The Trickle-Down Effects of Limited Research Funding

This is the time of year that thousands of PhD student hopefuls get invited to visit and interview at programs they have applied to for this fall. At my institution, interviewees have a chance to meet with multiple faculty members in the research area(s) they are interested in, as well as a chance to talk with current students about their experiences in the program. This is an invaluable time for potential new students to assess whether our program is right for them and for us to determine whether they fit here. It is an incredibly stressful process for the interviewees, which is compounded by conversations about research funding.

Ask any researcher or principal investigator (PI) about funding – how to get it, how long it lasts, how much it covers, etc. – and you will consistently hear about how not enough research funding is available and how difficult it is to be awarded a grant. It is more difficult than ever to find tenure-track positions, become a PI, and establish your own research lab, mainly because of limited research funding. In addition, those who are fortunate enough to start their own lab face a seemingly endless cycle of gathering data, publishing, applying for new grants, and repeating the process year after year. The struggles of procuring funding in academic research is not a secret. However, I do not think that people speak enough about how funding shortages affect new PhD students.

A common practice in PhD programs across the country is for students to spend most of their first year rotating in a few different labs in order to try out various research projects, work with potential doctoral advisers/PIs, and determine whether they can see themselves working in a particular lab for 4+ years. In my program, students have 3 chances to work with a PI for 8-10 weeks, after which, they must choose who to work with for the rest of their doctoral career. My institution boasts 300+ faculty in more areas of biomedical research than I can name, whom we are able to choose from for rotations.

When choosing a rotation lab, we are encouraged to have a conversation with that lab’s PI about whether or not they have funding for a PhD student. In my experience, PIs are very clear about whether they believe they have enough funding to take on a PhD student. Unfortunately, I have found that not every PI knows how much a PhD student really costs. In my program, each student’s yearly tuition is under $5,000, medical insurance is about $8,000, and our annual stipend is $32,000, totaling about $45,000 per student, per year, that the PI is responsible to pay. For those unfamiliar with researcher salaries, that is approximately the cost of a postdoctoral fellow. The productivity of a graduate student versus a postdoctoral fellow can be debated, but PhD students would be in a lab for 4+ years, whereas postdocs can be a financial commitment of only 1-2 years.

When faced with the full assessment of the financial burden of a PhD student, faculty can become understandably reticent about whether they are ready and able to make that kind of financial commitment. Regrettably, students may not have this detailed a discussion about finances with their rotation PIs until later in their rotation when they have expressed interest in joining that lab. This heartbreaking news is then followed by that student scrambling to find another PI to rotate with who has the ideal combination of interesting research, desired mentorship style, optimal lab environment, has funding for a PhD student, and hasn’t yet committed to another student.

I can say from first hand experience that all of this happening can feel like the world is crumbling around you, but you still have to wake up in the morning, go to the lab you want but know you can’t join, finish your rotation project, keep going to class, and fulfill every other responsibility you have, while trying to find a new lab which fits the aforementioned criteria. It is no wonder that PhD students commonly face mental health problems.

In most instances, the PI is not to blame for this problem. There are miscommunications, gaps in knowledge, last-minute changes in finance allocations, and, as ever, a general lack of research funding. To their credit, my institution’s administrators understand that financial commitments of 4+ years can be tricky and do everything they can to assure that a student will not be forced out of a lab/project after 2-3 years due to a PI’s lack of research funds. Additionally, my program offers internal fellowships to partially or fully cover the student’s costs, but those are very competitive and can only be applied for 2-3 years into a doctoral project.

Undergraduate seniors and incoming PhD students can apply for external fellowships from federal organizations like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, as well as a few private organizations like the Hertz Fellowship. These fellowships cover part to all of a student’s tuition/fees and offer a stipend that is typically more than what the PhD institution offers, but only fund 1-10% of applicants (depending on the fellowship program) and can require students to plan a research project months in advance of them choosing a lab/project/adviser.

