Thursday, April 9, 2015

Walking away from a K99 and why we should fund biomedical research

I would like to preface this by stating explicitly that I love science, truly. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for my PhD advisor, and my postdoctoral funding agency. I look around me every day and see fantastically gifted individuals generating the leading edge of human knowledge, and am proud that I even get to walk the halls with them. I know that scientists have made remarkable and unprecedented discoveries as a result of the very system that I am going to rail against for a bit. And in no way do I think that we should stop funding academic medicine, quite the contrary, I feel very strongly that we need to put a TON more money into the NIH.  I think the majority of the gripes I have are a direct result of a dearth in scientific funding, and that if we don’t focus some attention on the need for more funding some of the stark realities listed below could jeopardize one of the only means that we as a species have come up with so far for understanding life, disease and everything in between.  Also, take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt, these are generalizations, I was very fortunate and never had financial issues throughout my academic career, was lucky enough to secure grants and had a clear path toward securing a tenure track position when I decided to leave. Now that I have listed my disclaimers…

When I decided to go to graduate school for biochemistry, I had the following discussion with my husband:

“I’ll get my PhD, and then I’ll get a job to support you if you want to go back to school to get yours.”

I can literally hear those of you on the reading side of this post chuckling at the na├»ve assumptions of me as a fledgling scientist. 

For those of you in unrelated fields, scientists don’t make money. At least not for the first ~ 20 years of their career.  Should you choose an academic career, there’s undergrad, where you rack up the bills, then graduate school, where you are hovering around the poverty line, then comes the postdoc(s). The parentheses are there to highlight the fact that many people are stuck in a forever form of science slavery. It’s like the wild west of science, no laws, no oversight, no rules, no exit, other than publish and publish well, or else you’re stuck in postdoc purgatory making less than half  the salary of an average Mass Pike Toll Collector II (citation: . If you do make it out with a high impact paper, only then can you have a career that allows you to think about buying a used car with 20K miles on it instead of 120K miles on it.  But if that career plan entails becoming a PI (principal Investigator, or boss if you will) then those 20 years of fierce competition and strategic planning only provide you with a <8% chance of getting that highly coveted faculty position  (citation:  If after all this training, you do make it, your chances of failing after landing a tenured track position are astronomical.  Only the top 14.8% of R01 grants through the NCI were funded in 2014 (citation:  R01 grants are the bread and butter of a solvent and successful research lab. Without one, your tenure chances are shot, your ability to recruit and pay for the grad students and postdocs that will populate your lab for 20 years is limited and you end up looking for another school to try and salvage your scientific aspirations, or you are forced into another career.  The NIH does give first timers a break, which helps bridge those first critical years toward tenure, but then you get a pool of young PI’s with tenure going after a smaller pot of money. How does this make sense? (Please fund the NIH more humans!)

Isn’t it sad that my focus here has been on money money money? Money that young scientists don’t make for themselves, money that scientists compete for to fund their ideas. Money that is diminishing and leading to a scary situation for many people who once upon a time thought they were getting into this to  generate discoveries, not papers that will look good in the next bibliography of a grant proposal. (This could be different if we funded the NIH more)

It’s not pretty folks, and it’s not healthy either. But it’s also very much accepted as “it is what it is” by many people, myself included until a few months ago.  I only recently really started to think critically about the pursuit of an academic career.  And when I asked myself the following question, it became clear to me that I needed to get out: 

“Will I have an actual impact in cancer research if I have my own lab?”

Now, this is a very different question than, “Will I be able to publish well on my project?”, or, “Will I land a job at a prestigious institute?” or, “How many papers will I need to secure tenure and an R01?” or “Who can I collaborate with in order to get a higher impact paper?”. 

When I went back to that first question, the answer was no. Regardless of how giant a “yes” I might be able to pull off for all the subsequent questions that followed, they would serve more to advance my career rather than to make a true impact. 

After careful consideration, I found myself at a crossroads, and decided to take the path that didn’t exist. I walked away from a five year million dollar grant (K99/R00) that would have paid for my transition into being a tenure track PI. I loved writing the grant. I loved the science, the figures, the figure legends, the pitfalls, the alternative ways to answer each question. I loved everything about it except for the system in which I would not thrive as an independent thinker should I accept it. I didn’t even wait to see how it scored when I made the decision to walk away. I hit submit and started looking for jobs the next day. I didn’t know it at the time, but the grant scored very well. A couple of weeks ago, my program officer went through all the scenario’s through which I could still accept it. But it was too late, I had already made my peace with leaving academia. 

I feel extremely fortunate to have jumped off of the ship with nothing more than blind faith and to have landed on my feet. Will I make an impact outside of the lab? I don’t know, but I have hope. So much so that I get misty eyed on a daily basis. Will I have an impact? Don’t look in the literature for my name. If I have any at all it’ll rest as smiles on the faces of people I’ll never meet. 


  1. HI Corrie, Thanks for sharing. I understood the choice from the perspective of a PhD Student in Education (where there really are so few academic careers - and tenure doesn't even pay anymore). I still struggle with where I will land when I'm finished. I applaud you for having stood your ground and make a decision.

  2. Powerful and sad posting Corrie. Having working at a college that was slowly being dismantled in the midst of an oil boom and now is being rapidly being dismantled as drop in oil prices gut the government treasury it seems like everyone has completely forgotten about the importance of nourishing talent. I have no academic degrees but having worked in construction was good at project management and assisted with course assembly and completion at that college. Until I was let go in the last round of cuts my pay was lower than the temporary summer students hired to pick up trash--20% lower. So OK it's about money and dignity and motivation and take one of those away and the thing topples.

    Maybe it's time to get back to politics and and loud advocacy and not just get so lost in ourselves? Yes. What are your plans?

  3. Thank you for writing this! Kathleen Hoffman