What ya wanna do when you grow up?

What do I wanna do?

Um, be a PI. Get to play in a lab forever. Contribute to my field. Be respected. Be loved by my students. hehehe My dream is to do research until I die, thus to have the opportunity to totally traumatize my grad students by letting them discover my cold, dead body slumped over the tissue culture hood one morning (ah, if I could only be there to laugh at them!!!)

But do I plan on being a PI? Do I hang my hopes and dreams on it? Will I be crushed if I cant be a PI?

Nope!

I mean, I think Im smart enough. I think Im creative enough. I think Im a pretty hard worker.

But in my few years in Research World, Ive already seen several smart, creative, hard working PIs not get tenure.

Why?

There just aint enough money. There aint enough money for all the good ideas people think up. And contrary to the claims of Creationists, if you dont win grants, if you dont bring in money, you dont get tenure, and you dont get to be a PI forever and ever, and you cant use your 92-year-old dead body to traumatize your grad students.

Luckily, Im surrounded by mentors who are trying to prepare us younger folk for life in the current funding climate. Oh sure they coach us on grant writing, how to network to find great post-docs, how to give the best presentations at conferences– but they also bring in PhDs for us to talk to who have made ‘alternative’ career choices. Science policy advisers for politicians, people who started their own tech business, etc.

So do I want to be a PI? YEAH! DUH! But will I be pissed if I ‘have’ to work in DC as a science adviser? LOL No! Will I be sulking if Im ‘forced’ to work with a private industry like the Venter Institute? AAAHH NOOO!! Will I be suicidal if I ‘end up’ getting a gig as a consultant for a bioanimation company like XVIVO? NOOOO!

Look, I had a horrible, horrible physics teacher in high school that I learned one lesson from: Cream rises to the top. If you work hard, youre creative, and you love– you genuinely love what you do, you can rise to the top. I dont worry about my future. Like Arnie, Im obnoxiously happy and optimistic.

But like what scared me to death about ‘When a PI dies’, what I worry about with this dismal funding climate are the lost ideas. The great ideas that arent getting funded. The great ideas that are never being tested. The great ideas that might be lost, over something as stupid as money. When were throwing money down the drain on crap and The War… what innovations, what revolutions, are we losing?

Comments

  1. #1 Crudely Wrott
    June 12, 2008

    All living things have guts. Science is alive and has guts and needs more, a never ending supply in fact. You have guts. You contribute. This is good for science which is good for all. Good on ya.

    Is it not worthwhile to pursue excellence? And is not part of that pursuit correctly identifying things that are probable and things that are not? If so, you are doing your part and it will count and your efforts will be recorded if not remembered. But some will remember and do good science.

    This is approximately how all progress is made.

    Keep on, ERV. OHHHH YESSSSSSSS!!!!!!

  2. #2 natural cynic
    June 13, 2008

    Why not a career change?

    You can be the Dread Pirate Roberts. After me, of course.

  3. #3 nanoAl
    June 13, 2008

    Your story sounds an awful lot like mine is probably going to wind up. I’m still in my undergrad, but I basically want your career(except doing nano instead of bio).
    Perhaps if funding gets anymore tight, we should found a research ideas registry (with a better name), so that really cool ideas could at least have their roots documented for either the future or for other scientists with mad grant writing skillz. I can see it getting stupid complicated really fast though. It’d be intellectual property nightmare. and, unless it was really heavily moderated, it’d end up chock full of crap, woo, quackery and satire. It basically sounded like a good idea until i thought about it…

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    June 13, 2008

    Um, be a PI. Get to play in a lab forever.

    Oh you nave young thing. The worst thing a PI can do is go into the lab. It scares the minions, and means you don’t do any real work.

    This week I’ve written two project reports, revised two or three manuscripts, refereed two papers and answered innumerable emails about stuff. And I have a small group, with no teaching and little admin (how to avoid that curse: live in a country with an obscure language that’s almost impossible to learn).

  5. #5 Reynold Hall
    June 13, 2008

    But like what scared me to death about ‘When a PI dies’, what I worry about with this dismal funding climate are the lost ideas. The great ideas that arent getting funded. The great ideas that are never being tested. The great ideas that might be lost, over something as stupid as money. When were throwing money down the drain on crap and The War… what innovations, what revolutions, are we losing?

