This is my first ever blog post. I’m not sure if anyone will read it or find it interesting, but I wanted a medium in which to spread information that I feel is extremely important for people to know, or at least have the opportunity to be aware of. While I intend to use this blog mostly as an avenue to publish summary articles on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and related fields, I want to take this first post as an opportunity to explain, to the limits of my knowledge, how science works from the inside out.
To start off, I am a second year graduate student in the PhD program for neuroscience at Florida State University located in Tallahassee, Florida. All the information I know is what I have learned, mostly from personal experience, during my time as an undergraduate researcher, a laboratory technician, and now graduate student working towards a PhD in neuroscience. It is important to note that this post pertains to how science is done at a major research university in the United States.
Science done at a university is conducted by a faculty member. Within a program or a department there are a dozens of faculty members that have their own laboratory to conduct the research they are interested in conducting. These faculty members are more commonly known as professors. Entry-level tenure-track hires fresh off a PhD and post-doc are assistant professors and can climb the academic ladder to associate professor, and eventually full professor. This climb up the academic ladder usually takes about 6-10 years of really hard work. In order for a professor to have a productive lab, he or she is going to need some help. This help comes in the form of money and some labor.
The university usually offers a start-up package to newly hired professors but also expects them to have some individual funding in the form of grants (usually awarded by government agencies) to get the laboratory up and running. With this money, the professor can purchase any necessary equipment they need for their laboratory, maybe hire a lab manager or technician, and attract some eager graduate students. This is where the labor comes in. Most productive labs have at least a few graduate students at any given time. Graduate students are the workhorses of the lab. They are the ones on the floor conducting experiments, collecting and analyzing the data, and helping prepare the final package (a scientific paper). All of this cannot be done without the help of the professor and/or lab manager who are responsible for obtaining the funding to do the research and to teach the graduate students the laboratory techniques needed to collect the data. To make a business analogy, think of the professor as the CEO of a company, lab managers as a member of the board of directors, and graduate students as the employees.
Running a lab in academia is very much like running a business. The professor has a responsibility to obtain the funding. This is usually from government agencies like the National Institute of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF). If a professor can convince the grant reviewers at the NIH or NSF (who are also scientists in their field) to invest a portion of that agency’s budget into funding their research, then that money is used to purchase the supplies needed to conduct the research, a portion of the professor’s salary, the salary of any lab managers or technicians, and sometimes partial salaries of graduate students. In turn, the lab is expected create a product that is packaged together in the form of data and scientific papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This is how a scientist’s stock is determined. How many papers are they publishing? In what journals? What type of grants do they have? How many? It is an EXTREMELY competitive market in a very cut-throat business.
I want to take the last few paragraphs to talk about something I definitely know about: the graduate student. As stated above, graduate students are the ones at the lab bench collecting the data and taking a heavy hand in writing the papers. Graduate students entering PhD programs in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields have a pretty nice deal. Since they are part of a team conducting research that is funded by the national government, they get paid for their hard work. This comes in the form of a stipend/salary ranging from $18,500-$25,000 per year. This may be higher or lower across fields, departments, institutions, states, etc. They also get a full tuition waiver and health insurance. They are usually labeled as university employees and are usually required to fulfill teaching responsibilities to graduate. With that in mind, graduate school in the STEM fields can often be thought of as a job and students are often thought of as “junior colleagues” by professors. The majority of their responsibility is going to be research. They need data for their doctoral dissertation and they need data to publish papers and keep their bosses (professors) happy. The first 2 years they may take 2-3 classes a semester and teach a few lab sections here and there, but the majority of their time is spent in the lab collecting data or at a desk in their office analyzing it, reading, and writing. Once students get going on their project they spend well over 40 hours a week at work. After about 5-7 years of work students write up and present their original research to their dissertation committee (usually 5 professors) and defend their findings. If the committee feels the student defended their work adequately then the student passes and earns their PhD and goes on to whatever career path they have chosen. Sounds simple, right?
I know this post seemed to drag on and I intend future posts to be shorter, but I tried to cover a lot of information. In the future I plan on writing posts expanding on some of the general topics I touched on here. These include the graduate school application process, the publishing process, submitting grants, and where the national science budget comes from. More frequently, I will be posting summary articles of recent research topics I find interesting in neuroscience and related fields. If you made it to the end I at least hope you found this post informative and have a better understanding of how science works at an institutional level. Stay tuned for future posts and much more science!