Like A Death in the Family

It is a hard thing when somebody is lost from your subfield. We talk a lot about competition, scooping and limited funding resources but in the vast majority of cases, the interactions with your fellow scientists are just plain enjoyable. Oftentimes, you may have a limited subset of a dozen or fewer science homies that are practically like family. These individuals understand, really, the esoterica that totally charge you up about your subfield. They wax excited about your latest TotallyKewl result as if they were in your lab themselves. You can't wait to hear about what they have been doing lately. You meet at conferences and talk late into the after-sessions hours over a very obscure dataset, plot collaborative projects and TotalWorldDomination of your sub-sub-sub-field with your brilliance. You edit special journal issues with this one and focused conference sessions with that one. Trade trainees. Oh, it's high times, scientifically.
...and then, one day, one of them is gone.


The Alternative Scientist blog was launched in no small part because of a feeling on the part of many academic scientists (generally at the trainee level but PIs too) that career aspirations and choices that differ from professorial-independent-research-scientist at an R1 university are viewed as less-than. Some subset (all?) of this feeling comes when the trainee gets up enough courage to tell their PI that they will be seeking a career in "other" and the PI reacts in ...disappointment. (Female Science Professor had a good post on this previously but I'm not finding it right now.) Negative comments on alternative paths and nearly-as-bad presumptions of singular career aspirations are a common sore point in mentoring relationships in science.
I don't think I ever really understood where PIs who express disappointment with non-PI career path choices are coming from until recently. No, not one of my trainees, even worse. One of my science homies is thinking very seriously about taking an alternative path. I'm trying to be supportive. I know deep down that this person will make the best decision for himself and his goals/aspirations in life. Academic PIdom has copious suckitudes that can be magically relieved by taking another path. I know this.
Still. He's been toiling on the edge along with many of us for years, trying to make it as a grant funded research-focused PI. From many measures and appearances he's finally won! Things are looking like the PI / research path is going to work, if not just fine, at least as well as anyone else has it. He's poised to really take off, scientifically. Apparently it isn't enough.
Dammit.

8 responses so far

  • drdrA says:

    Re: disappointment....
    http://bluelabcoats.wordpress.com/2008/05/09/ok-you-were-nodding-your-head-but-were-you-listening/#more-87
    Sorry, I'm a goof and have once again forgotten how to put the link in the comment...

  • bill says:

    if not just fine, at least as well as anyone else has it
    Aye, there's the rub. How good does it get? I've been asking PIs that question a lot lately, as I think over my choices (nearing use-by date as postdoc; do I really want to try for PI?) -- and so far, the verdict is unanimous: don't do it, it ain't worth it. (Small sample though.)

  • Mad Hatter says:

    I actually totally understand the disappointment reaction. I've seen fellow grad students and postdocs who I thought would've made good PIs leave academia. I've seen women scientists leave science altogether because trying to juggle academic careers and personal lives just became too much of a struggle. And I've been disappointed, not because those people are a disappointment to me as a scientist or a person, but because I thought their departures were a loss to science and it was hard to lose yet another compadre.
    I've been on the receiving end of quite a few "I'm disappointed" comments about my choice of career. Almost all of them have been of the "I'm disappointed because I think you would've been really good at ___" variety. And I'm fine with those...I've even taken a few of them as roundabout compliments. It's the "I'm disappointed that all of my mentoring efforts have gone to waste" variety that sucks. The reason for the disappointment, and how it's expressed, makes a big difference.

  • PhysioProf says:

    How good does it get?

    Being a PI kicks total fucking ass!!! If you are good at it, it can get really really good!!!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    How good does it get? ... so far, the verdict is unanimous: don't do it, it ain't worth it.
    At this point in time I happen to think that it IS worth it. Warts and all. Obviously this is a highly personal decision because there are substantial suckitudes in the PI biz. Substantial differences in the most-likely alternative careers as well, which can change the calculus depending on sub-field.
    There is a tragic Catch22 aspect to this. You know how the PP and I are on about how being a junior PI is very different from being a senior postdoc? Usually from the "this is a boatload more and different work" perspective? Well, this is also true from the upside perspective. Meaning you can't really know how great it is to be a PI until you are one. So as a postdoc one may be able to better relate to what seems to be the suckage than to truly understand the reinforcers you might get as a PI.

  • I'm definitely with you on all accounts. It sucks to lose a close colleague from your field who apparently has all the gifts to make it. And as much as I try to help people see their potential, every decision is a personal decision. Of course, some people are so stuck in their morass that their view of their abilities is clouded and they need a little extra support. I've sometimes been the beneficiary of such support at times, even at the mid-career level, by people who have a better and more objective view of my situation than I.
    I loved your point about not knowing what it's like to be a PI until you are one. For that reason, I've always tried every type of position I've been offered for the simple reason that I wouldn't know if I liked it until I tried it. I've found, especially on the blogs, that many trainees close off avenues to themselves because of their perception of what industry/writing/business, is all about without actually learning about these other paths.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    many trainees close off avenues to themselves because of their perception of what industry/writing/business, is all about without actually learning about these other paths.
    Worse than that, trainees close off scientific avenues to independence too! The idea of running to the daylight is totally foreign to some because "well, I do this type of science". To which I respond "Do you want a career of not?"
    Example: I operate in a series of subfields which were Johnny-come-very-lately-if-at-all to what we might view as modern molecular biological techniques. There are a whole set of experimental techniques and approaches which, when applied in the traditional, basic, molecular fields, don't get you any credit because everyone is already doing them.
    Apply these techniques which some of our friends like Orac seem to think are the very embodiment of biological science to certain areas and those subfields are going to think you are the Second Coming. Funding will flow your way. Job offers will abound because some olde skoole department can't believe you want to bring them forward three decades in experimental sophistication.
    Hell you can invent new sub-fields, start journals and meetings by for example applying "1970's immunology*" to drug abuse!
    --
    *ok, that was unfair. and I'm quoting from some watercooler sniping. I'm unworthy. (but look what gets published and CRISP the ringleaders' grants)

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