Saturday, September 24, 2016

The emotional toll of the "NIH running wheel"

There are few posts in my queue right now, that will never see the light of day. They were born our of anger and confusion and anxiety laced with a hint of depression. I suffered from severe pre-menstrual depression my entire life, and until I found the right medical team, every time I randomly felt despair and the desire to curl up in a ball and wail, I had to ask myself two questions: "Is this emotional reaction appropriate to the current events in my life? What day of the month is it?" If the reaction was "not appropriate", I usually had to ride out the next 24-48 hours before my brain magically reset itself back to normal (Someone should study this, because it's crazy fast. Literally like a curtain lifting). So as my life started spiraling out of control in the past few weeks, my safety questions came back to me with a slight variation "What time if the year is it?"

While it's a different cycle, the NIH cycle is as bad as the menstrual one. Especially, if you are on the running wheel of submitting a grant every cycle, which means having a grant reviewed every cycle as you are writing the other one. I haven't quite recovered from the meltdown in June (post here), which was on the heels of the February one, and here comes the October deadline. Last cycle my R01 was due the same day the other R01 was being reviewed. This time I'm on three R21s for October. Yup, you've heard this right. Three. And my R01 is being reviewed at the end of the October. Because for some reason, all my study sections tend to cluster as close as possible to the resubmission date, so that there is no hope I could skip a cycle. As my other funding gets close to the end, and the pressure increases for keeping the lab going, every grant generates more and more anxiety. The more you submit, the more it feels like there is no rhyme or reason and you just have to do your absolute best and hope that your proposal will fall in the right hands. The closer the study section date gets, the more you start second guessing what you have already sent in and you find all the flaws in your mind. Positive thinking and negative thinking run a strange relay in your head, when you want to believe the grant will be funded, but you want to prepare yourself for the worst at the same time, so you kind of go for the middle ground "All I want is a score!" I hate you running wheel!! (Waving fist to the sky)

So more and more yoga. And maybe I should pick up Transcendental Meditation...or drinking. What I should really be doing now, is writing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Tales of postdocs past: what did I learn?

The more I move forward in this crazy voyage which is the tenure track, the more I realize how absolutely critical your personnel is. I have posted recently about some setbacks in my lab and having to pick up the pieces after some unexpected departures. Some of my readers wanted some more detail. I am not going to go into specifics too much. What I can say is that this year I have lost all three postdocs, each for a different reason. One was not a good fit and decided to quit before I had to drop the axe, one was poached away from a biotech company, and one had to leave because of family obligations. None if them had reached the three year mark in their tenure and none of them will be able to see their major project to completion. The saddest part of this is that one was awarded an NRSA fellowship from the NIH and we had to give the money back. Just the thought to give money back to the NIH makes my heart sink every time! I had to do my best to apologize to the program officer with the hope that this will not held against me in the future.

I have been racking my brain trying to figure out why this happened. Whether in addition to extraordinary bad luck, there is something that I have done to make the environment inhospitable, or to just pick the wrong people for the job. The thing is, at least two were not wrong. Between the two of them, they produced data for at least four good papers in two years. So what would make a productive scientist with exciting data, give up? Part of me is afraid that they see what I am going through, despite my desperate attempts to screen them from the vast majority of what I have to do, and they realize that they do not want my job. Another part of me thinks that, because I do so much career development and planning in the lab, I am pushing them to explore alternative careers and shooting myself in the foot at the same time. Yet, I had so many conversations with friends on whether it is even moral to hire postdocs nowadays and tell them that a career in academia is the only option. Getting into the ivory tower is harder and harder, and once you are in, it does not get easier. As a mentor, I cannot and I will not leave them ill prepared for what is out there.

