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Science Careers Blog

December 14, 2011

Planning Ahead to Maintain Your Career When the Grants Stop Coming

"The aging process is not fun, but when it begins decades ahead of schedule, it's tragic" (See Editor's Choice: Splicing Therapy Comes of Age, Science 11 Nov 2011, Vol. 334, p. 739). Substitute the word "retirement" for "aging" and you have the problem facing many career scientists today. While scientific journals and the science establishment bemoan the macroeconomics of "U.S. Science and Austerity" (See News Focus: U.S. Science and Austerity, Science 11 Nov 2011, Vol. 334, pp. 750-759), those working in university laboratories, research institutes, and hospitals see the tragic results among themselves and their colleagues as grant funding dries up. This "professional progeria" unexpectedly and increasingly strikes talented researchers with track records of success and accomplishment. As John Lennon noted: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Still, for individuals entering science careers, it's wise to make those plans now to prepare for when the grants stop coming. If that never happens, so much the better.

Even in the best of times, grant funding is extremely competitive. Although the achievements of the applicant are an important factor, other determinants are considered by peer reviewers and program officers: ever-changing program priorities, commitment to complex multidisciplinary projects, and concern for talented young investigators entering the field, for example. Felipe Sierra, director of biological research at the National Institute on Aging, states: "I don't think this is a failure of the review system but a failure of our acute lack of funds. While $30 billion is not small change, four-fifths of the N.I.H. budget is already committed to long-term projects and, of the remaining fifth available for new research projects, much is consumed by expensive clinical trials" (Nicholas Wade, A Struggle for Financing After a Promising Discovery, NY Times, November 22, 2011).

Scientists can work hard to stay at the cutting edge by reading the literature, attending meetings, visiting and collaborating with other laboratories, and taking sabbaticals with outstanding scientists, but as he or she progresses to mid and late career, sustaining funding for a laboratory is an ever-increasing challenge.

If a scientist is not protected by tenure, a dry spell in funding is often fatal to an academic science career. After two or more unsuccessful funding cycles, he or she may not be reappointed. Even tenure has its limits. When departments are dropped or merged, as occurs in difficult economic times, tenured professors can lose their jobs. And even if scientists' jobs are guaranteed, 100% of their salaries may not be guaranteed.

When a faculty member is told by his or her chair and colleagues that without funding he or she is a liability to the department, a drain on its resources, and an obstacle to the appointment of promising and more competitive, younger individuals, it is difficult to resist stepping aside.

Several Science Careers writers have written about how careers in biosciences -- especially early careers -- fit the "tournament" economic structure: Winners win big and everyone else goes home (for example, see here and here). In this regard, successful research careers -- in the biomedical sciences at least -- have come to resemble the careers of major league athletes. The resemblance survives well past the early-career stage.

Take a look at the career of Tony La Russa, the much publicized manager of the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. A promising infielder with a passion for the game, he survived as a player in organized baseball for 10 years (with a lifetime batting average of .199), then called it quits in 1973. He prepared to continue his career in baseball in a most unusual manner:  He earned a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from Florida State University College of Law. He is quoted as saying, "... I'd rather ride the buses in the minor league than practice law for a living" (Wikipedia); instead he has spent decades flying on chartered jets.

It is impossible to determine whether, and to what extent, La Russa's law degree augmented his previous experience in baseball in helping him to become a successful manager, winning six league championships and three World Series titles. But the Doctor of Law degree couldn't hurt, and it guaranteed a backup career. La Russa planned ahead.

In science as in sports, when you're done being an active player it is possible to "stay in the game" and continue to have a meaningful and fulfilling career. But staying in the game is greatly facilitated by anticipating future problems. It requires preparation.

What options exist to continue a career in science when you are no longer a principal investigator? You can extend your teaching commitment, move into an administrative and leadership realm, or take a job in industry.

Traditionally, many scientists have turned to teaching late in their careers. Research-active colleagues often were happy to hand off the teaching of introductory courses, for example, to an older, post-research colleague. But in the last decade, the information explosion in both basic science and clinical medicine and the revolutionary changes in medical pedagogy have radically altered teaching and teaching opportunities in medical schools. The huge increase in factual knowledge to be absorbed by students has led to a marked restriction in "inefficient" didactic lectures, and departments now compete for the remaining lecture time. Compensation for teaching is increasingly geared to the actual time one lectures to large groups in major courses, and there is, consequently, strong competition for opportunities to lecture. Online learning is replacing didactic lectures and requires fewer teachers. "Problem-based learning" is now stressed, and the house staff is substituted for faculty. All of this has combined to make teaching a less available substitute for the research portion of one's professional career. As a result, teaching-focused senior faculty members are not as well respected as their research-active colleagues. They often feel pressure to retire early, despite their contributions.

The administrative route is often a better alternative. From a historical standpoint, within medical schools there has been a striking evolution in the qualities and training required to be a chair of the clinical department. In the early days of medicine, the "great clinician" was the prime candidate for a chair. Following the Flexner Report, which revolutionized teaching in medical schools, the "great teacher" became an additional component that search committees looked for. After the mid-20th century, the "great researcher" became a desired addition.

More recently, with the advent of departmental budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, the "great administrator and financial manager" has come to the fore. These same qualities are increasingly valued in medical school basic science departments, and also in larger basic-science departments at universities. But in many universities, respected senior faculty who are not administration specialists may still rotate for short terms -- and sometimes longer terms -- as chairs of departments.

A scientist in a medical school can gradually assume management and financial responsibilities for a department, attend conferences, and be largely self-taught in administration. Or she can earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, or Master of Health Administration (MHA) degree designed for scientists or physicians. The latter course is being increasingly taken, and many such programs intended for non-resident candidates are available. These usually require a 2-year commitment of about 20 hours a week of study and, in addition, a week on campus twice a year. Most candidates continue to have a presence in the laboratory while pursuing a degree, although often not as a principal investigator. It's possible to maintain research grants, and tuition is often supported by one's home department.

An initial appointment -- as department chair, for example -- can serve as a stepping stone to subsequent recruitment as deans, chancellors, or presidents of institutions.

A third alternative is to leave academic life and work for a pharmaceutical or instrument company. For some faculty scientists this transition starts through involvement with small "spinoff" limited-liability corporations (LLCs) developing a newly patented drug or instrument. When successful, LLCs typically are purchased by large pharmaceutical or instrument companies. These larger companies employ scientists who departed university positions for a variety of reasons, including difficulty having their research funded.

If you take the long view of the problem, the difficulties science faces today are not entirely unexpected. We tend to assume that the last few decades of scientific support and funding were the norm, but they are not. Governmental support of science varies with the ebb and flow of the economy. When I was a postgraduate student in the 1960s and attended my first meeting of a major society in visual science, barely a hundred people attended. At this year's meeting there were more than ten thousand. That such exponential growth will be hard to maintain is apparent. But neither will the present austerity persist forever. In that issue of Science focused on "U.S. Science and Austerity," Michael Shermer notes, "As flawed as it sometimes can be, science is still the most reliable tool ever devised for understanding the world" (See As Far As Her Eyes Can See, Science 11 Nov 2011, Vol. 334, p.763). Science is a wonderful career, but don't underestimate its challenges.
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