And your little dog too

Jun 27 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm doing something different today and turning the comments section off for this post. This is a selfish post. It's purpose is the exorcism of this writhing black ball of words in my head so that I can move on. I know that everyone goes through this shit and I know what I have to do to improve the grant for next time. I don't need commiseration, I don't need sympathy and I have no interest in joining bloggy hands to sing Kumbya. I need to expel here because in my life I have an image to up-hold of the guy who is the promising new hire who is getting shit done. The guy who came in with a solid track-record and is going to build a lab based on the new and exciting ideas he has. I don't want them to know how much this is bothering me.

I am often asked by others what it is like to be "a scientist". To be truthful, what I am doing is in one way or another the only career I ever imagined doing ever since I was a little kid. It's part of my identity (though not what I live for) and I love it. There's much to like about this job and I appreciate the fact that I have the opportunity to do it. I've worked my ass off to get here and I regret none of what it took. I have traveled, made life-long friends and above all, never stopped learning. I work because I want to and not (mostly) because I have to.

However, what I don't tell people is that sometimes science is like the old lady who ran over my dog when I was twelve and there are times when I feel like that kid again, shocked, helpless, crushed. Unfortunately, it's a part of the job. Rejection is the norm and what pushes us to find every way possible to demonstrate that our theories and findings are not fluke or misinterpretation. We are trained to question everything and it is healthy for our disciplines to have data poked and prodded by those who disagree. It makes us diligent. It makes us think. You have to be able to handle rejection and and constant questioning to be successful in science. If you don't expect to lose a few dogs to the bevy of land-yacht-driving grandmas of science, you're not going to last.

But just because it is part of the job, it doesn't necessarily make it any easier when your favorite dog is laying in the road, a crumpled heap. It doesn't change the sting of reading groundless attacks on your ideas that you specifically addressed in a proposal or reading that someone doesn't think you will be able to handle the data you are proposing to collect, ignoring the fact that you have already done so in your past or provided data in the proposal for the parts you have not previously published on. It doesn't help when two of the reviewers suggest a "simple" fix that will increase the budget to unreasonable levels. Somehow the grant game has turned, so that ideas are no longer funded. Having a project that will be interesting if your hypothesis is supported OR refuted is not enough. Data rules the day, and using the word "preliminary" as a descriptor is just false advertising. If you don't have enough data to conclusively demonstrate that the your hypothesis will be supported, without a doubt, there is little point of taking that dog for a walk.

This is the frustration for those of us starting out. Would it have been safer to take a project from my post-doc and seamlessly continue it in my own lab? Of course. But if I wanted to do exactly what I was doing as a post-doc, I wouldn't have left. The drawback of fusing your various training into something that no else has ever thought of doing is that by stepping off the beaten path you are a risk. What if you take the money and fail? Much better to fund half-completed projects. Come back when we can skip to the end of the book and read the last few pages and maybe we'll buy it.

So, that's what I'm going to have to do. There is no sense in fighting against the system, because it is what it is. Complaining won't do anything but waste time and energy. The review process took so long this year that I have no hope of re-submitting this project in the July round, meaning I will have to send it in for January and hear back a year from now. The prospect of having to wait another year to find out if this project will get funded makes me want to vomit in my desk trash can, but that's the reality. Sure, I have other grants pending and about to be submitted, but this is MY project. These are solely MY ideas and this is what I tell people about when they ask what I do. I realize that I will still be doing it, just with start-up dollars, but for some reason that makes it feel hollow in some way I can't really explain.

There was more good than bad in the reviews and I know how to fix it up. Nearly all of the reviews expressed excitement about the project and the unique system I have chosen to ask my questions. The bigger problem is the weight of feeling like I am not living up to the expectations of people at my university, my colleagues and myself. Could I have pushed to get enough data to satisfy the reviewers before last January? I don't know. Probably not. But there will be by next January, I've already started to gather it. Hopefully this will be the last time to the vet for this puppy.

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