Challenging, competitive career progression is the norm in highly-educated professions:

Law: clerk, associate, junior partner, senior partner, managing partner

International banking: intern, associate, analyst, unit director, executive position, board of directors

Journalism: staff writer, reporter, section editor, editor, managing editor

The trials and tribulations of academics don’t compare to these and similar fields. We can decry publish-or-perish pressures, lack of appropriate valuation of teaching and advocacy, pressures to travel to scientific meetings, competition for scarce grant funding, and biases in the workplace. And these hurdles can be demoralizing and can derail well-rounded lives.

But, let’s be clear. We’ve got it good. I graduated college more than 30 years ago as tight friends with two people who went on to have graduate educations of similar duration and demands, with similarly low training incomes. One, a writer, joined a national news magazine, the other, an operations researcher, builds models of international investment market returns. Neither had long term contracts in the early career phase or after. They have been moved cross the country and to other countries by their companies — multiple times on short notice. Both worked similar or more demanding hours than I did in the lab. Both delayed starting families, I did not. We have similar incomes.

As a condition of advancement, they changed jobs and roles more often than typical in academics. They had fewer opportunities for defined levels of promotion and work at the whim of metrics like reader base and market returns. They reported to difficult supervisors, who were at times extremely controlling, until decades into their professional careers. They had little autonomy despite impressive skills and no history of stumbles. Budget cuts and elimination of whole work units were not unusual. To this day, both keep a “go bag” in their office or home to leave for work-related travel in under two hours. They are effective and passionate, talented and recognized in their fields. But they will not reach the top roles in their organizations because such positions are exceedingly rare.

In contrast, I am largely an academic entrepreneur with a permissive release to pursue the science I believe will answer key questions. I enjoy the competition. I’m responsible for communicating the value of my work, I pick my team and my colleagues, and I am encouraged to mentor. In my field, and within my institution, we connect rather than savaging each other. I am directly incentivized by traditions of peer review of grants and publications to put forwarded the strongest possible case for my science. If I am capable and caring in the classroom, leadership does not have much concern for how or where I complete my other academic work. Travel is at my discretion and meetings are reunions with intellectual friends. Breakthroughs are celebrated rather than disparaged by competitive colleagues. In short I chose what to work on and when and how to do it.

Not so for my friends. Maybe as we look to challenges facing academics, we should still celebrate the liberty of exploration and discovery that is unique to academic research endeavors.

Want to live on the Edge?


Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Saving subscription status...


Dear Tough,

First, let me congratulate you on surviving. That must have been quite a feat ‘back in the day’, as it were, when paylines were in the 20-30% and one could easily bootstrap themselves into an academic position with admin supports.

My friends and I are not so fortunate. As someone who hasn’t reached the half century mark, I can tell you things down here for us ‘little people’, are far from rosey. You see, the kids these days have it harder. I know, I know. You want to sit on your porch with your pipe and finger wag at us youngsters about you having it tough in your day too. That you had to catch your own rats and make your own plasmids and whatnot. That’s super charming. Please, share more stories of ‘back in the day’ at the annual graduate student retreat. Again.

Unfortunately, the numbers are on my side, not yours Director of Toughness. Paylines, hiring and retention are down. BY A LOT. Maybe you’d like some literature on that?

While you and your fellow grey haired buddies had a clear path to promotion, more detours, fake jobs (adjunct professors and Instructors anyone?) and responsibilities have been piled on my cohort. I signed up for something very different. I was told that I was going into a profession where truth and hard work were valued. Just last week I wrote a story about an incredibly smart, kind young scientist at UCSD struggling to maintain his lab. The story got lots of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, and more importantly, he was heartened by the folks who stepped up who were also in his situation.

But then there are also folks like you. Folks who I find a lot on LinkedIn, a place I’ve had to spend far too much of my time lately where people were far too eager to finger wag about the grant writing circle Brad, and so many of us, are on.

