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“Get a job, Ken!” Part 7: Research/Proposal Talks and Meeting with the Chair

The research talk and proposal talk are arguably the most important parts of the on-site interview. This post, part seven in the “Get a job, Ken! series” delves into both, as well as the final meeting with the department chair.

My first piece of advice for those preparing for an on-site interview is to purchase and practice with a slide-advancing remote (a.k.a. a laser pointer or ‘clicker’). I find it tragic when a great scientist appears incompetent because they don’t know how to use a borrowed clicker. It’s worthwhile owning a clicker that you know like the back of your hand. In fact, for young graduate students, I recommend investing in a clicker and practicing with it as soon as possible. I am partial to the Logitech Wireless Presenter (The author declares no competing financial interests).

The Research Talk

Standard seminar talks have one primary goal, to share science. Research talks during an interview have two additional goals. The first is to briefly introduce your area of research and lay a foundation for the concepts and techniques relevant to your proposal talk. This groundwork will allow for extra time during the proposal talk (vida infra) to discuss your ideas. Of course, it’s important to seek a balance since not everyone who attends your proposal talk will be at the research talk, and vice versa.

The second goal of the research talk is to demonstrate your teaching skills. The presentation will be open to all faculty and students—basically any involved in the hiring decision—and they’ll be asking themselves: How engaging and eloquent is this applicant? How well does he or she explain new concepts? What kind of teaching methods do they use (analogies, examples, images, etc.)? How good is she or he at answering questions?

I have seen way too many talks that care more about demonstrating “I’m smart!” than actually communicating ideas. In these “I am so smart” presentations only two or three audience members have the expertise necessary to follow along past the first few slides. Please be assured that the audience already knows you’re smart, competent, and can publish complex ideas in top-tier, peer reviewed journals. They want to know if you’re also able to share your ideas with non-experts (i.e. students).

The research talk will generally be scheduled for one hour, which will include a short introduction and a ten minute question and answer session at the end. I made sure to avoid 1) going over the allotted time because it can imply time management issues or 2) finishing the presentation in under 30 minutes, which might  suggest a lack of content/results. I did my best to aim for a 40-50 minute presentation. Most audience members will not mind if they get to leave a little early.

Also, presenters usually have about 15 minutes to prepare before the talk. But be forewarned that when earlier meetings run long, you’ll have to jump into the presentation without any prep time.

Proposal Talk

The job interview proposal talk is a lot like a graduate student proposal talk (also sometimes known as a qualifying exam) but with a slightly different focus. The primary focus of a qualifying exam is to defend your ideas.  In addition to defending your ideas during the job proposal talk, you’re expected to provide tangible ways of pursuing the ideas and mentoring young researchers along the way. Similar to the written proposal, the general outline for most proposal talks is 1) introduce a problem that needs to be solved, 2) mention how others are trying to solve it, 3) introduce how you are trying to solve it, and 4) discuss why your method is better and 5) mention the possible implications of your work.

I started my proposal talk with an outline slide. While everyone was getting situated they were able to view the slide and familiarize themselves with my flavor of research. Below is an outline slide example:

Not all audience members will have read your proposals or attended the previous research talk, so you’ll also want to briefly introduce a few important concepts while explaining your research plans. In all likelihood, you’ll be the foremost expert on your proposed research area since they wouldn’t have brought you in for an interview if they had someone already in that niche. You’ll also be asked a number of questions. In addition to the questions from the phone interview (previous post), here are several questions that colleagues and I were asked during the proposal talk:

  • What type of group structure do you envision for your research program?
  • In terms of personnel, what would your lab look like?  How many graduate students/post-docs/undergrads in 5 years? In the long-term?
  • How do you plan to integrate students into your research projects?
  • What will be your approach to mentoring and supervising student progress?
  • Which proposal do you like most?
  • Which proposal is likely to give results the fastest (I.e. which is safe and which is high-risk/high reward)?
  • Which proposals/projects could new students work on right away?
  • Let’s say that next summer you’ll have 2 graduate students and 1 post-doc, what projects would you start them on?
  • What do your proposals have in common? Or what is your proposals central overriding theme (synthesis, electrochemistry, mechanism, etc.)? How do you define yourself as a chemist?
  • Does your proposed research projects depart from your mentors’ work and if so, how?
  • Are you aware of any competitors in the areas of your proposed research? How do you feel about competing with them?
  • Given the courses that are in the U of X handbook, which courses would you prefer to teach?
  • What preliminary results do you need to get in order to go after major grants or a career award?
  • What happens if a fundamental aspect of your proposals fails? Could you still salvage a paper and what would the community learn from that “failure”?

All of my proposal talks were either during or immediately following lunch on the third day. The length of the talk varied between 60-90 minutes, but the number of slides I actually made it through varied depending on the number of questions posed by the audience. In one of my interviews the audience only asked scientific questions so I got through everything in under an hour. In another interview the audience asked at least 30 minutes worth of logistical questions about teaching classes and running a research group so I didn’t finish the presentation in the allotted 90 minutes. Since the presentation portion is so unpredictable the best you can do is put together a presentation where you hope for the best, but are prepared for the worst.

