Go for broke
I've been extremely busy lately and not blogging at all, but no one seems too upset (thanks for being patient with me!).
However, Ambivalent Academic sent me this link to a post about being a grad student in a lab that is rapidly running out of money.
This is a topic I know from first-hand experience. I also know a lot of grad students and postdocs in the same boat right now, so I thought I would write a longer response here than I could do on AA's blog comment list. Especially since I couldn't sleep anyway and decided that blogging is usually calming and cathartic. Right?
My thesis lab went broke when I was about halfway through grad school. I didn't know how much more I needed to do, or what it would cost, much less how much longer it would take.
I was in a relatively good situation when this happened, but I didn't know that then. My grad school had (or found) enough money to pay my salary and health benefits, while my advisor made a half-hearted stab at writing more grants. I don't remember if any of them were funded, but we were in enough of a financial hole that it would have taken more than one grant to make much difference in my daily life (unless the school had decided to not pay me).
However, it did affect other things that were supposed to be part of my "training." For example, the department was supposedly going to cover 1 trip to a meeting per year for each student. Unlike every other student in the program, I was never able to take any trips.
[aside: this shows how 'departments' actually pay for things, grad students! Your PI is probably paying into a shared pot!]
But before you say oh boo hoo, as I know some of you will do, let me point out that the lack of traveling seriously hurt my ability to apply for postdoc positions intelligently (which, take it how you will, led inexorably to the existence of this blog!).
Anyway so back in grad school when this happened, the dean gave me some good advice. He told me to put my nose to the grindstone. So I did. That was good for a variety of reasons I won't go into here. It was also bad in some ways I regret more now than I did then. But mostly it was good, and I'm not sure my thesis would have turned out the way it did if I hadn't. I think of my thesis as a solid piece of work, and it's at least partly due to that grindstone-on-nose effect.
I think the key thing was that I was so determined to graduate and show those fuckers in my department that I could do it on the cheap, that I ended up convincing not just them but also myself. It was sort of a distraction, almost like an extra challenge that makes it into an even better story, to figure out how to do everything almost for free.
I did a lot of borrowing, and a lot of begging. I got really really good at asking for things from strangers, and from other students. And everyone was really generous about sharing. I learned that sometimes it's better to say which lab you're from, and sometimes you're better off just being the student from down the hall. I learned that it's really important how you ask, because sometimes you think you need something and nobody has it, but they have a much cheaper and better way of doing it, and they're happy to teach you. I learned a lot of random tricks this way.
And when I was really desperate, I got really good at asking for things from labs in the middle of the night... when there was no one around to ask. I never took anything irreplaceable or anything that looked like it was currently being used, but I wasn't shy about getting what I needed from labs that I knew could afford to support my research habit.
I'm not saying that's what you should have to do. But it is one way to get through, get shit done, and get out of there.
I think the key in these situations is to not panic, as ridiculous as that sounds right now. But the truth is, a LOT of labs have been operating in the red far too much of the time, and you're not alone.
Case in point: one of the labs I've worked with as a postdoc went broke a few years ago. The PI got rid of most of the people in the lab and basically covered the bare minimum of PI ass (but not anyone else's).
The favorites got their papers published; the un-favorites got treated even worse than they would have otherwise. In one really disgusting example, the PI gave an unpublished mouse project away to another lab, who then proceeded to publish a bunch of papers on it. The grad student who had done all the work is not first author on any of the papers, but the PI still gets to list them on grant renewal applications...
And fast-forward a few years, guess what? The PI eventually got more grants funded and an almost entirely new crop of slaves, er I mean, postdocs. But in the meantime, most of the people I knew there either quit science or left for greener (literally) labs.
In some ways, learning to deal with this kind of stress is EXACTLY what research these days is about. Doing it for the first time as grad student is almost a blessing, because believe me, you're going to have to do it again as a postdoc, and again and again and again and AGAIN as a PI.
Lots of PIs at my university run into funding problems - surprise! - a few times a year, because of the way the budgets are done here. Mouse costs go up by $1/cage/day, and nobody finds out for a while. Guess what that does to your planning? It's a fucking nightmare.
And there are always unforseen costs. Lots of PIs don't want to pay for maintenance contracts, because they're so expensive and you don't always need them. But when you need them, boy will you regret it! Equipment breaks down, or there are floods from the floor upstairs, and projects fall behind for months during the repairs... then the preliminary data for the next grant is delayed, not to mention everyone's papers... and in this climate, nobody can afford to be publishing a year or two late.
Anyway, so back to my story about what I did. I did two things with regard to publishing.
First, I sent my "big" paper to a slightly lower journal than I would have if my advisor had been up to the task of advising. And it got accepted faster than it would have at a "bigger" journal.
You can see the pros and cons of this. The cons are obvious. It didn't have the kind of impact on the field or my CV that it could have had (emphasis on the CV).
