Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Blowing in the wind

"How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?...
The answer is blowing in the wind"
- "Blowing in the wind" by Bob Dylan

Ah, the age-old question of life. One that every scientist seeks to answer. The great mystery of research: how many proposals must a postdoc write before she gets funding?

Friends, science is all about grants. My current funding is due to run out in the spring, and so I'm currently in application mode. Well, I suppose I'm always in application mode, but now it's just with a little more urgency. Every scientist goes through this. In order to get a project (and their salary) funded, they have to write a proposal. You draft a plan for your project, write an introduction, list the important scientific questions, outline your methods, propose a budget, and then submit the whole thing to a funding agency. Some grants are funded, but the majority are not. So far this year, I've had two fellowship applications and two grants get turned down and two grants accepted. Frustratingly, the two accepted grants do not contain any salary support, so I have money to do the project I proposed but no money to get paid with. Ah, the irony.

I've compared postdocs to freelancers before, and I still believe that it's true. The postdoc period of a scientist's career is tumultuous, with employment being based on short, project-specific contracts. Some postdocs have to move to new cities or institutions for their contracts, uprooting their life every year or two. So in addition to my grant proposals, I'm applying for "real" jobs to end the chaotic postdoc period. Ideally, I want to be a staff scientist at a research institution or a professor at a university. (For the record, even if I get hired into one of these positions, I'll still have to write grant proposals; I'll just have the security of institutional funding to fall back on if I fail.) I'm casting applications out into the world like seeds into the wind - well, if every seed is a 10-page packet summarizing my life's work thus far. It's nerve-wracking and time-consuming and all-around stressful. We'll see what, if anything, comes of my efforts. I'll keep you posted.

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