Monday, October 13, 2014

All about the money

Recently, there was a discussion among faculty members and industry folks surrounding the role of training PhD students suitable for the workplace. The synopsis was something like this. Many students who get PhDs are interested in staying in academia but the realities are that for every 10-20 PhD students graduated, maybe 1 of them will get a faculty position. So what are the other PhD students supposed to do? Well, get jobs in industry. Except most of them have been trained to have an academic perspective on things and have not been trained to understand effective project management, deadlines, deliverables, etc. 

One of the ideas to solving this problem involves having the PhD student propose their thesis topic earlier in their training. The idea is that if the student identifies the scope of their PhD earlier, they can then focus more on getting those "deliverables" done. Also, from an advisor perspective, this is a contract of sorts where the PhD student can keep the advisor from moving the goal posts because there is an established stopping point to the student's work. 

While this is a grand idea and I whole-heartedly agree with it, it is simply not practical. And there is one simple reason for it. Money.

The most direct way that I see this relates to the size and duration of research funding awards. In my area, most research awards are 2-3 years with insufficient funding levels ($100k/yr) to establish instrumentation and equipment to complete a task. Thus, a student may start out on one project but because of my funding situation (for which the student has no control), that student may be forced to switch to multiple projects just so I can pay their stipend and satisfy multiple program objectives. However, these projects usually are not interlinked enough to draw a common thread for writing a thesis. This makes defining thesis objectives very nebulous when you don't know what task you will need to do to satisfy which program manager 6 months from now. I spend more of my time (probably 60%+) going after money than I do doing anything else, including actual research, teaching, service, mentoring, etc. As the PI, frankly I'm trying to solve the paycheck problem for my students first and then worry about the details like defining a thesis second. It is a sad state of affairs and I am disappointed in this but that's the practical realities that I face. 

The second way in which I see an issue with training PhD students for jobs in industry is that no funding agency actually awards funding for practical, applied research. (At least funding that is not ITAR controlled.) Virtually every response I get from review panels is "Wow, so-and-so company that wrote you a support letter should directly fund this.". I'm basically convinced at this point if you send anything practical to NSF it will get shot down for not being sciency enough. But they neglect that if they fund that research, it may turn into technology to spin off from the university, which may create jobs, which grows the tax base, and increases funding for entities like NSF. (BTW, that's the NSF standard lip service as to their motivation for funding projects). 

I've had a $2.1M NIH BioTech R01 turned down last week, an $875k fellowship turned down today, and two NSFs for about $800k turned down last month. All of them were doing some amount of science but all of them had practical applications which would be excellent training for students.That leaves 5 of my students with cloudy funding futures, several of which will have to put off their thesis proposals, because I can't secure funding. And that's not their fault. But the really infuriating thing about all of this is I have no shortage of companies that explicitly ask me to notify them when I have students graduating because they want students who have been trained in my area. But I fear I won't be in academia long enough for that to matter because the practical realities are that I need to bring in enough money to support the students and the funding agencies simply do not fund areas where students may be practically trained. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Research funding? For me?! Awww you shouldn't have...

Imagine me as a 7 year old opening a birthday envelope and squeezing the card to have the check drop out. That's how it feels like when you received the "Your proposal has been recommended for funding" notice. These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity but during it all I received good news on two fronts, one project has definitely received funding for 2 years and another has been recommended for funding for 1 year. While these aren't long term funding streams (and the 1 year project hasn't been officially granted yet), it definitely eases my group's financial footing. In total it would cover 3 of my students for the next year and the 1 year grant will hopefully lead up to a Phase II, and covering students for the remainder of their PhDs.

The other reason why this is very good is that these are two new funding streams, one indirectly from NIH and one is Phase I project with a company. Hopefully the more medical focused project will lead to future R01 funding while the Phase I will lead to Phase II and then continued funding directly from the company.

And while I'm extremely happy and fortunate that at least 1 and maybe 2 of my projects will get funding, I still can't seem to shake this funk that I'm in. It's really weird but the "highs" from my current successes don't seem so high as in the past during my PhD work, even though they should. But the lows are definitely lower than in my PhD work. I'll save that topic for a future post.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Ancient Formats

Yesterday was a pretty cool day. One of my MS students successfully defended his thesis which was highly attended by fellow students, faculty, and even a bunch of industry folks. For me, this is student number 4 who has successfully defended so I guess I'm not totally floundering in the mentoring department. Given that I have been reading his thesis, I thought I would discuss (or complain about) something which I think all universities in the US should address relating to theses and dissertations: ancient formatting. Let me take a step back and put this into some context.

