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Considerations as a Soft Money Faculty Member

SoAP Box: 
Finding Success in Failure

Summer 2023

Matthew Meisel, PhD

I was a NIAAA funded T32 postdoctoral fellow at CAAS from 2015-2017, and was then promoted to Assistant Professor in the late Summer of 2017 when I was awarded my K01. A K01 grant is a research scientist development award which helps researchers gain additional research training as they develop an independent research program. This award has covered between 75-100% of my salary across the last 6 years.  Given that my position at Brown University is 100% "soft money", I have to submit and receive grants to fund the entirety of my salary (this is different than "hard money" positions, for example those in traditional psychology departments which typically come with 9-months of salary). I am currently at the end of the first no-cost extension of my K01 award and am in the process of deciding what to do next and the different ways I may get there. 

I have been fortunate to be a named Co-I on several additional grants (two R01s and two R21s) but the R01 that I wrote as Principal Investigator has not been funded yet. In addition, I am a non-tenure track faculty member which means there are limited opportunities to teach courses, and I’m not a clinical psychologist so I can’t see clients to supplement my salary. 

As I consider my next steps, there are several specific factors I am weighing including industry vs. academic jobs, changes in job responsibilities if I seek other positions in academia, and personal factors as I determine what might make the most sense for me. First, while I really enjoy academia, I am not opposed to seeking employment opportunities outside the academy. To me, any job where I can do interesting and engaging research is a job that works for me. That said, I have never worked outside of academia so the grass might not be greener on the other side. Further, while I believe it is more common for individuals outside academia to switch companies or jobs more regularly, it feels scary in academia as I don’t know what it would be like to leave and then try to come back if I wanted to. Second, as I consider other types of jobs in academia (e.g., tenure track), I think deeply about how different the role would be compared to the one I have. There would be teaching and other activities consistent with that type of environment that I have had to do a bit less of in my current role. I feel as though I would be very good in those other roles but I want to make sure I am being thoughtful about balancing my work expectations with the reality of what a different academic job might entail. Third, and maybe most importantly, I live with my partner, and we have an established set of friends where we live. Furthermore, I have to weigh the financial uncertainty of my K running out vs. new potential jobs with the cost to my and my partner’s life outside of my job. None of these factors are make or break issues but rather they are different considerations I have as I think about what’s next. People in soft money/on training grants have to regularly think about how to fund themselves, how much longer they want to keep thinking about where their salary is coming from, and what other options may be out there.   

All that said, I really like working in academia, and love the people I work with. I have been so fortunate to have a supportive group of colleagues at Brown who have made it so this next year will have a bit more stability as I navigate what to do next. 

Overall, I believe that individuals in academia really care about conducting sound, reproducible, impactful research. I am going to continue to submit different grants (I am submitting another R grant in the early fall), because I really am passionate about my science, and about improving the lives of individuals who do not go to four-year college. This entire process is stressful, but jobs are stressful, and in the end, I will keep trying to maintain balance for what feels right for me and my life.

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