I am the “best and brightest” humanity has to offer. I am in the top 1% academically. I obtained a PhD in Genetics from an Ivy League university. I became a postdoc at one of the most prestigious universities in the world: the University of Oxford in the UK. For the last eight years I dedicated my life to cancer research, making great strides for Personalized Medicine, work that saves lives. And what do I have to show for all the long hours, the high-stress, and the good I do for society? Nothing.
I am broke. The System is broke. And this is my story.
I grew up in rural Tennessee. I always dreamed big. I wanted to do something important with my life, help people, and really live it. The best thing for me as a child was not knowing how difficult it is in the southeast to have upward mobility.
I was the lucky kid who never had to study for tests. I always scored in the 99% percentile on the annual state assessments. The school administration tried to skip me a few grades along the way, but my mother was adamantly against it. When I went to college, I had a Presidential Scholarship, a free ride, because of my academic excellence.
As an undergraduate, biology drew me in, particularly the cool science of genetics. It was an amazing world where we were just unraveling the human genome, figuring out what bits of our DNA did what. I realized that if I pursued my PhD in genetics, I could work on cures for diseases and potentially save more lives than even the best MD.
Through perseverance and hard work I made it into Cornell University. I specialized in cancer genetics, and my graduate work culminated in a discovery that will help guide treatment decisions for the 283,000 breast cancer patients annually whose tumors have lost a gene called NF1 (>25% of the 1+ million annual breast cancer cases).
But there was trouble in grad school that had nothing to do with hours, stress, or troubleshooting experiments. Money.
Cost of living is very expensive in NY. My stipend barely covered enough for me to break even each month. I had to be frugal with my money, seldom going out to movies or dinner. My parents always had to fly me home for Christmas. I told myself it was only temporary, that I’d make more money once I became a postdoc. It was a long six years.
My money wasn’t the only money problem. There was no money for the research. My PI (the professor and head of the lab) got rejected time after time for NIH grant funding (and every other funding organization out there). Ivy League, and he was still relying on his start-up money to cover the costs. The stats at the time (which haven’t improved) were that < 3% of all grant applications were funded. Unfortunately my boss was never part of that 3%. In the six years I worked there, he never got a single grant for the cancer research.
I worried as graduation drew close. I had limited time to find my next job. And even if I did, would I ever actually be able to get a faculty position? All of these labs are run by an army of students and postdocs, but there’s only one guy at the top, one PI for each.
My boss was on the hiring committee for the department. He told us the inside horror stories of what goes on behind those closed doors. The national average at the time was that for every one faculty position, there were 200 applications. For our department, there were 300 applications for every one faculty position. As if the odds alone weren’t daunting enough, he told us how the hiring committee got through so many applications.
- University the applicant came from. If the applicant wasn’t Ivy or from one of the best Tier 1s like Harvard, Stanford, or MIT, the application was immediately thrown in the reject pile without a further look.
- Top publication record. If the applicant didn’t have publications in the top journals like Science or Nature…reject pile.
- Name of the lab they came from. If the applicant’s boss wasn’t a Somebody…neither was the applicant. Reject pile.
- Contents of the CV / Resume. Finally, at step 4, the hiring committee would actually bother to look at the real contents of the CV / Resume, like how many publications the applicant had and teaching experience. None of that meant anything if the three previously mentioned items couldn’t save the applicant from the auto-reject pile.
The stats said that only 1/3 of PhDs would even stay in science because there were so few jobs (academia, science writing, industry, etc). That’s right, after 6 years of grad school and even 10 years of postdoc, 2/3 end up outside of science altogether. I knew several myself. One girl finished her Ivy League postdoc and took a job in retail. A guy I knew quit and became a stable-hand at a horse stable. Another went to work at a bakery in Boston. Another traveled the world for a while doing nothing – never knew what became of him. The world’s “best and brightest”, their talents and skills completely forsaken and discarded by the system. It’s not just them who suffers. It’s every human being who will never benefit from the discoveries they could have gone on to make.
But maybe they were the lucky ones. They got out before they lost any more of their lives. For those scientists that made it all the way into a faculty position, there was still a high chance that they wouldn’t make tenure. New faculty get five years to get funding and churn out publications. Otherwise, sayonara. They get a year to find another job (yeah right, who will take them after they failed to get tenure at their current job), and then they have to pack up and leave. I knew a female PI who started around the same time I started grad school. She went on maternity leave along the way. Having children was important to her. She wanted a family. It hurt her publication record and funding chances. She didn’t get tenure. She was gone before I graduated.