My question is: Could this have been avoided? When I think about what pushed me forward all these years, don't laugh, it all comes down to my postdoctoral theme song. Yes, I have theme songs. My PhD song was Fighter by Christina Aguilera (if you listen to it, think as if it was addressed to my thesis committee. It'll be funny). My postdoc and current song is Remember the Name by Fort Minor. The key here is the refrain: "This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill/fifteen percent concentrated power of will/five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain/and a hundred percent reason to remember the name". If this doesn't describe academic science, I don't know what does. The "concentrated power of will" bit in particular, because there are days that razor-sharp uncompromising concentrated power of will is the only thing that makes me to get out of bed and keeps me going. I see it in many of my colleagues and I wonder whether this attribute, more then anything else, is what keeps academia afloat. A semi-deluded cultish sense that "I will not ever stop asking questions and pushing forward". I don't know whether you have to be born with it or whether it can be cultivated. I have not trained enough people to know and I have not figured out ways to test it. Hope Jahren in her autobiography Lab Girl describes a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine where every new student is made painstakingly label hundreds of tubes for sample collection, and then put through a lengthy discussion on the project for said tubes that ends in all the tubes going into the trash. If, instead of moping, the student responds to the exercise by happily labeling tubes for the "new and improved" project, s/he is a keeper.

How do you find someone with skill, power of will, luck and high pain tolerance? Is this really what it takes? I cannot fault any of my former people, because in the end they decided what was best for them. But, if the current funding climate is pushing promising young people out, how do I reset my expectations for running the lab?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Redefining expectations: I'm a PI now.

Today should have been a good day...
A very nice review article which took a lot of effort in the past couple of months was accepted and for the first time I saw my name in print in Science. Granted this was my collaborator's paper, so it's not from my lab, but it's pretty sweet CV padding. My department chair will like it. Plus, one of my postdocs told me about some pretty spectacular data which we are hoping will lead to a major publication from my own group. Yet, I was miserable and almost closed my office door to curl in the fetal position and cry. And know one thing, reader, I'm not the type of person who cries. When I cry, people who know me tend to freak out, because something major must be catastrophically wrong.

The Shining screenplay.  By William Beutler  [CC BY 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons" 
So, what is so wrong? This summer multiple people quit the lab, leaving me understaffed and we need to finish a paper, so I had to get back to the bench and step in to help with experiments. This paper/project is under very strong competitive pressure and through false information I thought we were getting scooped, so I have put in back to back 80hr weeks to try and finish it. I have been mostly alone in the lab up to 10-11pm every day. We have done a lot of stuff, but one critical experiments will be delayed by a couple of weeks because I overlooked some details and some things need to be redone. I have regressed...I'm back to my grad school hours, occasionally wearing my grand school clothes, feeling the pressure of my life and my lab depending on this project. And then it hit me. "What am I doing? I'm not in grad school! My life and my lab do not depend on this project. I'm supposed to be writing 2 grants on the other super cool project my postdoc was telling me about."

If we cannot finish experiments in time I had already agreed with our collaborators that we will fold our data into their paper instead of going back to back. And then I will have a ton of extra data to get a lovely study out. My postdoc's project, which will be finished in the next month, will lead to another paper. And this second project is more likely to get me tenure than anything else I'm doing. Plus we just published in Science...Why was I upset, again?

I was upset because I fell into the mental trap of putting all my professional eggs in one basket. As a student and postdoc this is a common trap, thinking that your career depends on one project, one major paper, one checklist item checked off after another. Getting stuck in an obsessive rut that your life sucks. The thing is, it doesn't. This is all in your head. There are multiple career paths and multiple ways of moving forward. But when you work so much that you need to prop yourself up to keep going and you're exhausted, you're bound to flawed thinking. I'm not a postdoc, I have 6 or 7 baskets at the moment and I have to decide how to distribute my eggs. I have neglected my physical and mental health for this project, and I am too worn out to deal with anything else. This was a mistake. I cannot carry the entire lab on my shoulders and finish every single experiments and run everything. This is not sustainable. Sometimes, all you need is a change of prospective...regroup and objectively see where you stand. Objectively, things are going pretty well and I should just go on vacation.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

"Midway upon the journey of my tenure-track..."

"...I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost." (adapted from D. Alighieri, Inferno, Canto 1)

The past week has been tough, but also a recuperative one, desperately trying to gather some energy both physical and emotional to deal with pulling the lab together one more time. I have been battling burnout for months, but I was fighting to keep one of the projects in the lab alive. Due to a couple of toxic hires part of the project was recently scooped and another big part is under extreme competitive pressure. Because the bad hires are now gone, I need to pull a paper out of thin air by myself working with some of the new people who just joined the lab.

