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Toasting my PhD

I am sitting at my desk at 10 am, just 8 hours after I last left it. The pattern of 3 out of 4 nights this week. To my left, a venti latte. To my right, a picture of Sam from his hospital shoot, with his 1 month hand- and foot- prints immortalized in plaster of Paris. At the moment I see way more of that picture than I do of my actual son. Last week I traveled Tuesday -> Saturday. I was on the office Sunday. This week has been 9am-2am most nights. I made it home for dinner once. I am working late on Monday, and travelling Wednesday -> Saturday.

Every time I see my son he seems to have changed; his face is rounder. I am sure he got taller. I am starting to be glad he has a picture of me in his bedroom. His deeply excited cries of ‘Mama’ and his plentiful kisses when he sees me are simultaneously reassuring and devastating. How can my heart be warmed and broken at the same time?

I take a drag of coffee, and smile at my student. He looks nervous and says “I wanted to ask you a question… do you think I should do a PhD?”.

The worst question. It used to be an awful question to answer for sub-standard students. How do you dash their hopes and dreams? How do break the news to them that they are not who they think they are? How do you make it NOT sound like you (a PhD-level Scientist) are any better than them? That we are all just different? [Hint: I use “Great question! What skills do you think it takes to do a PhD? Do you think you have those skills? How do you think you would develop them? What sort of base would you need? What might you do to acquire them”]. But this student shows all the promise of being a great PhD student, so easy as pie, right? A quick yes, and a cheer, and high-five and a discussion of all the wonder that lies ahead.

Except, Science has changed. Science used to be known for being tough, and full of rejection, but ultimately a fun and rewarding enterprise. Intellectually demanding, often temporally demanding, but the reward of leading a research team to answer you own personal curiosities about the world was a goal no one could put a price on. Now? The funding situation has been terrible for the last 5 years. When I submitted my K award in 2010 the world was reeling from the shock of NIH dropping the pay line from a score of 10-40 (out of 90) to 10-30. It was absurd, people said. It must go higher! For my final cycle they dropped it to 19 (although eventually upped it to 25 which is how I got mine funded). Yes, 25 out of 90. Wonderful.



But these were the tough times that you had to ride out.

Due to budget cuts, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off - Images and gifs for social networks

But it didn’t get better. The funding rate stayed at ~ 9%. That is, 9% of grant written get funded. Or, 91% do not. And then what happened? Senior people got their grants cut, they got the number of years on their funded grants cut, they lost their lab technicians and their postdocs… so they wrote more grants to get them back. Making the grant pool more competitive. So the 9% funding rate, became more like 4-6% for new investigators.

So what do new investigators do? They take on more work. They pick up the slack the funding mess left behind to try to make a name for themselves, to establish themselves so they could not be competitive against Chairs and even Deans. They write more grants than ever before, and they do more analysis than ever before, and they snap at the heels of anyone who can give them something to do that might bolster their CV.

But it’s OK because they are following their dreams, right? Except they are not. Funding uncertainly means that only the safest Science gets funded, in the areas currently identified as ‘priority’. Science is rife with tales of ‘I do what is fundable, not what is important’ (the two are obviously supposed to be interchangeable).

It’s along climb to faculty. And then you get there, and there is no relief. You are the 32 year old provider for your family, working endlessly, unsure if you’ll even keep your job (and watching your colleagues lose their).

So, what do you tell your promising student then? You are the role model. You have papers, and the awards, and the grants they put on the pedestal with you. Do bring them down? Or do you take the responsibility for the life ahead? Your job is really to continue academia and bring the brightest and the best in. But those are the ones you usually feel the most empathy for. They are the ones you most want to help.

If life is really about happiness, at the end of the day, what do you say when people say

“Dr. Wood, should I do a PhD?”.


OK, it’s not that bad. It’s really not. Not always. I have times when I just love my job. I come up with a new idea for a paper. I get work with an inspiring team. I lead a student to discover their passion. I travel to some cool places (although I am getting sick of Orlando, San Francisco and D.C., dear conference organizers). I get an interview with Good Housekeeping (yes! I did). I write a chapter for a medical student’s textbook, so I think I might actually reach some people (now there’s a thought). I like to think I will in some ways provide a good role model for my son (although there are many paths to doing that). But the Science we are in now, if very different than the one we got into just post PhD. And I think that we have a duty to prepare out students for that reality, so that they can make an informed choice.

And it has been different since the choice was work vs. Sam. Work has a lot to live up to.

For what’s it worth, with this student, I focused on the next step, not the bigger picture. I explained how rewarding, but how long, and how hard a PhD was. How I remember getting the night bus home from mine, and the night bus did not even start until 1 am. How I openly tell my PhD students that I expect them to work weekends, as well as evenings. How you are welcome to spend time with your family, and have every right to, but you have to understand you are in competition with people who do not – so make your choices accordingly. He still wants to do a PhD. I’ll leave the supervisor of THAT to deal with the longer term questions.


An Aside: I wrote this post in respect for 2 of my 3 blogging goals for 2014. One is to blog at least twice a week so that I can join a blogging network, and be more part of the blogging community (OK, so I am not achieving that one yet – but see the working until 2 am thing, mmmmkay?). The others are to (1) be brave enough to blog about something other than Sam – it can be hard to sit and write about things I do not feel so confident in; and (2) to be more honest about the ups and down of life. 2013 was really very hard for me, and I hardly ever wrote about it. I think there is that tendency in all of social media: facebook, blogs etc. We write about all the good, and very little of the bad. I think that sometimes people that showing that things are tough is a weakness.

Personally, as a reader, that makes me feel really shitty about myself sometimes – like I am the only one with hard times, or that I should just ‘buck up and be happy’ because everyone else is. I want to write more honestly about some of the things that are hard in life, while of course celebrating and sharing the good things. This was an attempt at that. And I am hoping that it will turn out to show strength of character, not the reverse.

Images credits (stolen from….)


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