Retooling at mid-career


At mid-career, a lot of the research techniques and approaches that people in use today today didn’t exist when we were in grad school.

When I started my own lab around the turn of the century, we didn’t have R but there was S, microsatellites were a cutting edge technology replacing allozymes, the browser we used was Netscape Navigator, GPS units couldn’t get a read through a dense forest canopy, phones were only used for calling people, the number of genomes we had sequenced was around zero, and Transcriptomics might have been a ska band.

This post tells you about a couple routes for funding to retool.

At the moment in our careers when we feel the weight of evolving research tools, tenured faculty are moving into new role. We’re expected to pick up the slack in running our institutions and professional organizations. Mid-career faculty are more likely to be in charge of things on campus such as search committees, award committees, grad committees, revising the curriculum, and equivalent responsibilities off campus as well. For a lot of us, this is when we’re busiest as parents, too. And there’s the whole sandwich generation thing.

What’s a mid-career scientist working to maintain a robust research lab to do? Well, there’s always the advice from E.O. Wilson to simply avoid leadership at the departmental level. Thanks, but no thanks, Ed, that sounds like parasitism. Let’s keep in mind that academic service is highly gendered, and when men step away from performing the leadership work that is required by our community, they’re undermining the careers of their peers, who are left up with cleaning the messes left by others.

The mid-career stall is a real thing. And the service part (and in many families, the parenting part) is why women sit in the Associate Professor seat longer than men. Other than reengineering our the academic value system to professional reward all kinds of academic labor, what’s there to do?

This is why sabbaticals exist. (And some folks will quip, this is why postdocs and PhD students exist. Which, I suppose, works for those in that kind of environment.) , Where is the support to do the things you need to do on sabbatical?

Oh, hey, look — if you’re in eco/evo and allied fields, last year NSF-DEB rolled out a program for scientists in mid-career stalls, to give them the resources to find a mentor to support them as they gain new skills to ramp their labs back up. The OPUS: MCS. (Can’t be a new federally funded program without an acronym, after all.

Here’s the post about it on the DEB blog from last year, and here’s the program announcement.

And if you’re not familiar with this program, if you’re at a primarily undergraduate institution, you can also put in for an ROA, though this is designed to be a bit paternalistic because PI of the associated award controls the purse strings. (Also, I have heard a neat trick from someone, that it’s possible to put in an ROA request on an active award at your own institution if the program officer is on board, even if the award is not connected to what you’re doing.)

I think the need to find a mentor to teach you new skills is especially critical for folks in small ponds, as we don’t have the personnel to do this stuff unless we’re training them ourselves. As usual, don’t hesitate to drop a line to a program officer.

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