Despite this I was finally starting to feel secure in my tenure track, I was going to pull this project together and another big part of the lab was running smoothly with the promise of continuity. The goal of having a cohesive body of work by year 5 (1.5 years away) seemed possible. It finally felt like the lab was hitting a positive stride after being wobbly in the Spring. Then multiple disasters hit in rapid succession. One R01 application which had taken an ungodly amount of energy to coordinate and pull together fell flat leading the Program Officer to recommend to just write another grant. Samples I had been trying to secure for months failed to materialize killing a whole new exciting direction in the lab. Then I found out that all the personnel leading the only viable project we have is going to be gone by the end of next month without any of the papers being completed. WTF?!

Now I have to run the lab, deal with a packed travel schedule for the Fall and be primarily responsible for 4 major publications with no manpower or manpower with limited expertise. I feel like I'm standing on a boat watching my projects drown and having to decide which one should be saved, because I cannot possibly try to rescue them all. It's heartbreaking and a little terrifying. "What if I pick the wrong one?" Year 3-4 in the tenure track is that defining moment where you feel like your career should take off and as I was preparing to take that leap, I was hit by ton of bricks. I am gasping for air.

In the middle of all this, I got to take break thanks to a conference tied in with a visit to a friend's institution and to my old postdoctoral lab. And the upshot from talking to multiple friends was "Boohoo, this happens to everyone." "If this was easy, everyone could do it." "You think you have it bad, my student graduated and went to Nepal for 6 months with no email access." So basically, shut up, get your shit together and finish the papers. God, this job is hard! I'm realizing that to just survive you have to be made of steel. The more I go on, the more I feel the steel getting tempered.  At the same time it seems like everything is going against my generation: the crazy-low funding rates, the scarcity of jobs. We were sitting at this meeting watching talks from fancy HHMI investigators presenting 20 transgenic mouse lines and we were just like "Sure, I could do that if I had the money, but I don't, so I can't"...and watching these massive projects, you wonder if in your little lab with a revolving door of trainees (some good, some bad), you will ever be able to do something significant. Or even if this roller-coaster of emotions will ever stop.

In any case, back in the lab shit must be pulled together, projects must be finished, so I need to get back to the bench full time and everything else will have to wait. As Winston Churchill once said "Success always demands a greater effort". So 150% effort, here I come!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

When your trainees get grants everyone wins!

There is nothing quite as exciting as your trainee getting their own money. Apart from the obvious financial benefit to the lab and a lessening of the burden to support everyone's salary and fringe, the real relief is that you start feeling like the lab is viable and that you are actually considered as an independent scientist by your peers. Of course, getting an R01 form the NIH is the litmus test of your peers believing in what you do, but fellowships are a sign that you are deemed worth to train the next generation. The projects in the lab have enough legs to bring in money for multiple people. The trainee is happy, you are happy. Everyone wins!

So new PIs do not think believe those who say that you need to be established or have an R01, to get your lab peeps funded. Write a comprehensive mentoring plan identifying training objectives AND find an experienced co-mentor, then keep trying. I like this list from Berkeley to get you started.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Remembering academic self-care

The Scream - E. Munch (Google Art Project)
The hashtag #academicselfcare reminds you that it is your responsibility to take care of yourself,
because academia will rarely do it for you. Multiple people, including the wonderful @IHStreet, have spoken bravely of the struggles with psychiatric illness we encounter as academics. It's not clear whether the constant stress eats away at our well-being or whether scientists are just more neurotic because of their constantly inquisitive nature. Many if not all of us, at some point will deal with unbearable stress, lack of self-worth, depression and anxiety.

As far as depression goes, I think I have the best kind. It comes linked to major life events or hormonal changes and once identified, it is rapidly improved by standard medication. After multiple years of therapy, I'm pretty good at figuring out what is going on. Basically the drill is "Why am I so hopeless?" "For how long have I felt hopeless?" "Oh, maybe serotonin has gotten a bit wonky and needs a boost. I need to talk to someone about this." Exercise has also been very good at dealing with this when I feel things are not quite right. As I said, the best kind.

