We're a little crazy, about science!

The hunt for funding

Funding, a running theme around here. When I started my PhD it was clunky, I had no clue what I was doing, but I new that I needed to have some money because the first rule of doing a PhD is that you DO NOT pay for your PhD. That much I knew from my Masters (which I was lucky enough to not have to pay for because my PI at the time was just starting out and had funding for me). The rest was up in the air and has been up in the air for a little bit now, so today I’ll be talking about my funding history and where I’m at now. It’s all a little up in the air at the moment, but I’m optimistic.

When I started my PhD I did a lot of things right and I did a lot of things wrong. I did not try to find funding when I started because as a first gen PhD I had no reference for how to do anything or what I needed. I was under the impression that the PI of the lab would have funds for me when I joined because that was what happened with my Masters. Had I known, I would’ve applied, but then again I had no clear direction about what I wanted to do next, I had a direction, but it hadn’t been refined enough for a good proposal. I also reached out to some of the labs I was interested in, that turned out to be a smart choice and the correct way to do it, even though I had no idea at the time that was the case.

Starting at the lab I’m in now was somewhat luck. I had two options for my PhD and I’m happy with the choice I made, even though the biggest factor in the decision between the two labs was the weather (seriously). Either program had great opportunities and I selected the one I did for a lot of reasons, but the weather was an important one for me, something to think about when you’re in the same process. I enjoy the outdoors, so I wanted weather that would accommodate that to put it simply. In any case the story of how I ended up with the second offer is wild and deserves a post all to itself, so maybe some other day.

When I started in the lab funding was provided for me (more here), which came with some strings attached. If you don’t want strings you should have your own funding. If like me you can’t get funding, didn’t know you needed to find funding yourself, or just didn’t have a clear picture about what you wanted to research so you didn’t mind taking on a project, then your PI may just have something for you.

I quickly found my place and the project I wanted to take on for my PhD. Literally months into the program I came up with my “super secret” technique that I’m researching now and have been working to get enough data to share the technique with the world (assuming it actually works). That meant I needed (or rather wanted) to focus on my project so I needed to come up with some source of funding for myself. Thankfully I found some!

Two years ago almost exactly I applied for and was awarded a collaborative fellowship between my school and a local research hospital. The person running the lab at the research hospital, whom I lovingly refer to simply as my Co-PI around here, was someone who’s work aligned well with what I was interested in (as seen by my reactions to work we do here or here). The fellowship was two years long and even though COVID slowed a lot of things down I was able to work, learn, do some cool things (like sit in on a surgery), and if all goes well I will get not one, but two first author journal papers out of this.

However, the clock was counting down on funding. I had two years, and that only got me through year three of my PhD, it will be another two before I graduate… at least. So I needed money for the next two years and because I learned my lesson right way, I needed to find my own funding. A flurry of writing later I submitted for the NDSEG fellowship (and did not get it, wah!), I co-wrote an R21 grant to support my work (still in review, results coming sometime next month, maybe?), I submitted a surprise funding proposal (here), and there is an option to renew my joint fellowship (which I really, REALLY, REALLLLLLLY!!! want).

Will there be funding for lil ol’ me? Who knows, but the point is that I’ve applied for a lot and did my due diligence at least. My main-PI says he has options if I don’t get anything, but (and that’s a big but), the catch is that I will probably need to take a pay cut. As a PhD student our pay is tightly controlled by the federal government. If you’re going into a STEM career like I have, you can expect to make between $20-30,000 a year. I believe $30,000 is the maximum for a PhD student (sad, but true. I have two degrees already and none of the pay). Long story short, I don’t want to take a pay cut because I’m already just barely hanging on as it is now.

My saving grace is that I’m good at what I do. I’m not a smart man, trust me I’ve been in a room full of smart people. I’ve gushed over my favorite instructor and how she is incredibly brilliant (and one of MIT’s top 35 under 35!), I know real intelligence when I see it, and I’m not it. That’s not downing myself, we all have our strengths, raw intelligence is definitely not mine. I cannot derive equations to save my life, but I’ve seen people do it as easy as you or I write a sentence. I make up for it by my work ethic, my time management (which I’ve honed to a science because of my mental health), and my creativity. My favorite instructor? I actually impressed her with some of my work, yeah of all my accomplishments that was probably the thing that meant the most to me.

My Co-PI agrees that I’m creative and have good ideas. I can also problem solve and work independently (thanks Marine Corps), so when I told him my funding was running out he said not to worry. From my understanding his ideal situation would have me working in his lab full time, which is also my ideal situation. He’s offered to hire me to make this happen, but extending the fellowship may be the easier route. If he hired me, there’s no promise my main-PI would keep me, so that’s the catch. I would get paid better, have better benefits, but there is no payoff for my main-PI and he would lose me from his lab, so nothing good would come out of it.

In any case, my Co-PI has said repeatedly that he wants to extend my contract (fellowship). The onus is on my main-PI to make it happen. Since it’s a collaboration, the two need to agree on how the funds will be doled out and my responsibilities between labs. My main-PI and I recently had a discussion about this and it turns out he’s open to extending the fellowship. That would mean nothing would change from my perspective and I would have the opportunity to focus on my research full time!

Since this is an ongoing thing I don’t have a final answer quite yet, but I’m hopeful in the upcoming weeks I will be sharing some good news here. Interestingly enough, extending the fellowship is the worst case scenario now. The R21 grant is from my Co-PI so I would be working full time in his lab and that would be the best case scenario. There is one other thing up in the air (the surprise funding proposal my main-PI had me write) that could throw a wrench in the whole thing, but the deadline for it was recently extended so I think that will now work itself out.

Funding is hard to come by sometimes. I don’t have an outstanding academic track record. I’m mostly average and I don’t have a lot going for me. That makes getting funding a challenge. It’s sad because I’m more than just my grades, but it’s hard to convey that in a system build on looking at grades first and people second (if at all).


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