Dissolving the Lab

No, not mine. HA- fooled you. I’m down at the moment, but not out- at least not yet. On my last post… Enrique left a comment about PIs having to dissolve their labs…

Topic: what happens when your PI’s gov. grant is not renewed (resubmission # > 1) and the concomitant dissolvation of the lab. Anyone want to hunker a guess on the time said dissolvation will take?

Well, I’ve had a front row seat to this for the last couple of years. DrMrA was struggling with his renewal for more than two years. I don’t usually share too much about DrMrA- he’s not into publicity- so I’ll just share how this went from where I was sitting. First, knowing that he was coming up for renewal- he reduced staff in the lab (some of this occurred by letting people go, some occurred by graduating students) in order to save some cash to use in a 1 year no-cost extension period. Everyone but graduate students goes first, this leaves you with a drain of people at the top to do the day-to-day teaching of graduate students. This action had the intended effect, cash savings- but downsizing your lab in the middle of your career is never fun. Although, I also have to say- it is hard to plan to be out of funds for more than 1 year- so the period that followed the no-cost extension was brutal.

Second- I was on the job market during this time and was offered a really awesome position in a cold-in-the-winter-blue-state kind of place. Perfect offer, except for one thing… my better half would have had to give up his tenure. Giving up tenure in a position where the vast majority of your salary is covered by hard money, directly before a grant renewal, in the current climate, seemed like a REALLY, SUPREMELY, STUPIDLY bad idea. So, we declined the job- and fortunately I had a very good alternative at our current institution… probably partially leveraged from the fact that I had been on a broad job search and had other offers.

How bad did it get for DrMrA? Pretty bad. Morale was awful, the lab went down to 1 graduate student- who is fortunately really awesome- but still. On a personal level, we couldn’t have much of a conversation about science at home, these topics needed to be left at work at all times because it was a continuous source of stress. He fought the valiant uphill battle of continuous grant submission to multiple agencies and putting out papers, all while teaching a 70 hour load and working in the lab himself. He is absolutely, without a doubt, the toughest and most persistent person that I know. The department administration was just excellent to him- supporting supplies and his student for a time- and you can’t say that about every department. But- morale can’t be purchased.

How long could we have lasted this out? I’m not sure. We lasted more than two years, and he kept the lab moving forward successfully- with help from a very supportive departmental administrator. We are fortunate that our salaries don’t depend on grant funding as our institution is 100% hard money, so that as much of a worry for us as it is for faculty at institutions that have to supply some of (or in some cases most of) their salaries off of grants. But,… for our mental health… who knows…


16 thoughts on “Dissolving the Lab

  1. That sounds awful. I’m really impressed at how you and DrMrA managed to tough it out. The department I’m in is fairly supportive of its faculty, but other departments have not been so generous. I haven’t seen the slow dissolution model, though. All the ones I can think of have been sudden and shocking shut-downs.

    PS You had me reeling for a moment with the title of your post! Very sneaky. 🙂

  2. Mad Hatter- Indeed it was awful. Although, I have to say- when things were really stressful I tried to focus on the important things- that we were all healthy, and the kids were fine. I can stand up to a lot- but I would crumble like a stale cookie if something bad happened to one my children.

    I haven’t yet seen many labs fall apart- I haven’t seen the sudden destruction… Probably because this really hits hard and fast when a PIs salary is on the line. This is not the case for us, so we actually had a little breathing room to get through. Also- DrMrA is able to put his students in TAships, and this covers their stipend and tuition for the year. This makes it possible to run the lab on very little money for a time… which I am sure was key to surviving this situation.

    The ironic part of the whole thing was that from a scientific point of view, the science was never better for him. He had a G&D paper and an EMBO paper during that period (as well as others obviously)….but couldn’t get his renewal…

    Dr. J- Don’t get the impression that this didn’t create a lot of stress in the relationship- it did. This is not something I can easily write about, or really care to write about right now.

    Anonymoustache- Thanks, but I don’t think we are so extraordinary. Just trying to make it through with what seemed like the best plan at the moment. Leveraging every small advantage to keep heads above water…

  3. wow! that’s tough. I’m coming up hard and fast against that as well. I am in my 5th submission (different versions) of a basic grant, have one funded grant that will not cover the stipulated amount of my salary. All I am doing is writing grants now, but have no idea how I am going to manage the lab as my startup has pretty much run out. The saving grace is that my postdoc did manage to get a departmental fellowship.

    Your story really is uplifting. I hope I can manage it….

  4. In response to the original question, the ability of a lab to survive depends on the resources of the people running it, the depth support at the institution where the lab is based, and the influence and financial abilities of those supporters. Tenure helps too.

