Science career advice ebbs and flows with no discernible pattern. Advice flowed freely this past week and I am jumping into the waves. Several posts on research grants, teaching, and the future of scientists in the 21st century caught my attention and provoked me to comment on them. The best research grant writing advice I’ve seen in my entire academic career comes from #Hopejahrensurecanwrite. Using the hilarious example of analyzing rat vomit for unique amino acids with yet unknown techniques and equipment she conveys a novel approach to answering a research question while engaging the readers’ interest. My associate chair spouse and former PI and I laughed ourselves silly through the whole thing. She tells a good story. This is the kind of grant proposal writing advice faculty, students, and postdocs really need. My last funded grant proposal told a good story. An extramural mentor with grant writing, PI, and faculty experience can offer that advice to faculty at any career stage.
Another post emphasized the importance of teaching for researchers. Richard Feynman said something similar in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman about undergraduate teaching. I can’t find the quote, but he also stressed teaching, because teaching makes you think about the simple things. Thinking about the simple things can lead to more research questions. Probing questions from students also can lead to new research questions. There is a big difference between teaching occasionally and teaching three to four classes per semester. I understand the context of the post well, but as someone who taught two classes a day three times a week, taught her own specialty subject labs, supervised TAs for other labs, ran the undergraduate research program, and had an active research program the article pushes my buttons a bit. When faced with over 100 recalcitrant students in biology for majors who all want to become medical doctors, you learn to work a room pretty fast. Early in my career, I realized that when teaching a class of almost any size, the professor becomes an actor on a stage. I asked my brother about this discovery. He has an MFA in Theater Arts Design. I figured he would know something about actors and acting. He replied, “Of course you are an actor.” Teaching became easier after realizing that truth. At scientific meetings or departmental seminars, I could always pick out the teachers. They kept to the time limit, were clear, and not tempted to stray into information overload. The best of them realized that they might also be speaking to a more general audience and adjusted the material to fit. This academic combination of more teaching with research expectations is a more likely scenario for those who make it to the tenure track. An external native guide to this academic career path could help early, mid-career, and even senior faculty negotiate that world more easily.
The likelihood of a getting a great faculty position at an R1 or becoming a PI is slim. These two posts, one from 2012 which discusses a book published in 1963 that predicated the current situation and this timely piece on one’s chances of becoming a PI. Early in our careers my husband and I experienced the first wave of rising research expectations of junior faculty with the decline in funding. We both dealt with mismatched expectations. It was great when it happened, but funding gaps were the norm. There’s an art to getting every last microliter out of a grant budget. Shopping for the right lab supplies and hoarding them is a learned skill. There are even ways to self-fund your research without resorting to crowd funding. There are too many senior faculty and administrators out there who still think that you can just write up an idea, submit it, and it gets magically funded. I began my consulting business to help faculty have more fulfilling careers in the academic science research community. Save yourself from pain and frustration. Learn from someone who understands this future well, because it was her past.