Monday, March 23, 2009

The woman who does everything more beautifully than you do writes a grant proposal

There's a woman at my university who is just a year older than I am, and finished her PhD a few years ahead of me. The most famous member of my committee whom I loved and I didn't get to spend much time with was her advisor and has been her co-author on at least half a dozen papers. And she's really nice, so I can't dislike her, as gratifying as that would feel. I met up with her recently, and thought immediately of this Sylvia character who does everything more beautifully. When I was reading these comics back in straight-A high school 4.8 GPA days, I thought I understood, but now I realize I couldn't. Now I do!

Beyond being recognized as a junior expert in one of the areas where I do research (and am only locally a semi-expert), due to having collaborated with her famous advisor on many papers, and doing interesting work, she is also more perfect than I could imagine being personally: she's married to a successful academic guy her age, lives in a great location, with one child so far, is effortlessly thin (looked better a few months post-partum than I look now), nice and really low-key.

The only main requirement of my postdoc is to submit a funding proposal by the end of the academic year for a career development grant. I met up with her and found out she is currently funded by the exact same grant, having gotten it on her first try, which was fantastically helpful and extremely intimidating. Her proposal is extremely well-done. I've not looked at many of these things, but I can really tell hers is exceptionally good. It has coherence and logic: it's an important and central problem, and yet extremely well-defined and manageable, it builds on her areas of expertise, and it comes with a 20 year vision attached. She had a substantial publication list going into the grant application process that shows a variety of projects she can do, and was already junior faculty for several years at the time of submission. I have just my dissertation published, one paper from undergrad, and that's it.

Having read her proposal I have a very clear idea what I could do process-wise to develop it, and yet I feel even more paralyzed than I did before I read it. The most intimidating part: I have 2 months left to produce the grant proposal. She produced the grant proposal 4-5 months early and circulated it widely and got lots of feedback, asked lots of questions to program officer, and that's how she got it on the first try.

Compared with her, I'm a very weak candidate. But I don't have a few years to develop prior to the grant proposal.

The hard part moving forward is swallowing my fear, moving on, and starting to work on it anyhow. I'm definitely not going to succeed if I don't start. And if I don't get this (likely!), I can reuse the material somewhere.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Staying in touch with a postdoc advisor

Dialog is so much easier when I have recently been in contact with my advisor. The longer I spend away from him, the more dread and friction I feel about doing work, and I slow down and feel overwhelmed by all the projects I'm not doing enough work on, and it's exactly like the Doldrums in the Phantom Tollbooth, which is where you end up when you don't know where you are doing.

Then once I see my advisor, I am scared and feel a little stupid for part of the time, but then feel revved up and actually like I am doing just fine and I can do good work that will uphold my part of the traineeship bargain, and actually become super responsible and responsive.

Yesterday I met with my advisor. I was totally dreading it because I spent a few weeks under the weather, partially from physical illness and partially from the accumulated mental sludge and inertia from having been away from normal life for awhile. I was convinced that there was a good shot that I wasn't going to have my position next year, and that he would tell me just how disappointed he was in me and that he's sorry it didn't work out. It's not entirely paranoia on my part. I have been told similar things before and left to flail --- being asked to leave an academic program even --- though the flailing was temporary and certainly not fatal to me or even my career. But I forgot that he really wants this to work too.

Anyhow, paranoia over because he spoke to me like I am definitely going to be here next year. So I feel relieved. And we spoke about new projects and the next steps and how I am going to apply for funding real soon now.

As a result of this meeting and the burst of energy, when I got the "training grant annual update" form in the email today I wrote up the report and sent it back within an hour. Had I gotten the email before the meeting I would have sat on it hoping that I would do enough work to make myself worthy of filling out the form. Delusionally thinking, perhaps, that I could write and submit a couple papers before the end of the month so that I would have something on there other than my dissertation papers.

But the right way to think about it is to do all the work for the annual report, work hard and if I do happen to submit a paper I will add it to the report and resend it.

Life is so much easier when I'm happy and optimistic. When I'm in the middle of a procrastinatory funk, it's so hard to regain my optimism. Though maybe it just takes a meeting. Or even just any human contact.

This is my second consecutive day of good work habits. If I keep this up, maybe I will even start to feel like I am not just pretending to be responsible.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The lack of obstacles is intimidating

I finally got the data that our "collaborators" had been withholding. I emailed the PI at the other university during the first week of the month, and twice more, asking for the data. He answered his email towards the end of the month. And I got it that day. And now there are no obstacles. I find that extremely intimidating.

The only thing standing in my way is me. (I am the change I am looking for?)

I went on a date with this engineer who told me of his first post-college job. He was hired on a 6 month contract into a group that was originally a bit over half a dozen people. He hadn't learned this area in college, and wanted the opportunity to be trained in it. When he arrived, the group was down to 3. Then the other two quit. And then the last one quit. And he was the only one in the group, and stayed up as late as he had to in order to do all of his work, and bought lots of books. And he did all the projects that the group was given. He is first generation --- he moved to US in late junior high --- so maybe has good work ethic from that. Whatever it is, I am in awe.

Were I in the situation I would take the many excuses available --- didn't know the material, group left, no mentorship, no contact with anyone --- and decide maybe I could do it, but it wasn't worth it. Worth what, I'm not sure: the time? the ego risk? And do just the minimum and hope to find something more suitable.

A friend of mine said that sometimes he thinks that in dating I am hoping to meet someone who will be a good model to improve my work habits. In fact I am.