Saturday, January 24, 2009

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....

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At 8:03 AM, Blogger quietandsmalladventures said...

thank you for this post. i'm in a lab with little funding that went to no funding and i'm only a second year. i need to hear successful stories about how to survive this and still get my degree. i'm linking to you in my post on this.

btw, in my master's program i worked for gas money only for one semester due to funding problems and several of my colleagues (including me) slept on couches while trying to finish. i agree with the poetry of it all, giving your all for your art, er, science :)

At 9:25 AM, Blogger sara said...

They all have startup money, you see, which is even more valuable in times like these.

I think it varies greatly depending on the field and what sort of institution is granting the degree. Many hospitals are severely cutting back, having hiring freezes, cutting benefits, and dropping new faculty. In our biomedical engineering department, many of the new faculty are in a precarious situation because of their startup money, which the school is now loathe to pay. The labs that are on soft money in our department are actually much more stable than the labs still on hard startup money.

Let's just hope this new administration starts funding science soon!

At 10:38 AM, Blogger Ambivalent Academic said...

This is all excellent advice and I thank you for it. In some ways I am lucky...I was planning on finishing up this year (though later than I know need to) so I'm kind of at the "pulling it all together" stage. I don't need to buy reagents for the most part and I have great contacts who I know would "lend" me certain things to get shit done. I also still have some of my own $$ for purchasing (which incidentally I watch like a hawk and budget accordingly). I will be OK for funding the actual experiments I need to finish. I am dropping ALL of my extra not-directly-going-into-a-paper projects, which makes me sad, but I'll do what it takes to survive.

What terrifies me is that *if* GrAdvisor can't pay my stipend/benefits for the duration of my time here, what then? My Better Half is also looking for a post-doc for similar reasons and hasn't been able to find one ("we'd love to hire you but our grant wasn't funded"). We are currently eeking by on my stipend and some help from family but can't do so for much longer.

I'm not sure it's worth applying for pre-doc fellowships as I want to be out of here in a few months.

Your suggestion to apply for post-doc fellowships is a good one. I am under the impression (perhaps incorrect?) that you need to have a mentor with whom you co-submit, etc. so I am actively searching for my post-doctoral lab so we can get that ball rolling. Also a good suggestion to look for a start-up lab. I found a spanking new PI that I would LOVE to work with (and she wants me!) but her lab will start this fall at the earliest (assuming she gets the job she's hoping for), which may be too late for me. Keeping my fingers crossed and looking at other options.

Thanks so much for your advice.

At 12:00 PM, Blogger JaneB said...

Some really good points here YFS - and a positive presentation of proactive things one can do in this sort of situation, when it's easy to be overwhelmed by the powerlessness and shock.

Hope your work has been going well, and that you're feeling a bit happier yourself?

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Ambivalent Academic said...

Oh and just in the interest of accurate references...someone else must have sent you the link - it wasn't me. But that in no way diminishes my appreciation for your advice.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger GirlPostdoc said...

Wow, that was a great post MsPhd. Some really good advice from someone who clearly has seen it all. It does show, however, that the decisions you make can alter your career path in ways that are hard to grasp at the time. I think your post will be very relevant in today's economic crunch. I'm sorry that your journey through academia has been so tough. And yet I marvel at your stamina!

At 11:18 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Yeah. I don't recommend it as a long-term lifestyle, but if you're really devoted to your science, there are ways to get through.


Good god. I have never heard of departments reneging on startup. That's horrific. And good to know. Thanks for sharing.

However, I disagree that Obama's administration needs to fund science. If anyone, I think it's one of the programs that needs to be massively slashed and reorganized. There is a lot of waste in science funding, that's a major problem. More money will just go to the people who already have money. We need major CHANGE.


Oh yeah, well if they can't pay you and you have to work as a volunteer to finish your papers, then you have no conflict of interest and can do something else to make money. The main problem most of us run into is when they can sort-of pay you, but you can't actually take another job. If I were you, I'd probably seriously look into doing something else to pay the bills while you write your thesis. This is what they do in other countries (e.g. in Ireland, they put you on unemployment pay while you're on dissertation status).

