For the future
Well it appears we’re talking about future me again I guess with all the stuff going on it’s hard not to. There’s a whole lot of things changing and like it or not, you can’t just jump into the future without plan. Okay, you can, but speaking from experience, I don’t advise it. Sure it may end well, but why risk it? So instead I need to figure out what the next few years looks like. I tend to do this every so often, but with graduation (hopefully) coming, I want to make sure that I make the best choices I can. Basically I need future me not to be pissed off at past me… present me? It’s confusing, but whatever let’s not think about it too much.
So here’s my conundrum in a nutshell. I have a lot of experience these days being an unofficial postdoc and I feel like I’m behind schedule with my life. I mean not only did I help train the actual postdoc in the lab, I’ve managed a whole lot of other stuff. Stuff like proposing experiments, coming up with totally new stuff i.e., big idea, and I’ve written several grants, just to name a few things. This is partly thanks to hospital-PI treating everyone like a postdoc basically, which is good for me, but probably unnerving for a lot of people. I probably mentioned it already, but I even had the postdoc tell me he couldn’t complain about all the work he was doing because he sees all the stuff I’m doing, which made me laugh. But it also made me realize that there is a lot going on.
Frankly I blame DARPA for this and if it were just being selected as a Riser then I wouldn’t have even made the connection, but they announced the DARPA innovation fellowship, which is basically like running your own lab from DARPA. It’s hard to explain, so to quote the call, “The fellows will develop and manage projects in a portfolio of exploratory efforts to identify breakthrough technologies for national security, taking bold risks that could lead to revolutionary capabilities for the Department of Defense and civilian society.”
Okay so alternative route from the traditional route, which for those who aren’t academics it’s basically:
BS -> (OPTIONAL MS, aka my route) -> PhD -> Postdoc -> PI
This would be PhD -> PI and PI by the way I realized I didn’t define, it’s the primary investigator or the boss of the lab. As a PI you have a lot of responsibility to find funding, find people, propose experiments, etc. It’s work, but it also means you get to be the person who decides the research that happens and the routes you want to explore. I get a lot of that freedom now, but I do think running my own lab would be a better way to get it done or at least a good way to get other help to do the work. But the fellowship wasn’t enough on its own to make me think about just trying to jump into a PI role or some alternative to postdoc.
Side note since I keep throwing out terms without defining them properly. A postdoc is exactly what it sounds like, it’s a phase after your doctorate where you’re not quite a PI, but you’re not a student either. You get slightly better pay, you get more responsibility than your PhD (typically) and between us internet friends, it’s basically a way for the system to wring more work out of former students because you’re still not getting PI pay. You get a small pay bump, but (most of the time) not enough to justify all the work. It’s done under the guise of teaching, which a PhD is literally a job, you’re considered a worker, but you’re a special class of worker where you don’t get things like healthcare, time off, or all the benefits of a “real” job (in quotes because it’s definitely a real job despite not being counted as one because you’re learning. But name one job where you’re not learning how to do the work? You can’t because it doesn’t exist).
So now that we’re up to speed the rest of the story goes like this. I happened to stumble upon something on twitter, which appears to be throwing life changing things at me daily now… weird since it’s falling apart. Anyway, it was a link to a school offering a program for PhD students who wanted to jump right to being a PI. The school fully funds the lab for the first few years (if I recall correctly it was 5 years, which wow!) and you’re considered a PI, but you have help basically so you’re not alone. The main requirement was just having references from PI’s who thought you were ready to make that jump.
So between those two things and hospital-PI making the same suggestion about six months ago, which I took about as seriously as I take anything he says, as in not serious. I’m starting to think about alternative routes in my career. I may try to apply for the DARPA fellowship, I feel like I have a good shot these days to at least be considered for it. I’m sure it would be overly competitive so I probably wouldn’t get selected, but it would be fun to try. However, I do owe the hospital a year after I graduate unless I want to pay back the money they are giving me to pay for school. That’s not a problem exactly (it’s not a TON of money, less than $5k which is a lot, but somewhat easy to pay back. Especially if I got that kind of a sudden pay bump).
There’s a better reason to stay after graduating though. The hospital is building a whole new center for neuroprosthetics and guess who just happens to want to design neuroprosthetics for a living? Oh thats, right this whole blog is basically a huge shrine to advancing prosthetics, so that would be me. The new center is awesome and thanks to the way hospital-PI runs the lab, I got a lot of say in how the new center would be built and the kind of equipment it’s going to have. It’s going to be pretty awesome, so I’m excited about it honestly. Oh and coming sometime next year with a little luck, with COVID delays it’s hard to be certain. Technically it was supposed to be built already, but lots of delays.
That’s the big dilemma right now, where to go next. Stay at the hospital, try to get a PI role somewhere else, the DARPA fellowship, or maybe just be traditional about it and get a postdoc position. Now that it’s all written out I’m starting to realize why the air constantly feels like it’s being sucked out of the room. There’s a lot of choices and I wish I could just pick one now. I think, despite the amount of work required, I do want to go the “non-traditional” route and just do it, jump right into the whole PI/running lab role. I just feel like it would be less constricting, which I do feel like I’m bumping up against the boundaries of my current position already. Hospital-PI gives me a ton of freedom, but as the book says, give a researcher a cookie… or something like that.
What can I say, I have dreams and I want to push the limit. I don’t like how we are doing things and I have a few thoughts on how we could be doing them better. I’m excited to push forward and see how/if I can make any of them happen. There’s just so much research I want to do, too much for me to do all alone. So yeah,if I’m going to do it, I need my own lab I guess.
I don’t normally put out questions to my readers. I tend to treat this as a notebook. BUUUUT…
What do you think? If you were in my position, what would you do and why? I’m interested to hear some outside perspectives because you, my lovely amazing and obviously highly intelligent readers with great tastes in blogs (lol), may have a different perspective about all this or see things in a different way and I could use some outside perspective.
For the sake of future me, what would you do?