You don't get to define your job. Is that a problem for you?

Jun 23 2010 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism, Mentoring, Tribe of Science

You will probably have noticed by now, DearReader, that the NIH grant game is not exactly a distasteful part of my job. Don't get me wrong. I'd be much happier if I had landed in some hard-salary situation with exceptional institutional support, local funding sources procured by the philanthropy side of the institution and just generally had fewer concerns about actually funding my laboratory.
That didn't happen, however. I landed in a job which requires me to be at least minimally competent at acquiring major research funding. I was not particularly prepared for this.


Which in hindsight is my own fault to large extent. I was one of those idiots who was never really focused on career. I was doing the science I wanted to do and following the steps. Graduate school...okay. Then I'm supposed to post-doc? Alright, can do. All throughout I was mostly engaged with trying to do the job I already had. I was pretty clueless about the idea of preparing for the next job.
For better or for worse, the scientists I trained with were not the types to put on a big show about the amount they worked to keep the funds flowing into the laboratory. In one of the stops (the most useful one, as it happens) I did see a lot more of the sausage making. But not all of it by any means.
It should not strain your credulity to accept that I exhibit a fair bit more of the process of grant-getting to my lab staff than anyone I ever trained with did. I talk about it with friends, academic peers who aren't in biomedical sciences, etc, as well.
One thing I occasionally hear is something along the lines of "I once thought I'd like to do a job like that but from your description it sounds like a nightmare! All that NIH grant policy geekery, study section strategy and the endless cycle of submitting proposals would be the worst kind of torture. I could never, ever stand it. ...and this isn't what I got into science to do, anyway."
Maybe there is some truth to this. Maybe, just perhaps, the system of NIH-funded research as we currently know it selects for a certain type of scientist. Perhaps there are going to be people who would otherwise make fine (superior?) lab heads and research team leaders who are screened out because of the whole grant game. It is not impossible.
I submit to you, however, that for a very large number of job categories and career paths we do not realize at the start just exactly what the job will become later on. I further argue that for a lot of jobs there are aspects down the road that would seem pretty annoying or abhorrent at the start. Aspects that you may come to tolerate. Aspects that may be slightly aversive but are more than adequately compensated by other advantages of that later career stage.
Even more to the point, there may be parts of the job that are lying in wait for you that you think might be annoying but it turns out you are pretty good at doing. Or at least that you don't find to be as unenjoyable as you initially thought.
And in the end analysis, like it or not, these things that you have to do are part of the job. Inextricable. And you have chosen to do this job. So you do the dirty bits along with the fun bits.
Is there really any reason to think that we get to define our job just exactly how we think it should be, just because we are in academics or in science? Are we really so unique?

15 responses so far

  • FrauTech says:

    Seems pretty accurate for most careers. A lot of engineers look forward to the design, the building, thinking they will be creating parts or doing calculations or tests all day. But in the end, you have to do a whole lot of paperwork to get to those days where you're actually running the test. Seems to me a lot of jobs are like that, and I'm amused every time I hear that the computer is replacing the secretary when there's still all this paperwork to be done.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Seconding FrauTech, if you ever hope to get to the point where you outgrow projects small enough to be done by one person, you're going to have to accept the joys of scheduling, budgeting, staffing, conflict resolution, performance reviews, project proposals, ...
    So much for academia being radically different from "real life."

  • pablito says:

    I'd be much happier if I had landed in some hard-salary situation with exceptional institutional support
    I'm at such a place but there are trade offs. Fantastic institutional support but one is still expected to get some NIH funding and publish in high impact journals. No tenure, so mid-career scientists can be let go. No teaching per se, therefore no graduate students per se. It's in a place where many people would prefer not live, so recruiting personnel is a major issue.

  • Zuska says:

    I am one of those people described in DM's italicized quote. And then I actually had a short stint in academia - as an administrator - where I had to write some grant proposals anyway. Many different kinds, to different funding sources, but some of the NIH/NSF variety. Turns out, I did seriously hate the latter. Not the idea brainstorming process and the collaboration with others to work out the kinks of the project, but the actual figuring out all the stupid requirements and the working with the ridiculous system to submit and trying to fit everything into the crazily constrained format...it made me ill. If I had stayed in that job I would probably be submitting at least three of those a year and I would want to shoot myself, even though I loved everything else about my job.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    The secret of your 30's is that you find out that all your college friends hate 90% of their jobs (except of course for the friend who's now a MLB General Manager).

  • neurolover says:

    "Maybe, just perhaps, the system of NIH-funded research as we currently know it selects for a certain type of scientist."
    It almost certainly does. But that's not a problem for the system, unless it impacts the science. There's nothing immoral in selecting for people who like writing grants (yay! doubledoctor, for example). We probably loose other good characteristics, but overall, there will always be trade offs.
    What concerns me is a system that depends on exploiting people in a tournament model (and for which I still think the best solution is more information) and structural barriers that prevent non-standard (i.e. minority, women, shy, . . . ) people from succeeding. As we narrow the pool, I start to worry that we're loosing the best.

