The research struggle
Working in a research hospital is awesome. Things are streamlined that aren’t in academia and this was probably most apparent when I first started doing research in that setting almost three years ago exactly now. There is still a lot of red tape and things that need to be approved, ethical research is important in both academic and clinical research, it’s just handled by others instead of it all being your job. That doesn’t mean clinical research is all sunshine and rainbows though.
As a young naive researcher, or maybe just someone who wasn’t experienced, I didn’t think politics played any part of what you would do. I was operating under the assumption that you were hired to do a job so the people who hired you wouldn’t make life more difficult for you than was absolutely needed. After all what would the point be if you couldn’t do the job you were hired to do? More importantly, publications and groundbreaking research, collaborations, funding, etc. all make the institution you work for look good, be that academic or clinical.
This couldn’t have been farther from the truth however. Being a researcher reminds me of my brief and frustrating time as a personal trainer. The work is cutthroat and I was not cut out to actively try to screw over my fellow trainers, so I left after some time. I don’t know that all places were like that, but from what I was told it’s a theme. Research is very similar in some ways, mostly in the sense that everyone wants something and in some cases what they want is far more than they are willing to give. There isn’t a particular example I’m thinking of, just some general feelings on situations I’ve encountered over my time in research.
In a large institution, be it clinical or academic, there is a struggle between the institution and the researchers. The problem is mostly space. Space is a hot commodity and as I’ve been finding out over the years that can mean promises that are later broken. Helpful hint for anyone going into research as a PI, get it in writing, whatever they offer you, get it in writing. I watched my first PI’s lab get shrunk to a quarter of the size when the school decided they needed the space they originally gave him. That was a wakeup call for sure that a handshake promise was more symbolic than binding.
Of course funding can be an issue. Sometimes you need equipment and the school, or hospital, needs justification to make such a purchase. Even though the funds are technically yours to spend, there can be other factors in play that limit your ability to make a purchase. For instance we need some equipment for the lab (not saying which lab since I work in two), but due to some outside factors, we cannot make that purchase quite yet and may not be able to make the purchase for several months still.
Not the biggest of issues and we’re trying to clear that up so we can get it as quickly as possible, but it does put a damper on my graduation plans and research plans in general. That may sound like I’m giving away which lab is having the issue, but both labs impact my PhD, so it really doesn’t. In any case, there are a lot of weird quirks about research that I wasn’t aware of when I first started.
I still don’t fully understand why institutions will push for better and more advanced research without providing the tools needed to get that research done (be it space, equipment, funding, staff, etc.). It’s just setting people up for failure.
I decided to discuss this today because as I’m nearing the end of my degree — even if I don’t graduate next year, which I’m really hoping I do, I’m still close — I need to prepare to jump into this type of situation. I’ve been thinking a lot about how many times I’ve seen departments and internal politics cause issues for research being done. Or frankly even other researchers who make things incredibly hard to do the research you both want to do. I’ve seen that more times than I care to discuss.
I don’t think I’m particularly good at playing politics. I don’t have the energy to do the round-about dance required for negotiating. I tend to be more direct because I don’t like wasting time. Maybe that will be a good strategy, but from what I’ve seen it’s not the prevailing one. Which also means it’s probably not a good one.
It will be several years before I’m a PI anyway, assuming I graduate next year, it’s not uncommon to spend 2-4+ years doing a postdoc in a lab. Since I have research experience now, I’ll probably fall into the 2-3 year range and not the 4+ range, but you never know. That’s all dependant on the job market at the time I start hunting for my own lab, so it could be 1-2 years after graduation it could be longer. In any case, I still have a lot to learn about how to manage a lab before I could actually run one. Especially with all the non-research skills I would need to have.
Did I mention I hate politics?