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The year ahead

It seems only fitting that with the last post a look back, we take a look forward too. For those of you who know me, it won’t be a big surprise. I do it so often, looking forward is probably a hobby. I like to plan for the future and have clear goals to work toward. Maybe that’s just how I’m wired? In any case, it’s what’s kept me going for this long and I don’t think changing strategies this late in the game is a good idea, so we’re sticking with it. It’s going to be an interesting year for me, even if only half the stuff I want to do gets done it should be pretty memorable. But enough with the fluff, let’s dive right in!

Graduation. It’s been on my mind since I started my PhD. Frankly I still worry it won’t happen, just because it feels too weird to think that I’ve finally reached the end of my journey. Being a student has been the bulk of my adult life. In fact, I’ve basically replaced a full military career with my education thanks to my injuries. A change in paths that I’m not completely ungrateful for because I love what I do. I’m aiming to graduate this term, so in just a handful of months frankly and I still have so much to do, I think school-PI may be right and I may have to just suck it up and finish over the summer. I’ve barely started my dissertation, I’ve still got at least one paper to write, and I am told that school-PI is “pushing” me to collect the data for aim 2, because he thinks it’s important for me.

That being said, he’s aware of when I would like to graduate and I’m acting like I’m going to be graduating on time (my time), so anything can happen. Unless something goes terribly wrong, I WILL be graduating soon (within the year), so that’s some good news as far as I’m concerned. I’ve also settled a bit on how to wrap up aim 3, which I’ve started hammering away at again after falling apart last month (nearly literally, it was a rough month getting back on my feet). With the work that lays ahead, I wouldn’t be surprised if you hear a lot about my dissertation problems and headaches. In the vague way I have to talk about it of course, because that’s just how the rules work. The good news is that I have little doubt that “super secret technique” will finally be revealed this year, mostly because I have at least one, if not two papers that need to happen for graduation.

When it comes to stuff I’ve got going on this year, I can’t talk about anything if I don’t talk about work! My research at the hospital is in a similar, but different vein from what I’m doing at school, but neither count for the other. Meaning twice the work, but that’s the price you pay if you want to get ahead I guess. It will be worth it in the end, but it does suck at the moment and with the new year comes new experiments. A lot of them! I’m trying to negotiate with hospital-PI about how much of my effort is needed for some of these projects, but mostly I’m looking at a rough few months and several studies that will need my attention. That’s on top of my other work of course, the extra work I made for myself with “big idea, I’ve good news on that front though!

For a bit now, over a year apparently based on the big idea post, I’ve been working on something I can only really describe as “big,” hence the moniker I’m using for it. There’s been a lot of movement on that front, starting with several experiments that were funded outside our lab. One of our colleague labs heard about big idea and wanted to use it for some of the work they wanted to test. We agreed since we get our own little bit of data and we’re still doing those experiments. The last two will happen within the next few months and hospital-PI and I are hard at work to get the data published. Because things have been going so smoothly, we’ve just spent a bunch of money on some new equipment for it. Stuff I was pushing for to use in our new center (still being built apparently) and couldn’t be ordered until it was completed. Well we pushed hard enough apparently and it’s been ordered, but with shipping delays it will be some time before we see it unfortunately.

That hasn’t kept me from working on new hardware to use with this equipment and I’ve been working on making all that happen as well. If everything goes smoothly (it won’t), I will have the data for big idea collected the way I had originally imagined it. Or something close to that anyway, hospital-PI and I are still working out the details so we can get that project started, but since it’s unfunded (internal funding technically) I’m stuck working on it on the side along with the other projects that pay the bills. Basically because I thought school wasn’t hard enough, I got a job, then I made more work on top of that for myself. Someone please talk some sense into me? But seriously, it will all work out how it needs to, it’s just a matter of when.

So what’s after? Assuming I graduate on time (again, my time, ontime is whenever I can frankly or under ten years as far as the school is concerned), anything is possible. That’s because after a meeting with school-PI, which I should write about (note to self), I am going to attempt to do it all! Okay, not really, but I’m applying for everything. What does that mean? Well there are several paths ahead that I can pick from, they are (in no particular order):

  • Stay at the hospital and take a pay increase (already negotiating that and it’s very generous thanks to hospital-PI)
  • The DARPA fellowship, which I’ve been told to apply for by several program managers after the Risers event, not suggested, told.
  • Become an actual full program manager at ARPA-H, which it turns out I have some support for that route too, who would’ve guessed?
  • Try to find a PI job without the traditional postdoc experience (there are pathways for this believe it or not, but it would be a hard road… what else is new?)
  • Find a postdoc,this is the worst option, making it not a real choice. If I go this route something went horribly, horribly wrong. I would be taking a pay cut thanks to the NSF/NIH funding limits for postdocs, so no thank you.