    Now, that is a depressing thought!

  6. #6 Confused
    June 13, 2008

    My dream is to do research until I die, thus to have the opportunity to totally traumatize my grad students by letting them discover my cold, dead body slumped over the tissue culture hood one morning.

    I don’t know what the environment is like where you are, but I have yet to see a PI past five years running their own lab who does any kind of bench work. They come in to the lab occaisionally to check things, and they some times come in to demonstrate an experiment or help out if a large, intensive experiment needs done – but really, if you spend a twentieth, even a hundredth of the time at the bench as a PI that you did as a postgrad/postdoc, I would be extremely surprised.

    I’d love to work at the bench for the rest of my life, doing exciting, innovating research. For almost exactly that reason, I have no aspiration to become a PI. All the other bullshit that goes along with it – people management and grant proposals and figuring out what the hell your incompetent undergrad has been doing wrong – doesn’t even slightly appeal to me.

    But if you’re clear about what you’re aiming for in a PI position and you still want it – then best of luck. I’m planning on making that goal a little easier by getting out of the tenure race as soon as possible.

  7. #7 factician
    June 13, 2008

    Confused,

    PI’s don’t do people management. Most of them are deeply, deeply screwed up people who have zero management skills. The environment simply selects for those people willing to not go home to see their kids during the funding crunches. (For example, the 2003-2008 period).

    Me, I realized I wouldn’t be a PI as soon as I had a kid. I like coming home and seeing him too much, and with the funding environment being what it is, I’d have to give up a lot to stay funded.

    That said, I just took a job at a biotech company in California. As best as I can tell (I’ve been out to interview, haven’t started yet), the big differences between biotech and academia are that: 1) Biotech has resources to do enormous experiments 2) Biotech points their muscle at problems that have a reasonable chance of making a product in 1-15 years. 3) Scientists at biotech are unencumbered by grant writing. They either have funding and are able to do bench science with their minions, or they don’t have funding, and they and their entire division get laid off.

  8. #8 olegt
    June 13, 2008

    What Bob said. When you become a PI, your grad students and postdocs will come to you for ideas. Funding agencies and reviewers will look for ideas in your grant proposals (past performance helps, of course). So work hard and be bold, ERV, and may success find you.

  9. #9 olegt
    June 13, 2008

    factician,

    You’re right, many PIs have no idea how to manage people. But the knowledge is out there: Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists by Carl and Suzanne Cohen is a good resource.

  10. #10 MH
    June 13, 2008

    “What do I wanna do?

    Um, be a PI.”

    What, like Magnum? Cool!

  11. #11 ShavenYak
    June 13, 2008

    I know you hate them, but this sentence…

    “When were throwing money down the drain on crap and The War… what innovations, what revolutions, are we losing?

    …is a great example of why apostrophes can be your friends. I started reading it, got to the end, and it made no sense. Only then did I realize that “were” was the contraction for “we are”. I thought it was the past tense plural of “to be” the first time through. This is a case where, if you are going to refuse to use apostrophes, you probably should just be like Data and not use the contraction.

    Okay, grammar nazi mode is now off. Carry on!

  12. #12 Sili
    June 13, 2008

    You’re certainly a lot better prepared for *any* kind of job than I ever was – or am.

    I still have no idea what I’ll do – once I’m well.

  13. #13 BAllanJ
    June 13, 2008

    Hey, I don’t know what I wanna be when I grow up….and I’m less than 8 years from retirement!
    I’ve BEEN different things….always been working in the lab at least a bit, but I’ve defined myself differently in at least 5 different ways along the way.
    That’s the real key…don’t grow up! Sure, pretend to grow up….be the expert, have kids, LIVE, but don’t ever fool yourself that you’re done redefining who or what you are…and I think the most important bit……NEVER fool yourself that younger folks automatically have more to learn from you than you have to learn from them.

