Mike the Mad Biologist

A Sustainable Research Model

There’s been a lot of interesting discussion about the poor job prospects of post-docs, much of which was sparked by this Nature News column by Jennifer Rohn. I responded with the idea that we need more research centers (although if what you want to do is teach, you should continue in academia). But what I find odd is that there really isn’t an understanding of what a research center (or could be). For instance, Steve Caplan writes (and I don’t mean to pick on him; I’ve had various exchanges with other people that are similar):

Jenny has proposed that it would be a good idea to have “career tracks” that are available for postdoctoral fellows who have gone through so much training so that they may stay in the laboratory and continue their productive and experienced research studies. Personally, I think that this is a wonderful idea and have been advocating this myself for many years. The problem, of course, is the issue of money. And at least in the United States the system dictates that each laboratory is its own entity and is responsible for funding the individuals who work within the confines of a laboratory. This means that in order for an investigator to be able to hire such a super postdoctoral fellow he or she will need to be able to finance such a person in the laboratory.

Would a research institute give up on constructing a new “center” or building (with donors names and golden plaques for key contributors) to fund a pool of talented “senior researchers” to be ‘awarded’ to successful laboratories-with the goal to be able to attract additional funding? After all, without the prospect of some ‘return’ on the investment, research institutes are unlikely to support such an idea. Would the donors and contributors be satisfied with their names on the backs of these senior researcher’s shirts? It would be great, but are we kidding ourselves?

To me, this isn’t how the center at which I work, well, works. So I thought it would be useful to describe, in general terms (because we are very shy), the kinds of things Ph.D.s do where I work:

1) Adminstration. Some Ph.D.s are primarily adminstrators. I don’t mean in the sense of a PI, but either overseeing large production groups (e.g., a sequencing platform) or else basic administration (we have a CEO who keeps things running).

2) Managerial. Here, Ph.D.s are either directly leading data generation groups (or methods development groups), developing new projects, or obtaining funding. In academia, this would be most like a PI.

3) Research. Some will be developing new techniques or tools, either molecular or bioinformatic. Others will largely be conducting analysis of data we generate.

4) Hybrids. Of course, these distinctions don’t always neatly classify Ph.D.s. Many will be hybrids (e.g., group managers who also develop bioinformatic tools).

But one key thing, and one not captured by the list, is that the way we work is collaborative. I realize that word is far too often used by douchey management consultants, but that really is the way we do things. Most projects are not done by a single person, with a small group of specific minions. If I put together a project, I have to involve different groups in each step of the process (e.g., sequencing, assembly, annotation, and downstream analysis). I don’t have my own lab. Unlike academia, we are not a group of independent contractors who share a joint letterhead. Each Ph.D. doesn’t head a self-contained, autonomous unit.

The other unique feature is that, to a considerable extent, we are structured like a business. If we want to head in a new direction, we have to evaluate if it’s worth doing (and that’s not a royal we, but a group we). All those things good managers do, such as project where you’ll be in a few years, take place. We can’t be myopic.

I don’t want to sound pollyannish, because there are problems wherever you are. But I will say that I’m part of, and, in some cases, driving some really cool science that, if I were in academia, I would never be able to do.

So don’t think of the research center as a faculty department that doesn’t teach. Since the teaching helps subsidize the salaries of the research faculty, an independent center needs a different way of doing business to stay afloat. It also needs to think about funding and projects in an atypical way (for academia). You’re not small and nimble, but, on the other hand, you can do something at a qualitatively different scale that no individual PI or group of PIs could do. Think of the research center as a non-profit biotech company.

Comments

  1. #1 Julie Stahlhut
    March 8, 2011

    I’m by nature a complete hybrid, and my current position (yes, in a research center) includes research, administration, field work, lab work, data analysis, data management, general “people stuff” … in fact, a bit of everything except classroom teaching, which is by far my least favorite part of the university enterprise. If I had to do only one or two of those things all the time, I’d just as soon work at McDonald’s. This may be a minority preference, but it’s definitely mine, and I feel a much greater sense of accomplishment at the end of my varied workday than I have ever experienced in any other working environment.

    Of course, my lifelong philosophy of science is simply this: There is just so much work to be done! And for those of us for whom rewarding work is by definition social and collaborative, it’s actively anti-productive to be forced into a narrow definition of what a research position should be like.