Other popular external fellowships, such as those offered by the National Institutes of Health, are monetarily valuable, but require the student to have chosen and started working on a doctoral project, meaning they cannot be applied for until months after the student has joined a lab. Essentially, a PhD student can only secure funding for themselves when they are either extremely forward-planning or after a PI has already agreed to cover their costs. But again, these external programs have, at best, a 10-15% acceptance rate, leaving thousands of students across the country to be funded exclusively by their PIs.

While limited funding for PhD students is a multi-faceted problem, including issues like increased tuition prices and necessary increases in stipend to provide a living wage, I do not know of any other way fix this problem without specifically allocating more federal funds for graduate students in the forms of fellowships and more accessible research project grants.

It Is Never Too Early To Start Looking

I am very fortunate to be part of an institution which offers a multitude of career development seminars and workshops, and I attend as many of them as I can. I am typically one of the youngest attendees, but I go to listen, ask questions, and, let’s be honest, eat free food. Presentations at these events can range from alumni returning to discuss their myriad career paths, to international representatives attempting to recruit skilled researchers to their country.

I admit, my enjoyment of these productions is highly dependent on the speaker’s ability to hold my attention and present useful/relevant information. Some have felt like a waste of time, but others have offered insights into career paths I had never considered and maybe didn’t even know existed.

I view these seminars, workshops, and symposia as a shotgun approach to figuring out what I want to do with my life. I have no idea what careers are going to interest me in 4 years, when I’m [hopefully] finishing up my doctorate, but I want to be aware of as many options as possible leading up to that point. We all ask ourselves questions when deciding on a next step in our lives: What do I want to be doing day-to-day? Where do I want to be living? Who do I want to be working with? Do I want to work as part of the group or lead the group? How long do I see myself there? Is it a permanent placement or a step to something better? How do I get there? Do I know someone who can help me?

I know that when I’m ready to find answers to these questions, I will be so distracted and busy with finishing up my research/degree that I won’t have the time/energy to get an accurate assessment of my options. I am creating a Rolodex in my head of career paths I find interesting, while also recognizing which ones will be unlikely to make me happy. Additionally, the people giving these presentations are often a resource to entering their field, which can be utilized when you’re ready to transition out of graduate school.

This past week, I attended the TMC Annual Postdoctoral Career Symposium. This all-day event features panels about many of the career paths now available to individuals with a PhD. Each panel is made up of people in those fields who spend an hour discussing their jobs and answering questions from the audience. The panels I attended included consulting, entrepreneurship, pharma, and women in leadership, as well as a presentation from the Director of TMCx, the innovation hub at TMC started a few years ago for researchers/entrepreneurs interested in bringing their technologies to the clinic. Panels I did not attend (merely for lack of time) included non-profit organizations, intellectual property, academia, and governmental research, as well as a few others. This event is unique in its efforts to expose students and trainees to as many career paths as possible in a single day.

In unrelated activities, but still following the theme of seeking out career opportunities, this past week I also participated in Science Night (pictured above), a free annual event hosted by MD Anderson Cancer Center which introduces community children (aged 4-17, though most are 9-11 years old) to basic scientific concepts, many of which are the fundamentals to the biomedical research being performed at MD Anderson and throughout the medical center.

The event offers activities ranging from DNA isolation to wave formation with gummy bear ladders, to get children interested in science. I helped at the table organized by the Biochemistry & Cell Biology PhD program. We explained what stem cells were and how they were unique because they could turn into almost any cell in the body, showing images of cardiac, muscle, neural, and other cell types. Children were then given balls of playdough, symbolizing stem cells, and were challenged to make the different cell types shown. Some kids made the simplest-shaped cell (typically a muscle cell) and left, but others stuck around to meticulously shape every cell type shown.

I don’t think that every child in attendance will grow up to be a scientist, but at least they now know about all the amazing things they could do if they did.