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Charting the uncharted

Sure, I’m not completely sure when I’ll graduate, it’s still a bit of a mystery to be honest, but I’m hopeful and regardless of when I THINK it will happen, I need to plan for what comes next. So far there’s more options than I would’ve first thought and because of that, there’s a whole lot of stuff that needs to happen between now and when the big day comes. Which also means making choices about where I want to go. Thankfully, I got some news that makes me excited about the future, but there’s still a bit of a hang up, okay lot’s of hang ups, nevertheless, you don’t know if you don’t try.

Most places you go to work for have checklists, requirements you need to fulfill to get the job you are applying for. Most of the time those are going to be somewhat flexible or maybe even fuzzy, as in they don’t always state exactly what the requirements are. In my case, I’m not sure what I need to do to check all the boxes for this latest option and apparently neither does anyone else. I’m being vague, but it’s that exciting.

Okay here’s the general situation, oftentimes we go undergrad → grad school (up to the PhD) → postdoc → PI (or whatever else you want to do for your job). There are a few issues with this pipeline for sure, but specifically for what I would call “non-traditional” students. The major issue is that the pay structure is fixed. Like literally, the NIH/NSF specifies what a grad student or a postdoc is “worth” and that’s the maximum pay you can expect, like max, max. There’s no negotiating, no wiggle, it’s just how it is. There’s workarounds, but it’s not great and it really isn’t always a easy thing to setup (as in nothing is promised). I prefer something more stable, but also better paying.

The catch is since I’m working full-time I already make roughly what a postdoc can expect to make. So after graduation there’s a huge issue for me because it would literally be a pay cut to step into a role that ostensibly should be a somewhat significant pay increase because the responsibilities are increased. In my case I already have (in my opinion) the responsibilities of a postdoc and so it would be nice to find a better option.

So far I’ve got the DARPA fellowship, ARPA-H, the hospital, and the traditional postdoc role. The last one (postdoc) is just for completeness because it’s not an option. I guess there’s other hospitals/roles/etc. that I could pursue, but mostly I’m trying to narrow down my options not expand too much. I’m looking around, but nothing serious yet since I’ve got a somewhat unique situation going on (with my background). While the DARPA/ARPA-H options are appealing for the pay, prestige, and ability to effect research, there are downsides, which brings me to the hospital option and the somewhat long winded intro to the news I’ve gotten.

Hospital-PI and I have been talking about what to do with me and what my options are. I have high hopes that it will go well, but you never know. The hope is to basically become faculty and run my own lab or have a “sub-lab” within another lab where I pursue my own research interests while overlapping with the main lab. In the latter option I would have a small startup package, funding for some staff, and generally I would have more freedom to do research that interests me (without the constraint of doing other research that “needs” to happen because that’s where my pay is coming from).

The faculty route would be an amazing option and one that is the least likely. There is apparently a checklist somewhere (probably a metaphorical one, but still) and I’ve been specifically told there’s no path to that option, but I’ve also been told that anything is possible and you sometimes need to make your own role since the hospital doesn’t have a fixed structure. The “sub-lab” option is an interesting choice and one that I’m still trying to figure out what that would exactly mean for me. I like the idea of having my own direction and options to do the stuff that I’m interested in doing, but also having the support system of a “main-lab” so that I wouldn’t have to be so worried about funding.

In a hospital setting research is considered “soft money” as in they don’t pay you, you pay yourself from grants. Some of those can be internal (money from the hospital for research specifically), but most researchers pay themselves from outside sources. Contrasted to faculty in a school, which nine months of your salary is paid by the school. Yes, I did just say nine months, the other time is paid from grants (or not paid at all depending on how successful you are). Most of the time you’re expected to progress to a certain level anyway, so either way there’s a merit-based system that requires you to have a certain number of grants and publications.

All that aside, the idea of getting the chance to jump ahead a bit is very appealing since I feel like I’ve taken the longest route possible to my PhD (including my Masters, which I don’t regret, but it would be nice to have my PhD instead). Mostly just finding some stability is appealing and getting the chance to do my own thing.With the other options (DARPA/ARPA-H) I would be more of a manager instead of doing the research myself and being hands on with the work, I prefer that kind of stuff over the almost clerical role that program managers have.

So that’s the news, which is to say not news quite yet, nothings formalized and I don’t have anything in writing. I don’t even have a serious offer just yet from the hospital side, but it’s exciting to hear the possibilities and see what comes out of it.


3 responses

  1. What’s the obstacle to becoming official faculty and having a separate lab – is it that they want you to do the official postdoc tour first? Is there a path to becoming faculty if you operate a sub-lab for a while?

    I guess maybe I should ask what being “faculty” means in a research hospital. In normal academia there’s the natural connotation of teaching sometimes in addition to doing research. If hospital faculty effectively pay themselves, I assume connection to the hospital just means permission to use its facilities and equipment? And is there anything you’re supposed to do for the hospital in return (besides grant it prestige by publishing things)?

    Liked by 1 person

    February 9, 2023 at 11:43 am

    • Yes, mostly it’s lack of ‘formal’ experience. While hospital-PI treats me like a postdoc I don’t have a the traditional background for it. There’s no formal requirement, but I’m told that the road to being an independant-PI isn’t open to me for that reason. There’s some ambiguity though, so who knows? I’ve already gotten word that a faculty position is on the table, but I wouldn’t be a “totally” independent PI. It’s actually almost exactly what I was hoping for, but I won’t admit that to them. They’re still working out something better (hopefully). I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll get some startup funds to invest in some fancy equipment to do some work.

      Faculty comes with it’s own benefits, like access to startup funds, being able to have people work in my “lab,” get my own office, etc. It’s basically a title, but the main benefit of being faculty but not a fully independent PI is that my salary is not dependent on me getting a certain number of grants. So it’s “hard” money instead of “soft” money. At least for the time being. The catch is that others would be paying my salary, but it would be under the umbrella of the new neuroprosthetics center the hospital is building. Since they have no one doing neuroprosthetics research and that’s literally my field I’ve pushed hard on that fact. I think it’s part of what’s helped make progress so far, that and the DARPA Rissers win(s), really are driving my options now.

      Oh and publications are always a requirement, but nothing is set in stone with that regard just yet. I’ll know more once my formal offers come in, offers since there will be more than one for me to pick from. As of now there are 3 from the hospital, but nothing fully formalized yet since there’s still some other “routes” that they are looking into.

      Liked by 1 person

      February 19, 2023 at 12:23 pm

  2. I hardly comprehend the complexity of this article, but good luck with your endeavours! I’m not really a man of scientific research. Sometimes I wish I had a skill.


    February 22, 2023 at 7:10 am

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