Open Letters

The road to professor

Bill Sullivan
June 01, 2014

Author’s note: If I were an undergraduate today writing a letter informing my parents that I want to become a professor and conduct research, I imagine it would go something like this.

Dear Mom and Dad, 

I’ve decided that I want to go to graduate school to get my Ph.D. in the biological sciences. I want to make a real difference in the world by contributing to society’s understanding of the cells that make up our bodies and hopefully make a discovery that helps ease suffering or even saves lives.
While this sounds like a noble endeavor, I’ve heard that it doesn’t come without challenges and consequences.
For example, I’m probably going to be behind on the usual timeline for things like financial independence and starting a family. I’m looking at roughly five more years of school to get the Ph.D. — the amount of time depends on whether my experiments are successful, which is impossible to predict. Nature is a tricky beast, and most of our guesses about how things work are wrong. But it’s those unexpected results that usually lead to something amazing, and I want to be on the front lines of those breakthroughs!
I hope that my research mentor stays funded, which I understand to be nearly impossible these days. The major source of research funding  is the National Institutes of Health, which has struggled with more than a decade of stagnant funding. If my mentor loses funding or decides to leave academia, I will have to find a new lab and go back to square one.
The good news is that we do not pay for graduate school! In fact, I get paid to attend! But don’t put your checkbook away yet: The stipend I receive will be only $24,000 a year. I know it sounds crazy for a college graduate to be making such a low amount of money for working 80-plus hours a week on projects that may one day benefit millions of people, but I’m not in this for the money. Oh, and don’t expect me home on most weekends and holidays. The cells and mice I must tend to won’t care what day it is. Not sure how I am going to afford rent unless I live in one of the most dangerous parts of the city, but since I will be working in the lab so much, perhaps I can just live there. (Kidding!)
So let’s say all goes well and I earn my Ph.D. in less than six years. I still won’t be able to get a “real job” just yet, because to be competitive for an assistant professor position, I will need to complete two — maybe three — postdoctoral fellowships. “What is that?” you ask. Well, it is kind of like an apprenticeship, during which I get even more training in experimental techniques, critical thinking and, importantly, how to communicate my research to attract research funding as a principal investigator one day. As a postdoc, I will be working even harder than as a graduate student, if you can imagine that, pushing the frontiers of knowledge and making remarkable, original discoveries.
You would think this sort of effort would be rewarded with a substantial paycheck. Well, compared with graduate school, it is a decent increase, somewhere in the range of $35,000 to $40,000 a year if I’m lucky. I might finally be able to start a family on that kind of dough, but please understand if I postpone that, because the next stage of my career will be the most challenging yet.
After the postdoctoral fellowships, I’ll have to hope that I can find a tenure-track position somewhere. These are extremely hard to come by right now, but since I won’t be on the market for more than a decade, I remain optimistic that the situation will change. I’ll be 30-something at this point and probably a little burnt out, but I will need to dig deep as I approach this critical moment of truth. Did all of my hard work and many years of training and sacrifice pay off? Will I be able to launch my own research program, attract funding, recruit a top-notch staff to help in my lab and make fundamental new discoveries that will benefit society for years to come?
Well, I must admit that the high failure rate is daunting. The NIH is rejecting about 85 percent of grant applications, because the agency is not sufficiently funded, although I will get a bit of an advantage for being a newbie. Again, I am hopeful that a decade from now our government will support basic biological research with a realistic budget that helps our country capitalize on the creative talents that it invests so much time and money into training. Our politicians love to declare war on cancer, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, etc. — but they have not yet realized that they need to fund it like they do a real war.
Can you imagine me — your wide-eyed little kid who loved taking things apart to see how they work, the one who used to drive you nuts with endless questions — as a professor? While that sounds like a secure and even somewhat glamorous position that any parent would be proud of, many people don’t realize that I will have to pay some — maybe most — of my own salary! Most people assume that the university pays its faculty members, but in reality a substantial part of my salary will come from my research grants. I guess getting a raise will be a mixed blessing — my salary will increase, but I’ll have to work even harder to get grants to pay for myself. It’s crazy, I know. But hey, I love science.
I sincerely hope the system evolves to allow me to focus on making innovative scientific discoveries rather than how I’m going to feed my family. And keep my students and postdocs employed, as their salaries will be my responsibility too. And fulfill my teaching obligations as I train the next generation of young scientists. And meet university service obligations. Oh, and I’ll have to review grants and manuscripts for the research community. But when I think about the euphoria of being the first to figure out how something works, and how it may lead to the next big cure, I just can’t put a price on that.
After writing all this down, the perils of my quest are coming into focus like never before. I’m a little apprehensive. Maybe even a little scared. I know there are far easier ways to make a living, but I want to study biology and understand how our cells work. I strongly believe acquiring such knowledge is important in its own right, but it also could lead to revolutionary new treatments for diseases that affect millions, maybe billions, of people. I’m not sure why the road ahead has been littered with so many obstacles. But you know me. I am determined. I am passionate. I will do my best.
Your Budding Scientist

Bill Sullivan

Bill Sullivan is a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and the author of several books.

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