Friday, January 13, 2017

Resilience in Scientific Research

Lab-coat selfie!

     I've had a rough few months. Since August, my employment status has gone from employed in an awesome and challenging job, to struggling to hold on to a part-time job, and now to laid-off. Basically, the department I work for had mismanaged funds before hiring me, and did not realize that they did not have enough funding to support my position long-term. This is a super bummer because I really liked my job and my boss.


     Finding work as a scientist over the past few years has been challenging for me, to say the least. I will begin by describing my background in science. As an undergraduate I completed a biology degree in 3 years. From the beginning, I said I wanted to work in plant pathology because I felt it was a great combination of molecular, plant, and microbiology.

     After I graduated, I found a job at a local biotec company that performed post and pre-natal diagnostics. I was very excited about the job, however I quickly found that there was an underlying level of stress due to lack of profits. Insurance companies were not paying for the tests we were running because it was classified as "investigatory" rather than "diagnostic." I worked there a year, then I decided I better pursue grad school. Around 5 months after I left the company, they went out of business, laying-off all of my former co-workers.

My first semester of graduate school I went on a mushroom collecting foray for my mycology course.
    I am not sure what I should say about graduate school. My experience was somewhat stressful (which is pretty typical, from what I've heard). I enjoyed the classes the most, and I loved being a Teaching Assistant.

Loving the sunflowers on a class field trip
     Now that it's over I miss being in the lab. I also really enjoyed days where we got to go on trips to the field, mainly for classes. I also had fun being around the other plant pathology students. Oh yeah, and I met my fiancé in the first week of graduate school, so really I should not be complaining about the experience. :)

I met my fiancé at graduate school. We walked to receive or Master degrees on the same day!

     After I graduated with an MS, it was extremely difficult to find a job. This was mainly because I was trying to remain in the small university town where my fiancé was finishing his PhD. After 6 months of job searching, I got hired on as a lab manager. All was great for the first 2 months. Then my new boss called me into his office, saying he was out of money. Bills from the year prior were just now rolling in, and although his financial advisor had gone over his budget and given the OK to hire me, he had to terminate my position in order to keep the lab open.

     He and I made an arrangement where I dropped down to part-time, filed "leave without pay," and worked minimal hours.

     When I returned to work in January, my boss called me into his office once again. He still had not received any funding. He was going to need to cut my pay by half and drop my status down to a temporary employee, or a "time-slip" employee, a position usually designated for students. This type of position does not collect any benefits. Basically, he still needs my help but can't afford to pay me much. I'm currently not being provided a livable wage and am going to need to find work elsewhere.

    My boss is very intelligent and hard-working. His lab is there to conduct medical research, to answer questions about the brain's role in obesity and addictive behaviors. There is not enough grant money to go around however.

     All of this is super discouraging. I am told that funding issues are not only occurring at my current institution but throughout academia. My best bet is to leave acadaemia seek employment in industry.

     I guess my point is this: advanced degrees, even in the sciences, do not guarantee employment in our current economy. Our federal government needs to increase it's research budget. How else will we see advances in medicine, agriculture, and technology?  American society tells us we need more students in STEM. However, with lack of research funding, we are not paying our scientists. Economically, we need fewer students in STEM, unless our nation makes research a financial priority.

     For now, in order to keep working as a scientific researcher, I need to dig my heals in, accept some rejection, lay-offs and the like, in the hopes that someday I will have a rewarding career.