Friday, July 18, 2003

The blog will continue to be sparse as I immerse myself in, alternately, Lake Michigan and a fellowship application (with much more emphasis, as well as time spent, on the latter). As funding applications go, though, this one's truly professionally-oriented and to the point. I'm actually allowed eight pages to describe the project and its theoretical background, another to describe its possible benefit to science and society, and a few more to summarize my educational and professional life. Everything in this application is functional. No one, thankfully, seems interested in asking what has to be the most useless question possible, namely "Why do you want to do this project?"

I've seen minor variations on this question in many places, and tend to go near-ballistic when I see it. It's a reasonable question to ask (face-to-face) of a 14-year-old with a partially-thought-out science fair project. It's a silly question to ask of an adult applying for a job. It's an especially patronizing question when the proposal involves designing a specialized, collaborative effort that requires extensive literature searching and takes advantage of the expertise of several people, including the applicant. For instance, if I'm a new Ph.D. who has studied the chemistry of insect egg-laying cues for six or seven years, and I apply for funding to do a two-year field study of oviposition in an African beetle species at a salary of $25,000 per year, it's already obvious that (a.) the project closely fits my interests and experience, (b.) I'm not doing it to make huge amounts of money, and (c.) it's unlikely that my parents are pressuring me into doing entomological research in Kenya when I'd much rather be a stockbroker in New York or a plumber in Boise.

Worse, questions like this often coexist with requirements to keep the actual project description appallingly short. Brevity is fine, but paring your scientific proposal to its bare, rattling bones so as to leave room to answer questions better suited to weed out the sluggards at a pep-squad tryout is counterproductive.

So, for the time being, I can be happy that I'm not encountering The Ultimate Silly Question in this round of applications. I know I'll see it again, and will have to jump through that hoop in a cheerful and professional manner. I also know that if I ever have the responsibility of either designing a job application or interviewing a candidate, I'll bite either my keyboard or my tongue before asking that question.