To paraphrase what a senior colleague said years ago, when I was just starting out, I never have a shortage of ideas, only of time and money.
I got a declination on one of my NSF proposals submitted last fall (so far got 1 award out of 2 that received decisions; btw, have you noticed that NSF emails notices of declination at 10 PM their time?). This proposal was very polished, and was actually placed in the recommended category. But. One reviewer basically thought the proposal was important with (and I quote) “many excellent aspects,” yet gave it a “fair” after a weirdly lengthy (note I didn’t say detailed, more like circular and repetitive) review because, in summary, there was one aspect that he simply didn’t believe I could do the way I said I could, despite me having published on it and despite me having specifically addressed this issue in the revised proposal (I suspect this person reviewed the proposal last year as well and gave a “fair” for pretty much the same reason). It seems that there simply is no persuading this person that I can do the things I can do; or, as DH says, this is someone who’s competition.
I vented over email to my former postdoc and then talked over the phone with a colleague from another institution, and now I feel better. So this post is (shockingly) not going to be me venting. At least not right away.
I remember a recent conversation with another colleague who said he was grateful that he’s still in the game; that there were a number of senior folks who had given up and whom ever-shrinking paylines had brought from being flush, with a big lab, down to completely broke. The colleague believes that, as long as you can keep fighting, submitting various grants left and right, and you have your good health and energy, things are as good as one can expect.
There has been a fairly heated conversation in the Twitterverse, which then spilled over to the blogosphere, where I caught a whiff of it through Potnia Theron’s blog. In a nutshell, there are assistant professors in the biomedical sciences– excellent, hard-working junior folks who’ve given their all to the quest for an NIH R01 — but who were unable to land an R01 and will now be denied tenure and kicked out despite having the papers, the talks, the ideas… Everything but the money. I really feel for Dr Becca and anyone else who might be facing this fate.
What’s interesting are the comments at Potnia’s blog (presumably the Twitter conversation, too, but I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole). Basically, there are some people who say “Well, it must be the applicant’s fault, they must have missed something.” This is obviously totally infuriating, because a smart person on the tenure track can do everything right, and take to heart (and the keyboard) all the input and all the well-meaning comments he or she can, and it still can just not work out.
That’s what is so terrifying that people don’t want to admit it to themselves. If the paylines are 10%, that doesn’t mean everyone gets 1 grant in 10. That means many people never get a grant and completely run out of money, and some others get a 50% or perhaps even higher hit rate. That means you — yes, you who’s currently funded! — can at some point completely run out of money and then never recover.
I cannot tell you how often I have been “on the bubble” with the NSF, e.g., grant ranked 3 when only 2 are highly recommended (i.e., basically guaranteed funding). When I write grants by myself (again, this is mostly an NSF ailment for me), I often don’t seem to possess whatever the magic dust is that makes someone want to go to bat for a proposal. Mine is a painfully, painfully male-dominated field; in such a field, based on what I have seen on panels, unless a female applicant is a veritable superstar (think a household name), she is unlikely to be prioritized for the coveted 1 or 2 spots. On the other hand, my experience with playing second fiddle to (male) experimentalists has resulted in NSF funding with a very high percentage (close to 100% in two-person collaborations). So maybe I suck and my collaborators are all geniuses, or maybe my work is greatly appreciated as a means to make the experimental project more shiny and complete. Not sure how important gender is here; the fact that many experimentalists think theory is useless also plays a role. But, regarding gender, and this was on a computation-friendly panel, I will tell you that the guy who gave me a “fair” above noted that I am a woman and that I advise many female students (having one female student at a time through most of my career is apparently a lot), and that my many female students and I constitute our own broader impact. *eyeroll* Which is apparently not important enough to result in funding. Whatever.
Running completely out of money is a clear and present danger in all STEM fields. The real dread that you might not be able to have any students or postdocs (if you are in one of the departments that don’t have many TAs and everyone is supposed to be paid off grants) or pay for any supplies to even do the work yourself. Constantly worrying about grants is by far the worst part of the faculty job. I never thought I would retire, but now I catch myself thinking “30 more years, that’s 10 consecutive grant renewal cycles.” And I don’t even dislike writing grants — coming up with new ideas is fun! If only it weren’t for the futility of it all — so many ideas that had nothing wrong with them, that were interesting and important and doable, but will never be realized…