“Maybe he has bad mentoring”
“Maybe he’s a bad grant writer”

Or, maybe this is the toughest time in for-ducking-ever to get money and after three years of frantically paddling someone on your study section will ask where your new data is. But you’re out of start up money and sort of screwed. And those grants that have been hitting at the 20-30th%ile, that would have been funded when you were a young PI, those aren’t getting funded. Yet another LinkedIn colleague was said Brad’s strategy, shared by many of us, was silly. Of course the colleague in question, hires an outside grant writing firm to work with his young investigators. Maybe Brad’s department is unwilling to schill out the 5-10K a grant it takes to have a professional company work with him? I don’t know many academics that can afford this, and am pretty horrified by the rise of this strategy.

But maybe the Brads of the world will just take heart from your stern lecture and realize he’s not got it that tough. Maybe he should pull out of his well earned despair and embarrassment to crank out another grant or two a year or slap on a smile for his lab for one more day?

I’m sorry to rain on your cranky rant, but today it’s not gonna fly on a site I feel passionate about. Today one of my dear friends who did not get tenure was asked by her provost ‘why she was so popular if she had accomplished so little?’ What the Provost meant was why don’t you have a grant and more papers? That Provosts recognize exceptional talent and bright people and still ponder out loud that isn’t being rewarded with grant money in this funding hell hole is a knife wound to my chest.

As for your point about who has it worse than me in academia? Well, that’s pretty much everyone. I have clean water, a house and thank God after reading your tone deaf post, I have gin. My kids haven’t been shot by police, my village isn’t being bombed and I also haven’t been subject to genital mutilation. But what’s your point?

I was promised a chance that if I worked hard enough and thought of great ideas, that I could contribute to science in a meaningful way. And if I sit and think about how much more I could have gotten done for science, medicine and training if I didn’t have to write the same ideas in slightly different ways to squeak from the 16th to the 10th percentile (thank God), I would have gotten a helluva lot more done.

But I’m grateful for my life. You mistake my generation’s demanding more science money, better positions and a clearer path forward for what….lack of toughness? It’s not. We are tough as fuck. Because we’ve had to put up with the insensitivity of people like you, and not seeth when we are told to ‘be patient’ There will be opportunities for minorities ‘soon’. We’ve been told to ignore crappy sexist behavior for too long. And now what….just toughen up?

Get off lawn, Director of Toughness.

My generation has a hunger for more right now. We can see a path forward and obstructionist governments, people who choose ignorance and fear over facts are in my way. You are in my way. Because I’m going forward not by punching down, like you are. I’m going forward by pulling the people up behind me. Maybe you should try.

I hear you. Parting shot revised. Intended to focus on contrast with other careers engaging motivated, bright individuals. I believe we can make change, evolve our profession, and celebrate working close to our passions. There can be joy in the exceptional opportunities we have to compete our ideas, create networks of local and distant colleagues conquering deep puzzles, train and support this generation of scientists, advocate for change, and take satisfaction in our work. Comes at a cost and each wave of faculty will have different challenges. I’m not unengaged from the pressures and needs of trainees and faculty on my teams now or over the years. Academic research is a worthy pursuit and well worth continuing the fight. We should toughen up, band together, and protect this freedom that is academic life. Because it is a good life.

I believed your first post. Now you are responding to the twitter backlash by changing your post. That’s some weaksauce for a Tough person.

Perhaps. And am listening. Did not intend harm or hurt.
For record removed first two and last two words, which were ‘enough already’ and ‘toughen up.’

Agree, they sounded dissonant notes that are tone deaf to larger picture. Failed to communicate why there is much to love in research careers, especially compared to other paths. And I do believe the attraction can still be there in the work we do.

More thinking to do. What comes next?

“As a condition of advancement, they changed jobs and roles more often than typical in academics. They had fewer opportunities for defined levels of promotion and work at the whim of metrics like reader base and market returns. They reported to difficult supervisors, who were at times extremely controlling, until decades into their professional careers. They had little autonomy despite impressive skills and no history of stumbles. Budget cuts and elimination of whole work units were not unusual.”

