Disgruntled Trainees, Unite!

April 18, 2007

The disgruntled postdoc/grad student is a familiar figure in biomedical science. A couple of examples in the blogosphere include Shelley Batts who bemoans the state of NIH funding,

I’ve come to the conclusion recently that the amount and types of grants out there for young scientists is really poor. By the time you begin to write an NRSA (which takes a few months) and go through the obligatory 2 revision periods (another year), even if you receive a fundable score, you’re funding won’t likely begin until another 6 months. By this time, 2 years has easily passed. As these grants, like all grants, rely heavily on preliminary data, many graduate students are not even in a position to apply for an NRSA until they have generated a year’s worth of data (or more). By the end of the process, assuming you are successful (in that lucky 6-9%!), you may have already graduated from school and been awarded your PhD. Does this sound like an efficient and beneficial program?

and Jake Young who wonders

The question for me is whether the institutions of large university hospitals change be modified to make it possible for people to do adequate research without fearing for their academic souls, selling their personal lives down the river, or completely ignoring the benefits of good teaching and competent clinical work. Maybe these are things are all antithetical…

They have plenty of company and in many cases for good reasons. However, as an ex-disgruntled grad student / postdoc I have a few thoughts.

Number 1: This is a good gig, no matter the bad advisor or dismal funding picture. You are in a career that let’s you do essentially what you wish to from day to day, let’s you pursue that which interests you for the most part and in most cases provides you with one of the most informal work environments possible.

Number 2: Nobody is going to hand you a life-long career so grow up, appreciate the helping hands you’ve received and go market yourself or sell that used car. The acquisition of funds to support your ability to pursue your science is part of the job so you might as well start figuring out how to work the system instead of cursing the darkness.

Number 3: Cursing the darkness has a place as long as you curse to the right people. Trainees tend to feel powerless but you can have more impact than you think. Try communicating in the “official” way- write letters to Science and Nature in response to Zerhouni / Scarpa / etc editorials. Talk to program officials (use facts, don’t whine, don’t personalize) at meetings. Write your Congressional representative!

Number 4: Think about this one long and hard. Somebody has to have that job/career/grant. Why should it not be you? What are you doing to make sure it IS you?

One Response to “Disgruntled Trainees, Unite!”

  1. GrantSlave Says:

    One thing that we also do not do a particularly good job of with trainees is to start the triage process. A democratic approach of everyone-deserves-a-chance is nice but perhaps trainees would be better served by a little honesty. How many of your trainees are actually suited for an independent career? Perhaps what we need to be doing is to be showing the majority of trainees where there careers lie outside of the NIH game…


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