  • As a student and postdoc I actually looked forward to the day when my life would be primarily writing grants, reviewing, mentoring, and hopefully writing papers based on the data generated by my lab.
    For me bench work was a means to an end. In the end it just became to much of a chore. I wanted to think about science, not do the fiddle about with technicalities and details! The fact that I do not want to teach is what made me give up on my career goal of tenured professor.
    Many college graduates are better paid than gradstudents and postdocs, and even professors. There is always a trade off between getting paid to do something you enjoy and affording to do more outside of work.

  • Grumble says:

    No, there's nothing wrong with having to write grants. And even though that part of the "sausage making" wasn't much dwelt upon by my mentors either, I always knew it would be a requirement.
    I think the reason why the earlier generation of mentors didn't spend a lot of time on things like grant-writing is because the process wasn't so onerous back then. When 30% of grants were funded, you didn't have to spend 75% of your time writing grants. I don't at all resent writing grants; justifying our work to funding agencies SHOULD be a requirement. But it's very hard to produce great science if you spend all your time producing those justifications.
    And it's extremely aversive to have what everyone, including the reviewers, agree is a great grant get rejected, over and over again. THAT is what most biomedical scientists are complaining about these days, not the grant-writing requirement itself.

  • Venkat says:

    Whenever I have any minor disillusionment with academia, I think of all the things I imagine to dislike about working in industry (almost everything else except mo money! mo money! mo money!). Then I feel much better.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    As we narrow the pool, I start to worry that we're loosing the best.

    "Best" can be defined as what the process selects (as in evolution.) The question might better be posed as, "how well is the selection process meeting the stated goals of the system?"
    If those goals are defined in an industrial sense (product per dollar spent) then you're going to get a different answer than if you add social objectives, education, etc.

  • If I had stayed in that job I would probably be submitting at least three of those a year and I would want to shoot myself, even though I loved everything else about my job.
    Hahaha, Zuska. I'm submitting four grants in the next two weeks. And that's just this round.
    Yes, the grant side of things is not for everyone. It can be tedious and tiring. It can force you to question your own abilities (along with those of some reviewers) and it takes a shit load of time.
    BUT, there is something exciting about putting together a proposal. It's all about the promise of a project. It's the one time where we can write something that is hugely speculative (based on the available data, of course) and not get slammed for it. It's a chance to really *sell* something you have a vested interest in seeing come to fruition. I find it in some ways more satisfying than writing up a paper on something that is already completed.

  • bsci says:

    DM, This brings up a suggestion for a potential future posts. What DO you do to train your mentees for academia? Do they get to read your grants? Comment? Write parts of an R01? I assume you have them submit NRSAs, but merely submitting isn't a training experience. Have you found ways to improve the educational utility of the process?
    For that matter, I assume you're not one of those PIs who treats all students as if they're going into academia & those who don't are considered failures. Anything you do to make sure that attitude doesn't enter your group or to train people for other options?

  • Dr. O says:

    I spent quite a bit of time during undergrad and before graduate school working in non-science fields, and I was very good at some of those jobs. But there were plenty of things that I absolutely hated about the work...in fact, most of the jobs completely sucked. So a little bit of negative in a future career was no big deal in my mind...grant writing never came across as something that would keep me from continuing down the academic path.
    I also find your statement interesting regarding not realizing how much grant-writing would dominate your future career path as a grad student/postdoc. I wonder if it's the funding climate that's taken over since I was mid-grad school, but my training seems to have been dominated by grant-writing gripes/discussions. The best preparation though: my graduate advisor got her entire lab involved in the R01 process...once the specific aims were laid out and she was actually writing the grant, everyone in the lab was responsible for editing it as the pages came off the printer. Made the grant stronger and taught us about the "sausage-making".

  • whimple says:

    Grantwriting is a useful exercise, so long as the process improves the science. At 10% paylines that just isn't true anymore. The inefficiency of the process is stunning, but unfortunately solutions do not appear to be forthcoming.
    But that's not a problem for the system, unless [selection of one type of scientist] impacts the science.
    Are there any circumstances under which this would not be true? The problem as I see it is that the selection is for scientists that are exactly the same as all the other scientists, in topic, approach, interests, background, etc. After all, to get an NIH grant funded, you need the approval of a committee. This process hurts diversity of investigation. We get a lot of different labs all racing down the same path trying to outdo each other, but that doesn't get us anywhere different, just where we were going anyway except a little faster. Unfortunately, the big advances in science (by definition) come from the unexpected, which is exactly the kind of research that tends to not get funded by the NIH committee structure.

  • Medina64 says:

    For many years I worked in the advanced development section of a mid-sized defense company. It was interesting because the company allowed you to bid on anything you wanted, defense or not. The main rule was that you couldn't sit around without something to charge to for more than a couple of weeks, if that happened you were gone. So the pressure was constantly on to dig up things to do and it could get very stressful. But I got to work on sonar problems, develop advanced drilling software, work on detection of heart valve problems, participate in coring at the bottom of the ocean, and a bunch of other weird stuff. The proposal/grant part used to drive us all nuts and I often said that if I had known I was going to be a salesman I would have gotten an MBA and made the big bucks. Well, we've been bought up/merged a number of times and have become a very small part of a very large aerospace company. I now spend my days on requirements and "flow down" and the the closest I come to math and science is reading stuff on the Web. The primary result for all of this is that I have, yet once again, reconfirmed that I prefer math, science, and stress to requirements, compliance matrices, and documents.

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