This is the most tone-deaf thing I’ve read in a while and I collect things academics say about “back in my day” in a dedicated bibliography. There is a whole body of literature on all this, and you just show your lack of education on the current system in this post, as you’ve clearly realized as you start to trim it back in the face of actual evidence. This paragraph literally describes what it’s like for most of the biomedical academic system under the age of 55 right now, in some way shape or form.

Some more reading for you, because toughness apparently means you don’t have to read up on something before writing about it:
See Mike Lauer’s presentation to the National Academies:
Just read anything written by Kenneth Gibbs Jr. – note this begins talking about the last 3 decades, see how things change for people who aren’t you and didn’t go through the system when you did? and all the citations.

Fighty Squirrel, PhD, shared which is from a whole special issue on how bad things are for junior scis that you should also take the time to read.

By the way, the whole people-are-complaining-so-I’ll-double-down-on-how-they-need-to-toughen-up thing? Junior folks see it. You got into this system, perpetuated it, let it get to this point, and now we see you defending it as if somehow your experience holds any relevance to ours. It doesn’t, and you need to get over yourself and your anecdata, and read some damn papers, and talk to some scientists under the age of 50 for once.

Dear Professor Tough Survivor,

My goodness. Where to begin?

I read the first version of your post, as well as the walked-back version, and all of the comments/discussions both on here and in other places (primarily Twitter) that came from each version. What I’ll say will address the aggregate.

First, I guess you’ve figured out by now that your pep talk, if that’s what it was meant to be, sucked pretty hard. I know that’s not really what you intended, but here we are. Swing and a miss. If what you were wanting to do was to showcase all the things you feel are awesome about a life in academics, implying that people who don’t see it that way are whiny wusses probably wasn’t the way to go. Also, that’s true outside of this forum as well, so please don’t say crap like that to anyone in your lab/department/institution. It’s damaging.

Personally, I feel like my own toughness cred is pretty intact. Though I’m a youngish investigator (a little over halfway through a K08), I’ve been doing science since 1999. (This’ll matter in a second, as it means that when I got into the game, you were probably about at the point in your career where I am now, if you graduated from college 30ish years ago.) That’s more than enough time to have some things succeed, to have lots of things fail, to be rejected by reviewers in the most insulting of ways in both paper and grant reviews, all that stuff that builds up the oh-so-necessary “scar tissue” required for academics, and for now I’m still at it and still a good person. Having done the MD/PhD thing (hence only being partway through a K08), my second job involves taking care of the sickest of the sick as an ICU doc and wrestling with a fair number of incurable diseases that afflict my patients, whom I truly and deeply care about, as a pulmonary doc. So, yeah, I feel tough enough to laugh right in anyone’s face who tells me to toughen up. Do what I do, see if you can handle it, and then tell me to toughen up.

Having gotten into science riiiiight as the NIH budget doubled, I have a very clear memory of what it was like then, in those days of 30% paylines. It was freakin’ awesome! It was truly fun. For my PhD, I worked with a PI who was/is an internationally recognized expert in his field, and I had an absolutely wonderful experience. No one sweated over money, because you didn’t have to sweat. You didn’t have to spend every waking moment grinding out variations on a grant theme because it was going to take 10-20 submissions to get the thing funded in some incarnation. You actually had time to *think* and *discuss* ideas. Sure, the work had to be there, but one could generally be assured that solid effort would meet with success, because it did. I remember wondering why anyone wouldn’t at least try to go into academics, as it was clearly the coolest job in the world. Back then, it was, and not just because of my PI. We truly had more fun then. I think we also asked better questions that had more risk, but more of a chance to really move knowledge forward.

