Failure to Launch
April 2015 (perspective of an assistant professor)
The Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, Nepal is one of the most dangerous airports in the world, with a runway that extends over a giant cliff:
If your plane can't pick up enough speed to take off, then you'll plummet. Failure to launch means death.
This image was seared into my head last year when I began my new job as an assistant professor.
When I first got my job offer, I grabbed coffee with one of my mentors who happened to be in town for a conference. He had quit his assistant professor gig after only two years due to a failure to launch. Without any prompting whatsoever, the first words out of his mouth were, “Start writing grants right away!” He had to shut down his lab within two years since he couldn't get enough funding to launch his fledgling career. I heard a similar story from someone else who quit early as well. These people didn't even make it to their tenure review to get fired; they quit prematurely due to lack of funding. Hearing all of this scared me shitless at the time.
For an assistant professor – especially in a labor-intensive STEM field – the F-word (Funding) means the difference between a successful launch and a plummet to certain death. No matter how brilliant your ideas are, if you don't have enough money to sustain your lab, then the game is over before it starts. No funding means no students means no papers means no tenure.
When you're hired, you get an initial lump sum of money (called a startup package) to set up your lab and hire your first batch of students. That's your runway. And it lasts for about two to three years, depending on how frugal you are (i.e., how low you can keep your burn rate).
Thus, your primary goal in the first three years on the job is to build up enough momentum so that you can take off instead of nosediving off the cliff. Which cliff? This cliff:
Grant funding is the fuel that powers your plane (OK this analogy is getting stupid by now). Without it, nothing else matters.
When I got my job offer, I ambitiously wanted to get enough funding within my first three years to carry me until tenure review time, which occurs at Year Six. Small problem, though. I had never written a grant before! In fact, I had never even seen a successful grant proposal. I had absolutely no idea what a grant looked like. So I knew that I'd need to devote tremendous effort to learning the art of grantwriting.
My first step was to cheat by buying myself an extra year of lead time. Due to the tremendous generosity of Rob Miller at MIT CSAIL and Anant Agarwal and Rob Rubin at edX, I got to spend 2013–2014 as a postdoc at those two places before starting my assistant professor gig in July 2014. I had one laser-focused goal: to get myself as much of a head-start as possible in the grant-writing game. This involved: 1.) writing grant proposals (duh!), and 2.) publishing as many relevant papers as possible so that I could use them as the basis for future grant proposals.
I ended up submitting two proposals that year, and when I moved to Rochester in July 2014, got rejection notifications for both. “Welcome to your new job; here are two rejections to get you started. Now smile!”
I was sad but not too surprised given that I was a complete newbie competing in a game with hit rates of 5% to 15%, which are even lower than acceptance rates for paper submissions. But I did start to freak out about the possibility of a failure to launch ... what if I keep on getting rejection after rejection for three years and then need to shut down my lab? Well, there was no better way to find out than to keep trying. After all, my tenure clock still hadn't started ticking yet. I was just at the beginning of Year One, with two grant-writing attempts already under my belt. I was still a newbie, but at least no longer a first-timer.
Over the past academic year, I submitted six more grant proposals, bringing my total attempts to eight so far. Thankfully, I've gotten a few small ones funded. Every time I succeed, I feel more relieved than excited – relieved that my lab will keep running for a few more months and that my students will keep getting paid. I still don't have nearly enough funding to make it to tenure review time, but I'm feeling pretty good given that it's only the end of Year One. And best of all, I can shift more of my energy toward doing actual research rather than continually fundraising. I'm over my initial fear of failure to launch ... for now.