In which I face up to crunch time

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but on this occasion it is not an entirely welcome one.

It’s the time of year for this sort of reflection. The institute is in the process of awakening from a long hiatus: people are slowly trickling back from holiday; the abstract deadlines for several autumn conferences are drawing nigh. The ash tree towering over the courtyard outside our building has started to shed golden leaves onto the pavement, and there is a definite coolness in the morning air as I walk to the Tube under pale blue skies, and in the evenings as I cross campus for the commute home.

I’ve realized, with a little jolt of shock, that I only have fourteen months of funding left. Fourteen months seems a lot less than the “year and a half” I’ve been carting around in my head all summer.

Suddenly, it seems like the right time to take stock of what I’ve achieved to date, and to start formulating a sensible end-game plan. The past three-and-a-bit years in the lab, of course, are easy to document. I am second author on one published paper, and a minor co-author on two additional papers, one published and the other in preparation. Of these three papers, two are in collaboration with other labs. I have also been an author on two review articles, one in first position and one in second. And of course, I’m currently writing up my screen and putting the finishing touches on the biology I’m showcasing as an example – although the end result will be submitted to a solid publication, not a top-tier one, and the person listed second will be noted as having submitted equally to the work.

I’m proud of what I’ve achieved to date, but it is nowhere near enough. How can I best work these final fourteen months to my advantage?

As with many things like, it all starts with a list. What am I working on, and how are these little projects shaping up? There are, I realize, far more threads than I had thought. But I no longer have the luxury of chasing after dozens of leads, the glorious let’s-try-everything-and-see-what flies mentality of the person with three or four years of exploration ahead. No, I can see all those enticing doors closing in front of me, one after the other. I have to reckon like a cold-minded economist: which projects have the most time invested in them already? Which are most likely to lead to a high-profile paper – if the theory pans out? What, in fact, is the likelihood that the biology will be novel enough to give me that sort of paper at all? Would I be better off investing in just one main blaze, or keeping one or two other flames kindling in the background just in case? Is it really true that the recruitment panels would rather I’d gambled and won on one big payoff instead of three solid papers that might fall more safely into my grasp? Even if it means I might end up with nothing to show for my time? Everyone I trust about things like this assures me that this is the case: in the current funding situation, it’s top-tier or join the dole queue.

And then my particular situation leads to the toughest question of all. I have been a post-doctoral researcher for nearly ten years, not in real time but in elapsed research time (if you don’t count my career break). It is highly unlikely that I would be able to score yet another fellowship, even if I wanted to. So another part of the equation is whether any of my current projects seems interesting enough, or mature enough, to found a new lab on, if any university or institute will have me. It is one thing to write a paper on a topic; it is quite another to spend the next 30 years pouring my passion into it.

As I take stock, I am forced to admit that I am still rather far from the area of specialization that has always been closest to my heart, and which – up until now – I have spent most of my research career devoted to. When I started in the lab I was under the impression that the lab was firmly ensconced in that field, but the day-to-day aspects of my screen didn’t ever seem to end up there. I always intended to get back to it, to bend one of my projects in that direction – but this is the sort of activity that requires head-space, and time to read and reflect, and in that glorious let’s-try-everything-and-see-what flies mentality, there never seems time to do more than the conveyor-belt of experiments that follow logically one after the next. I have a bright swarm of new ideas in my head, but have yet to forge them into the solid research plan of my future dreams. And even if I had, new research plans require preliminary results – and when would I squeeze those in? Shouldn’t I be devoting all of my energy to get the paper I need just to survive and, eventually, to searching for a position and writing the grants I’d need to underwrite it?

So you can see, I’ve got a lot of hard thinking ahead, and a lot of difficult decisions. I will try very hard to stay positive, but I know it will not always be easy. I battled fiercely to get back into the lab, and I will be broken-hearted if I have to give up the dream. But equally, if it becomes clear that I cannot win after a protracted siege, I will not shy away from walking away either.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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40 Responses to In which I face up to crunch time

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    /wipes tear from eye.
    You should write a novel. Oh, waitaminute…

  2. Jim Caryl says:

    rpg, hehehe
    Our university is forever telling us not to publish in our own industry journals (all with neither high, nor low, impact) and instead risk everything by storing up sufficient research to go for one of the top tier journals. Meanwhile we risk being scooped, risk not being read or cited, because the fact is the people we want to read our paper, who we want to use (and cite) our paper, are reading and publishing in the industry journals.
    big sigh

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    In my current field, which is basic cell biology, the top-tier journals tend to be very well read, so we don’t have this problem. But it was a problem when I was a virologist, and the most influential journal was, and I think still is, about impact factor 6.

  4. Jim Caryl says:

    Heh, when occasionally a cut and thrust bacteriology paper ended up in ‘Cell’, you would hear people at conferences suggest that such a paper would have been ‘perfectly acceptable in Molecular Microbiology’ (I affect a high falootin’ tone as I say this), and that ending up in Cell was ‘showing off’ 😉

  5. Henry Gee says:

    Ouf. Who’d be a scientist?

