Academia

Kickstarting Your Career: Crowdfunding for Scientific Research

Christopher Columbus spent 7 years convincing private investors and heads of state to fund his idea of finding a faster trade route to the East Indies.  As research scientists, we’re not much different than Columbus.  Instead of requesting court with Kings and Queens, we propose ideas to government agencies that allocate funding to academic researchers.  But, as governments around the world are looking for ways to reduce spending, grant funding is becoming more and more difficult to obtain.  This leaves young investigators floating in a never ending sea of postdoctoral positions.   Even well funded researchers are looking for alternative sources of financial support in order to fill the downtime between the 12-18 month R01 grant cycles. 

Popularized by such sites as Kickstarter, crowdfunding has become a main source of financial support for entrepreneurs with ideas ranging from clothing lines to social media.  Unfortunately, Kickstarter prohibits projects for health and medicine, making the site useless for academic researchers.  To fill this gap, Petridish, iAMscientist and MedStartr have come online in the past 6 months.  These sites are devoted to helping academic or not for profit tenured, postdoctoral and graduate scientists obtain funding for their research ideas.  Simply propose a research idea, upload video and photos describing your proposal, set a minimum funding requirement and use your social media network to alert your colleagues. 

It’s too early to determine how beneficial crowdfunding is for scientific research, nevertheless, using these sites has several pros and cons that research scientists (especially young investigators) need to consider.

Pros

High Benefit to Time Ratio

Crowdfunding sites state a good proposal can be created in 1-2 hours and successfully funded projects receive their financial support in 90 days.  Compare this with the numerous sleepless nights preparing an R01 grant that will take approximately 18 months before funding is received.  Even if your online proposal doesn’t meet its minimum funding requirements, the amount of time spent is miniscule compared to submitting grants to the NIH or NSF.

Building Your Network

Building a network of colleagues and peers is essential to career development.  At the very least, crowdfunding can provide an additional forum to discuss your research ideas.  This allows like-minded individuals to connect and collaborate on projects, which may lead to employment opportunities down the road.

Corporate Sponsorship

Many research scientists are turning into entrepreneurs to develop their ideas beyond the lab bench.   Crowdfunding provides unique opportunites for corporations to back potential ideas.  This can lead to corporate partnership that provide resources for product scale-up and distribution.  In other words, helping you take your product from development to market in considerably less time at reduced costs.

Cons:

Minimal Funding

To date, most of the successfully funded projects on MedStartr, Petridish and iAMscientist have received fewer than $10,000 USD.  A small drop in the bucket compared to a R01 grant.  Don’t expect crowdfunding to provide you with enough money to land a tenure-track positon.  You’re still going to need to rely on government support to run your own lab.  But, crowdfunding might be just what you need to take your research in a new direction.

Fraud

You take a big risk proposing ideas on social media sites.  Since the majority of projects don’t reach their funding goals, it’s easy for well funded researchers or corporations to run with your idea and claim it as their own.  If applicable, you may want to consider obtaining copyright or trademark licenses prior to posting to crowdfunding sites.

Since crowdfunding in academic research is an extremely new concept, some potential conflicts also exist that need to be considered.

Overhead Fees

Do laboratory overhead fees apply to crowdfunded sources?  I don’t know the answer this, but I have a feeling if crowdfunding becomes commonplace in research science, academic institutions are going to want their cut — potentially 50%.  While graduate students and postdoctoral researchers don’t have to worry about overhead fees, this could quickly change if scientific crowdfunding increased in popularity.

Property Rights

As a young investigator, all the equipment you use or data that you collect is “owned” by the principal investigator.   What happens when a young investigator uses crowdfunded sources to buy laboratory equipment to support their research needs.  Who owns that piece of equipment?   What happens when you leave that laboratory to continue research elsewhere?  Does that equipment come with you?  After all, it was YOUR proposal that was funded.  But I’m willing to wager some PI’s and maybe even the academic institution would lay claim to that piece of equipment.  This is something that you should discuss before posting your crowdfunding proposal.      

Scientists are generally slow to adopt new ideas, but in this tough fiscal climate, we need to consider all avenues of public or private support.  For young researchers, crowdfunding provides a unique opportunity to support your own research ideas while learning how to manage a budget.  Although government funding will be needed, at least in the foreseeable future, to land coveted tenure-track position, successfully crowdfunded proposals can give you a leg-up on your competition.

Has anyone tried crowdfunding to support their research endeavours?  Let the other readers know your thoughts on the process.

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“My” Individual Development Plan

There has been a lot of excitement about myIDP (Individual Development Plan) offered by Science CareersIn case you haven’t heard about this, myIDP is an interactive web-based career-planning tool developed to help graduate students and PhD level scientists determine potential career paths beyond the traditional tenure track scientist.  By answering a series of introspective questions regarding your scientific skills, interests and personal values, myIDP will match these to potential career opportunities and help you develop a career plan to reach your goals. 

I’ve read a lot of promising comments about this program, so I decided to take the time and create a career plan for myself.  While I have been working in product development for almost 1 year already (I’m stating this in the interest of full disclosure), I thought it might be interesting to see if I chose the best career for myself.   Who knows?   It’s never too late to mix things up.    

When you first go to myIDP you’re asked to create a new account with all the basic information including a username, email address and password.  Once an account has been created, you’re greeted with a flow chart explaining the steps to creating your individual development plan. 

The first step is a self-assessment designed to identify skills, interests and personal values.  Honest, introspection is required to answer these questions since the responses are used to help identify relevant career paths.  Each category contains several subcategories with a series of questions.  Questions are answered on a simple 1-5 rating scale.  Once you have completed each subcategory, responses are summarized into a table.  This table helps you to easily identify skills that need improvement and interests important to a future career. 

