Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Science Postdoc Wonders: Does the NIH See Value in Teaching?

Below is the piece that I submitted to The Chronicle of Higher Education about the research/teaching conundrum for science graduate students and new PhDs.  The Chronicle rejected my submission, so I decided to share it here.  I think the academics in my readership may enjoy it, and I want to share my story with other science PhDs who may stumble across it via Google.  If my academic woes do not interest you, feel free to skip this one!

I have been working as a postdoctoral researcher in a lab at the Texas A & M Health Science Center for more than two years. Earlier this year, my postdoctoral advisor and I submitted two grants, one of which is a fellowship application. The fellowship, a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), asks the applicant to write about her future career plans, so I wrote about how I would like to teach science at a small liberal arts college. The application also requires a training plan. In my training plan, I included several items that would give me more training to become a teaching faculty member who maintains a small research program.

As I wrote my application, I felt almost rebellious. Here I was, applying for research funding from the NIH and confessing that what I really want to do is teach. I have always wanted to teach. It is the reason I earned a PhD. As an undergraduate, I was nurtured in a college that believed in undergraduate research. My professors had dual passions for teaching and research, and they taught me to believe I could do both. As a graduate student and postdoc, I have enjoyed the luxury of few obligations outside of my research projects. Now, as a third-year postdoc, I find myself longing for the balance in my academic life that would allow me to enjoy the challenge of sharing science with others while pursuing my research interests.

NIH states that the goal of the postdoctoral NRSA is to “provide support to promising postdoctoral applicants who have the potential to become productive and successful independent research investigators” ( Nowhere does the NIH say that these applicants cannot aspire to teach in liberal arts colleges, but I suspect that applicants with dreams of teaching are not the ideal target for NRSA funding. It is hard for me to gauge if my career aspirations fit with NIH’s mission. From the time academic scientists enter graduate school, the emphasis is on research: data, papers, grant applications. Unlike other disciplines, we spend little time teaching and even less time talking about pedagogy and how one teaches science. I have been very fortunate in that both my graduate and postdoctoral advisors are talented scientists and gifted mentors; neither of them shied away from training me even though I made it clear at the outset that I planned to pursue a teaching position in the future.

The labor structure of academic science is a pyramid scheme. At the tip of the pyramid is the primary investigator (PI), the guy with his name on the lab. Below that are all the people who work in the lab: the postdocs, graduate students, lab managers, and technicians. The PI keeps grant money flowing into the lab and publications flowing out of the lab. The PI rarely does experiments, which means that most of the experimental labor, the bread and butter of science, is done by people who do not have their own labs and do not have tenure. In other words, it’s done by people to whom academic science has not made a long-term commitment. And many of these people want their own labs so they, too, can run a research program.

Here’s the thing: science can’t support all the people who would like their own labs. Unless the NIH’s budget continues to expand year after year, only a select few can be funded in new research faculty positions. NIH’s budget has not steadily expanded; it doubled in the 1990s and has remained, at best, stable since then. The doubling of the budget led to an influx of new independent investigators into the pool of grant competitors. To my mind, the problem is not that the NIH’s budget increased and the number of investigators increased. The real problem is that the pyramidal shape of the science labor market means that the number of people who now want to be independent investigators has increased exponentially. For example, if every PI has 4-5 people in her lab who want to be PIs themselves, then a doubling of the PI population means there are now 8-10 times as many people who want research faculty positions. That’s a lot of people who have dedicated their careers to science and who stand a slim chance of getting one of the coveted positions.

Of course, all is not lost for these academic scientists. Many of them will transition into careers in the public and private sectors, outside of the NIH. It can be very challenging for postdocs to find and secure these positions, but as long as scientists have transferrable skill sets and can obtain additional training in their new positions, other sectors can absorb NIH-trained scientists, thereby alleviating some of the pressure on NIH.

It is good for science to have many people who are working as academic scientists. If science needs a large labor pool, then the NIH needs to recognize the value in career paths other than that of the PI. Teaching is an undervalued yet critically important task for science. I see my students as being future scientists and medical practitioners. I also see my students making important scientific decisions, such as what to do about vaccines, food quality, pollution, and birth control, just to name a few hot topics. The more people who are scientifically literate, the better off we are as a nation. Science is not just for people who spend their days planning, performing, and analyzing experiments; it’s for everyone.

My hope is that when reviewers of my NRSA application read about my career goals, they will see that teaching is an essential part of the pipeline that produces scientists, and providing research training money for people who also want to teach is a valuable use of NIH’s resources. It is time that the NIH acknowledged that teaching and research do not need to be opposing missions.


Shannon said...

great article! everyone in science certainly can't have their own lab, and if we do not teach to pass this on, then where would we be?! i mean, how many of us postdocs were turned onto this field because of a teacher?

Rosiecat said...

Exactly! Thanks for your comment, Shannon. I do think there's a growing movement of postdocs who think of their position as a job, as in: you are committed to the work, you work hard, but you work reasonable hours and have a life outside of science. I think we need to seriously reconsider what it means to define the postdoc as a "training" period. Or perhaps we need to recognize that the postdoc is really a combination of productive science labor and training--it's not "just" a job, but it's also not pure training.

I hope things are going well for you these days, friend :-)