What kind of life is possible after the dissertation? What kind of a career is for me outside academia?
These are a couple of the important questions that arise from Jacquelyn Gill’s Blog Carnival call on What’s Your Post-PhD Story? Pieces of my post PhD story are within this website and elsewhere, but for personal reasons I won’ t link them here.
Graduate school, postdoctoral experience, and the tenure track position for me all happened in the 1980s. In my opinion and from personal observation, that decade saw increasing numbers of women in the life sciences and other STEM disciplines. This is the beginning the numerical parity with men that exists now in biology. It is also the decade, where molecular biology really began to advance in a significant way.
Back then it still wasn’t unusual for newly awarded graduates and even ABD candidates to receive tenure track offers right out of graduate school in the sciences. My graduate school colleagues were mostly field biologists and they typically received offers from small liberal arts colleges, outpost campuses of state universities, and community colleges. One postdoctoral appointment was normal for anyone with any inclination to molecular biology, biochemistry, cell biology, or physiology. Multiple postdoctoral appointments were becoming the reality for many. Keep in mind that the 1980s and into the early 1990s were the years of the anticipated retirements of the Sputnik and post Sputnik scientists. We now know how that really worked out.
What Happened Post-PhD?
I happily went off to a two-year postdoctoral experience that integrated the best of both field and lab research with a twist of the molecular biology techniques. While on my postdoc, I watched my PI continuously jump through the grant hoops. The constant grant grubbing didn’t appeal to me, but staying engaged in research with undergraduates did. When faced with the lucky opportunity of a tenure track position at a small minority serving institution or a second postdoc, I accepted the tenure track offer. Years later when I told that story to a NAS member, he replied that I had made the right one at the time.
The tenure track offer seemed the better idea at the time. The school administration, for reasons known only to them, decided to become a research university about the time of my offer. At the end of the transformation the university was an R1. That was a game changer. Unlike some of my non-science colleagues and even a few of my science ones, I got the memo, read it, analyzed it, and took steps to put a research program in place. As much as I liked teaching, I needed a respite from it and understood I needed to keep current.
The uncomfortable truth about Research 1’s is that they are not all created equal. The current Carnegie Classification system only attempts to address these inequalities with the high, very high, and doctoral/comprehensive classifications within the R1 category. Just because a university has the grant dollars and the academic programs doesn’t mean that it has the infrastructure to really support faculty research efforts. Little to no research support coupled with high research expectations for faculty at these “wannabe” institutions represents a dangerous career combination for many people.
Twenty years later, I was tenured (not without a fight), stuck at Associate Professor like many mid-career STEM women faculty, involved on university level committees, and an NSF PI. Unofficially, I spent a fair amount of service time as a clandestine associate chair keeping the academic machine parts well-oiled and running smoothly. After all that time, I was just starting to place myself for promotion to full professor.
Then, the worst happened.
Five years ago I was fired from a tenured position in my twentieth year of service. At the time, I was a principal investigator of an active NSF award. I’ve just stated the unthinkable for many who would choose the academic life, but it gets worse. The firings happened in the middle of the semester. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Other tenured and nontenured colleagues were also fired that day. I lost it all, everything that I had worked so hard for, the career, the NSF grant, the scientific connections, and the academic relationships in one day. At a later date I found this quote that pretty much sums it up:
With a school age child and a tenured spouse at another school, job searches involving the two body problem with a likely long distance move, or a long distance commute were not even considered. So, I tried the adjunct route at a new college in my region, hoping for a full-time teaching position. After two tries and four semesters, it didn’t work out, but it kept me going until said school age child graduated from high school. As an adjunct, I was better paid than most, but it was an interesting peek into the adjunct crisis just as the movement was gathering interest. It is obvious that adjuncts are powerless. When as tenured faculty member you have actually been chair for the day and had to sign off on matters for the chair or deal with issues they arise, my experience adds new meaning to what it means to be truly powerless. After a few failed job searches, I decided I needed to take that academic sabbatical I never had and really think about what to do next.
What happened next?
While mourning the loss of my tenured position and academic career, I remembered that once upon a time, I was an amateur violinist. I took my violin out the case, had it checked out by a local luthier, and started playing again. Years ago, I was a member of a community orchestra in my city. I rejoined the orchestra and found others. The community symphony needed a grant consultant. I volunteered. The rest, as they say, is history.
When I was a faculty member, I was a PI, Co-PI, or a funded researcher on a variety of awards across several agencies. As a PI I reviewed grant proposals and served on NSF panels. Now I am putting all that experience to use as an entrepreneur offering grant consulting and mentoring services to life science researchers and other academics. Small research universities are tough places to work. I know. I spent my career in one. Nobody officially mentored me; not for research, grant writing, grant administration, or even teaching. I had to learn by observation and doing. Many of my colleagues at the time were kind and helpful, but they were spread equally thin with their own teaching, research, and service duties. Faculty development opportunities were sporadic at best.
For those who aspire to the academic life, there are many more colleges and universities like what I experienced than elite Research 1s. Nobody should have to live through what I did. Learn from me. For me consulting is about giving back to the academic community, staying intellectually engaged, and making money in that order. There is no shame is asking for help. Sometimes, that help just isn’t there. There is also no shame is paying for that help when found. Yes, there is a price. I am here to offer truthful, friendly, and caring grant reviews or mentoring help for those who need it.
Deborah A. Cook PhD