Policy / Science / Science and Communication

The plight of the early career scientist (and grad student)

” How the world is failing at its climate goals”

“Put the heat on subsidizing climate change” 

“Remember the government shutdown? It is still screwing over scientists in Antarctica”

“Did climate change cause typhoon Haiyan?”

These are just a few of the many headlines that have caught my eye over the past week. Everywhere I go I see reminders that we are on the brink of climate related disaster. And yet, everywhere I go I see the  students, faculty, and researchers that are attempting to understand these issue struggling for funding. Academia is a rat race. You are constantly competing against others for relatively small amounts of money that is available to those in your field. As a student, you compete with other applicants for graduate school appointments, funding, grades, publications, and anything else you can think of. On top of that, you teach, do research, attempt to write papers, lectures, and grant applications, and struggle with impostor syndrome, which is always happy to pop up exactly when you don’t want it to. It isn’t surprising to me that so many promising young scientists are taking time off, or leaving the field all together, but it is sad.


Science is about discovery and progress, but the process is constantly being slowed. It is hard to move science forward when funding is cut by millions of dollars (this happened to both NSF and NIH last year, NIH lost over 1 billion in funding last year alone) and the main funding source stops paying out in the middle of an important season (see government shutdown last month). We see articles pointing out that the U.S. is constantly falling behind other countries in education, especially science, math, technology, and engineering, and then we do things like cut funding to research. If climate issues are the “world’s greatest existential challenge”, as govern Brown of California says (a view shared by a large majority of the educated population), then why do we continue to cut funding dollars? There are differing viewpoints and opinions out there, and there is certainly plenty of misinformation and misleading press on both sides. One would think that further research would help clear things up. Priorities are a thing, right Do we have those? There are more mixed messages being thrown around here than at an awkward high school dance. Do they like us, or do they not like us? We keep getting rejected, why do we keep applying? Do we love failure that much, or are we just extremely stubborn people who can’t take a hint?

It turns out that on average we are pretty stubborn. Academics are high achievers, they obviously don’t like failure. They also don’t have a choice. Federal funding pays the bills. If you choose a life in the academic hard sciences learning how to sell your research and get funding will be a huge part of your life (at least until you get tenure). We can be practical and logical about this if we want, but that is no fun. I choose to believe that we are also here because we want to make a difference. We want to discover new things, cure illnesses, learn about the world and the universe around us, and actually help make changes that will better our society. It leaves a young scientist in a difficult situation. Do you fight an uphill battle for funding and jobs for the foreseeable future because you really believe in making a difference/ you really want the intellectual gratification that a PhD will grant you/ you really want to land that professorship or big job, or do you turn to a different career path? I’ve seen people choose every option here, and I can’t say that I blame anyone. It’s a difficult system. Maybe it will change and maybe it wont, but there are so many opportunities that come with being a grad student or academic. The ability to research, travel, meet new people, see new things, and really discover the world that we live in is the reason why most of us are here (and for that coveted PhD, because we are the <1%). So, keep sending in those proposals, keep writing those fellowship apps, and keep hoping for the best.

When doubt creeps in you can always hunt for inspiration. Like this:

Marine science is cool. Sometimes I forget.


One thought on “The plight of the early career scientist (and grad student)

  1. Pingback: The “Nature” of scientific publishing. Are high impact journals distorting the scientific process? | UNder the C

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