Still as lucky as I think I have been, depression is not an easy thing to go through and you cannot just "pick yourself up and snap out of it". It has impacted multiple years of my life and nowadays I monitor its comings very closely. For some reason the winter messes with me (cough, SAD, cough) and the summer NIH deadline has had me staring right down the abyss the past few years. I have very strong feelings about my future depending on how well I can convince a random group of invisible people. This winter was particularly bad for personal and professional reasons and I started wondering whether I'm burning out. A recent Harvard Business Review article on incipient burnout quoted
- "emotional exhaustion: feeling used up emotionally, physically and cognitively"  CHECK
- "easily upset and angered, have difficulty sleeping" CHECK
- "depersonalization, feelings of alienation and cynicism toward your job"  CHECK
- "capacity to perform is diminished as is your belief in yourself" CHECK

This sounds dangerously like some aspects of depression and for me one leads readily to the other. Since there are some actual problems that need to be solved in my job and life, what matters most is that I am healthy enough to do it. So, it's #academicselfcare time! I have not had an actual vacation (when I'm not writing a grant or doing a substantial amount of work on the side) in something like 18 months and I do not remember the last time I had a two-day weekend. The summer I started my postdoc I pledged I would take both Saturday and Sunday off each week for two months. The first weekend I just sat at home and watched 12 hours of TV each day because I had no idea how to plan weekend activities any more. Things are not as bad now as in grad school because I have learned to introduce downtime whenever I need it, but I feel like I need to get back to a regimented rest schedule. Once you become a professor, it is very easy to move things that need writing and thinking to the weekend because your day is so fragmented and interrupted by random things, you cannot find 2-3 hours of peace. So if you want to have downtime in the evening, you move certain chores to the weekend. The thing is, I just need to lock people out and protect my time during the week.

Here I pledge that I will have full weekends (and maybe 3-day weekends) in July and August, that I will plan a couple of kick-ass trips and that I will carve out some time every week to write and read (OMG, read!?) and do science-work that will actually push my research program forward. Oh, yes and get back to exercising regularly.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The first rule of Academic Speakeasy...

Academic Speakeasy will be a monthly appointment to privately and anonymously discuss academic life and struggles (see blog post). This is how it's going to work.
  • 5 minutes before chat start time @Professor_Chat will post the link and password for the Niltalk chat room 
  • you can choose whatever name you like: your real name, your Twitter handle or a different name every single time
  • in the chat room DO NOT CLICK the "Dispose" button. Niltalk is set up so that every member can cancel the chat at any time. Please, let the moderators do that
  • we will chat for an hour or less about the topic (for the first time about how to set up)
  • be courteous, be constructive and feel free to share
  • the Niltalk chat will be destroyed as soon as it ends and no record will be kept
If you are also interested in an open chat on Twitter post topics on @Professor_Chat and we'll try and make it happen.

How do we build a secret advice network for scientists?

In the past few years I posted several times about the struggles I'm facing in academia. I am always
really scared of putting my thoughts out there, but the thought that this could help other people always make me click on the Publish button. The responses have been in general very positive expressing support and gratitude for sharing. While we often believe that we are unique snowflakes in our sorrows, we really are not and many scientists at different stages of their career have similar problems.

Multiple times on Twitter and on the blog people have expressed the need for a forum to meet and talk about our professional issues. I am fortunate to have a good cohort of new investigators who meets regularly to discuss what is going on and come up with hacks to get around administrative hurdles. But there are thoughts I cannot share with colleagues at the same university and sometimes I would like to learn how things are at other places or how different people solve problems.

After some thought on how to do this and some discussion with @drosophilosophy, aka Tim Mosca, who most recently raised the issue, we really like the format of Diversity Journal Club #DiversityJC on Twitter (run by the awesome @Doctor_PMS, @IHStreet and @DrEmilySKlein). They set a time once a month to discuss an issue on Twitter. Since Twitter is still a public forum, I have been looking for a private password protected chat room and I discovered Niltalk. Niltalk allows you to create a password for a room that exists for only 2 hours and then gets deleted forever. Think of it as a speakeasy! Users can be completely anonymous or not, as they prefer. We can just set a date and time, decide on a topic or a couple of topics and open as many chats as we like. Each topic should have a moderator (myself, Tim or ideally the person proposing the topic would be willing to moderate). There could also be a monthly chat on Twitter about academic career development, with a common hashtag like #profchat and this could be storified to provide a more permanent record.

