How David started out and reached his current position at UCLA

Another of our guests who did not start out thinking he wanted to be a professor, but found his path there.

6:00 – In telling his story he highlights how his first job serendipitously placed him within a department that had two excellent assistant professors hired in just the year before, along with a very transparent tenure and promotion process. This allowed guidance and mentorship that lead him to write between 10-15 proposals a year ever since.

~ Constantly look for opportunities

~ Not everyone is brand new, so you can recycle and reuse a good deal of your work along the way

~ The trick is to try to fit what you do to a broader, widespread set of opportunities, tailoring your research to the needs of some of the mission agencies

8:00 – About submitting proposals to agencies that are new to you: Mission agencies have priority areas, and peer review is often done internally by staff scientists with less or more limited input from academics. More than cool or interesting research they have a mission they need to service and real information needs they have. Make sure you are doing that effectively, answering the question they have.

10:00 – On the idea of cold calling vs. warming up a program manager for insight:  

Helpful to do that prep work and it can’t hurt your prospects, but not necessary. Best reason may not be for the immediate calls that you’re working on, but to get a heads up about what is coming down the pike. Their websites can be pretty opaque.

Example here of his work to submit to Office of Naval Research, where the process is to submit white papers. He did submit and never heard back, and there was no way to call the program directors. After 2-3 years, 4-5 white papers and no response, he called the switchboard at ONR and they patched him through to the actual program manager. He picked up the phone only because he was waiting for another call, but then gave insight: “we don’t fund research anymore” – meaning they now work from the point of purchasing established technology that was commercially available. This was important to know that these white papers were obviously not a good use of energy. You have to be persistent.

14:00 – Less is more in terms of science focus for a mission agency, so you need to express that it’s a new idea, but your main focus has to be expressing how this proposed work will meet the needs, then follow with the approach.

15:15 – Regrets about early time investments?

Something that wasn’t fruitful was large scale work, at the pilot scale for technology. It can sometimes be frustrating that a basic science technology can be shown to work, but because of the scope of the funding agency there is no intent to follow-on with scaling.

19:00 – Teaching is really fun, and it’s actually the main thing he thinks that he’s paid for.

22:00 – Teaching advice – a) go in there and have fun, and b) keep yourself learning each time, and c) use examples from real life. E.g. in Environmental Engineering there is always something you can engage the students with, a new chemical, a new spill etc., so you can stay relevant and keep yourself learning.

25:00 – Elevating colleague’s insight that the main “product” of his research work is excellent students, as opposed to a specific turning-point technology. This helps to align incentives and energy toward the scale of research undertaken as well as the enjoyment of teaching and mentoring.

30:00 – Best single piece of advice to give yourself when you start: There’s gonna be a LOT of rejection and you have to have a real thick skin. Keep on truckin’ because there’s really no other option.

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