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19 juillet 2014 6 19 /07 /juillet /2014 13:23

In the words of a colleague, a career in academia is a long string of failures sometimes, and sometimes only, interrupted by success.

I had one such success two years ago when I received my coveted job offer. Since then... I wouldn't say it's been downhill from there, but it hasn't been easy. ProflikeSubstance is currently running an interesting series of posts on surviving the pre-tenure years, which cover a lot of ground. My job pretty much came with tenure, but while job security is not a concern, the situation is similar in terms of getting a research program off the ground, getting funded, hiring...

News from the funding trenches

Since chances of getting funded are about 1 in 7 or 8, simplistic math dictates that you should submit about 10 proposals before you see 1 funded. Sure enough, Year 1 I submitted 7 proposals and got 1 funded. Year 2 I submitted 8... and got none funded, although many went through first round selections placing them in the top 30% of submissions. This submission season has left me exhausted - not necessarily because of the results per se, but because of the sheer craziness of the process. Submission requirements and venues change every year, so learning about them is a lot of work - and what you've learnt this year is not necessarily going to be of any use next year.

  • One proposal got turned down because it was essentially off topic, but I didn't realize it until it was ready to be submitted, so I just went ahead and submitted anyway. My research overlaps with about three or four fields, so I'm routinely borderline off-topic anywhere I submit. This particular venue was decribing their scope in broad enough terms that I thought my proposal could fit in, until I discovered a more specific description of the funding agency's goals for this funding year that made it clear I was way out of left field to them. 
  • One proposal was turned down from the get-go because of a combination of bad logistics - the scientific write up was ready two weeks ahead of submission time, but needed to be submitted together with a bunch of admin letters that I finally received - I kid you not - 20 minutes before the deadline. At which point the submission website choked under the pressure of whooosh, 30 submissions. The very local venue declined to accept proposals through other means than the crashed website. 
  • I suspect one proposal was turned down because of unclear muddy local politics arrangements
  • ...

Overall, many things factor in the outcome that are out of the applicant's control. I'm not entirely clueless, but I guess I just realized how much of it is out of your control.

All of this is highly time-consuming and energy-draining because it drags over the best part of nine months between write-up and results.


Meanwhile, how's the research supposed to actually move forward? I suppose recruits are part of the answer, but that's the other thing. Once you got the money, you'd think you'd be out of water. However...

How to Hire a research associate in 10 days

...when you have the funds, the ideal candidate, and labor law behind you. 

Answer: it can't be done. Period. Not in ten days, and not even in ten weeks!!

Year 1, I learnt the basics of hiring: finding a willing, competent candidate and funds to hire them ain't easy. This year, I found out that having the funds and a candidate who is competent, willing, and legally able ain't enough. You have to have the candidate vouched by the institute who draws the contract, and, for some labs, by the department of defense.  I tried to hire two associates this year.

  • The first one had worked for a government research institution for three years over the past six years prior to accepting my offer of a 1-year-renewable-once position. If they had effectively been in the offered position for the maximum amount of time, they would have had at most 3 years tenure at a government research institution over a window of six years at any given time. The law states that an individual with six years experience in a six-year window needs to be tenured, and institutes are making a point to avoid giving tenure in this way. So, even though in this case we were far from reaching the six-year limit, they flat out declined drawing a contract for this person. 
  • The second one had a time-sensistive agenda, and needed to know where they would be working in three months time. Because we're one of the lucky labs required to seek defense approval before hiring folks, the best comitment we can make is: you're hired, pending defense approval which may or may not be granted within the legal ten-plus week time frame. Unsurprisingly, this candidate accepted a solid offer from a lab with the ability to draw a contract there and then.

These battles are equally time-consuming and energy-draining as the funding quest. I now understand the statement of a former mentor that the first rule of hiring is in fact to pick a candidate that will do no harm. Qualified candidates are hard to come by, and should you be so lucky to find them, likely to have competing offers. So in the end, the candidates that will be willing to put up with the bloody process are the ones with no other options - so what your job description comes down to is: ability to not blow up the lab, getting some actual work done optional.

Long live the batrachians

What about the Science? In the midst of all this, it's trying to move forward, with exciting progress. Since it's definitely the most interesting and rewarding part of the job, I am seriously considering quiting the other quests, or at least putting them back on the back burner that should have never left. If nothing else, this will give me time to build up the stamina to collect more rejection.

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