Douglas Prasher got the shortest end of the stick. He should have gotten the Nobel Prize. He got the opposite. Prasher cloned and sequenced the gene for Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). And Prasher was the first to propose that GFP could be used as a tracer molecule. He wrote a grant detailing how GFP could be used as a reporter to measure the levels of gene expression and track the localization of proteins in cells. Every geneticist and molecular biologist alive today uses GFP assays in their research. GFP revolutionized the field and allowed scientists to make rapid leaps forward. Not surprisingly, the work for GFP received the Nobel Prize. Only, Prasher didn’t win it.
You see, that grant he wrote about GFP never got funded. The reviewers of the grant thought his ideas were crazy. Without funding, Prasher didn’t get tenure. He had to close his lab. He gave his GFP samples and ideas to his fellow colleagues. He knew how important GFP was, and he didn’t want it to be lost. With no funding, Prasher was forced out of science altogether. He became a shuttle bus driver for a car dealership.
The semester I taught the Principles of Cell Biology and Development lab course at Cornell, I made my students write a report on Douglas Prasher. I wanted my students to know what they were getting into.
Graduation finally came for me! I proudly marched my parents around the campus after the ceremony. I was doctor! My work in cancer would help a lot of people!
But that didn’t seem to help me get a job. Knowing the potential dead-end of a postdoc position, I first looked into pretty much every other area of science. Science writing, industry, consulting, and teaching. Nothing. So, I caved and hunted for postdoc positions. I sent out over 150 queries and applications.
In the end, my tenacity paid off. I had a choice between three excellent universities: Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford. I found from the lab members during my Harvard interview that Harvard didn’t pay its postdocs’ health insurance (at least not in that department), but Harvard required the postdocs to have it. That’s right. No health insurance, even for the full-time “best and brightest”. And Boston was as expensive as NY. The postdocs only made financial ends meet by relying on spouses or roommates. Between that and the 80 hour work weeks the lab members warned me about, I turned Harvard down.
Cambridge and Oxford claimed to pay better than their US counterparts, and at face value, it certainly appeared that way by looking at the salary conversion from pounds to US dollars. I loved both places, both projects seemed fantastic, and the PIs seemed great. If nothing else, the UK had a great work-life balance that academia in the US completely lacked. Many of the labs worked standard 40 hour weeks (contractually it even states 37.5 hours).
When I chose Oxford, I was full of excitement and hope! A new country! 45 minutes to London! An hour and a half after that to Paris! The city is beautiful, full of ancient architecture that has survived thousands of years. Home to the Bodleian!
I love my job at Oxford. The cancer project is super interesting with a focus on discovering Biomarkers for use in the clinic to improve patient survival and outcome. My boss is great, and I work normal hours.
Money is a major problem. I don’t have a house. On a single income, 65% of my salary is burned directly on rent and Council Tax. By the time food and utilities (phone, internet, electricity/heat, water) are added in, I make $0 at the end of every month. And because I make $0, I can’t save anything to turn things around, like a down payment for a house. Now, I don’t go to the movies at all. I never go out to eat. I’ve never been to London, much less Paris. I can’t afford a pet deposit to get a dog. I don’t have a car. I don’t have cable. I don’t have a TV. I don’t even have living room furniture. It’s an empty room with a modem and the rug the previous owner left behind.
It’s just a phase. That’s what I’ve been telling myself since 2006. And maybe it’s not a phase. I really want to teach, but I know the odds of landing a faculty position - 200:1 anywhere I go (300:1 at a Tier 1 institution).
And every scientist I know is in the same predicament. Science will fail because the System is running the scientists out of it. Every human suffers because of it. Cancer affects 1 in 3. Someone close to you will get it. How many could be saved if the system didn’t fail scientists like Douglas Prasher? Like the 2/3 of the PhDs that are forced out of science?
I am one of the “best and brightest”. Ever since I was a child I felt special, like I was meant to do something incredible with my life. And I have. Only, being a scientist has come at the complete sacrifice of my own life. I put the last eight years of my life on hold, and I’ve set myself up to keep it on hold for the next 5-10 years as a postdoc. But I’m tired of this. I want to go to the movies. I want a dog. I want a family. I want to live my life.