well, duh! I was applying for a new investigator award. It did remain to be seen, but if I don’t get funding I won’t have a shot to prove myself. As I was saying, the current funding situation is abysmal. If you want funding, you need to apply to everywhere. If you think your stuff is best at NIH, write NIH AND NSF anyway. Here are my reasons why:
A. Writing is a skill that needs practice. Some people are really good writers. I envy them. I am not. You have read my blog, so you know that my writing is very colloquial. Some people like it, but it is not sophisticated. I have to practice and practice and practice. I wrote ~10 grants per year to get that practice.
B. You will get critique and feedback necessary to hone your message. If you are having trouble selling your message to the science community who are serving on panels, the practice (above) and feedback you will get from writing a bunch of grants are essential. Don’t forget to always look for the truth in a review (see this post on criticism) – even if you do not agree with their assessment or feel they didn’t really “get” your research. If they didn’t get it, that is YOUR FAULT. You only have one shot in a grant to get your point across and make the reviewers excited. Once again, that takes practice and listening to critique.
C. You might get funded at NSF. If you apply for funding from the NSF, here are some things that could happen: 1. You don’t get funded, and you get some feedback. -OR- 2. You do get funded. Seems like a win-win to me. Here is why I like NSF: 1. You always get feedback as long as you are compliant. 2. Teaching is a bonus, and many of us do teach (and like it – gasp!). 3. There are many programs, and program officers will shift around your grant, if they think it will help. Sometimes this can hurt you, but you will get more critiques. 4. In the panels I have served on, the people have been fair and reasonable. I don’t get the impression they care about your status as much as NIH appears to (again, my opinion). But, they will likely not be right in your field, so you have to sell it to a broad scientifically-literate audience and write a grant that is clear.
3. Be a f*cking squeaky wheel. If you have been teaching for 3 years and have taught 6 different classes, you need to speak up. If you chair shrugs and says, “that is how it it – tough shit,” you take it up the ladder. My university has a wonderful awesome woman in the Dean’s office who is concerned with young faculty issues. Does yours? If you want tenure, you should know. You should know that person in person. I have had previous posts about jumping the chain of command (post). Your chair and senior people in your department should want you to get tenure. Simple rules within a department can really help, such as making sure that you get to teach the same class 3-4 times in a row before coming up for tenure (see below). Or to make sure that you are getting the resources you need in your lab space and office. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Why should you squeak? If there are issues that can be addressed, and you are hoping someone will notice, they won’t. This is your career. This is your life and livelihood. Do not leave it up to someone else. If someone accuses you of being pushy, aggressive, or of jumping the line, you will have to make a choice: do you prefer to be (A) liked -OR- (B) tenured ? Besides, if you couch your arguments in terms of seeking advice, help, and assistance (i.e. you are asking for help and assistance) most people are quite receptive. If you already asked for help from your chair and they are unhelpful, time to go OVER THEIR HEADS.
4. Teaching the same class multiple times. This follows from above. When you are pre-tenure, you need to make sure that you get to teach the same course multiple times and not jump around too much. I have had several posts about how you can make incremental changes to your teaching to be more effective and get better evaluations (here, here, here, here). But, you cannot implement changes if you do not get to teach the course again.
In some departments, like mine, you have to demonstrate teaching excellence at all levels. This can often be done with two different classes – one at the sophomore level (lower level) and one at the senior/grad level (upper level). So, even if you are only teaching 1 class per semester, you can still make sure you demonstrate your teaching ability at “all levels.” Demonstration of excellent teaching at all levels DOES NOT mean demonstration of excellent teaching in ALL courses. Many departments make you teach a huge lecture section before you get tenure (mine didn’t, thank goodness). All the more reason to get to teach it multiple times to get better at it.
5. Writing papers. OK, this is a no-brainer. We all know we need to get papers published to get tenure. Yet, some people still submit packets with 2 papers when going up for tenure. Let me tell you, two is most often not enough papers in most fields. ***There are exceptions, such as someone who is working with a mouse model and had to raise mice from pups and watch them die, which could take 2-3 years to do one experiment. If that is you, you better squeak and make it very, very clear in your tenure packet that this is standard in your field (see these posts about your tenure packet: research, teaching, service) and make sure your allies are in place (tenure tips). Yet, two papers of your own independent work is a lot to do in, let’s face it, 2-3 years. Because the first 2-3 years on the job is spent getting a lab space, lab equipment, training people, and just figuring this job out (see this prior post on how to organize your time efficiently when you start your job). OK, so what should you do?
A. You need to build your body of work. I don’t think that most places expect you to actually make a huge impact on your field before tenure. Let’s face it, only very few of our colleagues at BigPrivateUs can even do that with amazing resources and students. So, let’s not shoot for Science and Nature papers. Let’s shoot for good papers in reputable journals that are known for good, reproducible work prior to tenure. This goes along with point 1, A above. If you are writing and getting funded grants on attainable science, you should also be able to make a few papers on that science. It can be foundational, as I said, so that you can build to the really cool stuff you want to do, but it needs to be there. I think more schools are happy with 4-5 solid papers than 1 Nature paper. Besides, how will you get that Nature paper? It is an unobtainable goal for most people (more power to you, if it is within your grasp).
B. Collaborate. Sometimes when people are pre-tenure, they are told explicitly or implicitly, not to collaborate. I felt this pressure, too, and it made it so that I could not work with some of my best friends in science who were all also going through tenure. But, collaborating and lending a figure of original data to someone else’s paper can help build your body of work. Several of my papers pre-tenure were articles where my lab contributed a single figure to someone else’s paper. In my packet, I openly discussed these and made it clear exactly what my contribution was to each paper. Of course these do not count as much as articles where I am last author, but it demonstrates expertise and reputation. It also shows that good data came from my lab and we were being productive and collegial, even while we were getting our other papers out the door.
C. Get your opinion and work out there in any form. Part of building your reputation and your body of work is getting your ideas out there. When I was pre-tenure, I was asked to write a couple methods chapter and a few review articles. I did not turn many down. In each of these, I tried to be pedagogical and interesting and inspiring when I discussed my views on science or the methods being implemented. Although I agree that these publications are not as important as reviewed journal articles where I am the senior author, they do add to my reputation and body of work. They are an important part of building that body of work. And if you are having trouble getting those corresponding author papers out because of experimental issues, you will at least have something to show for your time and effort that can go on your CV.
OK, this post got pretty long. I hope you find it helpful. Post or comment, and please let me know if there are things missed or other topics you want to see posted. Writing a long one like this is good to tie in the many previous posts that you might not have noticed or seen before. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.