The Plight of the Post-Doc


This is actually kind of serious.

When I came into lab last Wednesday, my excellent bay-mate E (for the non-sciency among my readers, this is the equivalent of a cubicle friend) said, "Hey Becca, I got an article for you.  It's called 'Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research'."  It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside that something with such an ominous title made him think of me.  The article is a perspective piece in PLoS Biology, a highly-respected journal published by the Public Library of Science, and it could very well be titled 'Why, Dr Becca, Your Life is Going to Suck'.

The article outlines some of the major problems with the current grants system and how the careers of young scientists can be negatively affected.  Most junior faculty are responsible for obtaining funding to pay for the bulk (if not all) of their research (not to mention their salaries), in addition to teaching classes, training graduate students and postdocs, and actually doing the research.  But the way the system is currently structured, grants only cover ~3 years of funding and can take several years to secure, which means that we're constantly applying for grants, while teaching, training, and lab work are forced to be secondary priorities.  This puts us in a catch-22, because we're more likely to be awarded a grant if we've published our work.  Moreover, because grant applications are so long and complicated and grants reviewers spend relatively little time actually reviewing each proposal, we're rewarded for composing tidy, tight little package proposals rather than those based on more organic, risk-taking, and free-flowing ideas (which, it could be argued, is how some of the best science happens). 

None of this is news, of course.  We've all been kvetching about these problems for ages (if there's one thing that scientists as a whole excel at, it's commiserating...and schadenfreude), but at the same time, seeing it all in print is sobering.  That's me they're talking about in the article, my not-so-distant future if I succeed (!!) in my quest for a tenure-track job.  What's also sobering was noticing on the PLoS website that despite 19,000 views of the article, there were only nine comments.  Nine!!  There's clearly a lot to be said here, but why aren't we engaging in real, public discussion? 

I would seriously love to hear from everyone here, especially if you or someone you know is a new faculty member.  How is it going?  How do you balance securing funding with all of your other responsibilities?  Do you think we need major reform in the grants system, and if so, how do we go about making it happen?  This, I feel, is the biggest hurdle, and it will never be cleared if we don't talk about it.


Anonymous said...


great blog. That article has been getting some serious mileage on our internal departmental email list. I think (actually know) the problems the author describes are real, though some are pretty particular to the UK system (plus who is this guy who submits his *first* grant only after spending four decades in research??). The solutions Lawrence offers are also overall sound and would greatly benefit the system were they to be implemented. But the tone of the article is overly pessimistic. (A tone, it can be added, which mirrors countless conversations in the dept lunchroom shared over a tantalizing offering of pickled herring and meatballs, of course. (Hello from Scandinavia). How sad is that - we spend much more time talking about the futility of fudning than about actual science.) Sure, it IS hard and it IS frustrating and the salary measured against the level of education and experience downright laughable. Keep your eyes on the prize, though. The joys of this trade - the exhilarating experience of figuring out a facet of biology for the first time ever, the relative flexibility, the truly global community you work in etc - offers highs that you'd be hard-pressed to find in many other jobs. That's not to say that the system isn't badly in need of reform, especially on the tenure and funding situation. But don't let that obscure what brought you into this business in the first place (apart from the ready supply of lab alcohol).

Also, around our dept., some have interpreted the article as a lamentation over the emphasis on managerial skills in running a lab. (Though, in fairness, that to me does not seem to be the main message Lawrencec wants to convey.) On the contrary, I think bad experiences in poorly run labs are a much bigger factor in promising postdocs dropping out of science than the challenge of securing grants.

As far as your job hunt goes, make sure you have a good conversation with any dept leadership about how they view funding. How much do they expect you to pull in? How quickly? If the well runs dry for a while, will they offer you "bridge money"? In our university, neighbouring depts take vastly different views. One maintains a continous conversation with younger PIs about how and where their research is going and, if they see a serious effort that they believe will succceed financially as well as scientifically in the long, if nto the short, run, they are rpeared to back them up money-wise. Another tells new recruits flat out that papers below PNAS (impact factor-wise) don't count and if they hit hard times, they're on their own. An apt way, perhaps, to celebrate the Darwin bicentennial, but not a yellow brick road to a healthy work environment.

The ERC (European Research Council), still in its infacny and still lagging behind the NIH in optimising its review process, but making promising steps in the right direction. One of the strengths of the US grants process, in addition to the overall greater amounts of money put into the system, is its committment to serious peer review. One clever thing the ERC has done, however, is to open separate calls for established and starting (<9 years postgradution). This year, they go a step further and subdivide the latter category into two depending on how many years from your PhD you are. Perhaps there is something similar in the US system?

don't give up,

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