The pros are more numerous but less obvious. My paper got out; it got cited actually a fair amount because it was still in a pretty good journal; I had it on my CV; I got a postdoc fellowship that I wouldn't have gotten if I had no publications; I got interviews for postdoc positions based at least partly on that; my thesis was easier to write because the papers were all published.
Which brings me to my next point, which is the opposite. As they say in the fishing business, I cut bait.
I had other projects I wanted to do before I left. They were things I had been doing on the side, longer-term things that were finally starting to make sense and were really exciting to me.
But I took a hard look at the timing and I stopped them cold. I had to. I wrote my papers and thesis. There were more experiments I could have done to make my last "big" paper into a potentially "bigger" paper, but I didn't do them because I knew I had to get out.
In addition to borrowing in case of emergency, my thesis committee members let me do experiments in their labs, and they gave me anything I needed that we didn't have. This only works if your thesis committee members are not also broke, but it's worth looking into. Maybe another PI would even be willing to split your salary (e.g. if you're doing a collaboration?). Your department might not be able to pay you, but do you know people in other departments who can help cut your costs?
My current PI, for example, is always more likely to come up with ways to pay us and our health coverage if we're saving money or helping the lab out in other ways.
Maybe you can cut a deal with your advisor this way. PIs love to act like they're running the whole show when things are going well, but when things are not good, suddenly you're part of a close, dysfunctional family "where everyone pulls some of the weight". This would be a time when offering to help your PI with his/her grants would not be uncalled for. Even if all you do is copy-editing. You might even be able to secretly help by asking to write an aim as part of your "training."
I also applied far and wide for postdoc positions and did phone interviews. This helped me figure out what I wanted to do next. But that's a blog topic for a different day.
My point being, I came up with an exit plan. I made sure my advisor knew that recommendation letters were expected, where to send them, and ASAP.
If there's one thing I think I could have done better, obviously it was choosing my postdoc lab. But in terms of the science, my first postdoc lab was great. But I do think that being in a hurry to get out put more pressure on me to find a lab faster, so I didn't have as much time to think about my options from a creative state of mind.
Having said that, I have another friend whose lab also went broke in her last year of grad school. She ended up working in her thesis lab for free for two months to finish her last paper. And now all her recommendation letters, from everyone on her committee and probably even her stingy advisor, say how she made this heroic effort and got the paper published.
I don't recommend taking this route, for a variety of reasons, but if you can keep it to a minimum, it is often possible to cut your personal expenses down (or run up credit card debt) enough to get by for 4-8 weeks, even on a grad student salary with essentially no savings.
She stayed at friends' houses, it was very poetic, the sort of thing that humanities folks are probably more familiar with. Artists and cinematographers do this sort of thing all the time. It's just that scientists tend to think our work should be, I don't know, more valued by society or something, and that our PhDs should mean some guarantee of getting paid.
Newsflash: society doesn't really value what we do, and our PhDs are not exactly guarantees.
I actually think her PI could have paid her salary out of his personal pocket, and the only reason I can see for not doing this is because there were others in the lab at the time who also had papers to finish, and he couldn't afford to pay everyone that way.
But I maintain that she might have been able to negotiate with him for some money if she hadn't let on that she was willing to work for free. Truthfully, he needed that paper at least as much as she did, and he would have found a way to pay her if he had to.
You might also be eligible to apply for your own money. I wasn't eligible for any senior grad student fellowships, but I applied for postdoc fellowships before I actually started in my postdoc lab.
Keep in mind, there are lots of awesome young PIs out there who need postdocs, and lots of senior PIs telling their grad students to go work for someone established and famous. I'm still not convinced this is good advice for anyone, but especially now.
Truthfully, your best bet right now for getting a postdoc position fast and paid for is to join up with someone young who is trying to get their new lab off the ground. They all have startup money, you see, which is even more valuable in times like these.
Another thing you might consider: go for a shorter time. Maybe 1-2 years to learn specific techniques. This is what the postdoc "training" time used to be for. It's also a lot easier for a PI to envision where to get salary for 1-2 years than for 6-7 years.
And then if it works out, you can apply for fellowships, and stay there. If not, you've had plenty of time to finish publishing your thesis papers, and find a second postdoc.
Many PIs will let you go back to your thesis lab and finish off your last paper if you need to go for a week (or a few) to finish up experiments to address reviewers' comments. So if you can line up a postdoc ahead of time, you don't necessarily have to do things in the obvious order. Sometimes it goes
paper --> thesis --> postdoc position --> fellowship applications
and sometimes it goes
postdoc position --> fellowship applications --> thesis --> leftover papers now in press
And that, my dear blog readers, is a 2-hour long post. Whew. I guess I really have a lot to say on the topic! Or maybe I was just in blog withdrawal. I think I write longer posts in the middle of the night....