I'll start one tomorrow June 1th at 10pm EST (7pm PST) just to see how it works and start the conversation. Link for the chat room and password will be posted on Twitter at 9:55pm on a dedicated Twitter account @Professor_Chat
Come hang!!

Friday, May 27, 2016

How do you know when to change and not quit?

I have been thinking a lot about quitting recently. As I wrote in a very hopeful post the day before I started my faculty position, thinking about quitting is part of my process. I have considered alternative careers since I was in college and I have become accustomed to chose my job every day. I am going to work because I want to, because there is nothing else that I would rather do. Sometimes things get so hard, that you question your choices and wonder whether whatever you are doing is really what you should be doing with your life.

I was looking for articles or blog posts about transitions in academia and I found a whole lot about quitting. There is a great article on Vitae that summarizes some of the views of the so called academic Quit Lit which they collected in a handy Google doc. (Warning: you should read these posts only when you are in a good mood or in the company of a good bottle of Scotch)

However, what if you should not change careers altogether, but are just unhappy where you are?
Sometimes we mistake profound dissatisfaction with our current situation with having chosen the wrong profession, but this is not necessarily true. Throughout my training, I have met people who just needed to be somewhere else and did not necessarily fit where they were. Someone who started a PhD in Neuroscience and switched to Computer Science to another university. Multiple people who were in the wrong thesis lab or the wrong postdoc lab. When you think everything is hopeless and you are stuck, this is hardly ever the reality. You are never ever stuck unless you're in jail without the possibility of parole, but then you have other problems than deciding what to do with your PhD.
You can be unhappy for a multitude of reasons:
- your job is toxic and your boss is a monster who makes everyone cry;
- your job is great/okay, but the rest of your life sucks;
- your job is okay, but you do not have the right resources for advancement.

It boils down to this. You institution/lab can 1) destroy your career, 2) allow your career or 3) support your career. If you're in position #3, great for you! Stop reading and go do something fun. If you're in position #1, you need to come up with an exit strategy stat! In the best case scenario you are a year 1-2 grad student or postdoc and you can exit gracefully to find another lab. In the economy of your life, 1-2 years mean nothing. Trust me. If you are more advanced, you need to discuss with trusted colleagues and mentors how to best position yourself to get out. A good number of people will be in position #2, some things are okay, some things are not, so you're not sure what to do. Science has a lot of ups and downs. You may just need to sit down and figure out the pros and cons of your situation. A senior mentor recommended a very good strategy. Make a list of every single thing that is important to you in your life and your work, for example, good colleagues or good museums. Then as you consider moving, rank the new cities and universities for each of the criteria (this may require research). The perfect university/perfect city match may not exist, so you must decide what you can live with and what you really want. It may turn out that where you are is the best compromise or that you can ask for something to change to make things better. If not, you use your network to start figuring out how to move somewhere higher on your list. Academia can be for life, but does not have to be a life sentence.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Where the New PI tries a time management exercise

I have multiple posts at various stages, but lately the time is lacking. I feel exhausted and unproductive, being pulled in a hundred different directions while I need time to focus and write an R21 and an R01 in the next 6 weeks. While barely keeping my head above water, I've been on Twitter sporadically, but yesterday I caught a couple of posts about time management. In one, which I can't find anymore because I forgot to bookmark it, the author was describing a time-management exercise. You make a spreadsheet of your day in 30min intervals and log what you do for some time. I have tried in the past to use different online time management tools to figure out where my days go, but I always forget to turn on or off the timer. I thought this more gross approximation of where time goes would be easier, so I will try for a week or maybe a month.

I have decided on simple categories: research, service, teaching and administration for work, exercise, TV, social, culture and sleep for myself. I have multiple questions in mind.
1) Simply put, how many hours a day and a week do I really work?
2) I feel like I have an inordinate amount of administrative work to do or followup on and I've been spewing random numbers when complaining about it. How much of my day is actually spent doing someone else's job?
3) Am I doing too much or too little service?
4) Can I make sure I exercise at least half an hour each day?
5) Am I happy with my activity distribution or do I want to make changes?

