One of determining points in my leaving academia was grant funding. I was not confident enough, or motivated enough to sustain continuous funding for however long I was willing to be a PI .
In a way, my years as a postdoc and project scientist traumatized me for applying for grants. In my former lab, my PI’s grant (NIH RO1) application preparation was a group effort. Our PI assigned advanced graduate students and postdocs two or three sections of his grant application, and we had multiple meetings prior to deadline to flush out ideas, revise sections, and integrate them into his master draft. It was a great practice for me, until the deadline came. Whether it was paralysis, procrastination, or waiting until we were under extreme duress to come up with brilliant ideas, finalizing an application as a lab came always at the last minute or never. For one submission, graduate student and I took turns pulling all-nighters for one week prior to a deadline, to come up with preliminary data for experiments proposed in a grant. In another or the same submission cycle, on the date it was due with 6-7 hours left, all members of the lab sat around a conference table as if in the Situation Room. Each person stared at his/her laptop screen, worked on different sections of different versions of a draft, sweated grease, pulled hairs, and waited to be called by our PI so that our sections can be integrated. The time of submission brutally approached, and we were nowhere near being done. My PI was on the phone with a departmental grant officer pleading for more time and understanding. The time of submission came and passed, and we kept on working. About 20 minutes later my PI finally called it, “ we are not submitting the grant.” We did this at least TWICE, for two consecutive application deadlines. As you can tell by italics and capital letters, it still raises strong emotions for me, even years later.
In my tenure at the lab, getting an NIH RO1 grant for my PI remained elusive. He did however receive other grants to keep the lab thriving and afforded me. But we needed a RO1. What imprinted in me from the experience was how difficult it is to obtain a RO1 funding. Without RO1, one is less likely to get tenured and maintain a lab. If my PI, whom I deemed a brilliant scientist, had this much trouble getting a RO1, what an audacity to assume that I would get one? I felt I had no chance. Or more honestly I did not want to work that hard. I did not want to make my graduate students and postdocs work that hard only to fire them when the funding did not come.
So I was scared and chickened out. The shrinking funding rate did not help either.
It turns out I would have faced obstacles if I stayed in academia, not just my own demons (I am as bad, if not worse, procrastinator as my former PI) but external ones. Not to be consistently pessimistic but if I had stayed in academia more than likely I would have become a part of statistics in this recent article. The study analyzed gender and race differences in the likelihood of receiving NIH RO1 in years 2000-2006. The authors found that race, and not gender, was a key determinant in RO1 award. While white women did not differ from white men, Asian and black women received significantly less funding than white women. Although this study did not find disadvantages of being a female applicant, many other studies do (like this one). As a woman of color (Asian), I would have faced an uphill battle, a double bind. If only I was more ambitious, this type of studies would have made me energized and strive to reverse the current status. At this point, I can only ask for those who are still in it to try…