    In fact, I’ve seen non-tenured people have their fully funded programs wrapped up in a matter weeks because a senior administrator thought that giving a few hundred grand back to the funding agency was a fair price to pay for detailing a junior researcher’s work.

    The great thing about that situation was that most everybody else in to scheme, circumvent, dissemble, and fib as necessary to ensure that at least some of the science (and it was really awesome science) got done.

    Technically, it complicated the schedule to have people booking instrumentation under fake names/ projects etc, but once I figured out how to deal (Dr. X, are you signed up for tomorrrow’s analysis as yourself, or for Dr. Z- I’d like to know which experiment I’m actually setting up) it was actually kind of fun.

    Ahh, how I miss the collegiality of academia…

  5. anon-

    You must look for every bit of small change you can find to keep things going. I know how hard this is, believe me. I have a friend who had to go all the way to his 6th submission, was fighting for his tenure, and was shutting down the lab all at the same time. Hang in there!

    Lab Lemming-

    You are quite correct. The survival of the lab depends on many factors including the resources of the institution and the alternatives for picking up the stipends of students and so forth. In our case several things were critical.

    1. Complete Salary Support
    2. The possibility to have students TA, this covers their ENTIRE stipend… and while their time in the lab is somewhat cut back you don’t have to let them go.
    3. Supportive Chairperson. This is where emergency cash flows from in many cases- once you have the salaries covered, you need supplies…
    4. Institutional Bridge funding. Some institutions have set aside money for crises like this… especially for faculty having difficulty with renewals.

  6. Two years ago we were 10. Now we are 4. I fear that, if current grant didn’t make it, Boss will soon be 1. And we’re soft money, so perhaps even 1 is optimistic. (Though I’m almost done with my project–please print my paper, Journal!–so should probably leave soon anyway.) Dissolution is an unpleasant experience to live through from the post-doc perspective as well. To be honest, this is making me give industry a much harder look than I’d planned. I don’t want to be the one in charge in this funding climate.

  7. TitleTroubles-

    I am sure that scenarios like ours (and yours) are being repeated in labs all over this country. It will be absolutely devastating to the scientific infrastructure (especially the human part of that) that takes such a long time to build…

  8. I think you’re right that being on “hard money” for salary support and having TA-ships for grad students really help. We have neither of those at my institution (although getting grad students on a departmental training grant is an option), so faculty who lose funding are pretty much at the mercy of their department chairs.

    I think the other problem for the labs that I’ve seen suddenly implode is that they tended to do research that depended on animal studies. Maintaining an animal colony is unbelievably expensive, and if that’s a critical component of one’s research program, it’s very difficult to stay afloat without at least one R01 equivalent.

    As an aside, I actually hadn’t realized before reading your blog that there were places where tt faculty didn’t have to come up with a significant percentage (or all) of their own salary. Even non-tt faculty (the track I’m on) at my institution are expected to bring in some portion of their salary once they reach a certain position.

  9. Mad Hatter >> would you mind posting pros vs. cons of a non-TT (research professor?) position (vs. a TT position)?

  10. Mad Hatter-

    I my family money was a dirty word, you didn’t talk about it, it was impolite. But we must talk about it because there is a huge range or ways that faculty salaries get paid- that varies from institution to institution and even within the institution from department to department. I’ll try to summarize in a post in the not to distant future!

  11. DrDrA–I’ll look forward to that post! As always, your posts are incredibly informative and helpful. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge. 🙂 I hope you don’t mind if I post a couple of links to my blog to answer Enrique’s question. My apologies for hijacking your comment thread.

    Enrique–I wrote several posts a while back on the main differences between tt and non-tt positions. The first one gives a general description of non-tt positions, while the other two discuss the advantages and disadvantages of such positions, respectively. Keep in mind that I wrote these when I less than a year into my non-tt position. I just reread them and the information is essentially correct, but perhaps lacking in depth. The main point I would add, based on one more year’s experience (for what that’s worth), is that non-tt positions are hugely variable between departments and even within departments. Feel free to email me at too.much.mercury AT gmail DOT com if you’d like to discuss this further.

  12. Thanks, Mad Hatter. I actually just noticed your blog and posts. I will probably take you up on the email soon. I am ending my 1st postdoc and trying to figure out whether to stay in science or jump ship to a non-science position.

  13. Thanks, DrDrA!

    Enrique–You’re very welcome. I went through that process–deciding whether to stay in science or jump ship–about two years ago and I know it’s not an easy decision to make. Best of luck to you!

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