Final tip: Be genuinely enthusiastic about your proposals. If you are not excited then it will be difficult for your audience to be excited too.

Meeting with the Chair

The last formal meeting of the interview will most likely be with the chair of the chemistry department. While sometimes casual, the 30-60 minute meeting was much more business-focused (i.e. startup funds and lab space). This meeting might have been my favorite part of the interview because it included a tour of my potential lab and office space. The tour was my  first real glimpse into what it might be like to run a lab in that particular department. I would walk through the rooms envisioning students working on my research and thinking about where I would put the UV-Vis, potentiostat, fluorometer, etc.

This meeting isn’t time to negotiate space, but going into the meeting it’s helpful to have an idea of what kind of space you’ll need during the first 5 years. Ask yourself: Is your research going to be focused on synthesis or characterization? If so, how many fume hoods? How much bench space? Do you need room for laser tables? Do you need/want proximity to departmental equipment or researchers doing related work? Most of the chairs I met with already had a rough idea of what space I would need based on my background and proposal, but they still ask for my rough estimate. I recommend touring your current advisors space and taking an inventory of how many hoods and square footage they have per person as a starting point.

You’ll also likely be asked—either in this meeting or even before arriving—for a rough budget estimate. For the most part, this budget will include the major pieces of equipment needed to conduct your research and their estimated cost. Although unusual, I sent my budget proposal to the department chair a week before I arrived on campus for the interview. I wanted to show I was serious, had done my homework, and that I was prepared to run a research group. My biggest concern was that the budget I proposed was off the wall, but I followed the suggestion of others. A reasonable budget proposal will depend on your flavor of research (spectroscopists are more expensive than synthetic chemists are more expensive than theoreticians). Also, top 50 schools budget proposals (including personnel) are usually somewhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000 while top 50-100 research institutions are usually somewhere between $300,000 and $750,000.

During this final meeting I also was given an update on the faculty-hiring timeline. I’d find out when the last candidate would be interviewed, when the committee planned to meet for a decision, and when I’d likely hear the department’s decision. In practice, the actual timeline more often than not ended up being about 2-4 weeks longer than the estimate.

By May 23, 2013 1 comment Uncategorized

$cience is Important

Last week Kei Koizumi, Assistant Director for Federal Research & Development for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, paid a visit to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (my new home as of mid-June). The visit included a tour of several laboratories where everyone did their very best to convince him that our funding (e.g. my salary) is worthwhile as well as a presentation by Mr. Koizumi that outlined the Presidents plans/goals/vision for scientific funding.

On many occasions, President Obama has voiced his strong support of the sciences. In an address to the National Academy of Sciences on April 27, 2009 he emphasized the importance of science by stating “Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before.” In addition to this type of powerful dialogue we have seen significant action.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the scientific funding boost that came through with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, purple block in the graph below). In addition to this quick funding boost there is a continuing effort by the administration to double the 2006 budget for the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation by the year 2017. The approved 2011 budget continues with this upward funding trend as outline in the graph below.

So what does the future hold? Every year a memorandum is sent from the Office of Management and Budget to the major funding agencies requesting their budget proposals for the upcoming year. In this memorandum the current administration outlines how they intend to direct their funding. In the 2012 memorandum, the Obama administration emphasized the following six areas of focus:

  • Promoting sustainable economic growth and job creation.
  • Defeating the most dangerous diseases and achieving better health outcomes for all while reducing health care costs.
  • Moving toward a clean energy future to reduce dependence on energy imports while curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Understanding, adapting to, and mitigating the impacts of global climate change.
  • Managing the competing demands on land, fresh water, and the oceans for the production of food, fiber, biofuels, and ecosystem services based on sustainability and biodiversity.
  • Developing the technologies to protect our troops, citizens, and national interests.

The proposal writing process is no doubt an exercise in balancing wishful thinking and self control. Along these lines it is not unusual for an agency to submit several versions of their budget (above, below and the same as the previous year). However, due to the recent economic issues, the administration was particular in asking all agencies to submit a funding request that is reduced by 5 percent relative to the previous year. As of Monday, September 13th the new budget proposals for the 2012 fiscal year were due. Over the next several months negotiations between the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science Technology Policy will determine the 2012 funding situation.  The 2012 budget will then be announced in the first week of February 2011. Although it is unlikely that every agencies budget will be reduced by 5% , 2012 is likely to be a tough year for many researchers.

tl;dr: All you have to do to guarantee funding in 2012 is submit a solid proposal for a commercially viable, bulletproof, CO2 detecting solar energy converter that cures diseases while still maintaining the ecosystem.

By September 19, 2010 6 comments science policy