Sunday, October 30, 2016

Requiem for my 2016 dreams

My R01 resubmission went from scored to not discussed. I don't know why yet, but this hit me hard. My program officer had been very supportive of the first submission and had given me specific advice on how to address the reviewers' comments. We did a year of work and added everything they requested adding all the modifications they wanted. In this day and age you cannot ever think a grant will get funded, but I was sure it would get scored, that by following the instructions of the PO and the study section I would be able to adjust my aim (pun intended) and at least improve.

I was utterly shattered. Shattered because of the self-doubt that no matter how much work I put into it, I will never make the cut. Shattered because after submitting at 3 consecutive NIH cycles, I do not have the strength left in me to pull together a brand new application for February. But then, after the initial shock, I realized I was shattered mostly for one reason, that my dream of going back to the job market this cycle has been quashed. I have been very unhappy for a long time and each NIH submission comes with added weight that, in addition to possibly getting me tenure and bringing some stability to the lab, an R01 may start the process of breaking me out. I don't like who I am right now: exhausted, angry, frazzled, always rushing, so busy that I don't have the time to mentor my people as I would like, and most importantly so mentally drained that I cannot take the time to enjoy the science any more. This is not who I want to be. I don't want to feel a weight in my chest every day when I walk into my lab building. I hate that my happiest moment every month is when I walk out to leave for a trip. This is hurting my lab, my science and my health.

The reasons why I want to quit are the usual ones: I don't feel like the university is the right fit for me, I feel isolated, ungrounded and organizational issues make my life impossible. Some issues I could have figured out during the interview process, if I had known which questions to ask, but others evolved over the years. Things keep getting worse, instead of better, and at some point I disenfranchised myself, I stopped trying to affect change. I have been running so that the endorphins get me through the day, but I've been riddled with injuries for the past year. I have tried to run through the pain as much as possible, but the pain right now is too much even to do yoga. So not running has also contributed to declining mental health.

Which brings me to a reality of academic life. A lot of our stress in addition to practically having to run a small business for an education corporation, comes from the length of our transitions. Getting a faculty job takes 1-3 years and this alone generates sustained stress, which can be become punishing of you are in a difficult situation. Transitioning to an alternative career can also take a while because new skills may be necessary. I am writing things that you are not supposed to write, because I have spoken to a lot of friends about my situation and theirs, and I know I am not alone. I think this is, in a way or another, similar to how a lot of your faculty feel right now, and many examples were given in a Nature feature on early career researchers this week. I wish I had a solution. I wish I didn't think that our generation may be lost. The worst part is that everyone I talk to is so upset that we are all amplifying each others' emotions to the point that talking to friends does more harm than good.

Being upset and angry at this point is crippling and counterproductive. A year and a half ago, when I realized I really needed to get out, I put down on paper what I want in my life and road map to reach my goals, so I went back to read that. I realized I had given myself a deadline which is still in the future, and I still think it is reachable. So, what to do now? I made an appointment with a sports medicine doctor. I found the contact of a good therapist in the hope that they can help me develop better strategies to deal with work for another year and help me figure out whether academia is really what I want. But most importantly, I need to find a way to regain my love of science...and to do that I need to engage more with the people in my lab and take my time to actually think, read and do science. A friend who just came out of study section told me "Getting grants is a lottery. The name of the game is resilience." I'll work on that and see what happens in 2017...

20 comments:

  1. I hear you. After crafting myself as a hybrid wet/dry genomics person as a postdoc in a lab not known for those things, my big paper drifted in reviewer hell for 15 months (it's still there) and I couldn't land a single interview from ~40 institutions in 2015, a year when they were all trying to hire genomics people. Instead, those positions went to people I knew who were better-connected. It seems clear that self-promotion and sales are such integral components to the whole process I no longer want any part in it. I went to do science at a tiny startup that is growing fast, has funds to hire people fairly unheard of in academia who can massively speed things up (real data scientists and software engineers!) and the self-promotion part can be easily outsourced. I got lucky and feel I'm doing better, just as interesting, and probably more important science here than I ever could at an academic institution. Come on out! The water's fine!

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    1. Definitely thinking about it and I know the water is fine. If I move to industry I want to be able to do so once that I have something to offer to make as big an impact as I can. I need to develop more opportunities for interactions with pharma/biotech.

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  2. Sorry to hear this, and you are definitely not alone!

    If you haven't tried it, you should give meditation a shot. It's helped me be a lot less reactive and more present, instead of worrying about the future/beating myself up for past mistakes. The Headspace app was an easy and quick (10 min sessions) way to start for me.

