Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Choosing a PhD (or postdoc) mentor

I just finished a really great article by Bruce Alberts (of Molecular Biology of the Cell fame and also Editor in Chief of Science) on how to choose a mentor. Dr. Alberts says "the exact PhD project is not nearly as important as finding the best place for learning how to push forward the frontier of knowledge as an independent investigator." i.e., learning how to be a good scientist is so much more important than the actual science performed. I have seen so many people who choose an advisor because they want to work on X, not recognizing that there will be many, many opportunities to work on X throughout their career, but really only 1 PhD mentor.

Dr. Alberts suggests that the best mentors take time to talk with their students teaching them not just how to do research, but also how to think critically about a project and present it to others from the proposal to research paper stage. When you are looking for a mentor, you should ask the students in the group how often they meet with the PI. Do they have career discussions with the PI? Have they had a chance to write abstracts, papers, grants? At what point in their training (at the very end or throughout)?

Choosing a mentor who can provide you this training is more important than almost anything else, really. You can change your research field by a few well-selected postdocs or by setting your own lab direction after your become an independent scientist, but you can never recover from poor or inadequate training. Just something to think about.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Writing good grants

So I just spent the last week polishing off two proposals, which led me to think about a few things. When your proposal is reviewed you really want the reviewers to concentrate on the idea being proposed, not the writing, or the skill (or lack thereof) of the investigators, or the methods (although these are important it should be evident that you know what you are doing and how to proceed). Many of these problems can be addressed by learning good proposal writing. I have talked about this before, but thought I might revisit this topic.

One trick I have learned to conserve space is that for both NIH and NSF grants you get a project summary (or summary of aims). Use this as an intro to your grant and cut the intro section altogether (i.e., start with background and significance). Usually the material in the first paragraph of the project summary and the intro are pretty much the same anyway and this gives you an extra page.

When writing the background try to cite everyone that is relevant to the field, remembering that they could be a reviewer, and be polite. Don't say your technology is better than someone else's unless you are pretty sure that almost any independent reviewer would agree with you. Instead it could be an alternative or complementary technology. Also, many reviewers are not in your field so include enough background that any scientist in your -ology could understand what is proposed.

In the preliminary data section include a paragraph that reads... Dr. X has X years of experience with X including X publications in journals like really important journal and even more important journal. Then show the data that is most relevant to your project.

Finally, in the aims section, remember that your grant has an X year duration and whatever you propose should be likely to be completed in that time frame by the number of individuals that you propose to fund. So saying that you are going to invent a spaceship, travel to the moon, collect moon rocks, and analyze them with one student in 3 years is pretty unlikely. This is the major factor that separates more experienced grant writers from novices. (and students from PIs....see candidacy exam as evidence). Also, be very clear in your methodologies, cite as many papers as you can....we are going to do X following the method of Smith et al. This shows that you are familiar with the field and reduces the risk of experimental failure. i.e., I am following established methods.

Well....that's all for now. I am busy pushing out papers and getting my tenure package ready. I am going up early so wish me luck.

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