Interesting times

Jun 21 2012 Published by under Careers, Life

May you live in interesting times.

Word on the street is this is an old Chinese curse. There are times I can believe that.

It be interesting times here at Big State U and beyond. My institution is going through some major changes at the administrative, college and department levels. Year after recent year we've had major cuts in state funding. Add to that other significant changes on campus and we're having some major upheavals. Finances at all levels are getting tighter, leading to re-evaluations of, well, everything. Including the job security supposedly provided by tenure...

This of course trickles* down to the faculty level as more pressure to justify their existence. The major pressure for those of us in the medical sciences is to bring in more extramural funding. Not a good time for that really. Funding success rates at the NIH, NSF etc. are currently very, very low. It's hard enough for faculty to maintain funding let alone increase it.

This has elicited a variety of responses from my colleagues. Including dark mutterings about "This is not what I was hired to do and if I had funding I would move somewhere else"** and exclamations of "ZOMG WE'RE ALL GOING TO BE FIRED!!!!!!" yelled while running around like a headless chicken. Most are more pragmatic about it all and are exploring ways to put submit more proposals, generate more collaborations etc.

Curiously I find myself mostly excited. Not by the budget cuts, low funding rates etc. of course. But by what's happening in my lab and professional life right now, and what could happen in the future. The science is rocking. My research program is moving along at a good clip and is currently splitting into at least two potentially fruitful directions. I have great lab personnel who seem to really be enjoying what they're doing. I have some very productive established collaborations going and a new one beginning to blossom (and one that sucks arse, but let's not go there right now). My science excites me more now than it has ever before.

And I have the opportunity to have some influence on where things within the department, and perhaps outside, will go.

Interesting times indeed. They're what you make of them.

* "Trickle" isn't really quite the right description. It's more like a sledgehammer slamming down on us. Repeatedly.
** What exactly is it you think you were hired to do? And do you seriously think the situation is that different elsewhere?

7 responses so far

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    When I became department chair, we were changing from quarters to semesters, and combining five schools into a College of Arts and Sciences under a Dean hired in from outside. My department was the most poorly funded biology department in the state of Illinois, and the most poorly funded department in my university. I kind of like interesting times, so long as they do not get too interesting, of course. If I know who I am, and what I am trying to accomplish, confusion is my friend. Reading the blogs, and talking with colleagues still in the saddle, I am more and more pleased I retired in 1997.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Sorry to hear your institution is in bad straits but you are encouraging in your upbeatedness...

  • Zuska says:

    If you can stay excited about the research & transmit that excitement to the powers that be, that's a big step. Any way to hook up w/development folks & sell your fab wunder-sci to interested sponsors, industry or alums?

    In the long run, have you thought about a career in development? I think you'd be good at it.

    • odyssey says:

      Thanks Z. Development is unlikely for me - I do really basic research. But this is something some of my colleagues are considering pursuing. Of course if the opportunity comes along... 🙂

  • Sorely Hairbrush says:

    I have a feeling that your "Big State University" may be somwehat similar to mine (possibly even identical).
    You raised the issue that "the situation might not be different elsewhere". Other BSUs are more competitive for research funding because they have better infrastructure and a more competitive research faculty that your (and possibly my) institution. A critical mass of active research faculty (research base in NIH terms) is needed to obtain priogram and center grants. So, from my perspective at least having just obtained a new large federal research grant and with a competitive score on my R01 renewal moving is an option. Your/my BSU College of Medicine might be in the ~90th percentile for total number of basic sciences faculty, the bottom third in NIH funding spends (by my calculation $5-6M supporting unfunded basic sciences faculty). Thats not going to be a sustainable. If I were you, I would get on board with the idea that some people are going to be fired which would be a good thing if the resources are spent on research.

    • odyssey says:

      All BSUs are pretty much the same if you're unfunded. Could things be better here in terms of infrastructure and funding? Yes, of course. Do we have too many basic science faculty? Absolutely yes, especially when total extramural funding is considered. Will we be losing some colleagues? Yes, although I suspect firing them outright might ultimately prove too difficult - I gather there are other means. I'm "on board" with all this and frankly have thought for some time this was coming. Will the savings be spent on research? That's anyones guess. Given the institutions track record, I'm not sure I'd put money on it.

      Congrats on the funding. Hopefully you'll elect to stay - having funded people leave doesn't help the institution - although obviously you have to do what's best for you.