The first day was very informative. I worked 9.5 hours with a 1 hour break in the afternoon, because lunch was eaten during a seminar. 60% was actual research work, either writing or discussing experiments, 31% was some kind of service dealing with someone else's faculty candidate and reviewing grants. Only 9% was admin. I put in my half hour walking to work this morning, so now I feel justified going home and crashing on the couch...

I am curious now and I will report how it goes...

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Maintaining your ESI status...

With one R01 application waiting for additional experiments before resubmission and one R01 submitted, I received the dreaded email from the NIH saying that my ESI (early stage investigator) status had ended. I was sad and wondered what would happen to my lab that the extra bump in percentile for funding is gone. Since I have never had an R01 the New Investigator status still holds, but it's institute dependent and not as codified as the ESI.

The fact that ESI status depends on the date your PhD was conferred is a real issue as people stay longer and longer in their postdoc position. All candidates we interviewed in our latest faculty search had started their postdocs 2007-2009, so their ESI bump could end as early as next year. I was talking to a friend about this and actually found out that things are not as black and white. With some planning you can maintain your ESI past the dreaded deadline.

It turns out your application is listed as ESI as long as you SUBMIT before the ESI ends, so, phew, my currently submitted R01 will be regarded as ESI-eligible. Not only...

For individuals who are still New Investigators at the time of resubmission of the A1 application, there is a 13 month period during which the New Investigator can submit the A1 resubmission application to retain ESI status. 

This means that you have 1 year to resubmit your application and will still maintain ESI status. So, my first R01 application will still be considered ESI if resubmitted in July 2016 AND my second R01 application will remain ESI until March 2017...a full year after my ESI status ended.  Of course the ESI advantage will disappear if R01 #1 is funded, but it's nice to know that I have multiple chances. I had no idea that any of this was in place before I started my lab and most of your senior advisors do not know either. But this could be make all the difference in your funding!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

How much of your own money do you spend for a (new) lab?

Lately I started keeping track of how much of my personal money has been used for the lab and started thinking of all the reimbursements I never requested. Through some administrative breakdowns I was owed several thousand dollars in reimbursements for almost 6 months, which annoyed me to no end and made me more weary of "donating" money to the university. Then I took a business trip someone else paid for, and we stayed and ate at places I wouldn't even consider on my own dime.

I believe that you have to be very conscientious when spending grant money. As a postdoc, I have always been careful is finding the cheapest hotel and being thrifty, but I still used to turn in every single receipt for meals and transport, etc. When I started my own lab things changed. My PI salary was substantially higher, my quality of like improved and I started paying for things myself. Sometimes I bought he odd item our ordering department was giving me trouble for, but mostly I started paying for all my meals and transport during business trips, plus lunch for the lab and various celebrations. I justified it with the fact that it would be coming from my start-up funding, that I would be eating anyways independently of where I was, and I'd rather keep that money as long as possible for reagents and other things. However in the long run it adds up, especially when you go to a lot of meetings like I do. I didn't even realize until this year that I can actually detract all those expenses from my taxes, so I gave up more money than I thought. I started tracking all my business expenses for 2016 and in 3 months I'm already at $1,000 I do not plan to submit for reimbursement.

Now I'm starting to wonder whether this behavior is naive and hurtful. Why should I spend my own money? Why am I not saving that money for my mortgage or retirement? Is there really going to be a return for investing this money in the lab and my career?

I think this again goes back to the idea of considering the lab like a small business. As the owner I make all the sacrifices. At the moment I am not hurting for money and I could pay for all the things I don't get reimbursed. But a part of me thinks that every meal I save is a piece of a conference a year for now or part of someone's future salary. Yet, multiple people I know spend liberally for things like these. What is right? I would really appreciate if other investigators commented about this and how they go about it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Third year review. The lab turns 3!

I'm official mid-tenure track and probably need to officially update my Twitter handle to The Newish PI. @Scitrigrrl hit the nail on the head in her post last year about being a third year faculty (here). You just learn to do more. More and more teaching piles up because people are no more afraid to ask and get nixed by your chair. More and more people join the lab and projects and side-projects crop up. More grants and papers must be written or reviewed. Colleagues start asking you to help on their projects and join their grants.  You get asked to do things you didn't know you were supposed to do and you pick up some other chores because it looked like a good idea at the time.

