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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?

5 responses

  1. I would go for the DARPA fellowship. It seems to be the furthest out of your comfort zone, since you seem skeptical about getting chosen. (Although personally, I think you are a shoe in.)

    Liked by 1 person

    November 8, 2022 at 9:58 pm

    • Oh I like that logic! I’m not as confident about my chances of being selected, but I appreciate the vote of support! I might end up regretting not applying if they don’t do it next year. Thank you!

      Like

      November 9, 2022 at 12:01 pm

  2. I have personal regrets about the amount of busywork in my history. A lot of it was forced on me – it’s just the nature of school, and of working for a corporation. But there’s some I could have escaped, and maybe I should have. For example, as part of my undergraduate EE degree, I got a physics minor. I loaded up on credits to do this. It was nice to have as an extra credential, but absolutely not required for my career, and now I wonder if I should have done it. Maybe time dedicated to making a start on personal projects – whether practical or theoretical – would have been more valuable than the many hours I spent on complex math homework for quantum mechanics. (Did I hate it? No. Could I have exercised my brain to the same extent for a better return than “you have proven your skill by working this meaningless problem correctly”? Probably.)

    That’s a plug for getting an early PI (whether through DARPA or elsewhere) and jumping ahead on your career track. For removing the tax you’re paying to other people’s goals from your time budget. Life is short; more and more, I think that if something isn’t serving the main mission, then no matter how “enriching” it is, it’s gotta go. But there are some other things to think about, especially if early-PI weighs in as the more-work, higher-stress option. As seems to be the usual, my “advice” is going to consist of asking a bunch of questions back. I’m not sure what I would do because I’m not quite sure of the scenario.

    Do you feel ready for this? Do you think bureaucracy is essentially the only thing holding you back from successfully running your own lab, or does the thought of going into that without more experience worry you? I get the sense you have the technical expertise, but if I were in your place, I suppose I’d be concerned about the management aspect. Having people under you and leading them, dealing with budgets and logistics and PR and whatever else. Do you have a handle on all that (or will your chosen program train you in it)?

    Will early-PI require moving somewhere else? What will that do to your personal stability, security, and relationships? Are you ready for another transition, or would it pull a rug from under you? Does one of these options (traditional postdoc but not at the hospital, maybe) entail a greater number of moves, and is that a strike against it? I’d call that a strike against it. Moving burns up time also, and not even in an enjoyable way.

    You have research under way at the hospital that is literally yours, your idea. How much of that do you leave behind/unfinished if you go to a new lab? Are you okay with that? You’ve mentioned work that only you really know how to do. Will your team have the resources to compensate for your absence? Would your departure pull a rug from under anybody else?

    You’ve been commenting that the amount of work you’re currently doing is unsustainable, and looking forward to the time after graduation as a season when things will slow down. Will choosing the early-PI option blow that up? You feel your life is overwhelming at the moment. Will you need a break?

    I almost hate to bring this up, but you may want to think about worst-case scenarios. E.g. if the medical establishment yanks your modafinil away again, will that suddenly drop you into a hole with more work than you can handle? I don’t know how much I want to encourage you to worry about that – it would be a little like me planning my life around “what if the neuropathy comes back,” which I am basically not doing – but it’s an element to put in your calculations somewhere.

    Okay, I think that’s everything.

    One trick I’ve sometimes found helpful when making difficult decisions, is to shift from asking “What should I do?” to asking “Who am I?” It’s just a re-framing, but it can jar new thoughts loose. The best example, though rather unrelated to your situation, was the purchase of my first car. I had choices:

    1) Old but tough Honda Civic, for sale by friend leaving the country to study abroad. Manual transmission (my experience driving manual consisted of one lesson from this friend while I test-drove the vehicle). $700.
    2) Newer and nicer Ford Taurus, for sale by parents for the price they bought it. Automatic transmission. Pressure from parents to choose it as the safe option. $3000.

    $2300 was, at least by my standards at the time, a lot of money. I was rather stuck on this, until it came into my head that buying the Civic would certainly be an adventure. Then I said, “Am I the sort of person who likes adventures? Well that one’s easy, the answer is yes.” So I bought the Civic. And I was not wrong: it was an adventure, and I was up for it.

    So who are you? Not just in terms of your career goals, but in terms of your personality and, well, everything. Which choice harmonizes with that best?

    And last of all, even though I’ve thrown a lot more pros and cons on the table: don’t agonize unnecessarily. If you have a terribly hard time deciding, that may be an indication that all the options are equally good. Not every choice is a watershed moment.

    Have a good future, okay. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    November 9, 2022 at 3:43 am

    • Oh, you bring up excellent points! The DARPA fellowship would be for two years and would require a move to Arlington, so that does factor a bit into it. I would like to minimize the number of moves I need to make between now and “established” career, which was another factor against doing a postdoc (or multiple, which is becoming the “standard” these days).

      Moving isn’t a huge issue, but I would like to keep it to a minimum. I moved six times if I’m counting right, but that’s not counting the homeless bits between start of undergrad and finishing my Masters.

      Most of my research, if I left would come with me. There’s no IP involved (yet anyway) so I could keep doing it. I wouldn’t be able to take all the stuff I’ve built with me, but that’s not a huge deal since I could do it all again (probably better) fairly easily.

      I do like the idea of asking “who am I?” that’s a great way to frame it honestly and yet another reason why I like crowdsourcing this question, because I would’ve never thought to do something like that.

      Once upon a time I would be diving headfirst without thought into trying to get the DARPA fellowship and I am still leaning that way, but I do want to see if I have any options available to me at the hospital first. I have friends here and both hospital-PI and surgeon-PI would be missed. Surgeon-PI in particular since his support has always been great for my ego, haha! So maybe I’m not the person I once was, something to think about for sure!

      I do think that they are all great choices, except maybe the postdoc route, I am heavily not wanting to do that if I can help it. Most of my journey has been “non-traditional” anyway so why not throw that into the pile of non-traditional routes too. So at least I know that much about myself!

      Thank you! I’m excited at all the opportunities I suddenly find myself having now that I’m near the end. It’s been a theme that I never thought I would get to this point and suddenly here I am!

      Liked by 1 person

      November 9, 2022 at 12:23 pm

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