Living in a Soft Money World

With apologies to Madonna, Felicia B. LeClere considers the challenges and benefits of career paths in which you are always looking for funds.

April 2, 2012

~with apologies to Madonna

"You do know that this position is funded entirely on soft money, right?"

This can be an unsettling to hear early in a research career. "Soft money" is a polite euphemism for funding that comes from a source outside a university or research institute and must be pursued regularly and with vigor. The "soft" part means the money can be both uncertain and impermanent, neither of which are adjectives one would like to attach to a job or career. Yet, a large fraction of the research faculty and staff members of American universities and research institutions live every day in this "soft money" world. Those in medical schools, engineering, and the basic sciences are all too familiar with how fleeting and fragile funding sources can be. Congressional budget battles become personal when a large fraction of your research portfolio is funded by federal sources. Foundation funding priorities are also seldom sustained for the long haul.

It is a difficult environment, but as people continue to commit to the challenge of scientific research with Ph.D. in hand, a soft money start is quite likely. Postdoctoral appointments, research staff, and non-tenure-line faculty positions are as common among new scientists as adjunct teaching positions are to those with English or history Ph.D.s. While this route may seem less fraught than teaching five courses at five different universities, it still holds both substantial challenges and consequences.

What is it like when as a newly minted academic, your career is built fully around this uncertainty, and "going back to teaching" when the money runs dry is not an option? Both good and bad things happen. The bad things are familiar to most of us. Funding fashions can wreak havoc on a research agenda. A federal preoccupation with obesity, for example, can be replaced by bioterrorism, by causes of childhood autism, and by anything else that catches the government's scientific fancy. As a junior researcher, it is difficult to stay focused on your favorite topic when the money goes elsewhere. As a result, you run the risk of having your C.V. paint you as scattered at the very point in your career when it should show single-minded focus.

In addition to doing many things for the money, you are also always looking for money. To underwrite your salary and those in your research group, more of your time is spent writing proposals than doing research. This can be quite demoralizing, given that the success rate in recent years on most grants and contracts hovers in the 1 to 5 percent range. Early career success in the grant and contract world is even harder, so all that writing may feel like it gets you exactly nowhere. Finally, in environments where the research money is carefully tracked, billable hours are not just for lawyers anymore. Finding quiet time to read recent research or to even let your mind wander is difficult at best. At its worst, living in a soft money world, can turn you into a frantic, clock-watching, unproductive dilettante.

At its best and managed intelligently, life in the soft money world can create two equally productive alternative career paths. First, if you are both lucky and careful, a soft money start can provide you with a clean path to a tenured research career in a prestigious university. Soft money positions are almost always defined by working for someone. You might be recruited as a postdoctoral student, project manager, or research scientist.  

The principal investigator may have your career interests at heart or, more likely, is in desperate need of your labor. Choose your "someone" wisely and remember that your career is your own to navigate. It is quite easy to serve the immediate needs of the project like managing the money, hiring and supervising staff, and keeping the day to day research operations flowing smoothly. You will be adored by project staff and the PI will view you as his or her "right-hand" person. The rewards are visceral and immediate but the consequences can be long-lasting.  

Unless you are superhuman, doing first-rate research and an array of administrative tasks will become almost impossible. To navigate a path out of soft money, you must find ways to avoid the mundane and steer away from the tasks that aren’t directly relevant to your research career. It sounds counterintuitive to underachieve at what you were hired to do but I can guarantee that the PI of any grant, to say nothing of your own aspirations, will be much better-served by two published articles at year’s end than an efficiently run project.

If you are unable to resist the immediacy of the rewards or the love of your coworkers, which I admittedly could never do, there are many alternatives opened by starting a career this way. The demands of research projects of short duration funded with real dollars forces even the PI to learn to budget, manage staff, and navigate bureaucracy. These are skills that actually have street value beyond the very narrow confines of academic research.  The lack of permanence also encourages a diversification of skills and experiences that allow lateral movement and makes your employability more certain. You are also forced to work effectively in groups. Grants and contracts that are large enough to support full time salaries and attract additional funding usually underwrite complex projects with many players who must work together. You have to both figure out how to get what you need from others and produce things other people need in a timely fashion.

This is hard to do in research which, by definition, requires a great deal of creative chaos and intellectual conflict to be successful. Graduate school narrows your focus and hardens your boundaries; work within the soft money world undoes this socialization and gives you the credentials to move beyond academia or within the world of academic research management. An efficiently run project will propel you on a different course, which you may not have initially intended, but may in the end suit you as it has me.

Madonna may have actually had it wrong in the end. Beginning in a material world does not require you to become a material girl. You just need an intelligent and thoughtful plan, or, as in my case, a willingness to accept and shape what comes next. Either way, the specter of a position funded solely by "soft money" loses its power to frighten.  


Felicia B. LeClere is a principal research scientist in the Public Health Department of NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects, including the National Immunization Survey and the National Children's Study.


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