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    1. Thanks! I've been thinking about it. During PD I used some meditation-based approached for stress/anxiety. Will look into the app.

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  3. When reading your blog I've always felt like you were doing so much better than me! Both with funding and in terms of how you use your time. So I'm really surprised you're feeling this way, but then maybe not, because it's exactly how I feel too. I feel totally trapped because I'm not marketable to other departments because I don't have a grant, and don't feel like my skills are useful to industry. My department chair tells me constantly that NIH study sections have turned into air traffic controllers keeping everybody in a holding pattern until they're just about to run out of gas, and then they either give you a good score or give you select pay. He keeps telling me just to resubmit and stay in the ball game every round. In the meantime, my university granted me an additional 3 years of pre-tenure time. How crazy does the system have to be for an institution to recognize that it can now take that much longer before you get your first grant? With all that said, I think you're on the right track to making yourself feel better. While the tenure extension has certainly helped my mental state, I think what has helped me most is that recently I decided to put myself first a few times. I scheduled all my doctor checkups, got a haircut, got botox and my face lasered :-), and bought tickets to a few concerts. Don't underestimate the power of treating yourself right!

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    1. Thank you for your comment. It took a while to reply because I had to get myself back into the right headspace. I am not doing badly overall and I had to acknowledge that, and also do exactly as you said, be nice to myself. Hoping to starts 2017 in a different mindset. :)

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  4. So sorry to hear this. From your blogs I always had the impression like you had everything totally under control (while still pondering the Many Issues That Plague Us All) and, most importantly, like you are exactly the type of scientist that the system should be happy to have. Please do keep us posted!
    I myself have just rewritten and turned in a grant for the third time within the same number of years - just thinking about it made me want to throw up, even though I really like the science behind it and we are actually making interesting progress (funded by thin air). The continuation of my lab is not on the line with this particular application, at least not yet, so I cannot even imaging what it would feel like if everything would be riding on it. For now I am just crossing my fingers that I've been lucky getting sufficient funding s far (I guess that is one upside of getting very little start up funding - you are forced to apply for anything you can get your hands on from the start). But I do realize that this is not going to last forever and it scares the bejeezus out of me that my luck can just change with the flip of a coin.

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    1. Hey BioBrains, thank you for your comment. Well the thing is, my lab is not yet riding on it and I had to really look at that and count my blessings. I needed some time to recover from the stress of the summer and see things clearly. I hear you about funding, but I guess the only thing we can do is keep applying and see what happens. Hope all is well with you.

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  5. Sorry that life is kicking you so hard. I really feel for you--I too am stressed out about funding my lab, but I actually like my job for the most part. It is a double burden when you are under a lot of pressure at work and you don't want to be where you are.

    Life is too short to stay someplace where you are unhappy. I think your plan is a good one--take care of yourself, and have an escape plan. Academia can be a stressful place, but it is definitely possible that you might enjoy it in a place less toxic to you. A supportive local environment makes a huge difference if you can find one. I also find that meditation is helpful when I am stressed out. There are lots of good guided meditations around online to get you going. I found Tara Brach's useful when I first started.

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    1. Hey Prodigal, coming back to answer the comments after putting myself back where I needed to be. Meditation has been a helpful part of that. I think one component is also being under extreme stress and rejecting everything around me as a cause of stress. I had to acknowledge that there are many many people around me who want me to succeed and whether I stay or go will be a decision for the future. Sometime just changing your perception of things can do wonders...

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  6. Luminiferous AetherNovember 1, 2016 at 10:42 AM

    I will echo what everyone else has said - reading this blog I always had the impression that you had a game plan, followed the game plan and did what you had to do to keep your research going. Having just started my own lab, I have not yet been in a place where you and some of the commentators above have been, hence I do no have any wisdom to share, but I have a gut feeling that you will overcome the current undulations and get back on track. Stay strong and turn that perseverance into overdrive mode!

    Are you applying only for R01s or have you tried applying for R21s as well? Perhaps an R21 might help you ride this wave until the R01 is funded.

