Debbie Knight

Federal funding lull a bit too much reality for a first-year graduate student?

In observation on April 21, 2011 at 2:30 pm

One of the research projects I work on involves a biology team working with chemistry and chemical engineering teams. And we have weekly meetings to share our results.

Last week, the meeting was more organizational in nature than results reporting, and it turned to how difficult it is to get grant funding in our respective fields. Not the happiest of conversations these days.

And at this meeting was our first-year rotating graduate student (the only student at this particular meeting) who sat quietly listening to this depressing conversation. At one point, the chemistry professor acknowledged we probably shouldn’t be talking about this topic in front of the student because it was discouraging. I agree. But being a pragmatist, I think it’s probably a good thing for her to hear it sooner rather than later – it’s a serious reality for scientists right now.

The conversation eventually turned to planning experiments for a grant proposal submission in June – a happier and more hopeful discussion.

I asked the graduate student afterwards what she thought of the funding situation we discussed. And she quietly said, “It’s really scary.”

She hadn’t been aware of  the funding funk before she started graduate school eight months ago.  She had only heard a little about it during her rotation last quarter.

So, here we have a first-year graduate student, committed to the next four or more years to getting a PhD, with this looming cloud hanging over her bright future.

As a research associate, I depend on grant funding for my employment. And I’ve been around long enough to see some bad times in the funding situation, times where I sweated over whether I would have a job. But those lulls have never been this bad or lasted this long before. In the past, the pendulum has swung back to better funding opportunities – not quickly, mind you, but they did return to reasonable levels.

And I’m hopeful it will happen again – though I don’t think it will be happening in the next year or two. Without a crystal ball and not knowing how long before things begin to get better, it’s difficult to tell the student that all will be better by the time she graduates. I certainly hope it has. Or we both might be looking for a new kind of job!

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  1. I love your posts, they are short and to the point.

    “But being a pragmatist, I think it’s probably a good thing for her to hear it sooner rather than later – it’s a serious reality for scientists right now.” I absolutely agree. PhD applicants should know in advance how difficult and stressful obtaining a PhD is, and be aware of the issues (like funding) that they’ll encounter along the way.

    Debbie, throughout your long tenure doing in the research field, how often do you see grad students leave their programs? I don’t come across many at all.

    • I have seen a number of PhD graduate students change their minds, perhaps because they’ve had a bad experience with an adviser, they didn’t really know what research was about, they think they’ll be doing working on their dissertation research for the rest of their career and they don’t like their project, etc. These students often opt for the Master’s degree, so they have at least something to show for their effort.
      I strongly recommend to anyone thinking about going into research to try it out as an undergraduate student. Pursuing a PhD is a big commitment! And it’s not for everyone (it wasn’t for me).

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