Monday, January 14, 2013

Why I didn't do research

You may or may not be aware from reading my prior writings that for a time, I was considering a career in research. I worked in labs during every summer through college, and even though I didn’t do any research during med school and not a whole lot during residency, I actually ended up doing a research fellowship.

Also, I have research in my blood. My father is a physician who gets a chunk of his salary from research grants. My mother didn’t go quite so far as that, but did publish around a hundred peer-reviewed articles during her career. My father especially encouraged me to incorporate research into my career, saying that it was interesting and also provided extra career flexibility.

So anyway, I did this fellowship. And it sucked.

I mean, it was pretty much The Fellowship Where Everything Went Wrong. I know what you’re thinking, that it’s not possible for a research fellowship to go that badly. Well, what if your research mentor is arrested and goes to jail midway through the year?

I’m not saying that happened. But I’m not saying that didn’t happen either.

Bad fellowship aside, I did get a taste of what it was like to do research. There were some parts of it I liked very much. For example, I really liked when the article I wrote came out, and I got to gaze at it lovingly. All the other parts weren’t quite as good. But I like to write, I like statistics, etc., so it wasn’t all bad.

Soon after my mentor was arrested, I learned about a career development award that seemed like an obvious one for me to apply to. I had been working on putting together a project, but things weren’t going so great (what with the arrest and all), so I knew I was going to have to do some fast work to put it all together.

My idea involved using Zoloft for hair loss in men (not really, but let’s say it did). I figured I could give guys a pill, either Zoloft or a placebo, and then have them return at regular intervals to measure their hair growth. It seemed simple enough, but there were SO many barriers to making it happen. First, we had to figure out a way to pay for all those Zoloft tablets. Second, I had to assure a bunch of other people doing various other studies that I wasn’t going to steal and taint their research subjects. Then, I had to write a 200 page IRB application, describing every tiny detail of my study and how I wasn’t going to kill my subjects or even harm one precious hair on their heads (and most likely, not make the hairs grow either).

But you know what? I was kind of excited about it. It was a fun little project. And this way, I’d have the next two years of my life guaranteed. I remember discussing it with my new mentor (who was still a free man):

Mentor: "And after this grant ends, you could apply for the NEXT level career development award! And you could just live in a little research cave."

Me: "I always wanted to live in a cave."

Mentor: "You'd be like Batman! Except you'd be a scientist."

Me: "Actually, Batman was a scientist."

Mentor: "So you'd be exactly like Batman!"

Unfortunately, my Batman aspirations were never realized. My application for the career development award was rejected without them even asking to see my proposal.

It was a blow. It made me feel like shit, to be completely honest. At the same time, another friend of mine applying for a different research grant also got rejected. He showed me the rejection comments and they were actually really, really mean. And suddenly, I felt like research was all about rejection. My skin wasn’t thick enough for this. And I couldn’t imagine having to depend on these grants in order to make a living. I couldn’t live that way.

And the next day, I started applying for real jobs.


  1. That's why I dismissed research career very early in my training. Girls I did fellowship with almost all stayed in the university and continued with "little fun projects". Almost 10 years later I see them overweight (they weren't when they started), baggy eyed and even more mean looking than when I was in training. At every national meeting they are attached to their mentors. They follow every step of that mentor like a sheep without stepping aside and talking to people they know (me!). I gather why they do not like me, still fit and trim, exuberantly happy to have 8 to 5 job with security and joy of real patient care, yes! that means someone needs me every day. Noone needs their reasearch work every day, they look into far fethched hypotheses, and make up meaningless projects which I am sure they themselves despise. And being women and their early careers they are not on pharma salary, during their typical year they make ... half of what I make.

    1. Wow, if these women are meaner than you, I don't think I want to meet any of you. It's fine to say you don't like research. It would be fine to say that women who stayed in research told you they didn't like it. But you just insulted a whole lot of people, and it seems like you did that to make yourself look better.

      I was originally in molecular biology research, but I left it for pharmacy school. I love pharmacy, I love patient care, and I hated banging my head against the wall to get my research project to work. But the reason I left was me, and I don't go around disparaging people who stay. In fact, the people I know who are still in research are happy there. That's why they're there. The ones that aren't happy leave!

      Those new treatments, guidelines, etc. that you use everyday for your patient care come from people who do research. Yes, some stuff doesn't work out, and some stuff is silly. But there's a whole lot of information coming out everyday that is relevant or will be relevant in the future.


  2. As an MD/PhD student nearing the end of my PhD, I can definitely say that the main reason I hesitate to 100% commit to the idea of dedicating the majority of my time to research is the stress of having to get grants. My mentor is quite well-regarded in our field and with the way NIH is right now, things are still really tight. Hopefully by the time I get to the point of running my own lab things will be better, but I definitely flirt with the idea of just practicing medicine and maybe doing some more clinically based research and enjoying the extra free time. But then there's that quest to change the world that keeps nagging and trying to get me to torment myself and make research the main thing in my life.

    However, unlike the above comment, I definitely don't think I'll end up fat. Finishing my PhD is the most miserable thing I've done to date and I've actually lost 15 lbs. So at least there's that...

    1. I have similar reservations, as well as the reservation that, since my husband is not in medicine, that I will end up dragging him and my daughter to bf-nowhere so I can get a tenure track job. And then what if I don't get tenure? Then I will have dragged us all around and made us poor(er) for no good reason.

      On the other hand, I'm good at research, and I kind of love it. Also, I would NEVER EVER EVER EVER want to practice medicine full time. I knew that going into this. If it came down to a choice between full time research or policy or full time doctor, I would probably choose the former. Good thing my skills are so transferrable.

    2. Oh yeah, I sincerely doubt I'll end up fat either. What a bizarre thing to even suggest.

    3. OMDG - I also doubt that you will end up being mean/non-polite/non-friendly like those people I described. It was not a suggestion, just obervation of several people I know, who are miserable in their own roles/skins. There are some very bright women in research, who are exceptional role models. But I commented on the bunch I studied with. I too have a research laden CV, but unfortunately I did not meet the right people while in training to make this career enticing for me.

    4. Aw shucks, Anon.

      I hear you about the miserable people in research though. Sometimes I talk to them and wonder wth I've gotten myself into because - you're right - a lot of them sound soooo miserable.

      And then I remember there is a world outside tenure track academic medicine (which people inside academics tend to forget). Hopefully I will be happy (and not mean or fat) doing academic medicine, but if not, there are definitely other options.

    5. I think research is one of those things where you've got to love it if you do it. Kind of like medicine... if you go in without really loving it, it's going to get the better of you. Certainly nobody should do it because it's easy.

      But I know tons of happy researchers. I just wouldn't have been one of them.

  3. I'm sorry to hear they never even looked at your proposal. That would have crushed me. On the other hand, you're going to love this:

  4. I am SO not a research person. Not my personality type at all.

  5. I came from a research background to medicine because the entire research system is poised to fall apart. NIH funding is such that it's nearly impossible for young researchers to get a career started. On top of that, researchers don't get any respect and the pay sucks and you need an absolute iron stomach to withstand all the criticism and failure that is inevitable.