InBabyAttachMode, a whose tweets and blog posts I've enjoyed for a while now, has recently decided to leave academia for industry. She has a new post up explaining why. A post she claims "might be ranty, angry and disillusioned". I don't think so. It is valid and heartfelt and talks about some of the very real problems in academic science a career, particularly for the homogametes with parasites (ie mothers). I think many of her concerns apply possibly even more so to URMs and people with disabilities or physical challenges.
Thinking about this brought up a problem I had many years ago, when NIH was not "in crisis". [Note this person is NOT AT ALL like InBabyAttachMode!]. Although to be honest, even when it wasn't in crisis, relative to today's funding levels, when I was a junior faculty, it always felt like crisis. It always felt like it was 1 grant away from disaster. As a junior faculty, you can't help everyone. You can't always see where the train is going, and how close you are to crashing.
I had a wonderful postdoc. She was smart. There was sufficient evidence that she was hardworking. I liked her as a person, and felt she was honest and upfront about issues. She had had a disastrous postdoc, with someone I knew, and counted as a sort-of-friend. Her story and explanation of the disaster rang honest to me, and I felt I perceived both sides of the story about commitment and mentoring and why the situation had gone bad.
She came to my lab and things went well. I had a paper from a symposium I had given right when she joined the lab (or I would have let her give it), that was in her interest and gave it to her to write up. It got submitted and published. And then little problems started. She had problems with others in the lab, most of which were worked out. The first project she took on was with an outside collaborator, and it ran into major personality conflicts. She was in the right, I felt, but she let it get so out of hand we never got more than one set of experiments done. That would be a publication, but she never got that pub done. She moved to another project (my suggestion) that was on another collaborative project, slightly off of my mainstream, and got on another training grant to do that work. She didn't get anything published out of that either. So, things weren't perfect, but I was still working with her, and hopeful about publications. We'd set deadlines and they would come and go. I still believed in her.
Then came The Big Problem. She had 3 years on the training grant. In my experience, if you could make a could argument for extending the T32 to a 4th year it was nearly always granted. Evidently that policy had changed at the IC funding this T32, and her request was denied. At this point I knocked myself out to find funding. She was not willing to work on my mainstream research, although I had funding for that (which she said didn't interest her). She called a previous mentor (who was a friend of mine from post-doc days) who laid down the law to her: you haven't published, you don't have anything to show for the last 5 years (this postdoc and the other). If you want to make it academia, you need to produce. I thought I had been saying this to her, but she had not heard me say it (fault not assigned here).
I got her interviews, at our institution for other PD positions, I talked to 3-4 other potential (funded) mentors in things closer to her new interest. All of them talked to her, and said to me "nope, too high risk for me" or "I asked her to follow up on this that or the other, and she didn't". At this point the postdoc got very very angry at me. Why didn't I know that it would be only three years? Why couldn't I just give her my grant money to do the things she wanted? I even found a job for her, a teaching job, as a res. ast. prof, but she declined to move, which is a fair decision. But her anger was huge. She complained about some of the things that IBAM mentions in her post. The insecurity. The lack of support for mothers. The lack of autonomy, because she was clearly ready to be a professor. The small salary. The fact that everyone was prejudiced against her. But mostly that I had failed to provide for her.
I had spent a huge amount of time trying to help. Yes I could have put her on my R01, but it would mean that I couldn't do the work involved, even if I lied to NIH about what the money was used for, which I was not going to do. In my view, she had multiple opportunities which she turned down. I came away feeling with I was dealing with someone who felt entitled to the job, but hadn't produced what she needed to.
As my brilliant friend, Teh Chemist sez: Everyone is the hero of their own story.