Research….behind the curtain


As this is a science based blog, and I am hoping that people with a non-science background are also reading the posts, I thought that I would give a behind-the-scene picture of what is involved in research.


So…behind the curtain. The standard career progression goes as follows:

  1. Undergraduate university degree
  2. Honours (in Australia; Masters in Europe; Grad school in the US)
  3. PhD
  4. Post doc
  5. Junior team leader or independent researcher
  6. Senior team leader or Professor (depending on the country)

Depending on your career choice, you may decide that a PhD is not for you. Therefore you will probably end up as a research assistant, doing experiments for other people in the lab; or perhaps moving into sales or some other science-affiliated job. This is a perfectly acceptable career option, rewarding, but not without its challenges. Eventually, a ceiling is reached and at this level there is no further career progression. Once, I went for a job interview and was told that while they wanted me, the lab could not afford me because I was too experienced, too senior, and so they gave the job to someone who had just graduated. Often, senior staff will assume that because you have not continued on to a PhD, you are not interested in science, and may not foster a continuing passion for science. But this can depend on the individual and the lab that they are in.

A PhD generally lasts for 4 years, where you work on your own research project. The aim of PhD is to create independent and critical thinking scientists who are able to see the bigger picture. How a PhD student is trained can differ from country to country, but also from lab to lab! One thing is for sure, it involves a lot of commitment and dedication (plus overtime!).

A post doc position is where you begin to drive your own project, learn new techniques, perhaps move to another field, and start to become more independent. Traditionally, in Europe and the States, a post doc is considered to be still ‘in training’. Whereas in my opinion, a post doc position in Australia is treated with a bit more seniority. Thus, the salaries often reflect this. In Australia, the reasonably generous salary (with pay rises), rewards experience and time spent in a job. However because of the higher salary, fewer positions are available. In Europe and in the States, the salary is more of a stipend, where post docs tend to continue living a more student lifestyle. Recently, an article was published in Nature about the precarious financial situation for post docs, emphasising that there is no opportunity to negotiate salary, benefits, etc….

However, some people don’t take post doc positions. They might move into industry, consulting, work for universities in a position that utilises their hard-earned skills, or  obtain government positions.

As of 2015, 26% of Australians were enrolled in a PhD program, which was an increase of 4.6% compared to the previous year despite funding for these students has been on a steady decline since 2008. Furthermore, in 2014 there was a 17% decrease in full-time employment of people with PhDs.


I’m going to jump now to how a lab gets its funding. The money of a lab is not a guaranteed income. If the lab has academic affiliation, then some money is provided by the university, however the majority of funding comes from grants.

Applying for a grant is time consuming, tedious and frustrating. Every aspect of your research has to be justified. You need to explain how your research will contribute to the field, to science in general, to society, and if it translatable to the clinic (for medical and biological sciences). You have to list your greatest scientific contributions, your best publications and whether you have received funding previously. You also need to have a fully prepared experimental plan. This means that all your aims, objectives, hypotheses and preliminary data have already been set out. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Thus, lab heads and professors will spend almost all their time writing grant applications. The lucky ones, who have received funding, may get a small reprieve, but most people start writing the next grant as soon as the last one has been submitted.

So how long is this funding for? How much is it? Not long enough. Most grants are for one  to three years. And, how much do you get?? It depends on how much you asked for and how much the funding body is willing to give. Quite often this is based on what you are proposing and where you are ranked. Furthermore, many funding bodies will have themes, i.e. breast cancer or melanoma, as an example. Thus, people will quite often tailor their applications to fit with the current years’ theme.

Last year, the Australian funding body, the NHMRC, gave out 555 project grants. Of these, the ACT received $13 027 420, NSW $245 983 876, the NT $11 775 440, Qld $135 378 861, SA $56 109 093, TAS $6 903 627, Vic $376 691 843 and WA $45 802 391.

The number one funded area of research last year was cancer, which received $191 million.

These numbers seem like a lot until you start breaking those numbers down to salaries, consumables, reagents, and the costs for using services and infrastructure. Not to mention that we have to pay a journal to publish our research after it has gone through the tedious peer-reviewed procedure! Thus, a lab head or a professor also starts to become an accountant as well as driving the research of their team.

Food for thought

It is a highly competitive industry, and not everyone is funded. Think of it this way, you have a bag of M and M’s which you pour into a bowl at a party. For the number of people at the party, it seems that everyone should get a handful. But, more people start arriving and suddenly it seems that there will not be enough for everyone. Plus, some people are going back for more than one handful….In the end, the distribution is not even.

Each year, the pool of money that can be given for research doesn’t seem to expand by  much, but the number of people asking for money grows….

This post was not designed to make people feel sorry for scientists, but more to explain that most scientists are not in the job for the money (or the fame). This style of funding is not limited to science; artists also live grant to grant. The idea behind grant funding is to encourage the best research by making it competitive. But, when there is not enough funding to go around, and more and more post docs and PhDs are produced, the balance begins to tilt.

A final note. Conspiracy theorists like to claim that scientists are in the pocket of Big Pharma. Sadly, to the detriment of our bank accounts, this is not true. As some of my friends say, you never meet rich scientists!



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