Each of the choices (minus the last, ew) have benefits. Staying at the hospital means I won’t have to pay back the money they gave me for my schooling (I need to give them a year of my life after graduating or pay back the money). But more importantly it means I’m already connected with everything, I don’t have to move, and I can keep working on the stuff I love to do. Hospital-PI has made a generous offer and I’m getting it in writing soon, but aside from the pay increase he has an R01 (big grant) that I helped shape, or rather am helping to shape, to be used in conjunction with big idea. We’ve modified the IRB, we’ve got the new equipment, and we (hopefully) have the FDA on board, so there’s good reasons to stay.

The only real downside is that I’m already here, so I won’t get to experience anything “new.” I’m not too broken up about it, but it’s something I need to consider with respect to my CV (resume) because things like that can look… not bad, but not great either. It’s weird, don’t ask me, that’s just how it is. It’s like staying in one place for your postdoc is generally frowned upon. It’s silly because that means I need to be mobile and be able to move (meaning money to move and not a lot of stuff to take with me). I’ve moved every few years for all of my life up until basically the last year of my undergrad, where I stayed in one place for three years, now I’m at my new home for year five. I’m tired of moving, so that’s going to factor in for sure.

DARPA was always the dream though. It’s what got me started on this path to begin with and I think being a program manager (even if it’s just a “fellowship” program manager) is a huge deal. It would mean that I get to be a PI basically and shape the future. While DARPA is military so the applications are for war, I would have a chance to throw some of that big pile of money toward helping heal people. While that has implications for combat, it also has implications for everyone else too. We’re all stuck in a fairly fragile meatsack, so anything that could be used to treat combat injuries would benefit civilians as well. The downsides are that I would have to move and there’s only a two year guarantee, even though typical program managers are in for 4-6 years. So two years, then move somewhere else and do something different I guess… not a bad deal, just not something I’m particularly excited about. I do think if I could transition to a full program manager (as in not part of the fellowship) this route would be appealing. Basically not a “no,” but certainly not an enthusiastic “yes.”

ARPA-H is probably the hardest of these routes. It’s a new organization and the appeal here is that I would be on the ground floor shaping the organization for generations to come. ARPA-H is the health equivalent of DARPA, same basic high risk/ high reward projects, but without the military undertones. Meaning I would get a chance to have the full DARPA program manager experience, but without the military aspect. Surprisingly (I am a Veteran after all), that is appealing to me. The catch with this option is that not only would I have to move, but there would be a huge uphill battle to get hired on for the job since I would be fresh out of school at that point. The benefits are enormous though, so out of everything I have that I could do, this is probably the most exciting option for me unless hospital-PI does finalize the R01 stuff with my revisions.

The alternate route to ARPA-H would be just applying to be a program manager at DARPA directly without going the fellowship route. I mean it would be the same struggle, but it would be cool and it’s DARPA, I mean everyone knows DARPA. Still ARPA-H feels like the better path for me at the moment, but we’re going to apply for it all!

That’s right, I’m throwing my hat into the ring for everything. The second round of the DARPA fellowship should be opening up soon, the first round closed at the beginning of the year and I wouldn’t graduate in time to start with that cohort, so the second one would be the aim there. ARPA-H is more nebulous since they are a new organization so my start date would be negotiable here. On the hospital side, well I would just need to graduate and my contract would change once we finish negotiating it (which should happen in the next few weeks, I hope). All routes start with that I guess, it’s just a matter of where to turn next and we’ll see what doors are open for me once I start hearing back about my options.

Since this is already so long, I’ll end here after I make my prediction for this year’s papers. I’m aiming for four first author journal papers at least, my dissertation obviously, and maybe a conference paper. I’m working with school-PI on that front. I have a conference picked out that I may aim for if he thinks I should do it. If all goes well I’ll have my nature paper, which would be huge, but stuff like that is hard to predict, so we’ll just have to wait and be surprised together I guess.

I would say that I hope I keep going at the same trajectory I’m going now, but that would be a lie. I’m hoping to do better, but only because I’m already here, so why not be greedy about it?

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4 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing! I’m going through some big changes too. I have two tentative job offers with VAs, one in Madison, WI and one in Shreveport, LA I can’t believe how long it is taking the VA to offer a final formal offer this has been a painful month.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 5, 2023 at 1:46 pm

    • Oops, I guess I haven’t been keeping up. The VA does take it’s time, I’m hoping by now you’ve got it all figured out though? In any case, congratulations on the offers, that’s very exciting and either one would be lucky to have you.

      Like

      February 6, 2023 at 5:41 pm

      • Thank you, yes I’m in Madison, WI

        Liked by 1 person

        February 6, 2023 at 8:32 pm

      • That’s awesome! Congratulations and I hope they treat you well.

        Like

        February 6, 2023 at 9:34 pm

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