Scientific Community: Soft Money's Hard Realities

The following is an excerpt from an article published in Science (22 September, 2000, vol 289, p. 2024-2028)

The University of California, San Francisco, didn't want to lose star geneticist Nelson Freimer in 1995 when his wife, mathematical biologist Sally Blower, was looking for a job. But they didn't have a tenure-track position open in her field. So UCSF offered Blower, who has an international reputation for her work on the transmission dynamics of infectious diseases, a position as an adjunct associate professor--in other words, a "soft money" job in which she had to raise her own salary. Blower accepted the offer, but while Freimer thrived, Blower festered. She found her position "humiliating and offensive" and felt she had to grovel to senior faculty members who controlled her lab space. "Many women get shoved into this [kind of position] who should have proper jobs," Blower said last spring before she and Freimer left UCSF for two tenured positions at UCLA (7 April, p. 26).

Stanford analytical chemist Maria Dulay, on the other hand, willingly turned down a tenure-track faculty job at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for a long-term, soft-money position as a research associate in Richard Zare's lab at Stanford.

Although she craved the status and independence of a faculty position, she also wanted to be with her scientist husband, who was firmly ensconced in a Silicon Valley start-up company. Dulay points out the upsides of her job: She is part of a premier research team, has few funding worries because Zare's grant covers her salary, and gets to spend more time with her young daughter than she would as a faculty member. But, she notes, her choice was "career limiting": There is now little chance that she will ever hold a full-fledged faculty position.

Such are the disparate experiences and often conflicting emotions--rage, resignation, and contentment--of scientists in soft-money positions. These jobs come in various forms, with titles ranging from researcher or research associate to adjunct or in-residence professor. Some positions are under the wing of a tenured faculty member, while others offer principal investigator or faculty status. Although data on the exact numbers of these positions are scarce, they make up a substantial fraction of the scientific workforce at many universities, especially medical schools (see table, p. 2026). What scientists in these positions have in common is that they are not on the esteemed tenure track, their salaries are paid by grants rather than their institutions, and they have little or no long-term job security. "Second-class citizen" is the phrase that even those who like their jobs often use to describe their status in the departments where they work.

The majority of soft-money scientists work within collaborative groups, and many of them are willing to trade some status for freedom from administrative duties. It is spouses like Dulay and Blower who tend to be the most frustrated, because they feel they deserve a crack at the tenure track. Soft-money positions are especially tough on those scientists who decide to go it alone as independent investigators. They often feel overwhelmed by the stress of having to conduct their research with minimal resources or departmental support, all the while competing with tenure-track faculty members for the grants that provide their salaries and facing the prospect that their employment could end when their current grant expires.

And virtually all soft-money scientists, even those who profess to be happy, have tales of disrespect and humiliation they have suffered. Neuroscientist Ratnesh Lal, an associate research biologist on soft money at the UC Santa Barbara Neuroscience Research Institute, compares the academic culture to the caste system in his native India, with soft-money researchers trapped at the bottom. "You have to have a strong will" to survive in such a position, he says. It also helps to have an accommodating department, friends in high places, and money in the bank as a cushion--not to mention emotional security and a tough skin.

Go In With Your Eyes Wide Open!

For those considering a soft-money position, either as a temporary or permanent career move, researchers and administrators advise going in with your eyes wide open and well informed about the specifics of your situation. Here are some of their suggestions:

· Think hard about whether you are up to the emotional as well as intellectual challenges ahead. Unless you land in an unusually enlightened department, you are going to feel like a second-class citizen. "You have to be a fairly secure person in your own right; otherwise I think you'd probably have a nervous breakdown," says University of California (UC), Davis, neuroscientist Karen Sigvardt, who has had a soft-money position for 17 years. "It is a very stressful situation for some people."

· Make your job move a positive choice rather than a passive slide into a default option. Biologist Nancy Hopkins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology warns postdocs and faculty members alike not to allow a postdoctoral stint to stretch out into a semipermanent soft-money position just because the postdoc is having trouble finding a job.

· Think of the hurdles you need to clear for whatever route you have chosen, from getting your own funding to meeting promotion milestones, to qualifying for a tenure-track slot. Then get unbiased advice about whether you have what it takes, advises geophysicist Quentin Williams of UC Santa Cruz. That means an evaluation from a former adviser or someone in your field--and not your spouse.

· Recognize the department's reason for offering you the position, says developmental biologist Gail Martin, who spent 9 years on soft money at UC San Francisco. If the department is recruiting your spouse, things may change once your spouse has signed on, and your needs may sink to a lower priority. So expect that whatever the department offers up front is all you're going to get. Judge whether you have a true advocate, other than your spouse, in the department--someone who sees your value and has an interest in your development--advises Martin.

· If you are offered a spousal appointment, says Williams, "you need to be very adept at detecting whether a department is friendly to this kind of thing." For instance, are there other spouses in soft-money positions who have not advanced?

· And finally, see whether the university is committed to supporting what the department is offering you. Martin says those making the offer "may sometimes blur the distinction between what they would like to give you and what they actually can provide." Stanford Vice Provost Charles Kruger encourages people "to get an assessment of how the system works and to get it from a person who doesn't have a stake in the situation. --M.B.

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