As someone who has written an MS thesis and a PhD disseration in two entirely different systems (US for MS, Europe for PhD), I feel like our approach in the US is terrible. If I think back to writing my MS thesis, up until that point in my life, I had no greater personal joy than when I turned that document in. I was ecstatic with it and when I had it bound as a hardcover book (as required), I wanted to show it off to everyone. I was pretty damn proud of that book. But then about a year later my perception changed.

At this point, I was studying in Europe and when I showed up in my office one day, there was a slim, sleek book sitting on my desk. I looked it over and it was the PhD thesis of a fellow graduate student but it looked like a professionally typeset book. It turns out that in Europe, when you write your thesis, you are expected to have 200-250 copies printed to give to your colleagues, committee, and anyone who shows up to your defense. When it came time for me to write my PhD thesis, I wanted to make sure my thesis had the look and feel of a professional document, something worthy of 4 years of work.

My MS thesis, much like the theses that 4 of my students have written, was in the "university standard" format that I think virtually every US university uses. Single column, double spaced, print on one side of the page, weird formatting rules about margins, header height, etc. In contrast, my PhD thesis was B5 sized pages (think about the size of a 7" tablet) with whatever format you want for the contents. Most are single column given the page size but you can use single spaced typesetting, whatever margins and font you want, and you (shock) print on both sides of the paper. In contrast, a European thesis looks like a professional book whereas the US thesis looks like a long high school report.

So why doesn't this change? Most people that see a European thesis almost universally agree that the look and formating makes it much easier to read. I can only think of two reasons why US universities don't change: 1) nostalgia and 2) minimum quality. I can understand (but not agree with) why US universities would do it for nostalgic reasons. They have a legacy of X number of years and they want everything to look and feel the same. That's such a bullshit reason, where it is basically saying the institution is afraid of change. As for minimum quality, there are a many reasons why this doesn't hold weight. The first of which is because the tools of our trade have changed (handwritting to typewriters to computers). Just the difference between a typewriter and a computer improves the quality dramatically. Also, every discipline has its own formats for manuscripts, citations, etc, so why have a generic, awful looking format for very discipline's thesis in a university?

But, the minimum quality really doesn't hold weight when you compare it to a European thesis and their method. From a European university, It is just simply expected that you must produce a professional document. There are no other directions other than that. I can see that being a fear from US universities where they would say "Well if we didn't have these rules, who knows what we will get. So we must have some type of format." But when you see your fellow peers produce a professional document and have 250 copies printed up for their committee, everyone in the lab, and the general audience at the defense, just peer pressure alone is enough to make you produce something that looks good. Also, if nothing else, I think we can agree that no modern journal has a format that comes anywhere close to looking that awful, otherwise people wouldn't want to read it. I know I wouldn't want to. I wish universities would at least say "Pick the format for the standard publication medium for your field and use that as your guideline. We expect your advisor(s) and committee will be able to advise appropriately.". If we could get to that point, I think that would be a win. But until then, the US will be lagging in the professional aspects of our theses and dissertations.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Postdoc vs Research Engineer

In one of my last posts, I mentioned that my group has grown excessively large to 10 graduate students. I do not think I am writing anything that is not obvious to everyone in my group: it is very hard to manage that many people and write grants and write papers and perform the level of university and national service that I do. One of the things that I pride myself on is explaining the status of my group to the students. They know, e.g., the current financial situation (whether good or bad), know when I am hiring or not, and whether they can ask to attend conferences they would not normally attend. One of the recent things that has become apparent to me as a result of my participation in a faculty search committee is whether the candidate understands from where his/her funding comes. Now, most of my students are likely to end up in industry so this may be a moot point but I want them to at least understand where their funding comes from, even if they are not responsible for bringing it in.

