• Which grants get funded at single-digit funding rates?

    Throughout the last decade, funding rates at most US funding bodies have kept declining, and they have now reached awfully low levels. These days, single-digit success rates are pretty common. At the NSF, in some competitions I’ve seen success rates of 5% or less. As a result, most US scientists are struggling to figure out how to make the best of this abysmal situation. One could view the entire granting process as a lottery, and say that at a funding rate of 5% it takes an average of 20 submissions to get one project funded. And certainly some scientists operate this way and just write grant after grant after grant. However, I’m not convinced that that’s a viable strategy. While there is certainly an aspect of randomness to grant review, and sometimes a mediocre grant gets rated much higher than it should while an excellent grant gets triaged, I don’t think that this randomness matters much at the top end. If funding rates were around 30-40% then yes, one could probably write 3-4 grants and expect one to be funded just by chance. But I will argue that the top 5-10% of grants, the ones in the currently fundable range, are fundamentally different. If your grant isn’t like one of them, it probably has a near-zero chance of being funded. And if it is, it may well have a 50% or higher chance. The trick to being funded is hence to only write grants that can score in the top 10%. Easy. (Yes, I’m being sarcastic here.)

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  • Virtual Books

    Blogs tend to be ephemeral. They are usually presented as a constant stream of novel contents, where the most recent posts are easily seen but the older posts can be difficult to discover. Even when blogs have excellent archive and search functions, I often wonder whether I have seen all the relevant posts on a topic. And the larger and more active a blog, the more of an issue it becomes. For example, one of my favorite blogs, Mark’s Daily Apple, updates daily and contains thousands of interesting posts. Its archive lists posts by a variety of different criteria, and its search function generally returns relevant hits. Nevertheless, I often have difficulty finding my way around that blog. I’m never really sure that I’ve read the most important articles on a given topic, in the right order.

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  • To write well, learn how to read

    As far as I can tell, one of the major impediments to writing well is an inability to read. I’m not talking about basic illiteracy here. I’m talking about the following tendency that I have seen in many literate people: reading what one thinks was written rather than what was actually written. If you have this tendency, you may subconsciously fix grammatical errors, insert words that aren’t actually on the page, or even fill in larger logical gaps. You may also subconsciously delete words that shouldn’t be there in the first place. You probably do this when you read other people’s prose, and you’ll do it even more so when you read your own prose. As a result, you won’t notice when your writing has issues. And hence you won’t fix the issues. Your readers, however, may notice them, or they may simply not understand what you’re trying to say. If you are interested in writing clear and understandable prose, make sure that you’re actually reading what you wrote, not what you think you wrote.

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  • Articles!

    After having authored thousands of printed pages and having taught writing at the graduate level, all in English (my third language), I’ve come to this conclusion: We non-native speakers have a major advantage over native speakers when it comes to writing in the English language. We may not know how to write properly, but at least we know that we don’t know. Most native English speakers don’t know how to write properly either, but they don’t know that they don’t know. Because we’re acutely aware of our language deficiencies, we non-native speakers will generally put much more effort into learning proper English than native speakers will.

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  • Why I lift weights (and so should you)

    For the first forty years of my life, I thought lifting weights was for meatheads. If you lifted weights, my thinking went, you cared more about your looks than your health or fitness level. Actually, not looks even, just sheer size. I was convinced that my fitness regimen of endurance training (running, cycling, walking), flexibility (yoga), and basic whole-body movements (more yoga) was far superior to stupidly lifting weights in a gym. I mean, look at those guys [1] in the gym: they take a barbell, lift it five times, and then they take a five minute break. Do they even break a sweat? I don’t call that exercise, I call that sitting around on your lazy behind. Only when I started to read up on exercise physiology did I realize that lifting heavy is an extremely beneficial activity. Further, it is likely the most important type of exercise we can engage in, in particular as we grow older. And those five-minute breaks are absolutely necessary if you’re doing it right, in particular if you care more for strength than size.