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Answer? About 200 per every position, based on my Super Unscientific Anecdotal Observations (SUAO).

  7. Henry Gee says:

    They’re obviously all barmy.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    And that’s why you love us.

  9. Richard Wintle says:

    Gah, my eyes!!!
    Oh sorry, not your blogpost, but the egregiously orange login screen that just blasted out at me. All better now.
    If my $0.02 is worth anything in your Pounds Sterling, I’d also go for the big win. One Cell paper beats three Journal of Interesting Cellular Phenotypes papers any day.
    As for founding a lab… shudder. If you choose to go that route, more power to you and I will happily cheerlead from the sidelines. But honestly, eek. Besides, you’ll have absolutely no time whatsoever for writing anything but grants should you continue on that academic trajectory, which might play into your decision somewhat?

  10. Heather Etchevers says:

    Honest and eloquent as always.
    I don’t know a single postdoc who can’t foretell the future who has not felt what you have just described. I remember it well.
    I don’t know a single scientist who can foretell the future, just some who are better at making plausible hypotheses than others.
    The thing about top-tier or bust is, aside from appearing to be true, that is it is such a winner-takes-all gamble. And because it depends to a significant part on luck as well as talent (chance favoring the prepared mind and all), it all seems profoundly unfair for a career path that, up until this point, led more toward rewarding merit than to consulting a psychic.
    I don’t have good advice for you on this. My practical hunch would be to go for the more visible work, since you have demonstrated you can produce other things meanwhile. But as a scientist (my impractical hunch?) I find that a very unsatisfying piece of stupidity to impart.
    I wish I had a good answer for you. At least you have re-invented yourself enough to know it is possible. Having made this three-year foray means that no matter what you do, if it is not bench science as your main breadwinner, you probably could work out a way and a welcome for shorter sabbaticals to the lab, the way others take sabbaticals from the lab to compose operas and the like.
    Ever forging your own path. It takes a lot of energy. I admire you for that.

  11. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Heather, your penultimate paragraph makes me wonder if such schemes exist – it would certainly be an interesting one.
    OK, so a Cell paper it is. Or maybe Nature, as it will require fewer figures. 😉

  12. Eva Amsen says:

    There are such schemes for artists and teachers to spend some time in research labs (artists in Switzerland/Australia, teachers in Holland, and I think also the US?), so why wouldn’t you be able to find a lab where you could spend some time as a scientist! CRAZY idea, scientists in labs, I know =)

  13. Jennifer Rohn says:

    They wouldn’t even have to teach me to pipette or how to remove Falcon tube lids with one hand.

  14. Richard Wintle says:

    How about hanging on to the media bottle?
    *runs like the wind

  15. Jennifer Rohn says:

    But anyway, I should stress that I don’t want to do science part-time. My dream life would have me doing it as a proper job for the rest of my life. It is really a shame that this sort of dream is very difficult to realize these days.

  16. Richard P. Grant says:

    I had this notion of running a PhD contractor service. It’d be called ‘Lab Angels’ or something like that.

  17. Jennifer Rohn says:

    That’s a great idea. Would you budget that in your grant under “consumables”?

  18. Frank Norman says:

    Lab Locums. But I’m not sure it would work as well in the lab setting as it seems to in clinical practice? I think job satisfaction would be pretty low.

  19. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I guess it depends on how long the stint was for. Maternity cover: that could see you through a nice little project, I suppose.

  20. Åsa Karlström says:

    this is one of those posts that I want to say something clever but I don’t know what that would be… apart from very well written Jenny and it makes a lot of sense! I hope you can find the answers and you get where you want to go.
    (And maybe that this post and others similar to this is what I would’ve needed to read when I was half way through my PhD to sort of get what type of work I was about to throw myself into… the uncertainty and the decisions. And then the wondering about “how much is that article worth for the review board”.)

  21. Heather Etchevers says:

    I thought Ian’s post was quite coincident with this line of thought. I tried to say as much, but apparently there are a number of links beyond which the spam trap closes to await moderation. It’s happened to me before. Oh well.
    In essence, wouldn’t it be good if everyone could pursue their passions with minimal impediment, just enough to make one not take the privilege for granted?

  22. Jennifer Rohn says:

    It would be great, and I know it’s childish of me to say “I WANT” when I probably don’t “deserve”. Nevertheless, I do want to be a scientist. I suppose one could argue that I could have worked harder at it…but I feel I am giving it a very large part of my heart and soul. If this isn’t enough, so be it.

  23. Richard P. Grant says:

    We’re touching on the difference between ‘vocation’ and ‘career’ here, aren’t we?

  24. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I don’t know. I feel that research is my vocation – just that I have other interests too. And I’m not the only one. One of my successful professor friends spends about 20 hours a week watching the cricket – which is far more than I spend writing novels. But that’s ok somehow. I think when a hobby involves production rather than consumption, people start to think you’re not serious about the day job.

  25. Grant Jacobs says:

    That’s a nice comment Jennifer.
    I’ve had just a few people think I’m not as focused on the clients’ jobs because I have other interests that I pursue in my own time. It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s got a similar ring to it.

