Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Science as a career

I read a lot of science and grantwriting blogs, and follow a lot of scientists on Twitter.  What I've noticed recently is that every time I check Twitter or link to Scientopia.org, I leave feeling like every scientist is incredibly angry and horribly bitter.  I personally joined Twitter to tout our research accomplishments and the successes of my trainees to whoever wanted to follow us, and maybe increase my visibility to other scientists.  I would call my Twitter posts humble bragging and strategic posting of our awesome science that I want other labs in our field to see.  But, it seems like the most vocal and most-followed scientists do nothing but gripe.  Whether it's about the latest national non-scandal, or open access publishing, or how evil Nature/Science/Cell are, or how terrible Sally Rockey is, or the instsability of NIH funding in general, I can't help but wonder how all that collective negativity is affecting the way that potential future scientists see science as a career.  I constantly feel myself falling into this spiral of anger and helplessness when I start reading these things.  But is the life of a university science professor really so terrible?

What I've learned in my teaching experience so far is that those students who complain the loudest almost never represent the entire class.  This is probably true of our most vocal scientists as well.  It is indeed correct that the stress of NIH funding has affected nearly every university lab in the country.  But that message has swamped out the fact that being a professor is an incredibly awesome job.  (Admittedly, you have to get the job and keep it, both of which are becoming harder and harder, but I'm trying to stay positive in this post.)

I was involved in some graduate student interviews/recruitment a few weeks ago.  One of the students asked me some very pointed questions about why I chose to come to this university and why she should come here.  I realized that I hadn't thought about anything positive regarding my job in very long time!    I started spouting off reason after reason about why our university and city are so awesome.  Then I came back up to my office and started thinking about just how true those things are and just how great life really is as a PI.

I'm at a medical school, so I teach, but it is not overwhelming, and it can be fun.  My teaching will increase this year, but it has been incrementally increased, so I think I can handle it.  I spend most of my day doing research or talking about experiments with my grad students and undergrads.  I absolutely love to analyze data and make figures.  I even do this at home while I'm watching tv.  Making a convincing, publication quality figure that contains data that no one has ever seen before is like crack for me.  I love it.  I'm addicted to it.  And I get paid for it!  Writing up papers is the same way.  I really love doing it.  Writing grants is a different story because right now it feels like there's so much arbitrariness in the system, but I don't mind the actual process of writing the grant.  I mean, what other job would allow me to go to a Starbucks and just think or write for three hours in the middle of the day surrounded by young, energetic people on a college campus?   I even love the committees that I serve on.  I'm on a university grant review committee that is incredibly fun and important.  I'm on a committee that assesses the safety of work going on in new labs at the university, so I get to learn about every single new lab on our entire campus.  And I'm on a committee that chooses speakers for a seminar series in my field. 

Of course my tune may change next year since we're only funded for 1 more year.  I just don't know if all the complaining about NIH funding is actually helping or causing a backlash.  There seems to be this counteracting sentiment that scientists don't deserve a handout or taxpayer sponsored job stability.  Maybe less complaining and more talking about our research and training of students would be a better approach. 

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