But, you should also both keep looking for postdoc labs, and make that a top priority. There are still labs hiring, and like I said, you might want to consider going somewhere temporarily even if it isn't your first choice for the long-term.

btw, someone keeps sending links to my blog. Anyway I'm glad I could help.


Things are going better. Very busy with being proactive rather than powerless. Those affirmations are really helping!


Yeah. Stamina is an interesting thing. Sometimes you don't know you have it until you look up one day and say, "I'm still here."

I like the Count of Monte Cristo philosophy: Living well is the best revenge.

At 1:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When was it that so many of us stopped enjoying science? It is not like science does not excite any more, it is just that I don't think very much about whether I am enjoying science. Has that happened for all of us or am I just speaking for myself?

I am trapped between a PhD and a faculty position, like so many others. Most days, I am scared that I will never get to have a faculty job, but of late, a new fear has been rankling in my mind... the dread of never enjoying what I do for a living.

I understand that the postdoc is a tough time, which is why I also ask...if there are any TT people (tenured...better) here... Did you go through a phase like this as well? Did you get the excitement back... Can you say that you enjoy science today as much as you did in High school?

At 5:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good to see you back posting!

At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My department keeps threatening to renege on my start-up. It's a pathetically small amount of money, since I'm a theoretician at an undergraduate school, but that just makes every cent even more precious to me. The same thing is happening to another person hired my year (she's a pedagogy researcher, also low research costs). The third hire from my year is an experimentalist, whose work is more expensive, and the department chair is searching high and low for funds to honor that commitment, because she's an old friend of a lot of people around here.

I was actually asked me to include her when I was writing a multi-investigator grant that was incompatible with her research plans, in hopes that we could get the funds to buy her equipment. I said that (1) I'm not going to include somebody whose projects don't fit the grant and (2) if we do find a way to fit her projects into the grant, any money she gets from the grant is her own money that she earned by helping with the grant, not the department's money to count toward her start-up.

It's getting tough out there.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger quietandsmalladventures said...

ryc: thank you!! i'm now all about asking in depth questions (especially about the procedures that no one in lab has done in over 5 yrs) and taking support where i can get it.

also in the Count of Monte Cristo, Dantes says, "Happiness is like of of those palaces on an enchanted island, its gates guarded by dragons. One must fight to gain it". insert 'a ph.d' for happiness and i think that sums up grad school.

At 4:39 AM, Blogger Declan Fallon said...

Great blog. Sad to read the same story repeat in so many labs. I was lucky enough to get own competitive funding after first post-doc; been PI was great, but when the earmarks went so did the best chance of future funding (minor crop research can't compete nationally against corn research). Project was up against 'negative' peer review (aka funding reviewers). No opportunity for funding, no tenure track opportunity (although occupied a lab of my retired predecessor), no choice but to leave.

Funny that boom or bust, science is always a financial backwater. Knew writing was on the wall in my area and was too much of a one trick pony (translates as too old i.e. too expensive to employ to move into a new field). Had started a blog in 2004 and worked on self-education in my current field of market analysis. Used this as leverage and publicity which eventually landed my current job working for a startup company. Very satisfied with current job, but disappointed that a 15-year career in science just ran out of options because of competing egos and a universal lack of interest outside the fish bowl of your peers.

Your story could apply to many of the graduate students/Post-docs who I had dealings with. Having worked in US and European labs I think the PI-PostDoc-grad student relationship is better in Euro labs, but funding opportunities are better in the US. None of this really helps - but reading your post took me back.

Best wishes,

At 7:01 PM, Anonymous mudphudder said...

"Which brings me to my next point, which is the opposite. As they say in the fishing business, I cut bait."

Yup--for better or for worse, sometimes you just gotta get out of Dodge.

At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post, I'm in a fairly similar situation, though it'll probably be a year or two until I have anything to worry about.

The difference is that I'm in a department associated with the academic wing of the university. Although many students RA, there is the option of TAing if your PI is low on funds or needs funds to pay for lab supplies, technical staff, etc. My PI and I have worked out a deal in which I TA when I have to. I don't mind because I'm doing the research I want and he's a great adviser.