Fast forward to now. I’ve been lucky enough to mentor a number of really talented trainees at various levels. In particular, I’ve had a clinical fellow working in my lab for the last two years. I don’t get a lot of fellows interested in what I’m doing. I do pretty basic science, my focus being molecular metabolism, mitochondrial biology, and redox biology. Most MD-trained folks have a bit of PTSD from medical biochem. But this clinical fellow had always thought she’d end up in academics, and she really wanted to give basic/translational research a try, as she thought that’s probably what would fire her up. And it does. She’s been tremendous. With no basic science background, she’s made brilliant, fundamental observations and discoveries about how endothelial cells work. She’s a person who could make major contributions to what we know that could change how we take care of people.

And she’s going to leave science, for all of the right reasons. She needs job stability and financial stability, as she’s the primary breadwinner for her family. She loves asking questions and doing experiments, but she sees that what you actually do as a PI is constantly pound out grants, papers, revisions of grants and papers, and that just doing the basic functions of the job requires such ridiculous effort per “hit” that it’s almost laughable. You’re constantly begging and pleading for the privilege to continue doing this thing that you’re good at and that provides real value. All of these things are readily apparent to our trainees, because they’re some of the smartest people in the world. When she told me that she wasn’t going to apply for a slot on our training grant (a slot that was already basically being held for her because she’s terrific) because she knew it wasn’t ultimately what she wanted, she told me all of the above and was clearly heartbroken. Not only did she think she was letting me, or someone, down, but more importantly it was the death of a long-held dream. And in talking with her, I realized that she was right. She was making the right decision for herself. What was I going to say? She wasn’t incorrect, about any of it. I told her that I so desperately wished that she was about 17 years in the past (y’know, when you were really taking flight, Prof Tough Survivor), because she’d be a great physician-scientist. But we live in the now. I told her she was right. I told her that I used to tell people that science was the coolest thing anyone could possibly do. Now, I tell trainees the same thing about science that surgeons have told medical students for some time now: If you can be happy doing anything else, you should probably do that. It demands too much of you otherwise, and it won’t be worth it. My fellow had already seen all of that for herself.

You know what I didn’t tell her, this former chief resident at one of the most rigorous programs in the world, this pulmonary/critical care physician, this brilliant and caring young scientist, this new mother? I didn’t tell her to toughen up.

You’ve gotten some good refs from Drs. Squirrel and McDowell, so I won’t layer on a ton more. But I do think it’s important to make it clear that you’re a bigger part of the problem than perhaps you realize. The average age at first R01 continues to climb, as does the average age of R01 holders. Check out for a rundown of the numbers and for some thoughts on where the problems might lie. Science is eating its young. What are you doing to fix that? It has to come from you, from the more established members of the profession. It can’t come from the young investigators, for reasons that I hope are as obvious as those that would make it criminally evil for me to tell one of my ICU patients to “toughen up” instead of taking active measures to save them.

Okay, I think I’ve probably thrown your own words back at you just about enough. At this point, you’re either beginning to see that academic science isn’t necessarily the same for you as it is for a fair number of the more junior of us, or you’re not. Is there a lot that’s cool about it? Of course! Why else do you think so many of us are working so hard, putting in so many hours, missing important life events, asking our families to understand and to support us (at sometimes serious personal cost to themselves) even when our very employers won’t? If we didn’t think it at least could be great, we wouldn’t do that. We’re true believers. But we’re not stupid. We know that there are other ways to do good in the world, other ways to be intellectually stimulated, other ways to utilize our talents and gifts to maximum effect. We need to toughen up? Maybe you need to wise up.

As the kids say these days, get woke, professor.

Let me end by saying that I think critique without constructive intent is worthless, empty, and to be eschewed. It’s part of what’s poisoning science right now. If you’re interested in digging deeper on this stuff, in really understanding where all of us are coming from who seem so angry about your post, I am at your convenience. I’ll talk to you via email, telephone, Twitter, whatever. Nothing gets better if we all just spew at one another. We have to really talk to one another, teach one another, and try to come to real understanding. I was venting a bit here, but I’m actually a pretty nice guy (ask around!), and I promise you that if you want to talk about this more, I’ll meet you at least halfway. We’re all on the same team.

You May Also Like