So I'm officially stretched to the limit. Three years have passed, my R00 ended yesterday and I need to start making very definitive plans for assembling a tenure portfolio. I have been relatively successful at getting foundation grants, growing the lab and getting a few decent papers out, but the bottom line is that I NEED AN R01. I will be able to stay alive until the end of 2017 with current grants and startup, but R01 funding is necessary for further survival, tenure and new opportunities. I have two applications at various steps of review/resubmission, so the path to follow is to keep going in at every cycle, do everything the reviewers ask and try my luck again and again.

The problem is that R01 applications are incredibly draining. You know, I do really love writing. And I love writing grants, but the emotional burden which comes with an R01 application has been something new to me. That sense that your entire future depends on it, that a group of random people you cannot control will read it and maybe not understand it, that you are working like a dog and it is probably all for naught, that your grants office will come up with some random way to mess it up. It is exhausting. I am still recovering from the February submission and I have to start thinking about June.

In parallel, all the dozens of tasks listed above are due, and taking time off to write leads to the fear that if you are not on top of things, there will be a lull in productivity. Last year, one of my resolutions for year 3 was to push trainees to be more independent and I have at least partially succeeded. Until you realize the amount of turnover a young lab can go through. On one project I have a fully functional team which can train its own new people, the other is a bit of a mess and I have had to start over pretty much every semester. I manage to get scraps of work done in very small increments where every temporary person does one little piece, which will eventually constitute a tassel in the finished mosaic, but my bandwidth is limited. I am always worried that that part of the lab will die. Productivity on the grants supporting it has been scarce. Yet, the grants are getting close enough to the end that hiring new people feels like a gamble. I am dragging a couple of papers to completion and they are kicking and screaming that they do not want to go on...Is my three year old project turning into a threenager? And if so, should I stand aside and ignore the tantrum, pick it up and drag it along, or just abandon the silly monster by the side of the road?

I guess these are the issues you deal with in Year 4 and 5, when you are forging a career and have to pick and choose directions. When is it time to drop something and move eggs in a different basket? Which project will end up being written up for a grant? And most importantly is the lab a living independent entity which can go on on its own when I'm traveling doing the PR job I need to do?

We will see. The only thing I know right now is that I really really need a vacation...

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Defining expectations in academia: pushing a square peg in a round hole

Lately I have spent a lot of time thinking about expectations and "fit" in academia. We are interviewing faculty candidates and a huge amount of scrutiny is put in figuring out how their research and their personalities will fit with ours. I assume the same goes on on the other side: "How do I like this department?" "What would it be like to work in this department/university?""Will I be successful here?" "Will I be happy?"

When you start a faculty job at an R1 institution you have some basic expectations: 1) that you will be given sufficient money and space to start you lab and do your job; 2) that you will have administrative support to hire people; 3) that you will get help submitting and managing grants; 4) that you may be protected from teaching at the beginning or that you may be able to buy out some classes; 5) that if things break down someone will fix them relatively quickly or at least that you will have water and electricity (especially emergency power); 6) that your department chair has your best interest at heart. Then, not necessary, but relatively important, you may hope 7) that your department chair will be doing their very best to support you financially and politically when needed; 8) that your colleagues will be collegial and collaborative; 9) that the students at your new school will be smart and engaged; 10) that the dean will not abruptly change and deny you tenure because "psych, new rules!".

Then you start you job, maybe at your dream school. As you start renovating, hiring, applying for grants, managing money, mentoring and teaching you find out that some of your expectations are not met. Maybe a lot of your expectations are not met. And you wonder, how is this possible? How can this school actually function? You are ashamed you have been duped, and then you talk to friends and pretty much EVERYONE is going through the same thing or worse. Because the Russians always know how to best describe gloom, I'll misquote Tolstoy "All happy universities are alike; each unhappy university is unhappy in its own way". Every university has a unique set of problems and you have to decide what you are willing to put up with. Is complete administrative breakdown acceptable? Partial administrative breakdown? Is a confrontational chair who laughs at you when you get an R01 and ask for space acceptable? Is no respite from teaching when you're supposed to get grants acceptable? And if your situation is not acceptable, do you put your head down and keep going? Or should you just pack your bags and leave? The answer is not that simple. What you consider a horrible situation may be a perfectly good fit for someone else. You talk to your friends and their tales of woe are so terrible that you rethink your puny problems.

