Working Class Scientist

On the Twits the other day, @leonidkruglyak retweeted a link from @drbachinsky about the Broad Institute laying off 22 people due to funding issues with the comment “Now we know it’s grim”. In other words, the NIH funding situation is now affecting scientific superstars in addition to mere mortals like myself. It is amazing how a single tweet can cause so much introspection.  I came to the realization that I am essentially a working class scientist. Let me explain:

  • I publish in solid journals, but not glam (despite numerous attempts).
  • My lab generally has 5 or fewer people.
  • One R01 and a couple subcontracts is probably average for my funding (although I once had an R01, R21, and a R01-sized Shriners grant at the same time)
  • I have never had a Pew/Searle/K99/DP1/DP2 or other superlative grant.
  • I rarely give talks at conferences, but it does happen occasionally.

I could go on and on here, but I am not that self-deprecating. So how can such an apparently average Joe like myself survive in this funding environment when people at Broad are being laid off?  It is actually quite simple: I work my ass off. I live by the mantra “submit a grant every round”. We have reached a point where there are MANY grants at any given study section which are worthy of funding. If you have written a quality proposal which falls into this category, funding may rely on luck (GASP!). You really need an advocate on study section to push your grant.  It is the very stochastic nature of this process which necessitates a high volume of submissions. Every once in a while, one hits. I may skip one round if I have a newly funded grant, but I always feel guilty afterwards. The thing is, nothing in life worth having is easily obtainable. Funding at the NIH is no exception.  This is not the first time that politics has affected NIH funding, and it will not be the last.  Instead of whining, I highly suggest constructive actions like meeting with your congressperson to discuss NIH/NSF/etc. funding. This is a useful endeavor for the community as a whole. 

Being a working class scientist is not for everyone, but it has been an ideal career me. I actually enjoy grant writing. It is the only time I get to think really deeply about what questions are important and how to solve them. My hours are very flexible outside of teaching commitments, which has allowed both myself and my wife to pursue our professional goals while raising a small army of children.  I even have time to get in a run almost nightly and screw around on Twitter.  It isn’t so bad being a small fish in a big pond.  Just make sure you don’t miss that next submission deadline.

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5 thoughts on “Working Class Scientist

  1. I guess I’m right there with you in the working class. Using your criteria…

    – Publish in solid journals, not glam (unless its middle authorship).
    – Lab generally has 5 or fewer people.
    – One R01, a couple 5% efforts, and a dual-PI R01 with a 40% budget cut (~$80k for my lab).
    – Never had a special snowflake grant (despite numerous attempts).
    – Rarely give talks at conferences, but it does happen occasionally.

    I would add the following…
    – Mostly review for (and on ed-boards of) mid-rank journals, IF 5-10. Review for glam journals about half a dozen times a year.
    – Generally try to avoid “flashy” new techniques and buzz-words (RNAseq, optogenetics, CRISPR).
    – Having a fairly young technician who actually does experiments, not a career “lab manager” who just places orders and organizes things.
    – Not having a personal assistant or assigned administrator. Doing a lot of ones’ own admin’ work and when necessary using shared services in the Departmental office.
    – Open office door, not a lot of travel, meeting with people in the lab often (several times a week). None of this “speak to my assistant/make an appointment” malarkey.

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