“The hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch”

December 12, 2010

In which I come out in support of Jenny Rohn…

My attention was recently drawn to this blog post by Jenny Rohn, in which she expresses her frustration with the rather restrictive rules currently laid down by certain UK science funding agencies, who stipulate that a fellowship candidate must have obtained their PhD within the last 10 years, and that they must be under the age 35 (this example is a very generalized set of rules).

It would appear that Jenny’s main beef is the apparent lack of flexibility in the rules and how it adversely affects those who have not followed the canonical PhD-Postdoc-(Postdoc-)Fellowship route, which is entirely understandable.

I echo Jenny’s sentiments, but would like to expand with some of my misgivings about the current system, even if one does follow the pre-ordained path (as I have done).

Crazy Ivan!

In order to obtain a fellowship, the postdoc must demonstrate his/her ability to conduct world-class science. As with most things academic, this ability is demonstrated by the publication of first author papers in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals. The only trouble is that there is often a significant lag time between the successful experiment(s), and the publication of the paper. Twelve months is quite good. A few years is not uncommon. This lag time means that typically, a postdoc, especially one who has moved project/institute after their PhD, will unlikely have a competitive enough CV after one postdoctoral post, which are typically only 3 year positions (unless they had a particularly productive PhD studentship).

There is another side to this. After my first postdoctoral position, I had 4 published papers, 2 joint first authors (crystallographers tend to collect a lot of JFA papers, as we do the structural stuff and a collaborator does the biochemical/cell biology stuff) including one in Molecular Cell, and two “also-rans” including a Nature paper. I think I was in a decent position. The only downside is that this was at the very end of my first post. Fellowship awards take 6-12 months from inception to funding.

The other problem was that, despite the fact that I was very clear in my mind that I wanted to run my own lab, at this point I did not feel that I was ready to do so. I knew that I needed more experience. And so to Manchester where I took up my present position. Taking up this second position may have been a mistake. I now had to be able to demonstrate on my CV that my time in Manchester was productive and well spent. So I have to start a new project and generate sufficient data for a new paper, ideally to be published in a decent journal. Which takes time.

Playing chicken with your CV

Not Jenny Rohn. Capt Bart Mancuso.

This brings us to the quote that forms the title of this post. Aficionados of the 1990 film adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October” will perhaps recognise the line from Capt. Bart Mancuso of the USS Dallas.

The hard part about applying for a fellowship is knowing when to flinch. You have to take the time to build up a decent CV. You have to come up with a decent idea. You need sufficient experience, and a suitable sponsor. This all takes time. You are doing this against the clock. In addition to this, (anecdotally) you only have one shot per per funding body, and strictly speaking, you should only apply to one funding body at a time (I am aware of a few examples where this has not been adhered to 😉 ). And even if you manage all that, you are at the whim of the current funding climate and the peers who review your application.

Fellowships are designed to fund the very best scientific candidates in the UK, and so they must be competitive – very competitive – but with respect to the science, and not the candidates age.

I cannot see how dogmatic rules about age and experience (or lack thereof) can help the improve the scientific content and output of fellowship programs.

I have another few years before I hit the 35/10 years – post PhD watershed, but that cutoff is always in the back of my mind.

So why am I writing this blog and not that bloody paper…