Lately, I have been debating whether I should bring on a postdoc to help me advance my group. There are numerous reasons to do this: a postdoc can focus more on research instead of classes, can understand a higher level of applications, can write journal papers, and [hopefully] can manage graduate and undergraduate students. Now I know most STEM folks in the blogosphere are in the biomedical fields which have different expectations and funding mechanisms than those of us in engineering. When I talk to folks in the biomedical fields, they say that 40k is sufficient for a postdoc, maybe 42k if they are really good. But in engineering, you can easily make 10k-15k more than that with a BS, with stock options and a 401k so why would any engineer looking for a postdoc accept that salary??! The numbers I'e seen are more like 55k and when you factor in the 33% benefit rate and then 53% overhead rate, a postdoc costs me 112k/year. And that is for an average postdoc. To be honest, before I came to SnowU, I had a postdoc offer for ~73k/year. That's close to 150k/year if I wanted to hire someone at that salary. 

So this begs the question: is a postdoc worth the 112k-150k per year that I need to bring in to support them?

The basic (and more in-depth) answer is: NO. That same amount of money can get me ~2-3 students who will at least be here for until they get their degree, whereas a postdoc will jump at a TT position if offered. (And I'm not blaming them for that!) But I think the bigger question that needs to be asked is why would I hire a postdoc when (assuming) I could hire a research engineer. 

True, a research engineer would cost more than a postdoc but the big difference between the two is a research engineer (or research faculty depending on how you look at it) is able to be PI on their own grants. Other than NIH, which has its own shit-storm of a competition, there is no other mechanism where postdocs can submit their own proposals. However, a research engineer can submit their own proposals to NSF, DoD, DoE, NASA, etc. And if I, as a PI can land a big grant, I may be able to offset most of those costs for the research engineer and then have them help the finances of the group. 

But why would anyone choose to be a research engineer? Wouldn't they just jump at the first TT offer? I don't think that is the case if the right person is found. I know of several groups at SnowU where the lead PI has their research engineer helping them run their group, takes part in the management of students, helps write papers, and is content with trading the TT rat-race for no teaching duties, no service, and the aspects of soft money. Over the long term, especially with the current trends in academic funding, it is likely not sustainable unless you have NIH/DoD/DoE funding but they may be able to help me, as the PI, sustain a group and output level needed to maintain that level of support. 

I'm still not 100% sold on the idea but it has been something I've been thinking about lately. At this point, I think I would take all the help I can get but if I had my pick, I'll probably go with the research engineer rather than a postdoc at this point.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The GEARS Lab

The other main reason why I haven't blogged as much as when I started nor as much as I've wanted is because the GEARS lab has had unchecked growth and has turned into (at times) an unwieldy monster. Over 2 years ago, I wrote a post about the difference between 18 & 27 which can be summed up as: You might as well dive into the tenure track position because you're not going to be successful by being timid. In hindsight, I cannot tell if that is bad advice or good advice, but I can tell you it really sucks at times. I think when I wrote that post I was having delusions of grandeur where I would go 5 for 5 on the 4 DoD YIPs and the NSF CAREER and demonstrate to the world my awesomeness. Fast forward 2 years and 0 for 5 later, my awesomeness has clearly been overlooked by program managers and reviewers. That's not to say I haven't had success with funding. I'm actually closing in on 7 figures of externally funded research as PI or coPI, which I think is a good pace to be on. I just don't know how the hell I'm going to sustain it without getting a bigger award.

The GEARS lab currently has 10 graduate students, a handful of undergrads, and I'm an informal faculty advisor to about 7-8 other students, which has left me strapped for time to get all of the other things I need to do done. Because I have been successful on the funding front, I've picked up twice as many students than in my original plan, which is basically like grabbing the tail of a lion. You can only hope to hang on at times, let alone corral it. I mentioned advising 10 students to some faculty at UGU, and their response can be summarized as "what the hell are you thinking?!?".

The good news is that I have a nice mix of students from three different departments that are all hardworking, dedicated, intelligent individuals. Most are either writing their first first-author paper or waiting to hear back from reviewers (fingers crossed). That's pretty awesome. I also have some good undergraduates that I think should be able to write a patent on their work and then submit a paper on it. That too has been pretty cool. We've had a couple of patent applications and invention disclosures too, which I think has been some pretty good output so far. And probably the best thing, at least individually for me is that my book was finally published and I have received a copy in print. I've even had a random cold-call question from someone who has actually bought it and read it.

Basically I've been spending 10-12 hours a day, sometimes 6-7 days a week on [trying to] maintain this for a while. It is pretty daunting, frustrating, and mentally taxing but does have its moments when it is all worth it. Now, I haven't had one of those in a while, so I think I'm in a funk right now, but I'll save that for the topic of another post.