  14. #14 John Kwok
    June 13, 2008

    Hi Abbie,

    You have the right attitude and intelligence that I’m confident you will have a fine career in science. Maybe you’ll find time to write a great book like Ken Miller’s “Only A Theory” (http://www.amazon.com/Only-Theory-Evolution-Battle-Americas/dp/067001883X/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1213370005&sr=8-1) (Without indulging in too much self-promotion, my review seems as though it is the only one which understands Ken’s dire warning that we are engaged in a battle for America’s soul. Moreover, mine also discusses at some length, Ken’s rhetorical decision to take “seriously” the prospect of Intelligent Design as a viable scientific theory before demolishing it.).

    Just keep the faith babe.

    Cheers,

    John

  15. #15 PhysioProf
    June 13, 2008

    I disagree that the problem with poor funding is that some particular MASSIVE BREAKTHROUGH IDEEZ!@!!!111!!! will be forever lost if particular PIs drop out of the system.

    Scientific progress does not really rely on the particular unique genius of creative individuals. Scientific progress is made in the aggregate when lots of hard-working, bright, enthusiastic people try out all kinds of ideas and see where they lead. The more ideas that get tried out per unit time, the faster science progresses.

    But it is absurd to think that certain scientific ideas will somehow “die” with one particular originator if that originator does not bring the idea to fruition. This is one important way in which science differs from the arts and literature: science is constrained by physical reality and valid descriptions of that reality will eventually come to light completely irrespective of the fortunes of any one scientist.

    So, shitty funding doesn’t suck because it means some genius idea will die on the vine. It sucks because overall scientific progress gets slower the fewer people there are doing science.

  16. #16 Nat Blair
    June 13, 2008

    Nice post, you have a great (and the correct) attitude!

    There shouldn’t be any shame on those people who do not get faculty jobs, but instead do any of the other jobs you listed above (which sound great! Personally I’m looking for “Chief Advisor on Scientific Plausibility of Alien Neurobiological Systems” for any of the cool sci fi series out there; not too many takers so far).

    The days where only the lower echelons of science Ph.D.s went to industry, if they ever really did exist, are long over. People who don’t make it are more likely the victims of poor luck than poor training or lack of smarts.

  17. #17 Mak
    June 14, 2008

    Seriously, I just saw this ad posted on PZ’s site.
    http://losangeles.craigslist.org/lac/tfr/686935714.html
    You should think about this. I hate reality TV, but it’s where the money and the eyeballs are.

  18. #18 factician
    June 16, 2008

    I agree with you 100%, PhysioProf.

    The great ideas are often being worked on by multiple groups. Several groups were working on the structure of DNA. If Watson had been hit by a bus, someone else would have gotten there a few months later.

    Darwin and Wallace arrived at natural selection around the same time (okay, okay, Darwin sat on it for 2 decades, but they published more or less simultaneously). If Darwin had fallen off the Beagle and drowned, we would still have had evolution by natural selection.

    Same thing for most (all) of the big discoveries. No one is indispensible. Money just makes science work faster.

  19. #19 Ian
    June 18, 2008

    Why would you want to be a Private Investigator (PI)?

    Just kidding. If you’re worried about great ideas being lost then BLOG THEM as soon as they hit you! That’s why you have a blog isn’t it – to communicate your great ideas to the world?

    Blog like nuts, then your ideas won’t die with you. And hopefully you’ll live long enough to indulge yourself in them all. You won’t forget them since you already blogged them.

    What could be more perfect?!

  20. #20 Unsympathetic reader
    June 18, 2008

    Luckily, Im surrounded by mentors who are trying to prepare us younger folk for life in the current funding climate.

    Perhaps a good mentor would also have connections in industry.

    In academia, I found I could do whatever I wanted as long as it was something that someone else controlling the money thought should be done. In industry, I could do whatever I wanted, as long as it was what the rest of the company wanted done. Academia has tenure but though you give up some security with industry, it’s also a lot easier to move between positions and find the setting you like. YMMV.

    My advice, marry rich. Then you can truly do what you want. Or, better, be born rich.

    Bob O’H writes: “The worst thing a PI can do is go into the lab. It scares the minions, and means you don’t do any real work.

    That’s solid advice. You want to stay in the lab? Stop grad school now or move into a field too poor to hire students. Post-Ph.D., you’ve got only 3-8 years before you become too valuable to ‘waste’ in a lab, academic or industrial.

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