  26. Jennifer Rohn says:

    People in my lab watch a lot of TV, most of them every night. Those hours add up. People also go to the gym, go to the pub, go out to eat…But perhaps what damns me is that I don’t go to the lab on the weekends.

  27. Grant Jacobs says:

    I thought only students and mad post-docs go to the lab in weekends 🙂
    I do think/worry that there is a bit of a daft snob thing that those that write about science (etc.) aren’t “of the same stuff”, which is crazy if you look back at the likes of, say, Gamow writing Mr Tompkins. Perhaps it doesn’t detract from how you’re perceived if you’ve gotten that big in science before you start writing and the negativity about writing only applies to us lesser lights?
    Another thing is that if you spend hours reading, no-one with think anything of it; to take a negative view about writing (being the counterpart to reading — someone has to create the stuff!) is a little lop-sided in my opinion.
    (Hmm, I’d better step down from the pulpit…)

  28. Richard Wintle says:

    These comments have taken an interesting turn… I suspect that my increasing (some might say “pathological”) interest in motorsports photography is crossing that divide from “consumption” into “production” (after all, I now use vacation days to attend events for which I am kind-of being compensated for my output, with free admissions, meals and the like rather than cold hard cash).
    But then, many of us (I suspect) do outside consulting for market researchers, pharma, investment companies… that’s “production” but generally seems “ok” as it’s related to the day job somehow. Only peripherally at times, to be sure.
    Writing science-themed/based/set novels… hm…
    Maybe if I spent my spare time chasing sequencers and NMR machines around and photographing them…
    Clearly I have no point to make so I’ll just stop now.

  29. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Well, I think ‘consumption’ is seen as fair game – you are relaxing, unwinding, taking some time away from the job. But ‘production’ is work – so if you are producing professionally – be that my and Grant’s propensity to science-write for money on the side, or my novels – then you are undertaking a second job. I suspect most people think writing is “work” – but personally, for me, it’s pleasure.
    Yet I can see why people might think I was putting crucial energy into something that should be funneled into my science: if you don’t understand that writing can be more relaxing than TV or sport, then you’ll never understand that point of view.

  30. Sophie Domingues-Montanari says:

    wow that’s a bit depressing. I’m about to finish my PhD and also asking myself a lot of questions. Post-doc seems like the right thing to do, although I decided I’m gonna go for creating a spin-off company. Not a day goes by that i wonder if I’m taking the right decision!
    Keep us posted on what the future brings you!

  31. Jacqueline Floyd says:

    Fourteen months? That’s an eternity. Yes, it’s time to get in gear, but that’s really a lot of time.

  32. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Sophie, I wouldn’t sweat it too much. You can’t create a spin-off company without doing a post-doc and creating something worth siphoning off, so you’re not at the stage where you need to decide anything. And you’ve got many years ahead of you.
    Jacqueline, I’m afraid I don’t agree with your assessment of time, considering the number of loose ends I have in my various projects and the amount of time it would take to firm up the most likely suspects.

  33. Richard Wintle says:

    Think you’re being a bit pessimistic there Jenny – I’ve known people who’ve dropped out of their PhDs to start (successful) spin-off companies. Depends on your field, your smarts, your ideas, your risk profile.

  34. Ralph Lasala says:

    And I concur.

  35. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Fair enough. But I would have thought that some post-doctoral training would be an asset for a CSO – on average. So if you appear undecided, as the commentor did, then at least starting a post-doc is going to keep all options open.

  36. Stephen Moss says:

    As a fellow cell biologist I understand the challenge of getting those big hitting papers into the top journals, and you’re right, with 14 months remaining this is definitely the time to start pedaling faster. Having been through all this some 20 years ago, I’m afraid the truth is that for all but the luckiest or green-fingered, it is extremely difficult to produce the volume of data (never mind the quality) for those papers if you don’t work weekends.
    I would never ask this of my own post-docs (I’d probably end up being charged with constructive dismissal) but they all know the importance of plain old graft. Many ask “why should we have to work like this when advancement in most professions is achievable on a 37.5 hour week?”. This is a fair point, but your peers and competitors who do weekends are setting the pace.
    In my case, those 20 years ago, I was simply obsessive about science. I couldn’t get enough. And the culture in the lab was such that every Saturday and Sunday morning a group of 4 or 5 of us post-docs and PhD students would meet for coffee at a cafe near the British Museum, and then work full days, sometimes nights too. We all loved it, we were totally hyper. It doesn’t have to be like that forever, but for a few years charged by the energy of youth it might be worth it.

  37. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Stephen. I have some ideas about this, but then decided they might be better suited for an entirely new blog post. So I’ll respond in that form in a little while!
    Meanwhile, welcome to my blog.

  38. Paula Salgado says:

    Thanks for expressing these feelings so clearly. I’m on a similar situation, without the benefit of 14 months of my own money even…
    We’ll get there in the end, I’m sure. Whatever “there” might turn out to be.
    Good luck!

  39. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Paula, for your comments here and in the next post!

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