Realities of doing science

S L Forsburg nospamforsburg at
Sat Jun 19 09:35:23 EST 1999

Julia Frugoli (jfrugoli at describe the small college
> So I'm pushing for the research institution, because I no longer believe
> that the "teaching with a little research on the side" job even exists
> anymore.

As long as we're describing the realities, here's the life at a 
research institution (with a little teaching on the side).  My life
is on soft money.  My entire salary and benefits must be 
recovered from research grants--it's like the sword of Damocles
over my head.  My Institute charges a large overhead rate, because 
there is no source of money outside of grants--we have too 
small an endowment.  There is
limited support for students and postdocs so they must be supported off
of grants.  All research costs must come off of grants.  Put simply,
ladies, that's a lot of grants.  

  THe expectations for promotion at the institution are 
implicitly, if not explicitly, more stringent than those at a university,
and they don't give tenure till the full professor level.  Given the
average success rate with the NIH (and the size of NIH grants--one is
simply not enough to support even a small lab under these
constraints), I have spent over 25% of my time since 
I started my own lab in '93 writing and  revising grants rather than
doing real science.  
I worry about  keeping my students funded and my postdocs working.
Compared to someone at a university with equivalent
prestige who has a 9month salary, and decent training grant support
for a couple of students, who teaches one class, who can run his
lab on a single R01 from the NIH (and I know such people)
 I have fewer people because I can't support more, but I  need more 
stuff going on (to justify the additional grants necessary to
cover full salary plus benefits).   Catch-22?

The senior faculty expect me 
to outperform the guy at the university because I'm not teaching
but instead, I'm constantly struggling with the the grant system
which is so petty and wasteful that it wears me out. 
 When the older guys  started, it was enough to get a job here--
you didn't have to struggle for funding. They were also younger, since
they did shorter postdocs and got their degrees faster.  Just as in
the teaching colleges, the senior faculty who dangle the keys
to tenure over your head are imposing standards that they didn't
have to meet.

 Grants of course require results to get them, and you require 
results to keep them, but if you don't have the money to 
pay the student or postdoc where do the results come from?

Oh yeah, and since I have students in my lab from the local university
I incur a teaching responsibility so I teach some, too.

However, I also get to think more about science and less about
teaching or committees.  I have exciting colleagues.  I have
great students and postdocs.  If it weren't for the financial 
constraints, this would be a scientist's heaven.  Because 
I simply can't imagine not doing science.

In short, every way of doing science costs.  We are not paid what
we're worth, and our postdocs CERTAINLY aren't paid what they're 
worth.  Stress is enormous and draining.  You do this not because it's
a good career --any sensible business-student will tell you you're crazy--
but because you simply can't imagine not doing it.
And if you can ever imagine not doing it, then take pride in what you
did along the way and move on. 

One of the things that puzzles me is why everyone seems so 
surprised to find that this is an ill-paid, stressful, 
demanding and at times vicious profession. (Not directed at you, 
Julia--you  always have your eyes open, one of the advantages of
the mature student).  No one does this without 
working in a lab. No graduate student is unexposed to faculty 
and postdoctoral suffering.  What possible excuse is there to 
expect it to be  different?  (That doesn't mean it shouldn't 
BE different, just that no one should be surprised it isn't).  
Whose responsibility is it?  Lots of students blame the faculty
but I am tired of this.  Times have been tough in this business
since I was an undergraduate in the early 80s and while 
I did my share of complaining, I certainly always knew what
I was getting into.  Grad students are not children;  they are 
adults.  If this career isn't what you want to do, that's 
your decision to make, and your responsibility.

Why  should we expect science to be any different than any other
creative profession?  How many actors move to New York every year
hoping to make it big on the Broadway?  How many music students
will ever play in a major orchestra?  And although the rewards
are different, how many kids playing ball after school will 
ever make it to the NBA?  

I just don't understand why so many  young scientists feel they are 
owed something.  The PhD is not a union card.
As an end to itself, it is intrinsically valuable and it opens
many possibilities--you can do so many things with it, and you
certainly managed to grow as a person by achieving the degree.  
It's a badge of honor but not a guarentee. If you really want to 
change the academic system, get in here and help me 
change it--I could use the help.  But it's up to you to keep
your eyes open, to know
what the system is and decide whether you want to be a part of it.

And if it's what you want, then you should do it.

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S L Forsburg, PhD  forsburg at
Molecular Biology and Virology Lab          
The Salk Institute, La Jolla CA

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