I am also writing grants, actively, and I think every graduate student should do this. There are grants in science (many geared towards women in science) that exist specifically to pay for graduate research/stipend/tuition that you can't get funds for in other ways. If you pay for yourself or the supplies that your project needs, that takes care of a big chunk of money, giving your PI more time to get his/her grants going.

I wonder about the money for conferences though. Had you considered the possibility of funding a trip on your own? Here, grad students are only funded for one conference for their entire time at grad school (and ONLY the transport costs, not the fees or housing costs), which clearly is insufficient if you want to be highly successful. A conference I wanted to go to was near my home so I took a 4 day vacation with my family before the conference. I split plane ticket costs with my parents and paid the conference registration fee out of pocket. I also stayed with friends to avoid $200/night hotel costs. Many conferences actually have message boards where you can find a group of people to split a room with to save money.

I suspect I'll be doing similar things the rest of my career. I figured it came with the territory. My PI is constantly paying out of pocket for things that presumably should be paid for by the university (office supplies, lunches for visitors, plane tickets, etc).

At 6:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

that's great that it worked out. But I think this is only a good idea to do if you are at the END of your thesis.

If you are beginning or in the middle, once you start working for free professors may then find more reason to not pay you since obviously you're doing OK without being paid so....?

If you're a postdoc, working for free in order to wrap up and publish your previous years of hard work is trickier. In my experience, people tend to not view it as a heroic act of professional dedication but instead as a negative like not having enough self-respect to just leave already (since after all you already have a PhD so the postdoc is just another job). I was in that position where I ran out of funding during my postdoc but hadn't yet gotten out publications on that project. I was willing to work for free for a couple months so that I could at least get some publications out of it and have something to show for my previous two years! But everyone around me - from professors to other postdocs to interview committees - reacted negatively like I was out of my mind and had no ambition! I did it anyway so I could get the publications and I don't regret it. But it's still painful to recall the humiliation I had to endure from my colleagues and others who thought I had no self-respect.

At 8:14 AM, Anonymous scicurious said...

quietandsmalladventures: I agree with another commenter on here. Write your own grant. Second year is a great time to do this. If you're in biomed, NIH has NRSAs that are for people pursuing PhD, and I believe that NSF has something similar. It won't cover much, but it will cover stipend, a little supply, and enough money to go to a meeting or two. And it's really good practice. And NOTHING looks better on your CV than having your own funding in grad school. Except possibly a paper in Science or Nature.

MrsPhD: thanks for this post. I'm currently trying to cut bait, but this is mostly because I simply cannot keep doing all the experiments my committee keeps adding to my thesis, or I will be here til I'm 90. A lot of times your advisor can give you good advice on what experiments can be done without, even if they are totally cool.

At 11:27 AM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

Great Post YFS. totally agree with the "just get 'er done" thing.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger The lab pixie said...

I came to this post through a recommendation on another blog. I have to say, those are some valiant efforts put in to complete the PhD and get the papers published and get out. It can't have been easy, but I'll bet you learnt alot of negotiating and political niceties that are still serving you today that you might otherwise not have had the opportunity to develop (I'm looking on the bright side. It would have been easier had it not been necessary to develop them in the first place).

I realise I'm quite late to be commenting on this post, however, I felt I had to respond to the comment about PhDs in Ireland being able to claim unemplyment benefits whilst writing up-that doesn't happen. There is an exceptional circumstance where you can go "off-books", which is to essentially not be registered for a year, in which case you could claim welfare, however this is extremely rare. Unfortunately if you run out of funding before you finish here, you can only really on savings, loans and the kindness of other people. This happens alot of people here as PhD funding is usually only for three years. I only know of two people who completed all their work and wrote their thesis in that alloted time. Funding for a fourth or more year is entirely at the supervisors discrestion. So needless to say, especially this year, when supervisors have no spare money for fourth years, there is alot of poor fourth years trying to finsih up (myself included) :(

I am glad to hear that it all worked out for you in the end. Makes me believe a little more that I will survive this!


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