career choice impacts your academic viability
What is the most consistent measure of academic viability? Scientific accomplishment? Enlightenment of fellow man? Bettering mankind? Not really. In my experience the most consistent measure of the viability of ones academic career is funding/money. When big-name scientists lose their funding, they get the boot. When the dude who has never really accomplished much somehow gets his hands on several million dollars of funding, he becomes the star. I’ve seen it happen. It doesn’t quite seem right but I don’t think universities care, in general.
I was listening to a story about a division head who is effectively being terminated because of the loss of major funding (and the inability to get more funding) and I couldn’t help but shake my head in sad acceptance. “Sad” because the situation is obviously sad! Moreover, I know this person’s work and it is good–like New England Journal of Medicine good. And, “acceptance” because that’s academics for you. Better to know the ground rules going in than be surprised. Nothing surprises me anymore.
Nonetheless, because this is a fact of academics, it is important to consider the fact that your career choice will impact the viability of your academic career. As time goes on, our careers all become more differentiated but there is always opportunity for adapting our work strategy.
So what am I talking about? From the perspective of pure researchers, it is pretty straight forward I think (but correct me if I’m wrong). Either get grant funding or get the fuck out of here. My feeling is that the best way to maintain viability through constant grant support (besides the obvious: do quality work, do lots of it, and know the right people) is to be in a field that maximizes the ratio of funding opportunities to competitors seeking those funds. And that’s a tough balance to strike because “hotter” fields, with many investigators, tend to suck up most of the funding dollars. You think the NIDDK gives away most of it’s grant monies for research of irritable bowel syndrome? Actually, I don’t know–that could be the case, but to illustrate my point, my guess would be most NIDDK research dollars go towards diabetes. The field I did my PhD research in was really hot and also really competitive and cut throat. As much as I’m always screaming that “I WAS ROBBED” when I get shitty reviews back on my manuscripts, a few of my reviews really did read like that reviewer just wanted to suppress our work. But, then again there was tons of grant money for that area of research.
What about clinicians in academics? Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. Academic physicians tend to fall into one of three categories: physicians, physician-scientists and physician-educators. The one common denominator for job security to all three categories is the amount of revenue that the clinical practice brings into the department. This is obviously applicable to the pure clinician who does not undertake much research or teach. However, it is also applicable to physician-scientists and physician-educators because at the very least, if the money generated through research or teaching activities falls through, there is always the clinical practice to depend on until, for example, the next grant comes in. Therefore, there will always be more academic job security for someone whose clinical field of practice generates more revenue than a clinician who doesn’t. It’s a sad fact. I’ve seen some junior faculty who are forced to near 100% clinical work in order to support their salaries (essentially guaranteeing the end of the research career) in comparison to some other physicians who can cover their whole salaries (even without grants!) by working 3 days per week. That’s a big difference. Moreover, for pure clinicians the clinical revenue from a full week’s work will significantly impact not only salary level but also promotions as well. I’ve noticed this to be particularly hard on the general internist who practices in an academic center. Deferring all discussions on the importance of the general internist for now, it has become a fact that these guys are some of the most underpaid physicians in this country. Couple that with work in an academic setting and you have a recipe for failure waiting to happen. Especially when these guys are compared side-by-side (in terms of revenue production) with colleagues in, for example, surgery. The fact is that physicians practicing less lucrative fields in academics have to do something else (research, teach, etc) and that something else better generate some revenue or at least acclaim. At the end of the day, it seems to me that we are essentially renting our faculty posts from the university (e.g. through grants, services or revenues generated). And, in order to do what you want in academics, it is important to have some idea of how you can strike the balance between career, research, etc that will allow you to pay the rent.
I’ll end by saying I don’t think that tailoring your career or career path to one of high academic viability (lots of money) is how anyone should approach it. I think first and foremost you have to do what you love and what you are passionate about. But in my opinion, it is important to keep the reality of academics in mind too. Academics is hardly the ivory tower that people imagine it as. It should be approached strategically, with all aspects–the good and the bad–in mind, so that you can maximize the odds of being able to do what you love in the academic setting.