The existential conundrum is the same in any type of job. How much are you willing to settle? In general, as a group, scientists are not people who settle... But at some point you have to figure out what is negotiable and what is not. What you can live with and what chews up your soul from the inside. If you could jump around different companies every 1-3 years like people in other industries do, you'd have a chance to identify specific things you need. However, since our hiring process itself is 1 year long and only happens when you are "ready", you may end up feeling trapped and getting even more frustrated. It is such a tricky process. Does the dream job exist? Or does the grass just appear greener somewhere else and you should be happy with the grass you have?

I personally think that if you are not in a supportive environment, you should rethink where you are, but "support" can mean many things to many people. It can mean a good boss, it can mean no teaching ever, it can mean good admin help, it can mean water and power, it can mean access to students, it can mean someone actually paying a good portion of your salary. And until you start doing this job, you don't necessarily know what you need...

I'm interested in finding out what people think about this.

Monday, February 22, 2016

This is how I will use preprints. How would you use them?

As usual there is some fierce debate going on on Twitter and this time it's about about preprints (non-peer-reviewed manuscripts made publicly available) and how they will save or completely doom biomedical research. Lately I have been thinking a lot about how I would use preprints, as I am writing a couple of papers. Here are my 2 cents.

Pre-prints are NOT peer-reviewed publications and should not be treated as such, but I consider them full fledged scientific output, i.e. items which could legally reside in an NIH biosketch. If you are at the point in a project where you have a fully formed manuscript with figures and stuff, kudos to you! Getting to that stage in a project is an achievement and a preprint in my book is a 1,000 times better than a manuscript listed "in preparation" in your CV. If I am on a faculty search committee or on a grant review panel and you list papers "in prep", that means nothing to me since I have no idea of when those projects will be done, nor what their scope is. I had papers in prep on my CV that never saw the light of I know better. So as a reviewer or committee member I would be delighted to read your preprints. It would allow me to actually take a look at your work.

This brings me to a point that baffles me, that preprints will doom biomedical research because without peer review, how will we judge? If preprints count for grants and job applications, will we not get flooded with crap? Wait, are we suddenly unable to read a paper? Despite all the people screaming to the top of their lungs that peer review is broken, I have always had a great experience as a peer reviewer and a peer reviewee (apart from Nature, reviewers for Nature are crazy, but this is a story from another post). Reviewers of my papers AND my grants have (almost) always had constructive and interesting comments which have led to a greatly improved product. As a relatively new reviewer, I always go read all the other reviewers' comments. In general I find that we agree, and that sometimes they bring up some really smart points is hadn't thought about or I didn't want to raise (I'm usually glad they did). All this to say that as someone who can write and review a paper, I can read a preprint and decide whether it's good or not....and so can most scientists. As long as we agree that a preprint is a manuscript that must be taken with a grain of salt, I think we'll do just fine.

How do I plan to use preprints in my own lab? Judiciously and with caution. Posting a preprint is still a very scary thing for a new investigator. I know there are other groups working on my genes of interest and I know they have some of the reagents/animals I have. They may not quite have the same expertise/ideas we have, but I've been surprised before by papers coming out of left field. Will the preprint of a particularly interesting finding generate wide interest and get multiple groups to actually publish before we do? Am I putting my career in jeopardy?

Some academics think of this attitude as blasphemy, but I look at my lab as it was a business. My products are papers, my earnings are grants. I peddle my goods at conferences and talks, find supporters and collaborators. I was trained to always share openly. If you don't put your product out there, who's going to buy it? It has served me well in the past: I have found my best collaborators by talking openly at conferences and sharing has saved me from getting scooped a couple of times. So I tend to lean towards preprints as just another product. I guess posting one is like beta testing. When I do I will be terrified and anxious, like when I occasionally share my inner fears and insecurities on my blog. But I'll start with baby steps after thorough discussion with my trainees and how this could help/hurt them. Let's just hope my papers don't stay in beta as long as Gmail!