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    1. Hey Aether, I had to regroup for a bit, but the comment didn't go unseen. I'm not sure there is a gameplan anymore. I feel like there are so many variable and so many possible ways to do this "right" that I just have to find the way to keep the excitement going. The stress had gotten to the point where the science didn't matter any more and I needed to reconnect to why the science matters to me. I did, so I'm going into the holidays with new energy. And yes, I did apply for an R21. Some people say it may help, some say it's a complete waste of time. Luckily, that same R21 has turned into 2 other grants and the starting point for a new R01, so it was useful just to think about things :)

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  7. I know things are really tough, and there's tons of stress in this job. But in general, I think you are doing well. You have interesting science, you have lots of people in your lab, and you're submitting lots of grants. Each grant requires deep thinking, and regardless of the funding outcome, those ideas and thoughts are still useful and propel the work in your lab. Many people have said that mid-tenure track always feels like doom, but the stuff that you're working on now will bloom soon enough and you will survive this period. Many people have also said that when you submit grants, you're really just putting them "in queue." I can't imagine someone who has a history of productivity (you got the competitive K99) and interesting science to not get an R01 eventually. I'm so sorry about your recent outcome, but I don't think you should take this too personally, and I believe it will work out soon.
    This is a lonely occupation in that being a PI of a lab means your work is sufficiently different from everyone else's - this really does create a sense of isolation, even if you were in the perfect department.
    Can you talk to you department chair about any of this? Do you have a mentoring committee, either official or unofficial? Universities don't give out lab space and startup without caring whether you succeed or not. It's in everyone's best interest that you do well and are happy. It might help if you talk to people who are a little more senior than you about it. You might be surprised how much they struggled along the way too. Anyway, I can totally relate to how you're feeling, and I hope you find a way to get through this. I've found Headspace helps a lot; maybe you can try it too.

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    1. Hey there, sorry for the delay in responding. The comments didn't go unheard. I did talk to people and took the time to get my mind back to where it needs to be. I am working on rebuilding my mentoring committee and hopefully the tide will turn for 2017. Thank you for your words.

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  8. Very interesting post and it always helpful to vent out your frustrations. I have a different perspective on your problems. Let me explain where I come from: I've moved two institutions during my first five years as a new investigator. Most of my issues come from a dual-career issue that is not solved yet.

    But, I have taken solace in the science. I managed to get a small grant and the R01s are being scored, but not making the funding cut. This after two papers in PNAS and four more in smaller JBC/Biochemistry type journals as a new investigator.

    I found my way into a NIH study section in October and I finally get it. The panel members actually don't trash the grants (they try very hard to write something negative to justify spreading the scores). The scores go through three rounds of revisions where the SRO makes the panel spread out the scores. Grants that were 33333 were foced to go like 456456 just to spread the damn scores.....So, in essence its not as bad as one thinks. In my panel, there were very established people that got triaged that I never in a million years though would happen after reading their proposal. But, they proposed to do the same damn thing (alebit cool) with a homologous system.

    I would recommend you do two things.

    1. Don't try to get in a grant every cycle, that is just mental suicide and it makes your time management outright miserable. Even if your department head thinks this is a great strategy, its just not soudn advice. If these grants are going to the same review panel 'watch out'. I've heard man people there complain that the same grant just keeps getting submitted 'over and over again' and they begin reviewing it with the "this grant again' attitude and you are screwed even before your grant is read.

    2. Think about sending your grant to a different study section or heck to an entirely different division. For example, grants that fit in NIGMS will also fit in NIA and NIEHS and others.

    Self-doubt will always remain even after one gets funded, but keep up the morale of the lab. The best advice I ever got from my advisor: "Do good, careful, rigorous science and things will fall into place." If it does not work out at the end.........its a great big world out there and people like us can always figure it out.

    Stay Strong my Friend. Life is too short to loose it over funding!!

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    1. "Life is too short to loose it over funding!!" so true! Thank you for the suggestions. It's what I'm trying to do. I was invited to serve on study section and I will be able to submit my R01 after I go, which I hope will help a lot. Also, I reached out to all my friends and collected a folder of single % R01s to look at...which taught me that a grant must just be written really really well and very clearly.
      I am spread across 4 institutes with grants and my R01 PO recommended I change study section also, so that's the goal for the new year. :)

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    2. Luminiferous AetherDecember 14, 2016 at 2:21 PM

      Are you serving on SS as part of the ECR program?

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    3. Yes! I was going to reach out to SROs, but the SRO from one of my R01 study sections emailed me saying I would be a great fit. I thought that grant had bombed completely, so it will be interesting. It will definitely be helpful!

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    4. Nice! It's great that the SRO him/herself reached out to you. When do you attend SS? I am sure you will post a write-up of your experience. I will be waiting to read it with great interest!

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  9. I have been very much impressed by your post. First of all, I have to say that you are doing great. You just need to handing in there a little bit. You need to stay tough, your science is very good! it will be recognized by study section soon. You just ned to be persistent!!

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