Once the self-assessment is complete, you are transitioned to the career exploration tab.  myIDP compares the answers to your self assessment to characteristics important to roughly 60 different career paths.  These careers are then ranked from best to worse fit based on how well they match your skills and interests self assessment.  Clicking on a specific career path, you are provided with numerous articles, books and even professional societies to join that will help you to learn more about each career.  An event planner lets you keep track of meetings or other gatherings for networking.  There is even a guide on how to conduct an informational interview with an industry expert that can help you better determine the pros and cons of a particular career path.

With a long term career goal (or two) selected, you have the option to create career, skills and project goals.  This feature helps you to set and achieve small steps to reaching your career goals.  These are turned into a 12 month planner to keep you on track.  Consider it your yearly committee meeting with yourself.

Finally, you can create your mentor team to provide you with personal and professional guidance.  Ideally, your PI should be involved in this process (I’ll touch on that later), but you should also try to have mentors from different backgrounds to provide unique perspectives.  This is essential for obtaining invaluable personal and career advice that will be essential to you meeting your goals. 

Overall thoughts?  This is an extremely intuitive and highly beneficial program that I strongly suggest for all graduate students and postdocs.   Of course, the earlier into your PhD career that you start this program, the more time you will have to develop a network that can help guide your career path.  It would be great if your PI was involved in every step of this process, and myIDP strongly suggests you include your PI in this career development training.  Unfortunately, some PI’s are more open to their students pursuing alternative career paths than others.  I’ve met plenty (and have worked for) PI’s that feel the only true path for a PhD is in academia and they will do little to nothing to help you advance outside of academia.  If this is the case, you will need to be more proactive and find a network of individuals willing to support you in alternative career goals. 

So, how did the myIDP match to my current product development career path?  Well it ranks fourth on the list.  Interestingly, the intellectual property career path (patent agent / attorney and technology transfer specialist) ranked just above product development.  That’s something I never considered as a career and know very little about this path.  But with the myIDP informational resources, I know where to learn about this career.  My number 1 and 2:  sales and marketing (medical liaisons or sales representatives) and science policy (public/government affairs or think tanks).  While I did consider some potential opportunities in sales and marketing, I really didn’t want to be on the road for extended periods of time away from my family.   Surprisingly though, entrepreneur was ranked rather low on my chart…don’t tell my RateMyPI.com co-founder.  

Speaking of RateMyPI.com, look for us to go live in a matter of days.  We’re just finishing some BETA testing.  Hopefully we can be instrumental in helping you meet your career goals as well.

P.S.  Happy National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week!

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“Required” International Collaboration?

I recently read an article in Sky Magazine about the Executive MBA that highlighted how more and more EMBA programs are requiring international experiences during their programs. Some required only a week abroad for a 12 month program, while others incorporated various international stays for 5 out of 17 months. Other programs that have mainly foreign students, their time in the US constituted their international experience. Reading about these EMBA programs got me thinking…is there a place for similar training during scientific grad school and would it be beneficial? Could we somehow incorporate a semester or even a year of research abroad?

I think that this would have the greatest chance of success during the third or fourth year when you have a sound understanding of your thesis and what experiments are needed to support your hypothesis. By your fourth year you should be fairly independent, but could also benefit greatly from learning a new technique to address your central hypothesis and have input from someone with a different background (both scientific and nationality). As a senior grad student you would have the communication and experimental design skills necessary to plan out experiments in advance so you could hit the ground running in your new laboratory. Having the opportunity to do research abroad during grad school would also help you network and prepare for the next stage of your career while supporting international scientific collaboration.

In a way, some people already do this by going to grad school in another country. Still others have taken opportunities to obtain grant funding that pays for you to visit another lab to learn a new technique, such as the Michael Smith Foreign Supplement Award from NSERC offered to Canadian graduate students who have CIHR, SSHRC, or NSERC funding. There are also programs, such as the NIH OxCam program where you can obtain your degree through NIH that will send you to another lab to learn a new technique, or obtaining a grant from the International Research Fellowship Program (currently not offered) that funds postdoctoral studies abroad. I personally know several people who have obtained these funds and no one was disappointed with their experience, so why not incorporate it into the PhD program?

Do you think that training in a foreign country should be required for the PhD? Please share your experiences?

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Cast your vote for the 2013 Best Places To Work

I hope everyone in the US had a relaxing Labor Day Weekend and were able to take some time off from their research projects.

After some much needed R&R, are you looking forward to going back to work? Well, The Scientist wants to know. They are conducting their annual best places to work survey for 2013. For those of you following our blog, you might remember our recent comments on mentoring weaknesses of 2012′s top 25 life science academic institutions.

Since RateMyPI.com was founded on the notion that a healthy work environment is essential for scientific success, I encourage everyone to take the time and fill out this survey. If you’re proud of where you work or with whom you work for, let other scientists know. And, if you’re not so proud, let others know that too. The more people who vote, the more accurate the survey. Responses are confidential and you will be entered into a drawing for a $100 Amazon gift card.

The Scientist will publish their results starting in April of 2013. By then, RateMyPI.com may have profiles of leading scientists at each of these top ranked institutions. We’ll be sure to highlight who our members feel are influential to their career success.

To stay updated on these results, please sign-up to follow our blog.

Follow the links below to vote or leave a comment below to let everyone know why your institution is one of the best places to work.

Postdocs
Industry
Academia

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