Why I want to be a prof

Karen Allendoerfer ravena at cco.caltech.edu
Tue Apr 30 12:04:37 EST 1996

We seem to have several profs reading this list, and this discussion has
been interesting and useful for me.

I'm probably going to be looking for a job in the next year or two, and I
used to think I wanted to be a prof.  I like research, I like teaching, I
like supervising undergrads.  And, believe it or not, I even like writing
papers and grants.  I've been reasonably successful writing grants and
fellowships (at least by today's standards of the "norm" being 10-12%

But the view from "below" of the job situation is so grim that I'm feeling
I have to ask for more information from those who have gone through the
process and actually have jobs.  The only "script" (so to speak) that I'm
aware of for the postdoc who gets an assistant professor job is:  you
apply for an NIH or NSF grant,  your life depends on it, you go through
unbelievable hell and stress, including several resubmissions, and then
you get it, and life continues for a few more years. Then the process
repeats itself in 3-5 years.  Coupled with articles in "Science" that the
NIH is funding at 10-12% and the NSF is being gutted by Congress, this
seems like an almost ludicrous, impossible situation.

So, what I'm wondering is, what happens if you DON'T get the NIH or NSF
grant on the third or fourth or fifth try?  Then what?  How does one find
out about other sources of funding?  What about "institutional support?" 
What is it?  Where does it come from?  How common is it?  I don't
personally know any scientists who had careers and labs once and are now
literally unemployed, but it seems possible that this could start
happening to large numbers of people, very soon, and that this could be me
in 5 years.  I am supportive of alternate careers and the steps taken to
get one, and I am sympathetic to the plight of graduate students, but what
about the person who gets further along, even to the assistant professor
stage, and THEN doesn't "make it?"  Is there any support for that person,
or is this just something that is so painful, people don't want to talk
about it?  What choices are there, if one doesn't make it as a PI, but
still wants to be a scientist? Industry?  Lab technician?  Back to grad
school for another degree?  Back to postdocking?   Has anyone ever heard
of this, someone who used to be a professor, but then became a postdoc

Sorry, to be so depressing, but I'm writing a grant right now and it's
probably affecting my outlook :)


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