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  • Mobile apps—the bane of the modern mobile web experience

    Have I ever mentioned that I hate mobile apps? I’m not talking about apps in general. I think it’s great that I can have a calculator on my phone, or skype. But apps that serve as replacements for websites, such as the facebook app or the linkedin app, I hate with a passion. I think they are a step backwards in web development. They degrade the mobile experience for all of us.

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  • How to choose the right lab for graduate school

    Choosing the right lab for graduate school can be a daunting prospect. There are so many issues to consider. So many things that could go wrong. And you have to join the most prestigious lab you can get into, don’t you? Well, let’s consider for a moment what the main point of graduate school is. Graduate school is the time when you transition from being a student to being an independent scientist. It is primarily an educational experience. While in graduate school, you should pick up some subject-matter knowledge in your field. You should become familiar with the most important experimental or computational tools of your trade. You should learn how to choose scientific questions and how to solve them. You should develop general life skills such as how to communicate, how to work with other people, and how to get stuff done on time and to spec. So how do you find the right lab in which to acquire all these skills?

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  • Writing paragraphs that make sense—the topic and the stress position

    When you write a scientific article, you should lay out your ideas in such a way that your readers can follow them easily. Every new concept should flow directly from the previous material. Yet more often than not, scientific prose can be difficult to understand. What is going on? Readers expect certain pieces of information in certain positions in a sentence. Satisfy these expectations, and your readers will find your writing clear and convincing. Violate them, and your readers will be confused. All readers expect more or less the same things in the same places. And writers commonly violate these expectations. The two most important expectations readers have concern the kind of material that is presented at the beginning of a sentence, in the topic position, and at the end, in the stress position [1]. Here I present my take on how to make the best use of these positions to produce clear and coherent prose.

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  • A blog needs a catchy title

    According to Internet Marketing 101, a blog needs a catchy title, a clear brand. Something that readers can remember easily and that evokes associations and emotions. The blog author’s name will usually not serve that purpose well. Even if it’s a cool name. Even if it’s as noteworthy a name as “Claus Wilke.” Therefore, with this post, I’m relaunching my blog under a different brand. Henceforth, this blog will be called “The Serial Mentor.”

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  • Silence your inner critic

    I wrote two blog posts recently that addressed the widespread issue of writer’s block. In the first, I suggested that warming up before writing is a good idea to get you into the zone. In the second, I argued that you need to figure out what the story is before you can write productively. There’s a third element to writing productively. Even if you have figured out your story and have warmed up properly, you may still find yourself staring at a blank page for extended periods of time. If this is the case, you are almost certainly operating with an inner critic that holds you back the moment you want to commit words to paper. You need to silence your inner critic to write effectively.

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  • It’s easier to write when you know what you want to say

    It’s easier to write when you know what you want to say. “Duh,” you may say, “I could have told you that, Claus.” Yes, it’s a pretty obvious statement. But I wouldn’t dismiss its value so easily. When you’re trying to write something, and you get stuck, you need to know why you’re stuck. There may be two reasons: First, you can be stuck because you don’t know what you want to say. Second, you can be stuck because even though you do know what you want to say, you don’t know how to say it. Those two are very distinct scenarios, and they require different courses of action. Can you tell when you find yourself in either? And if so, do you know how to deal with the situation effectively?

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  • Warm up before you write

    In most pursuits of an artistic or physical nature, warming up is standard operating procedure. An opera singer wouldn’t go out on stage without first singing some arias in the dressing room. An olympic gymnast doesn’t step on the balance beam without some serious stretching, as well as a dry-run of her routine on the ground. A sprinter will do some light jogs, stretches, and maybe jumping jacks before the big race. But writers routinely fire up the word processor (or, like in the olden days, take out pen and paper) and attempt to write award-winning prose without any sort of warm up. I don’t think that’s very smart. I believe warming up is as important for writing as it is for singing, gymnastics, or track-and-field.

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